Learning From Loss

In the past seven weeks, many people have told me many things about grief. They have told me that becoming an orphan is a watershed moment. They have spoken about the impact of loss on every aspect of life: physical, emotional, spiritual. They have noted that mourning is a process, and that the only way out is through. And every single one of them has told me to be good to myself.

I puzzle over this advice. Being good to myself has never been my strong suit. It's not that I lead a frugal life, or that I practice aggressive self-denial. It's just that I can't imagine hovering over myself as though I were some sort of 19th century invalid. Orphans are little children with big, sad eyes and no one to take care of them. I'm a grownup. I am no stranger to hard times. I can manage.

Or so I tell myself each morning. I push off the fatigue that seems to clog my limbs and ignore the restless, fragmented sleep. I back away from the woman who rages inwardly at the too-slow checkout line, the traffic light stuck on red. I shake my head in disbelief when she forgets appointments and weeps over trifles: burnt toast, stalled e-mail, a broken hair dryer. Not now, she keeps saying. Not this, not today. As though the Earth should stop spinning. As though the world should wait. I look at her in the mirror and insist that she get a grip. She stares back blankly. She is not herself. She is me.

Your core certainties are shaken, I once told a friend whose mother had died. I don't even know where those words came from, and now I match them against my own loss. My last surviving parent is gone, the one remaining person on Earth responsible for my presence here. When we are very young, we believe our parents will live forever. For a time, this certainty is the cornerstone on which emotional stability rests. And then one day, we ask them the question. Are you going to die? And the answer, though truthful, is never the one we want to hear. We all die someday.

So we do what children do. We put the answer away, back in some deep mental drawer. We move on to the next thought, the next bright object. We let in as much truth as we can handle, and not a jot more.

My father was 91. He had his fourscore and 10, and that is no small thing. When I tell people his age, there are some who look at me and seem to shrug an invisible shrug. He had a good run, I hear them saying, although they do not say these words. He was with you for most of your life. Count yourself lucky.

And I do, some days. I add up the Christmases and the Easters and the summer vacations at Cape Cod, the graduations, the weddings, the christenings my father attended, presided over, made happen. I see him at the head of many a holiday table, the patriarch of a blended and burgeoning family. I think of his 90th birthday party, his quiet delight in the sea of faces before him, four generations strong.

I kept the drawer closed for a very long time. It began to slide open this spring, as my father slipped away. Sitting by his hospital bed, monitoring his ragged breathing, I remembered something he said to me once in a moment of crisis. You don't have to be Joan of Arc every day, he told me then. You can fall apart once in a while.

Be good to yourself, wise friends repeat. I look in the mirror again and think of my father's words. Shed the armor. Put the helmet down. Breathe.