Good Grief

by Ginnie Horst Burkholder

This summer I read “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. Didion writes about the subtle changes in the body that accompany grieving. A lower body temperature is one. No wonder I am always cold. Disturbed cognition is another.

I think about her husband’s fatal heart attack, and her year of magical thinking. If death’s finality spurs a year of magical thinking, then it is no wonder that without that finality, grief is a constant.

For ten years I have lived in a body where the physiological changes that accompany grief fog my own cognition. “Live the dying process for ten years,” I say in an imaginary conversation with no one in particular. “Live with the stress and grief, and see what it does to your cognitive function.” I feel validated, justified for the anger that creeps back into my awareness at intervals.

No, I do not remember that so-and-so was at that funeral. Don’t ask me to remember the things that serve no purpose except to prove that my brain is fogged by the roller coaster of grief, which includes shock, denial, anger, and magical thinking.

Oh yes, and if I grieve and mourn well, there may be some acceptance, or at least adjustment.

Acceptance is still so illusive. How can it not be? You are strung in some in-between place where there is neither death nor moving on. Some say you choose your emotions. How do you watch the cognitive functions of your husband disappear for ten years and choose to be okay with that? How? You don’t. But parts of you do move on. Other parts stay behind in that in-between place where I have chosen to live with a commitment to “‘til death do us part.”

A couple of weeks ago, as we were about to leave church, Norma helped me put on my coat. “I saw Wendy help Nelson with his,” she said. “I will help you with yours.” I acknowledged that it feels good to be pampered. That was the word I used: pampered. One small thing I do not have to do for myself. “You don’t get much of that do you?” she said.

There are combinations of words that, when strung together, lay open the truth you are trying so hard not to notice. I felt my lips go into a hard line, as if that could silence the truth. It didn’t, of course. It only held back the tears that they say remove toxins from your body, and delayed the healing that comes with emotional truthfulness. It seems “good grief” is not just an expression; it is the necessary journey of a caregiver.

© 2006 Ginnie Horst Burkholder

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