Two weeks ago, I wrote (and later deleted) a disjointed blog post about re-grieving, and how my eldest uncle’s death set off an emotional breakdown that spiraled out of control to a degree that I haven’t experienced since my paternal grandfather died.
I learned of my paternal grandfather’s death at the doctor’s office, during my first visit with a non-pediatrician physician, at the end of my freshman year of college. I remember being unreasonably nervous about the appointment, to the point where I couldn’t make eye contact with the doctor, a youngish white woman with a ponytail. It didn’t help that she seemed both annoyed and skeptical when I told her I wasn’t sexually active, like she thought I was either lying or a total loser. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t able to give an answer she found acceptable.
My mom was with me, and when I was asked about my family’s medical history, I was surprised to hear my mom tell the doctor that my paternal grandfather was deceased. I panicked and wondered when he’d died and why I hadn’t known, given that I’d seen him the month before, but I didn’t have much of an immediate outward reaction. (I later found out my mom had refrained from telling me until then because it happened during my finals week, and she didn’t want it to interfere with my studies.)
When my mom left the room so the doctor could repeat her questions about my sex life and drug and alcohol use, I was also asked to repeat the details about my father’s death, for reasons I still don’t really understand. My mom had already mentioned that he died in a non-alcohol-related car accident, and when I tried to repeat this fact, I burst into tears and cried for so long that the doctor left to deal with the next patient without completing the rest of the standard checkup procedures, but not before telling me that “this isn’t normal” and “don’t you see there’s something wrong with you” and “you shouldn’t be crying like this anymore” over something that “happened such a long time ago.”
Unfortunately, I believed her.
For a long while, I’d been at peace with the thought that I would always be carrying a piece of darkness inside me. It was painful and very, very heavy, but over time, I’d gotten tired of trying to rip it out of me and had learned to live with it.
But that visit to the doctor’s office convinced me that once again, I wasn’t grieving “correctly,” because I hadn’t gotten over my father’s death yet.
After my dad died when I was seven, my mom put me in grief counseling with a woman whose name I think was Laurie. I remember feeling very, very annoyed during our sessions, and whenever Laurie asked how I was feeling, I would point to the face on the chart that said “bored” until she gave up and handed me crayons and paper for me to draw on. Her questions always made me feel like I wasn’t grieving adequately, like I wasn’t being sad enough. She once asked how my Christmas was, and I told her it was fun because I got to see my cousins, and she asked something like “But weren’t you sad that your dad wasn’t there to celebrate with you?” and I felt guilty, because I hadn’t thought of him once over the holidays, so I said that I was sad, even though I hadn’t been.
I’ve spent my entire life suspecting that something in me was fundamentally broken as a result of experiencing childhood bereavement, that I was damaged in some irreversible way because my father died when I was too young to be able to handle the intensity of my grief.
Two weeks ago, I (somehow for the first time in my life) decided to spend my Saturday night looking up books and research papers on the effects of bereavement on children’s development.
What I found felt personally damning and yet also incredibly relieving, because it confirms what I’ve thought all along: There is something specific about losing a caretaker during childhood that is different from any other relationship and any other period in your life.
I guess it might be alarming for a child to express virtually no sadness at the death of their parent, but it turns out my behavior was absolutely normal, just as it was and is absolutely normal – textbook, even – for someone who experienced childhood bereavement to repeatedly re-experience their grief with new perspectives as they mature and develop deeper emotional capacities.
Some choice quotes from Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care (1984), which I wish I could shove into that idiot doctor’s face for telling me something was not normal about still having tears to spare, over a decade after my father died (emphasis my own):