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Susan Orlins

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What is Grief?

Posted: 07/15/11 06:50 PM ET

At the cemetery, my sister and brother stand over our mother's coffin stricken with grief, their arms around each other. Dry-eyed, I step up next to them, completing our sibling trio. Yet we are two plus one, a duet and a solo. After standing there for a minute, unconnected -- not part of their mood, not feeling their grief -- I step back to allow them their moment. We all adored my mother and felt a closeness to her that any mom would envy. So what's with my numb reaction to my mother's death? Like my her, I'm not a crier, though I can get teary if I accidentally turn on the evening news.

Given that I strive to avoid sadness and grief, maybe I've put up a wall to block the pain of my mother's death. Or is this just a psychobabble notion from spending too much time talking to shrinks?

Maybe I am in the denial phase; though after my father died, I similarly wondered why I never crumbled with grief. My mother often said she wished she had been able to cry when Daddy died. Nonetheless, her grief was palpable after 66 years of marriage in which he continued to tell her how pretty she was and that he loved her.

Though it feels counterintuitive to prance around with my life the same as I did before my mother died, the fact that she and I shared the dry-eyes trait pleases me. Her life ran its course over 92 years and she had no regrets. And even though I'm not grieving, losing my mom is like an amputation.

Oprah, by ending her show, also left a hole in my life. Mom timed her death nicely to coincide with the Oprah loss. Now, I won't have to watch an Oprah about, say, octogenarian sex and then ache to phone and discuss it with my mother.

The truth is I lost my mom two months ago, a few days after we moved her up North in a medical van to be in a long-term care facility (she hated the term nursing home) near my brother's family. It was an awesome road trip, during which my mother told my daughter and me it felt surreal, as though she were traveling to heaven, even though she didn't believe in heaven. She also told us stories about growing up, like how her mom gave coal to needy neighbors.

Then reality struck. Her new room -- where we hung her favorite paintings and piled up personal stuff such as the book of drawings and tales of her life I made for her 90th birthday -- embodied all the railroad clichés: the final stop, the terminus, the end of the line.

She didn't want to live after that and I was her cheerleader. She reminded me that I always said I'd help her pull the plug. Of course when it came down to it, I couldn't do any such thing without the approval of my siblings, the ones who know how to grieve and cry.

A few weeks later, my mom's body began to shut down. Her meds increased and though she was still coherent, she became non-reactive, the opposite of the mother I always knew, who thrilled to everything from reports of my high school friend appearing as a frequent guest on MSNBC to the article I wrote about Choosing my Parents. I'm worried, in contrast to now, that I'll cry when my beagle Casey dies. But I'm told different people grieve differently and I've seen friends react similarly dry-eyed when their elderly parents died, so I'll try to stop worrying that my heart isn't swollen with grief right now, right after my beloved mother died.

What unexpected reactions have you had to loss?

Related:

See my article (also linked above) Last Week my Mother Died; This Week I Celebrated Her Life.

 

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