Thursday, January 31, 2019

Collective Grief: Reaching Out to Another Noah

Why am I so affected by a boy’s loss of his mother in my community when I barely know the family? Is it because the boy’s name is Noah, like the son I lost to suicide? Is it because this younger Noah, too, lost a mother in her 40s to cancer? Or because thinking about this boy’s tragic loss touches off a lifetime of grief?
Each loss informs the other.

I first learned this when I was a grad student researching lament traditions in rural Greece in the 1980s. Black-clothed widows would gather around the body at the wake and insert the names of their own lost ones when leading laments. The mourning of one became the mourning of all, the wake a container for collective grief. In my walks in the hills around the village, I borrowed lines from those laments to bewail my mother’s death five years earlier.
In the U.S., where expressions of grief are so much more rare and restrained, I noticed that people cry for their own dead at other people’s funerals. Like the elderly women in that Greek village, we all need safe spaces to mourn and remember. I think of the acquaintance at the shiva memorial gathering for my son, Noah, who curled up in an armchair near the front of the room and wept through the entire service; I never knew if she was crying for a suicide in her own family or some other loss, but I knew it wasn’t for Noah. And that was OK; I’d done the same.

When I heard about the teenage Noah’s mother’s death this week, I became obsessed with writing him a note, tears streaming as I contemplated what to say. The situation tugged at deep-seated memories of my own bereft, adrift state at 19 when I took care of my sick mother for six months until her death. Soon after she died, I transferred to a new college and upon meeting new people, couldn’t help mentioning that I’d just lost my mother. After all, it was the formative experience of my life and I’d been immersed in a cancer patient families’ support group where we spoke openly of death and dying, fear and despair. I desperately needed to talk about my loss but felt so alone among my bewildered peers, who had intact families. They didn’t speak the language of death and loss that I’d been learning that goes beyond hugs and cards of condolence. I’ve been speaking that language ever since to whoever would listen, greeting others on the mourner’s path.

I wanted to speak a bit of that language to the teenage Noah. I wanted to tell him that it was OK to let out his grief and speak his mother’s name and that whatever he was feeling was normal. I wanted to tell him that as someone who also lost my mom as a teen, I understood how lonely he might feel among his peers but to keep reaching out for love, find friends who would try to understand, and have the good life his mother would have wanted for him. So I wrote all this, ending with “you are and will always be your mother’s treasure,” and sealed the envelope before I could change my mind. The note I wish someone had written to me in January, 43 years ago.
I’d written a rough draft of the note first to make sure I didn’t vent or overwhelm. I choked on the opening “Dear Noah” since usually when I write that phrase in my journal, I’m addressing my own Noah who can never reply. I didn’t mention having had a precious son named Noah who died at 21; this teenage Noah doesn’t need to know that.

But of course, as I composed the note, my Noah and our bond hovered over every word. How I yearned to shield his sensitive soul from sorrow and death. How, unlike my parents, I was determined to be around in old age for him and my other son. How Noah and I became estranged and I failed to be there for him when he most needed a mother’s love. How utterly wrong it was, how unbelievable and unbearable, that this child needed a grave before me.

My Noah was his mother’s treasure. In his despair, I hope he knew that.

1 comment:

  1. You were and always will be your mother's treasure, Susu. XOXO