On Awkward Grief

era march

July 9, 1978 – March for the Equal Rights Amendment, Washington, DC
That’s me in the yellow shorts, just shy of my 9th birthday. Beth stands to my right in the white shirt and blue skirt.

Last week a longtime friend of my first stepmother, Beth, called to tell me that Beth had died after a long period of poor health and a short acute illness.

The news left me surprised and sad and casting about for what to do with what I’ve termed awkward grief.

Born in a small town in the mountains of East Tennessee, Beth became the most cultured person I knew. I lived among smart people, but she was a true intellectual. She modeled feminism, the creative impulse, and dry wit, none of which was everyday currency in other parts of my 1970s childhood.

She and my father were together from the time I was 3 until I was 13. Their marriage crumbled in acrimony, which I was there to witness. She never remarried and had no other children, but we stayed in touch. I would stop by her Tennessee home and spend a few days at least once a year. She sent packages with art, clothes, and books. She was delighted when my daughter was born and doted on her during early visits.

But when I came out as a lesbian and my ex-husband and I split, somehow he got Beth in the divorce. In some ways that was okay. I had more supportive people around me than he did – and in spite of the contentiousness of our own parting, I genuinely wished him well. Beth was a steady and gracious soul, a good person to have in one’s life and I was glad of that for him.

On another level it was a peculiar rejection, particularly from someone who spent her later life in the close companionship of women. She was just gone from my life and it was both sudden and unexplained.

At her memorial service yesterday, she was remembered as caring and compassionate, conscientious, giving, and dependable. It was noted that she had lived a life of service through a career in non-profit work and that she was always “concerned with excellence in living.” All of these accolades captured Beth’s presence. Except with me. She disappeared from my life for reasons I can only guess at and that seem inconsistent with the generous and caring spirit she brought to the rest of her living.

Thus the awkward grief.

We don’t deal very well with grief in general in our society. And we certainly don’t know what to do with grief that doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. I share this story and these reflections here because I know I’m not the only person who has experienced such emotions.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far –

I’m helped by having already done a part of the necessary grieving. I started it years ago when I realized that Beth was effectively gone from my life. I mourned the relationship we had, which was never perfect, but was important to both of us. I mourned the relationship we might have had.

I had thus made some peace long before her death. I had forgiven her in large part, even while I wondered (and still do) if she needed to forgive me. While reconciliation is now beyond this realm, I find comfort in the active work of loving forgiveness that I’ve been engaged in for years.

Grace and forgiveness are important tools for this work.

There will always be people in our lives with whom we have fractured relationships. They have been important to us and we to them. We loved them. They have shaped us. But something crucial is broken in our connection. Though it can take many forms, the essential fact is that they are here and one day they are not. Or perhaps they are still in our lives, but not in the way we would want for them and for ourselves.

The task given to us is to acknowledge the gift of their presence, the fact of their absence, and the meaning of their significance. And then we must let go. No good comes of refusing to acknowledge the realities of a given situation or relationship. We can wish something was different, that something had been different. But our own healing can only begin when we cease to cling tightly to our vision of how things should/could/would be.

That is simple, but not easy.

I will mourn Beth’s loss to the world – and I will continue the work of grieving her loss in my life. I will acknowledge that this grief will always feel awkward. I will pay tribute to what I learned from her. I will wonder at what I might have done differently. I will accept that things are not always made right. And I will let go – and let go again – and let go again.