Some people are a country
and their deaths displace you.
Everything you shared with them
reminds you of it: part of you
in exile for the rest of your life.
Excerpt from the poem “Coming Through” by Bronwen Wallace
For years, I have searched for an author who accurately describes the enormity of the loss of a beloved family member or friend, the gigantic experience of grief that dissolves all that comes before. Many thanks to Isabel Huggan, my Humber College writing mentor, who sent me the lines above, from the late poet Bronwen Wallace.
Several years ago, I sat with Helena, a bereaved mother, in my counseling office. Her 44-year-old daughter Emily had died of cancer two years before. Emily had been a vibrant mother of three boys in high school, and as I got to know her at the end of her life, she made an indelible impression on me for the way she cared for her sons. She helped them talk about her death and their anticipated grief of life without her. She trusted that they had the resilience to live with the pain of losing her.
Helena was beside herself, visibly displaced by her daughter’s death. She had aged in the year since I’d last seen her, her pale skin stretched taut across wide cheekbones, like a veneer pasted over her unattended sorrow. Her faraway eyes seemed to sit back in their sockets, and I had to lean toward her to find her. Grief isolates a person, and it takes determination and devotion on the part of family and friends to keep repeating, “You’re not alone, I’m still here.”
“Everyone around me is moving on. No one speaks much of her anymore,” she said, through rolling tears. “I’m lonely, though I pretend I’m okay. People want to hear I’m doing better, but what I long to say is, I’m doing worse.”
“Do you speak about her?” I asked.
“I don’t talk much about her anymore, but I do speak to her in most of my waking moments, in private. People think I should be moving on, letting her go, now that two years have passed since she died,” Helena said.
“Moving on to where?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Emily moves with me, wherever I go,” she said, with a slight lift in her voice.
“Of course she does. She lives inside you now, and she always will.”
We don’t recover from loss or get over it. We carry the people we love with us for the rest of our lives, and if we are lucky, we still hear their voices talking to us and our friends continue to ask us to tell them stories. If we are blessed by having a close family or network of friends, they can help us to live in exile, simply by recognizing where we are. As we stand at the border, looking back to where we once belonged and can never go again, they can move in a little closer.