It occurred to me later, like days later, that in that room we were the newbies. Going into the week of A's sixth anniversary on the Jewish calendar, and ten days short of the same date by Gregorian calendar, we were the newbies. Or, perhaps, in that room we were all veterans, and it didn't matter when exactly each of us started. Only it did, a little.
The woman who planned and organized the whole thing, that day she was ten years and a day on from the day her nine year old died in his sleep. To the right of her-- a woman whose 13 year old died close to 50 years ago. Two brain tumors in the room, a few cancers, three babies, a rocket, and a seven year old who ran onto the ice to try to save a dog. He didn't have boots. That was 40 plus years ago.
A Gathering to Remember, it was called. Our two rabbis and our cantor, he of the literally award-winning voice, closed the circle that otherwise contained bereaved parents, grandparents, and a sister. Each of us had the opportunity to speak in turn, though some chose to let their spouse do all the talking (like, ahem, a certain male of the species residing in my own house).
Because we sat down to the left of the organizer, we ended up being the last to speak. Which, I think, turned out to be a blessing of a sort. I wanted to be there, to sit in the room with these people, most of whom I didn't know before that day. But I didn't prepare anything specific to say, and I didn't bring anything ahead of time. I didn't even know what I would say beyond the crystallized truth of our existence-- my son died, I love him, I miss him, and somehow my crazy busy full and overflowing life is not complete without him. Ten seconds max. Had my turn been early on, that's probably all I would've had to say. Because, you know? As is, I spent most of the time listening. Parents and grandparents, 10 years out, 11, 50, 50 again, 15, 40-ish.
Before we started, a younger woman came up to one of the rabbis, saying she was just here to support "her," and that she'd sit in the corner. Oh, no, please sit with us, said the rabbi, my rabbi, who came to my hospital room and officiated at the funeral. "Her" turned out to be her mother, and the mother of that seven year old boy who ran onto the ice without his winter boots. When it came her turn to speak, the mother struggled, cried, pulled out the picture, and struggled some more. The daughter offered to speak in her stead, from a sibling's perspective, but the mother pushed through, and got her story out, disjointed in pieces, but she did it. The daughter got to speak too, showing us a scar that is her very own tangible reminder that her brother was actually here, and reminiscing about a family trip chock full of good memories that they got to take before her brother died.
Would I ever forget the date my son died? The day he was born? I'd think that I could never forget the date if I still had the mind to remember A at all (or, you know, anyone else-- my grandmother's dementia taunts me from afar as a pretty terrible way to go). But this boy's mother forgot. She said it happened in January. December, the daughter gently corrected. And yet she fought to be the one to tell his story. And yet, listening to her talk about it, that slip-up seemed so very minor. In fact, except for seeing an old woman in front of me, except for her telling us how long ago this all happened, from her voice, from the urgency in it, from the burning love and yearning, you'd think it just happened a year or two back.
When our turn came, I ended up thanking the group and talking about how it turns out I needed to hear them all. Because my ten second summary, it's all true. But so is the perception many of us share that the outside world is rather impatient with and rather forgetful of grief. And sometimes I start to wonder whether my own gut feeling, that this grief is not something I will ever forget or get over, but something I slowly get better at living with, whether this way of looking at things is not right, whether we should, at some point, just be fine already. I am, though. I am fine. And yet, I am also grieving. And listening to everyone in the group, everyone who is a bit ahead of us, and everyone who is waaaay ahead, in the end that felt like a permission slip-- yes, grief is like that, and it is ok to sit with it, now and whenever. Grief is like this because love is like this, and in the end it is still very simple-- we love them, and they are dead.
I finished by talking about the quote I noticed in the new High Holidays prayer book our synagogue started using recently. It was embedded in one of the notes in the margin that are on virtually every page of this very new prayer book, and it hit me so much that I had to come back later with my phone and take a picture of it. I've had the quote on my phone ever since I did that in September, and that morning I pulled out the phone and scrolled through the gallery back to the quote.
It is used in the book to argue that a certain passage should not be seen as a request for restoration of what once was, but rather as a plea for resilience. The quote is from Elie Wiesel, who really does know from resilience. "God gave Adam a secret--" he says, "and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again."
Do you ever feel self-conscious about your grief or its expression? Have you found fellowship with others in a different kind of a grief boat? Those on a different timeline? Have you had unexpectedly validating or unexpectedly invalidating grief experiences?