I think I said that grief is passive. It creeps over you in those famous waves, you know, whereas mourning is an active process of remembering, reliving the good and the bad, and defanging it in a way. Until you have examined all those memories, they don’t lose their power to undo you.
It comes in waves, the grief. Too, it comes in bursts reminiscent of times when visitors arrive at the door, unannounced and well-intended. Overstaying their welcome, they somehow miss the dropped hints and unsubtle signs that they really should be leaving. Wearily polite and resigned, we do the mannerly thing and wait for them to leave rather than ask them to go.
Mourning, as Didion says, is a different proposition. Mourning beckons. Curious and necessary, it is sometimes public. As such, it can be disconcerting for those who catch sight of us, unguarded and in its labyrinth, plucking out memories and preserving them; unlearning places and dates infused with meanings created by two not one; floundering in the unacceptable ordinariness of a home that on some days feels like someone else’s house.
People – friends – will intervene in ways they deem helpful, and then they will retreat, defeated and aghast, when those orchestrated maneuvers erupt in flames. There will be carefully chosen books – found on Amazon at the end of a Google search on how to support a widowed friend – the final pages of which tell me all I need to know about someone else’s ideas on mourning and what it could or should look like when I am doing it expeditiously or in the way that will transport me to that moment when I can announce to the world that I have “processed” the grief, that I have “moved on.’ There will be awkward silences and averted eyes in response to random tears (grief) or protracted recollections of summers past (mourning), and there is the madness.
There are moments and hours of madness and obsession over trifles. Ken’s watch. Where is it? Where is it? How can I remember – with clarity and perfectly – the way he looked, dead, and how his hands were folded until Sophie and I arranged his fingers into the Peace sign he always made with them when he waved goodbye to us? How can I not remember if he was wearing the watch I gave him? He always wore it, and he always wore the gold wedding band that is now attached to the chain I wear around my neck every day – it’s the done thing. But where is the watch?
Does it matter? A sentimental thing, Ken’s watch, only a memento, but the thought of it visits every day. If I know where it is, might I fast-forward to that elusive moment where I am again in time and in tune? We mourners are a suspicious lot, searching for signs.
They tell me – those with documented expertise and authority in the business of grief- that I am “processing.” Such a process has a utility that – as long as it remains internal – is more socially acceptable than my rambling about Ken’s dead hands or joking about having complete dominion over the remote control or marveling, daily, that the senders of junk mail still don’t seem to know he is dead, or wondering if – if – Sophie’s high school graduation will begin and end with just enough moments in between for us to collect ourselves.
Until then, we will steel ourselves against what Meghan O’Rourke calls the ‘queer dread.’ I know, as Heaney says, we were “born fit for it.”
It is best not to interfere.
If children learn through exposure to new experiences, mourners unlearn through exposure to absence in new contexts. Grief requires acquainting yourself with the world again and again; each “first” causes a break that must be reset… And so you always feel suspense, a queer dread—you never know what occasion will break the loss freshly open.