If you moved at a steady clip through all five stages of grief, getting to the other side of the loss would probably take a fair amount of time.
In my home, growing up in the ’60s, grief was managed at a faster clip. The pace went more like from Zero to Cocktails in the time it takes to shake up a frothy whiskey sour. Or pop a heavy barbiturate called Tuinol. Or two Tuinols (Two-Tus). Or slide back a Valium with a daiquiri.
As I mentioned, it was the late ’60s to early ’70s, and that’s just the way we did it. No school psychologists, no support groups. No worries. Just swallow.
My experiences with death began to gather and build from an early age. A childhood friend, Julian, died around the age of 6 from congenital liver disease which also took all his siblings. My maternal grandmother unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack, I was told, as she waited to check in to the Mayo Clinic for a scheduled face lift — a whopping thirty thousand dollars, cash, stashed in her brazier. My gentle grandfather followed not far behind, and tragically on the day after my brother Nicholas’ birth. In between these losses, and after, more fatalities landed within my reach. In elementary school, my friend Morgan O’Brien’s sister, Hopie, was bounced out of the back of a top down convertible as it drove, 5mph, over a speed bump, pre-seatbelt days. In the fifth grade, my friend Roberta’s mother leapt from the third story of their beautiful Greenwich mansion to her death.
Two years later, when my brother was rounding the last stretch toward his sixth birthday, and my older sister, Madeleine, was fourteen, we were told one morning that our mother had died. Suddenly, shockingly and mysteriously. “Improperly medicated by an intern” we heard. “Malpractice” was the whisper. “Suing won’t bring her back to us” lamented our father. My mother was, I believe, forty-one, but our father changed the dates in the obituary, making her thirty-nine; “under forty” dad said, in deference to a more cordial time when one simply did not reveal a lady’s age. I was twelve.
I believe that the day I heard the news, or possibly the day after, I just went to school. During the months after our mother died, my sister and I were handed, and sipped on, the various sweet cocktails. We took the pills we were given, we played loud sad songs by Simon and Garfunkle, and we spaced out. There were, of course, casseroles for a while, and parties. Dad dated and he worked and he also drank a lot and played “Always Something There To Remind Me” by Jose Feliciano so loud you couldn’t hear anything else in the house. And he wept out loud and in my arms and told me that he didn’t worry about me as much as the other kids because I was a lot like him so he didn’t need to worry. And sixteen months later he was remarried.
I remember once, maybe a year later, drinking a mini green bottle of Rolling Rock on my early morning walk to school, just to see what would happen. My life long friend and I raided our parents’ medicine cabinets for Valium and barbiturates, which were “in”at the time and handy. Our older sisters set us up with small, oily black chunks of hashish so thick and gooey they reminded me of bits of licorice. These we smoked in pipes we fashioned hastily out of aluminum foil.
So it went like that. Death continued to travel through the edges of my life at a slow trot, pulling greedily to steal my remaining grandparents but also quite a few young friends. Virginia (fire); Linda, Daniel and Diane (cancer). All these deaths were pre-AIDS era.
Given my out-sized experiences with losing loved ones, my familiarity with how to actually sidle up to and embrace the aftermath of loss and all it’s accompanying, changing pain, is astonishingly limited.
When I was in my early twenties and working in the circulation department of the Financial Times of London, my young boss, a Scarsdale girl named Randy Silverman, lost her dad. She was so astonished by my apparent inability to connect her loss to pain, that she mentioned it to me. I was just yammering away on her first day back to work after this devastating death in her family, maybe even whining and complaining, as if nothing had occurred. She look at me dead in the eye and said, with a perplexed expression and annoyed tone, “Elizabeth. Do you understand I just lost my father?” I snapped momentarily into her reality with an “Oh. Sorry.”
I’m much older now, and a mother, and I handle the inevitable losses my family suffers much differently. With my son, we talk about our beloved people and special pets, now gone. We revisit and relive our memories with stories and photos. We check in with each other, without overkill — and certainly without the drugs and alcohol. We take it bit by bit, knowing that losing someone we so dearly loved has forever changed our lives and made our world feel less safe simply because they are no longer in it. And we remember also that our lives are fuller for having had the privilege of knowing and loving and remembering them.