GRIEF, THE FIRST KICK
The generally accepted professional theoretical framework for grief is the one developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. in her book, “On Death and Dying,” (1969, Simon and Schuster Inc.). In it she concludes that there are five stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
Sooner or later we all suffer from it. Sooner or later we lose a grandparent, friend, parent, sibling, or a partner. But the funny thing about death is, that no matter how expected it is, it still overwhelms us when it happens. Logically we know we will feel sad for a while; we will miss the person, but eventually life will return to normal. But that kicked in the gut feeling that immobilizes you? When death is anticipated, we don’t expect to feel that. But it still happens. Eventually when you become kicked enough, a part of you disappears into a black hole of numbness.
My parents never believed in hiding a child from the reality of death. I grew up knowing that death was the final stage of life. “And after that”, my mother would say, “is the judgement.” So even as a toddler, I was taken to funerals of people my parents barely knew, because, according to my mother, “it was the right thing to do.” I suppose it was her way of saying, “this is where we all end up, so make the best of your life while you have time.”
I was five years old when I faced my first personal experience with grief. We lived in a village when the main enterprise was a lumberyard. One of our neighbors had two daughters and a son, Frankie, who had Down’s Syndrome. Since we were all close in age, we regularly played together. Both of our fathers worked for the lumberyard, my father in the office, their father doing a number of jobs including driving truck. Frankie loved to play around, behind, in, and under the trucks. More than once we (girls) had to drag him away from danger.
But one day we didn’t watch close enough. As young children often do, we were distracted with our own play and didn’t notice Frankie wandering off. He crept under that big lumber truck and played in the gravel beside those giant wheels. The truck was loaded and ready to transport. Frankie’s dad came out of the office in a mad hurry to get that load delivered. He jumped in the truck and put it into gear. We all started to scream, but it was too late.
The mourners overflowed into the churchyard. People from miles around, attracted by the horrific news, came to view Frankie’s open casket in the tiny foyer. For the first time, I looked at the body of someone I had known, played with, laughed with and cried with. His face was so pale, his body still. I remember my mom telling me that “he was sleeping with Jesus.”
He sure looked like he was asleep. “Why doesn’t he wake up?” I asked.
“He’s not going to wake up,” mom replied, “he’s in heaven. Now he has no pain. He’s never going to suffer.”
I wasn’t sure why Frankie would suffer pain in the first place, and had no idea what the word suffering meant. I understood the concept of sleep, I vaguely understood the concept of heaven, but pain? Other than falling down and skinning a knee, what was pain? Mom had made it sound like Frankie had been hurting for a long time, or maybe he was doomed to suffer pain for the rest of his life. I didn’t understand. But at that age, I also didn’t understand the concept of Down’s Syndrome, and the societal image of that physical and mental condition. Frankie was just a friend that we all played with and loved. But seeing his body there, lying so still, hands neatly folded on his chest, hair combed more perfectly than it had ever been combed in his life, I felt that kick in my gut.
As the wave of numbness and sadness passed over me, I didn’t want to eat or do much of anything that day or for several days after. I wasn’t permitted to visit Frankie’s sisters either, so I couldn’t grieve with them. I was told that they needed time to be alone. My parents evidently didn’t understand the impact that Frankie’s death was having on my life…or maybe they did, and thought that this was the best way of dealing with the situation. It was after all, unique to everyone. The girls and I didn’t have much of a relationship after that. Everyone in the community tried to help the family. My parents still visited them occasionally. But I heard Frankie’s father never recovered from his son’s death. I suspect he experienced unrelenting guilt regarding his hasty departure that day. For me, life had suddenly changed, but I didn’t understand why. If death was a normal part of life, then why was I feeling so sad? Why was everything suddenly so different?
I had experienced my first kick in the gut at the tender age of five. A kick that would get harder with each passing loss during my lifetime. Eventually that kick would completely disable me.
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