06/15/05 17:04:00 - Stages

They say that the grieving process has stages. We’ve all heard of them, from denial to rage to acceptance. The idea seems to be that they just flow from one to the next, until you’ve finally accepted your loss. It’s sort of like a play, and each scene marches forward to the happy ending, where you’ve moved on and begun your life anew. They say that we just need to be patient, and that it will all work out in the end.

I say they’re wrong.

Grief isn’t a process. It doesn’t have stages, at least not like the stages of a rocket, where one burns out and the next starts, constantly propelling you towards that destination, that wonderful place where you can look back on what you’ve been through and say, “I am a better person now”.

If there is any stage for grief, it is closer to the one Shakespeare used to describe the world. But far from the players on his stage, who play their part and are heard of no more, the emotions that are the characters in this play are terribly persistent. They are all players in a large ensemble scene that begins with the news of your loss and continues for the rest of your life. They are always there, sometimes engaged in conversations with one or more of the other characters, sometimes hiding behind the scenery. At their weakest, they are only in the wings, waiting to be summoned back to center stage, where, at their strongest, they dominate the entire theater. While it may be possible, in time, to recognize that someone is being cued, it is usually impossible to predict which actors will come forth. Will it be Regret? Anger? Maybe Denial will make an appearance long after he was thought removed from the drama – but in a different disguise.

The complications don’t end there, however, because this is not just a play – the writer also seems to have taken a lesson from Wagner. Each character has his own leitmotif in addition to the specific part he must play. While one person is on the stage, claiming to reign supreme, his nemesis’s theme is rising softly from the orchestra pit, undermining everything that is being done on stage.

When Lily died, the background music belonged to Denial, though I didn’t notice it at the time – I was to busy listening to the sham monologue being delivered by Acceptance. He was showing me her body, making me notice how lifeless it was, how, even when she was sound asleep there were signs of life – how she would at least try to keep her head up, how I could feel her breathe, and see the blush of her cheeks, and most especially how she never felt this cold. It was Denial, I suppose, that inserted the heart-rending (or maybe just melodramatic) notion that I should hold her tighter and get a warmer blanket so she would be more comfortable. Now, six months later, I meet the same pairing more often, but with Denial’s theme in some twisted variation. Acceptance’s musings hold much more force now. But when Denial sneaks in, he is once again sounding a tragic note, trying to convince me that she never existed, that the three years I spent with my baby girl were all just in my dreams. After all, my dreams are the only place I can see her now, so who is to say that that isn’t the way it’s always been?
Just like listening to the notes of a symphony coming from a stage, your only perspective is what you can hear now as compared to the notes in your memory. And although this music-drama will run for the rest of your life, you will never see the exact same scene twice. Even as you remember, there will be subtle variations that you have never noticed before. In a Brahms symphony, the phrases sound very similar, but if you listen closely enough, the details and nuances emanating from the stage will always be subtly different. But seeing and hearing these differences bring newness to what is happening on stage. Sometimes they are interesting or even amusing. Sometimes the notes sound a sort of pathos with a ferocity that is both contradictory and fitting. But the music and the drama never end, they only interact and change each other and themselves. They just continue, working, progressing inexorably towards that final scene, the coda of our own lives – which in itself can be the beginning of someone else’s tragic opera.

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Jen wrote:
Oh Rick, that was the most beautiful essay I have ever read. Thank you for putting this up on your site. ~Jen
01/11 10:21:09

Velda wrote:
Thanks Rick... your honesty is both painful and healing at the same time. And I love the metaphor.
01/11 11:56:42

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