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Meeting With the Absence of a Loved One

Meeting With the Absence of a Loved One

My memory of the phrase dates back to college anthropology, and I can’t quite remember what tribe/culture to attribute the idiom to, but I remember it making rather a lasting impression, even for a teenaged boy who had not yet seen much loss. The phrase, used to describe the grieving process of the living after a loved one had died, was “meeting with the absence of a person.” Instead of framing it around loss (a term that still confuses me, as if to insinuate that someone had not died but just been misplaced) the idiom was framed around the idea that absence was a form and force that needed to be met and ultimately reckoned with, not repressed or summarily dealt with. Western culture, particularly American culture, has long had a somewhat ham-fisted approach to grief and mourning, with little to no acceptable public means or ritual for processing grief.

Over the last decade or so, there have been published a number of first-person accounts contending with the death of a loved one. I attribute this as much to the vision of a select few and awakening of a public conversation on death, as I do to a post 9/11 mentality where the action of grieving immediately after the tragedy was very raw, very sincere, and very public. Most notably was Joan Didion’s 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking, where she tenderly recounts the days/months after her husband’s death, along with the loss of her daughter. But more recently there has been a collection of books delving deeper into a very personal grieving process (all of which were written by talented women writers). There was A Widow’s Story (2011) authored by Joyce Carol Oates in which she writes also of the death of her husband, Raymond Smith, and Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye (2011) where she reflects on the mourning of her mother who died after battling cancer. Both of these books are less straightforward accounts of personal suffering, and more than anything meditations on the complexity of grief and absence. In an interview, conducted earlier this year with The New York Times, on the subject of grief and her book, O’Rourke talked openly about the enduring impact of grief, ” I’m changed by it, the way a tree is changed by having to grow around an obstacle.”

Another very notable contribution to this particular genre is Ann Faison’s Dancing With The Midwives: A Memoir of Art and Grief. Faison takes a far less linear approach to the memoir and loosely brackets her experiences, both as a teenager whose mother succumbed to cancer, and then as a mother herself, some two decades on, contending with the death of her unborn child in utero. Faison’s journey (full disclosure requires me to reveal that Faison is a longtime friend of mine – but don’t hold that against her) is one largely guided by poetry and artwork, and informed by her dealings with the natural world, as well as navigating a more immediate social world, which holds little ability to gracefully address the complexities of grief and death. Faison writes, “This is a story of transformation, brought about by birth and death being bound up together and leaving in their wake no vessel for the stream of love both had created.”

The same decade that has brought us such profound meditations on death and grieving, has also brought forth revealing research on the subject of grieving patterns. For instance, some social scientists have found that most older people whose spouses die from natural causes recover much more quickly than we have come to expect. In fact, for many, acute grief tends to lift well within six months after the loss. The six month marker has become a somewhat widely accepted designate, among those studying the grieving process, but not so much among those who do the actual grieving. A recent informal analysis on the subject, which ran on, reveals a lot more about the experience of grief and the many subtleties and nuances of lasting grief.

But grief, unlike cancer and terrorism, is not something to be conquered and vanquished but decidedly something to move through and make sense of, if possible. For those of you who have experienced, or are experiencing, grief in relation to the death of a loved one, how are you meeting with this particular absence? Have you found the process to be utterly unbearable, or were you able to derive some comfort and perspective from the bereavement?

Healing from Grief and Loss
5 Ways to Heal Grief

Read more: Aging, Babies, Cancer, Caregiving, Children, Depression, Family, Love, Parenting at the Crossroads, Pregnancy, Sex, , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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5:43PM PDT on Jul 9, 2012

Thank you

3:47PM PDT on Oct 12, 2011

I am only in my 20's and recently lost my soulmate. For now there are no words to express the depths of my grief and the utter sense of loss I feel. I know that this pain will stay with me for the rest of my life, however long that may be.

5:26AM PDT on Oct 5, 2011

Thanks for the article.

5:00PM PDT on Jun 14, 2011

I lost my my mum 10 weeks ago today. it's also her birthday today she would have been 91. I am trying to celebrate her life because it was a good one. BUT I am sad for me because i miss her more than words can say.

8:33AM PDT on Jun 13, 2011

Thank you to everyone for sharing their stories about loss and absence. Very meaningful and very touching.

Eric Steinman

2:21PM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

My father died suddenly and unexpectedly 25 years ago at the age I am now...I still grieve for him, but the waves come further apart and are usually not as intense as they once do move thru it, but making sense of it is entirely another matter...thanks for this sensitively written posting!

2:06PM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

Things die away....but LOVE goes on forever!

11:46AM PDT on Jun 12, 2011

A very close friend died unexpectedly with her Mom by her side. I live on the East coast and they in Colorado, so I can only be there for Mom by phone. They were so close for all of Rae's 30 years. As much as i miss our all night phone chat's, I can hear the pain in Mom's voice when we talk. The autopsy report came back last week. A blood clot due to birth control pills. The anger that has ensued from that brings Mom's grieving back to square one. Why her baby? She was only on them to regulate her. There had been no relationship needing birthcontrol for many years. This happens to other people,..... I will be checking out the books in the article to see if there would be any comfort for Mom in someone else's loss. I don't think grief gets easier, i just think it changes into something we can accept differently. Hugs to those of us in the midst of this trial.

6:01PM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

Luckily, I worked everything out with my family before they died, and I'm not left with words unsaid or resentments that would create conflict within myself.
I've been able to let them go with love and peace.

5:18PM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

I never got to tell my dad everything i wanted to but i was with my mum when she passed, i held her and told her that she is the best mum in the world and that i love her,and if i could have saved her i would,i am sure she knew what i was saying,that was 4 yrs ago,it hurts as much now as it did then

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