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Accommodating Grief

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Every day, I make accommodations for this grief. Every. Single. Day. Without exception.

On a "good" day, that might look like excusing myself to the bathroom at work where I can cry in private, if only for a few minutes, until I can get the emotions under control again. On a "bad" day, that might look like hastily excusing myself for the remainder of my shift and bolting to the car where I come so desperately unglued in the parking lot that I need my husband or daughter to talk me down so I can actually drive home.

On a "good" day, maybe I ask my son or daughter to go to the grocery store with me, to make the task a little easier. On a "bad" day, maybe I just give up and order groceries online and have them delivered. (On a very bad day, I decide food is not a necessity. What do doctors know?)

On a "good" day, I might get dressed and allow myself to wear just a little bit of makeup out. On a "bad" day, I don't get dressed at all, and the idea of makeup or going anywhere farther than the bathroom is so ludicrous it's almost laughable.

On a "good" day, I might be willing to talk to a friend or family member, check in, have a conversation that revolves around more than just how depressed I am. On a "bad" day, I probably won't even answer the phone.

These accommodations are ever shifting because grief is a living, changing thing. What works today may not tomorrow. Today, it may be kinder to ignore the dog hair and dirty floors and hug the couch until the sun goes down. Tomorrow, it may be kinder to get up and try to tame my space, so that I can feel productive and functional and human. I have to check in with my grief constantly, like an overbearing house mother. Is it okay to go out tonight? How long is too long in the company of others? What time do I need to be in bed? How much can I manage to eat today? Is work realistic? Is dinner? Is showering?

It's all over the map from one day to the next. And the dance required to keep up is exhausting. But I must perform it. I don't have a choice. Because one wrong step can crater me, can send me back months in my progress, can shut me down for days on end. If I don't accommodate my grief, if I don't accommodate this newly shattered woman in her newly fragile body with her newly aching heart, she will not survive. Of that, I am sure. She will not remain. She will not be here for the people who need her. She will not be here to anchor Evelyn's spirit in this world of living matter, of flesh and bones and blood.

So the question of accommodating my grief is not a question at all. It's a command. It's an imperative.

But the question of others accommodating my grief remains. The question of what's expected of those around me, and how much, and when, and how often ... those questions are still very much on the table. It's like the old limbo pole, "How low can you go?" How far can you bend to be at my side? How far should you? How much can I ask of you? Do I even have a right to ask anything at all?

The truth is, I haven't asked for much. Not out loud. Most of the accommodating others have done for me, they have extended willingly, out of the softness and gentleness of their hearts, out of a deep vein of empathy and a desire to help in any way they can. And that has been such an enormous blessing. Because asking is hard. Even when your need is desperate, it does't make the asking any easier. If anything, it's almost more difficult than before. And it's not improved by the cultural stigma around death, especially child death, especially a death like Evelyn's. It's not improved by the cultural stigma around pain and vulnerability and sorrow and anger and emotion in general.

But because all the steps in the dance of grief insist on being taken, no matter how inconsistent they may be, because every move over the line—the line being my threshold for emotional and physical pain—has the potential to relegate me to a place I may never come back from, when I absolutely have to ask, I do. I call in to work. Or I ignore the phone. Or I pay the extra $15 to let someone else shop for my groceries. Or I decline the invitation. Or I say, "Please help ..." or in some cases, "Please stop ..."

But as time marches on, I wonder where people's patience will run out. Will my job still be okay with me calling in a "grief day" in six months or six years? Will my family still understand if I skip out on the Christmas celebrations for the next year or the next decade? Will my friends understand if I can't go to their kid's birthday parties or graduations or weddings ... maybe ever?

How much space does my wounded heart have a right to ask for? How much time? How much patience? How much forgiveness?

When will society expect me to stop identifying as a "bereaved mother"? Do I get to mourn her for ten years? Or twenty? What is the expiration date for grief? What is the shelf life of a dead child? Who makes those calls? Who sets the numbers?

I'm learning that I can't rely on others to tell me how much I get to grieve or for how long. But I'm also learning that as I continue to make room in my every day for this new appendage called grief, I can't rely on others to continue making room as well. Any grieving parent will tell you, your inner circle shrinks as those around you reset their expectations until they decide, once and for all, they can reset them no more.

And that begs the larger question, what about cultural accommodations? What about political and legal accommodations? What about financial accommodations? Should bereaved parents have access to resources to assist them in the first month or the first year? Should we make room for that in our state or federal legislation? Should we have more non-profits and charities dedicated to them? To me?

I'm not the only grieving mother to bring this up. This kind of loss is devastating on so many levels. It is akin to a national disaster happening in the space of one family. It is akin to one heart absorbing the force of a nuclear bomb. And the travesty is that it all happens on a plane we cannot witness with our eyes. The grieving walk around with butchered hearts and decimated souls, but without a limp.

When school started for my son only weeks after his sister's death, there was nothing in place to accommodate him within the system. And even with my constant advocating, they were unable to provide the level of support he required. My job is unique in that I work for a small, family-run business with enormous spirit. When I called after eight months away, they made a place for me again. And they continue to understand when my grief interferes. But in my case, there was no "grief leave" (which had more to do with the scope of my position than anything else, being part-time). In my husband's case, there was two weeks. Two weeks to mourn our daughter. Two weeks to gather the pieces of his heart, put them back in his chest, and find a way to function. And how many companies don't even offer that? Do we make so little space for our personal and emotional needs in this country that the idea of rising up as a community to support those who are reeling with loss has become foreign to us?

We have been surrounded by givers. We are the lucky ones. We have so far absorbed the financial shock waves of this loss with loving help. But the physical toll remains to be seen. And the emotional toll continues to weigh heavy. Support in a dozen different directions—counseling, medicine, supplements, massage, chiropractors, doctors, and more—is more than luxury, it's absolutely necessary. And how long do we get to feel entitled to these services?

I think, for those who have not lost a child or experienced a similar trauma, that it's easy to slip into a place of impatience. To believe that we dance to the tune of our loss out of selfishness or coddling or a sense of entitlement. To believe that we are weak or lazy or obsessed. I think, for some of those people, because they have not experienced the random senselessness of child loss or a similar trauma, that they need to place blame. Blame makes sense. It makes the world more manageable. Surely, if we are struggling, it must be our fault somehow. It must be someone's. It seems easy, from that place, to point to cause and effect. To draw clear lines between events. To make someone ultimately responsible. To shift from patience and understanding to"knock it off" when accommodating our grief ceases to be easy or comfortable for them.

And I have some sympathy for that, because there is nothing about accommodating grief that is easy for the grieving. There is nothing about the steps that gets simpler or smoother or better. If I could set my grief down somewhere on this path and simply walk away, I likely would. But then, for me, this grief is woven into the bond I have with Evelyn, and I will never abandon her. So when I have to ask, and when I have to choose between accommodating or suffering more, between abandoning my child's memory and myself or being abandoned by others, the choice is obvious, but it is never, ever easy.

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