A Different Lens for Grief: The Solace of the Familiar
We’re so often brought up short by clichés that we soon realize how difficult it is to express ourselves without resorting to them. Now I wonder if we’re right to feel so reluctant to say something that someone else said first. Unless we can say it better, maybe we should be less interested in novelty or fresh images or reputations for originality. When it comes to strong emotions, all that seems to take too much energy. Why bother to coin new similes?
As the familiar hollowing of my insides began again and I tried to shut down the flood of renewed grief, the image came to me of a view through the wrong end of binoculars. I jotted it down so as not to lose it before morning. Of course, in the morning, I realized how hackneyed the thought was.
Back in my early widowhood, a kind friend asked me how I felt. I tried to verbalize the truth without dissolving into a puddle of self-pity. I’d figured out I couldn’t tell any more where I should fit into ordinary life. It was like trying to work a jigsaw puzzle without the picture to refer to — without a clue as to where the pieces could go. Eventually I even wrote a poem about that feeling. It remains an apt description, but the binocular image has now intruded on that one.
Almost every move through each day pulls the past into mind. Like everyone in my place, I’m enjoined repeatedly to dwell on happy memories. We all try, but now it’s struck me that our experience as we recall it is as distorted as the present — as if we view it in reverse magnification. If we can manage to look at a photograph, either it brings us to tears or it resembles someone we might have encountered casually once and now no longer recognize. The familiar is all but unrecognizable from the viewpoint of extreme grief.
Clichés offer the solace of the familiar when nearly everything has become alien. We find ourselves in a slough of despond, perhaps without the prayers we need, not recognizing the face in the mirror, jolted by waves of unrelenting and vaguely unfamiliar recall. We find ourselves leaning on whatever seems to help us reorient ourselves. It’s trite but true that we’ll never be more alone. If the only balance we can find is already waiting to prop us up until we search out the new person we have to learn to become, we’d be foolish to reject it. So isn’t it justifiable to speak of broken hearts, interior emptiness, welling tears, loss of joy?
For all those sufferers from dementias, I ache, and even more for those who love them. Some days, at the same time, I wonder if they may be blessed. Like animals, they seem to have little sense of temporal relationships. The distances between the past and the present are contracted, and they seem to have neither fear of nor interest in the future. If their physical needs are met and they aren’t prey to anxiety, perhaps their status is enviable. If they lose what they once valued most, perhaps they don’t notice. For the ones who love them, there’s no lens to dim the absence while the physical presence remains.
That’s the cliché I’ve come to rely on: basically one manages by counting one’s blessings. When death robs us, we’re spared the daily reminder of loss without relief yet in sight. The miniaturized image isn’t available. At least, that reduced size continues to attain a new clarity when you can look through the lens backwards.
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