January 5, 2006

Grief Isn't Love

Sometimes when I set out to self-facilitate a session of transformational inquiry (download the "Judge-Your-Neighbor" worksheet at thework.com), it's because I'm feeling stressed in the moment about a specific situation or person. At other times it just comes to me to work on something that isn't in my face at the moment...a ghost of an old story that seems to be lingering in ways I'm not entirely clear about.

I'm preparing to move from New York to California and in an attempt to lighten my load, I've been sorting and tossing through many years' accumulation of belongings. Just before the new year, while going through some old notebooks, I came across a page of thoughts about my maternal grandfather, who died when I was 10. I loved him very much and his passing was difficult for me. I think about family often during holiday times and it seemed appropriate to do The Work on this beloved one during this time of new beginnings and intentions of peace.

My grandfather and I were very close. I was his youngest grandchild and he seemed to favor me. When my grandfather -- whom I called Zayde -- suffered a stroke, our extended family life changed radically because he was very much the glue that held us together. Photographs of my grandparents' 50th anniversary party portray stoic or resigned adults and the subdued, sad little faces of my eight-year-old self and my not-much-older cousins. There is nothing celebratory about those pictures.

When Zayde died two years later, my parents were having problems with each other while also in the middle of moving to a new home; they weren't answering most of my letters from summer camp and they didn't let me know my grandfather had passed. By the time they came on Visiting Day and told me, the funeral had already happened. I was furious with them and from that time onward I shut down to them. My belief for many years was, "There's no one left to love me." (Many of our most punitive thoughts take hold when we are very young.)

I wrote about Zayde: that I was sad and angry with him because he left me alone and unloved. For so many years I had not been aware of that anger, which I directed towards my parents and myself instead. I went back to the place of being 10 and saw what I did to myself for 37 years, holding this belief as the truth...how I lived a life out of loss and depression and believed it would be that way forever.

One of the insights I received from working on this belief came from the turnaround, "There's no one left to love him." From this I see that grief is not the least bit loving. It blinded me to what was wonderful and beautiful about my grandfather, even after the stroke when he was weakened and seemed not to recognize his grandchildren, couldn't speak, couldn't move much without help and often wept.

What I'm remembering now about that time is that he allowed people to help him, that he was vulnerable and could express his feelings in tears (he used to shout before!), that he could still read the Yiddish newspaper (not the English one though) and that he and my grandmother did celebrate 50 years of marriage in spite of none of us feeling festive.

I remember how he gentled into his age and condition, not fighting it. Wizened in size, he sat in a chair in the living room with sheets wrapped around him and under him, a pillow propping his back. Thinking back, he was quiet and smiley and small and skinny, a Jewish Gandhi. If I hadn't been so self-centered it might have been very sweet to be in his company that way. He and I had never conversed much to begin with -- he had a thick accent and I didn't understand a word he said! I used to sit in his lap and he'd stroke my hair. If I'd known better, after his stroke I could have held him instead of recoiling from kissing the paralyzed side of his face.

I used to believe that if I didn't grieve it meant I didn't care, that I was a cold person...so I became very good at grieving. I have excelled in mourning failed relationships and missed opportunities. That doesn't feel like love to me.

Grief isn't love. At long last and at the perfect time, it is good to know this.

© 2005 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.

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