When someone dies, those left behind enter a twilight world, a liminal space formed by tragedy, walled in sorrow and haunted by their memories, their confusion, and their regrets.
The dictionary defines a liminal space as a transition, an intermediate state from one phase to another, one existence to the next. In this twilight world, a survivor is cast adrift, their course strewn with rocks, any one of which is capable of breaching their bulwarks and sending them into a spiral.
We call that spiral grief, a torment that threatens to swamp the best of intentions, and carry what good still remains out to sea. Most griefs self-limit, their acceptance eventual as a part of the plan, the awful price paid for participation in this experiment we call life. In time, the storm passes, the traveler finds his way to port. He crosses the border of the liminal space onto a new and calmer normal– somewhat older, somewhat wiser, somewhat changed, but intact.
Except when grief is out of order, the loss unthinkable, as when a parent loses a child. Then the tempest refuses to abate, no matter the age, no matter the cause, no matter the distance, in time or space, from the event. Because when a child dies, the parent’s hopes and dreams, plans and possibilities, die with him. The reasons for waking, for working go cold. The parent is thrust onto a surreal landscape, laid waste by the unrelenting absence, the implacable lack. There’s no exit, no byway, no tollbooth where a change can be considered, another path taken, a deal made, a decision revoked. The story is over. The terminal shore recedes. The liminal space’s boundaries expand, echoing a single, soul-killing refrain: “Why?”
Why him, why her, why me, why us, why now?
Before my son died, we were four, two parents, two children, our destinies decided, our stars on the rise, our love for each other resilient, immutable, reliable as sunshine after dark. Then a knock on the door, a brutal revelation. And we were three.
Just like that. Out of order, upside down, inside out and incomprehensible.
Our courses wobbled. The ground grew unsteady. We teetered under the inescapable quandary–how do we go on?
I decided to clean out the garage. My point of disorder, the ever-present boil that needed lancing, that project my son was one day supposed to have helped undertake. I brushed off his inability to assist and did the job for him. I had the clutter removed, cabinets ordered in, floors scrubbed and nooks found for all the tools, sure that somewhere my son watched, certain once the tools found their place, he would find me.
The yard came next, a patio to be built, beds to be arranged, caterers to hire. All in record time, because we were having a party, a celebration of my son’s life, and he’d have been appalled if the layout were less than perfect, the food less than copious.
People came, kind and caring, carrying flowers and plants and plates of cookies. They told stories of my son, what he meant to them, how he’d impacted their lives. Yet my son did not return, did not walk in to peruse the buffet or revel in the attention. He did notpoof back into existence, pull a rabbit from any hat, transform the gathering to what my Inside had hopelessly wished it could be–a true celebration, a restoration of all we had been.
The gathering ended, the food was packed up, pressed into the hands of the attendees. The days passed, the flowers faded, the plants died, the yard again needed weeding.
Outside, the world didn’t care. It went on, with horns blaring, and clocks ticking and checklists completed. I smiled and laughed, the Outside requiring I hold it together, but the Inside knowing I was a turbulent mess. Cacophonous. Disoriented. A minefield of triggers, every object a memory, every room a reminder. For days, then weeks, then months, and well past a year.
Experts have a name for it–persistent complex bereavement disorder, complicated grief–when emotions are so strong, loss so deep, the person left behind finds it difficult to cope, to go on with life.
A tidy explanation, neat and clean and when a parent loses a child, wrong. Despite the scholarly labels science may want to attach, my grief is not complicated. My grief is impossible, a living, breathing mass that refuses to be ‘gotten over,’ will never be ‘past.’ My grief is an agony that will never be filed into a neat little slot I can observe from some mature and distanced perspective. It tags along on every errand, nags at me from every corner, demands a place at the table, a room of its own, turning me into the bogie I once feared, my own worst nightmare, telling me it will walk with me forever. “You are a parent who has lost her child, and that means you will never make landfall.”
I cry and I scream, pound tables and walls. I still live, still breathe, still have a child I love as fiercely as the other, a husband who loves her as fiercely as I. And in the small, still silences after the rages, I still hear my son: “Mom! Knock it off. You do not have to settle, are not required to merely endure.”
Because a liminal space is only confining when emptied of hope, only constricted when those who are left do not draw together to close the gaps. My grief is permanent, but mine to furnish as I please, and I choose inspiration, not despair, nurturers, not naysayers. My soul will shed what does not matter, embrace what does, find order in my chaos, comfort in my memories, grace where it may, allowing time to create a new person from what is best of the old, a trail I can follow, a trace I can hold onto.
Those are not obstacles off my bow; they’re opportunities. This storm does not throw me off course; it drives the wind in my sails. Gaps will be bridged by the magic bubbling deep in my heart: My child is not lost, he is waiting, and oh my! Such stories we shall share on the day I finally come to shore.
Mindy Tarquini, writes about a similar kind of grief in her latest novel Deepest Blue. She is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning Hindsight (SparkPress 2016) and The Infinite Now (SparkPress 2017). Mindytarquini.com