Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On My Path

Oh Hamlet. You’ve done it again. Each year that I reread this play, I underestimate its power. Within minutes of starting class this morning, we were reading the first scene of Act I. Oh yes! The ghost of Hamlet’s father! “Oh what a fun play this is!”, I thought to myself.

And then, we began reading scene two. In scene two of Hamlet, King Claudius speaks of his new marriage to Gertrude, the widow of his brother, the former King of Denmark. He thanks everyone for their support and then turns his attention to military matters. A little further into the scene, Claudius addresses his nephew, the young Hamlet. He scolds his nephew for his “prolonged” grief over the death of his father. He condescendingly says that it, “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father, but you must know your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his...(and) to persever in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubborness, ‘tis unmanly grief, it shows a will most incorrect to heaven, a heart unfortified, a mind impatient, an understanding simple and unschooled...”. The berating speech continues for another twenty lines. 

I knew the classroom discussion that would occur next--the inquiry over the “appropriate length of time for grief”. As predicted, my students began to comment on King Claudius’ speech to his nephew. “He thinks Hamlet should just ‘get over it’”, one student said. “He’s cold”, another remarked. One student, not quite defending Claudius, but offering another perspective said, “He’s trying to say that to lose a loved one is not uncommon, that Hamlet lost a father the way his own father lost a father and so on”. I acknowledged the truth of that fact then brought the students’ attention to the lines that signal Claudius’ belief that Hamlet’s grief is “unmanly” and the lines that suggest that those who grieve for such a prolonged period (which is not more than a month in the case of Hamlet) are not well educated, are weak-willed, and/or disrespectful to heaven. To grieve this excessively is offensive to the natural order of things, Claudius believes, and the grief should be buried, “throw(n) to earth”. The discussions that resulted from this opinion will extend to another day.

So...just how long should we mourn? The experts will say, “Take all the time you need” or speak of how we can be unexpectedly hit with a wave of emotion long after the time we think we’ve found closure. But does that mean grief has an expiration date? In respect to the research I have done on the subject, I believe there is no one proper way to grieve, no one appropriate timeframe or acceptable process. What one person considers “prolonged grief” is a touchy subject for another. Our journey with grief is individual, personal, and most importantly, is not to be judged or seen as shameful by anyone else. When others do judge, our grief may be further complicated. Why do others feel a need to find a way to abbreviate the grieving process for others? Are there societal norms that should be considered or challenged? Do some people truly go too far and “dwell on the past” or do some people actually “bury their emotions”, never truly allowing themselves to feel the sorrow fully or to hurt after a designated period of time? Doesn’t it hurt the way it does because what we had mattered? Are there levels of acceptable grief? Does someone’s sadness overtake their days or is it more that that a person’s loss travels with them as a companion as they experience daily life--the ups, the downs, the steadiness of a life that continues to move forward? Interesting questions. But I believe it’s up to the individual to decide on the answers for himself.

No one wants grief to trouble anyone in the extreme way it does the young Hamlet throughout this play. That poor kid needed a good friend, and some good books on grief, not to mention a good lawyer, for the character’s situation was greatly exacerbated by the words and actions of his treacherous uncle and confusing mother. But that leads to the story of betrayal and revenge, and that’s not the discussion I’m having here today. We’re only on Act I. Let’s stick with the subject of grief. 

Folks who know me are aware that I have been living through loss for a few years now. First a few years ago I lost my old Mom to Alzheimer’s Disease. It was time to adjust to the new reality of my new Mom. Then, almost one year ago, my mother-in-law died of cancer. Five months ago, my father had a heart attack and died suddenly. These losses all came as my two oldest children were moving out of our home to go to college. Some might say that change in our household added to feelings of loss. But in any case, am I grieving appropriately? Properly? Acceptably? By whose standards? In my evaluation, I am doing well. I am living my life, tending to my career, my family, my friends, my goals and aspirations. Sure, I cry at times. I also talk to the dead on occasion. “Hi Dad. I just want to talk to you about something. Got a minute?” I write to process my feelings and my thoughts. I talk to my husband, friends, coworkers, and family. I also laugh, enjoy my hobbies and activities, relish the affection of my loved ones, and plan for the future. Why yes, I believe I am emotionally healthy and living life fully, albeit, unapologetically, with loss. Thank you for asking.

We travel along our own path of grief and we meet up and spend time with other people--some strangers or mere acquaintances, some well meaning friends and family, some of whom are grieving also. With some, we don’t share our day-to-day journey or how we travel with our loss for fear that we will pull others down by our own experiences, or for fear we will be misunderstood in our articulation of our emotions. With others, we share what we feel like sharing either because we find support and empathy or because their opinions of us do not hold much weight and are not risking added hurt. Some may think I “over share”. But hell, I’m a writer. And I’m an artist. And to tell you the truth, this is who I have always been. I’ve always been open with who I am and how I think and feel. Mom and my Dad always knew the real me and they were my greatest fans. Truly, they were so incredibly accepting of me, of how open and honest I strived to be, even though they were more private. What a gift they gave me, to allow me to be my own person! 

One conclusion I have come to as I watch others experience loss is that I cannot pretend to know how each is walking along their individual path and I should not judge or compare our journeys. When I have affection for one who has lost a loved one, or when I think I might be able to help, I throw a kind word or question their way, and often, I am told, that is enough. When I reach out to students who have recently lost a parent or a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, they come back and say to me, “Thank you for telling me that you care”. I think they are also saying, “Thank you for acknowledging that my life has changed and feels different now. I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m feeling contrasting things at the same time and I am trying to wrap my head around how this can all be what it is”. 

It’s not a matter of “getting over it”, Claudius. Rather, it’s a matter of “getting it”, and realizing that just because we “get it” today, does not necessarily mean we will “get it” tomorrow. And that’s okay. We keep moving forward but allow ourselves a step backward or sideways, whatever needs to happen in the moment. And we continue to live.

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