Yesterday I sat on the balcony with a friend for a long time, it was the first warm summer evening when I wasn’t fully occupied with the kids and we drank a mixed beer and talked about God and the world. And at some point she said: "Your mom has been dead for quite a long time now, too." And I said, "Yes, in August it will be eight years." And as I was saying this, I realized how absurd it actually felt: eight years without her, after thirty-eight years with her previously. And although it still feels wrong and I still feel the loss keenly, I realized how routinely I can now live with the grief, we all can. We always miss her and yet we are happy.
But when does the point actually come after the death of a loved one, when it is easy to bring across one’s lips, "He Was always loved to be by the sea." Or: "You loved her sisters so much." When do you get used to the past tense when you talk about that person who was always there, but now is no more? How does normality come into living with death?? And how can one live with grief and cope with everyday life without the loss dominating our lives?
How does it work: to live with grief?
I often think about how we actually deal with death and grief. What we tell our children, how we talk to them about someone dying. And how we go on without this beloved person.
Of course, you get used to a lot of things. It comes relatively easily to me these days that my mother is dead when I talk to someone about her. But that’s just a matter of practice, not necessarily an expression of how well I can live with that fact. And that’s part of the crux. When someone dies, we always all want to be compassionate, we are turned towards those who are grieving and want to do them some good.
But do we really want to endure their grief permanently? Can we deal with the fact that children who have lost their mothers have a lasting sense of that loss and it changes them forever? Are we ready to make room for the infinite grief felt by a young woman whose husband has died? Not only when it just happened? Not only on the day of the funeral, but on every day that comes afterward? On any given school day or vacation, rain or shine, and no matter the season? We want to stay by the side of those who are grieving and endure that this feeling will now accompany them forever?
I think, as much as we actually want this – the reality is different. There is little to no room in our society for "dysfunctional" people and someone who is grieving is not functioning as before. We learn to hide our grief, at least outside our safe spaces, because we learn that our "outside" doesn’t like it and doesn’t deal with it well. This is not an individual thing or even a failure of our friends or colleagues. It is rather the social habit of wanting or needing to be "right," of not distinguishing ourselves, of giving no indication that we are in any way not "right". Because we have learned that there is no place for it. But it should.
Death is trauma, mourning is processing
When my mother was dying, many people were around my siblings and me. Of course our loved ones, our partner, our father and his wife, my mother’s siblings, her close friends. My close friends were also around me and I will never forget that in my life. One came to me in the palliative care unit and just sat there with me, we talked, we were together, she had come to me to stand by me. One came from Berlin to Koblenz for the funeral and stayed by my side. She had come to me to stand by me. One came to us almost every day during the last four weeks and stayed with me for nights, she came to me to stand by me. One called from Greece, sent messages every day and shouted to me across the ocean that she stayed by my side to stand by me. They all held my hand and I did not have to say anything. Not explain anything. They were there.
Then we returned to everyday life. The grave was closed, the wreaths of flowers were withered. The summer vacations ended and the children went back to daycare and school and a certain normality set in. And yet not. Because nothing was "normal" anymore, nothing was like before, nothing felt safe and everything that was familiar and right, all our routines and rituals got a question mark. What will life be like without my mother? Without this grandmother of my children? Without the concrete place "home" to which I had always been able to return? All the activities with the children, in which my motherhood came into play, were shaped by the mother I had had. And so, in every activity with my children, in every song, every rhyme, every bedtime prayer, and every daily ritual, my mother was present. It was incredibly painful – and I couldn’t explain it to anyone.
We hum our basic melody of grief – forever
Because most of the people around me, neighbors, acquaintances, even friends, saw me working, saw me smiling, saw me looking happily at my children and realized, a little relieved, that I was obviously doing well. I was obviously coping well with the loss. Obviously the grief didn’t weigh so heavy. And just as relieved, a certain mental stability in dealing with my loss, with our loss, was then expected or presupposed as a logical consequence. At the same time we were in deep, deep mourning with everything we had. But only a few realized that. And very few asked.
Because what not so many people know: grief is not an either-or state. It is our constant companion and is always near us. We carry it with us like a basic melody in our hearts and no matter whether we are happy or perhaps have to laugh about something, no matter whether we are in the company of people close to our hearts or are in a favorite place – this melody sounds in us. Forever. For she belongs to us now.
When a loved one dies, someone who of course was always just there, it leaves a void. Everyone knows this, it comes up in every funeral speech. But what this really means is probably only understood by those people who have suffered such a loss themselves.
It means not only learning to live with the gap. It means, above all, acknowledging that this void can never be closed or filled. Not with work, not with another human being, not with however much meaningful engagement and not with the very greatest joy. It remains – a gap.
It stands for the love we have lost. For the person who has accompanied us so long or intensely and who is gone irretrievably. It represents the incredible pain that always hits us with full force when, quite unexpectedly, something sneaks the memory of that person into our consciousness very immediately. It can be a scent, or music, a breeze, a certain place, maybe another person’s smile, and sometimes the weather. Often we don’t even see it coming. And yet the pain is triggered and makes the basic melody of our grief swell within us and grow louder.
Grief is the other side of love
I let it come, this melody. She is mine, and I have learned to live with her. It doesn’t scare me anymore, it doesn’t paralyze me, and it’s not something I want to overcome or leave behind either. It is the mourning for my beloved mom, the woman who gave birth to me and accompanied me throughout my childhood. Who loved me like no one else in the world, who knew me like no one else, because she was – my mother. And my basic melody of mourning is what I have left of her beside all the bright memories.
The melody is her love that I miss. It is the conversation with her that I can no longer have. She’s the laughter I’ll never hear again and her hand I’ll never hold again. It is the missing and the unfulfillable longing to once again feel that look on me that I will never feel again. And she is the infinite gratitude for all the fullness I was allowed to experience through my mother. For me, living with grief means carrying my mother’s love inside me, in light and in dark days.
I have written many times about grief, about how our love outlasts us, and how much I believe that the love we experience and give throughout our lives has a lifetime of its own. For our love leaves its mark on the lives of others, for example our children. And it propagates itself when it passes from us to others and is also passed on from there in turn.
But in the basic melody of grief that I write about today, it is also included. For sorrow is the other side of love, whose longing for fulfillment remains forever unanswered.
Living on without you – sadly happy
So for me mourning is a state of being. Not because I want to wallow in it or cry once a day or burst into tears at the sight of blue hydrangeas. It has nothing at all to do with mental instability or that I could not "function" or that my life would be overshadowed forever. On the contrary, I lead a pretty happy life, you could say. No, it means that my basic melody sounds in me and in a way I carry my mother with me in this sadness. Not only in the beautiful memories of an enchanting childhood and many years of good adult life, in which we were very close to each other, especially in our respective motherhood, but also in the pain of loss that I have suffered.
And I think most mourners feel the same way. We keep going, often quite well, and we learn to live with our loss. But we are forever changed by the experience, and that’s perfectly okay. How strange it would be to actually "get over" the death of a loved one, when they have been with us half our lives, loving and shaping us? Instead, we carry them in the basic melody of our grief further into our life after their death – and thereby also somehow take them with us into a new form of love, in which a part will forever be the unanswered longing.
So when someone around you suffers such a loss, the best thing you can do is not offer comfort or try to cheer them up, but acknowledge: acknowledge the pain, acknowledge the grief, and give them the time and space for both. Love her and stay by her side, but don’t say time heals all wounds, because it doesn’t and it’s not supposed to. Time changes grief, but it doesn’t erase it. That’s okay. On hard days like birthdays and deathdays, ask for what they need. Is it distraction or would you rather bury yourself and feel everything that grief is asking for right now? Then give them exactly that.
And never forget: the grief stays with us. It takes on different forms, it becomes quieter, and after a while it doesn’t frighten us so much anymore. But it doesn’t disappear anytime soon, any more than the good memories of life with our loved ones that we had to let go disappear.
Grief is a part of us now and we take it with us as long as we live. That doesn’t mean we stop. It just goes with us from here on out. And it’s nice when our loved ones around us let us and just acknowledge it. With a smile.