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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Grief Has No Expiration Date

April 2021

Commenting on her poem, “Grief Dream”, Carol Muske-Dukes said “…grief has no clock or calendar. It has no expiration date—we only learn how to live with it.” We all have lost someone very dear to us and that loss changed our lives forever. That loved one might be a child, a spouse or partner, a sibling, a dearest friend, someone who died during war or, these days, someone who died during COVID-19. Each person is irreplaceable. Such loss is a deep one that leaves a void, a hole, a completely empty space that no one else can fill. Whatever the circumstances of that person’s death it is the emptiness that we, the living, feel.

My grandmother lost her father when she was eleven, then one of her brothers when she was fourteen. She married and lost her first three children before my father was born. I almost died when I was five. My mother never ceased to mention that all of her children survived, that she never had a miscarriage, always adding how fortunate she felt. Being the one of her four children who came the closest to dying, and returning to this planet and life, I could have lived without her constant reminder of that.

Be that as it may, I have always felt that Death and I had too close a relationship; I can even say a stilted friendship. No one wants that, but there it was. I sat, moved, and walked in the middle of Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal. I always felt I was one of those who played chess with Death, and won for the time being. I know there will come a time when I lose that chess game to the Master.

Death is not a skeleton shrouded in black. He does not stand in a lonely place. No, I am the lonely one when I lose someone to death. Even some books cause me to grieve because of their stories. I read The Secret Garden about ten or fifteen times by the time I was twelve. I understood Colin, the boy in bed, for I was that little girl. I could relate to no other person about my life in bed but Colin. He was my friend and my rock. We both survived.

I did not become the little girl that my mother and father could not speak of. I did not become that memory of my siblings who occasionally spoke about me in decades to come. What would she have been like? Who would she have looked like? She was not the cute little girl that her friend, Peggy, was, but Abigail’s personality bounced and lit up the house. She loved stories, climbing trees, riding her bike far out of the neighborhood. She adored her grandmothers, aunts and uncles. Remember the time when she was two and walked away from the house? Remember this little three-year-old learning to ride Mary’s 26-inch bike, how the seat always hit her between the shoulder blades? I remember teaching her to ride and finally letting go when she didn’t know it, said Hannah. Remember all the trouble she and I got into because I teased her so? We’d get sent to our rooms and open my closet door into her room and I taught her to play board games, said Bill. He continued, she watched Dad and me play chess and one day, age four, said that she wanted to play. She did well too. I guess I don’t remember her as well because I was busy dating, said Mary. That would be their grief, remembering the little sister who never grew up. My parents’ grief would have been immeasurable.

What of the soldiers who went off to war with families at home? What of my cousin Anne, who lost her husband the day before his twenty-first birthday, shot and killed by the Nazis, or of Aunt Nancy whose husband died at home when she was pregnant. Neither Anne nor Nancy ever recovered. They had other marriages, yes plural, but how do you stop loving someone you never had an argument with? How does the glory of that marriage dissipate with time? It doesn’t.

Both grandfathers died ten years before I was born. My grandmothers had lived with us and then died while I was still a child.  I lost my father when I was a teenager. Lost? Yes, I lost and missed his cuddles, hugs, laughter, and teachings. Death and I were becoming even closer friends. Death had shaped my life before I graduated high school.

As an adult I lost my friend, Diana, and pregnancies. All irreplaceable. How does one lose a very close friend, a child, or a husband? With great difficulty. I had decided to pull away from my career to write more when my best friend died. Knowing she could not accomplish the great things she was capable of, knowing she had just turned 37, what should I do? I put aside a career in literary writing and pursued behavior analysis and the standard celeration chart with fervor. Why, because Diana no longer could. Her death changed my life probably more than the death of anyone else. I moved from Oregon to Kansas to pursue her, and now my, dream. I remember it was a week after I’d told one of my graduate students that I’d never get a PhD because I didn’t want one. A few days later as she walked down the hall, this graduate student stuck her head in my office doorway just long enough to say “Never?”

Now that I am older, I find my siblings and other close friends are dying. Whom do I talk to now that these people who hold a part of my history have disappeared from my life? I didn’t have to explain my thoughts and feelings to them. They knew me and even today I find myself saying, oh I must tell so and so about this or that. Oops, impossible, yet I still have conversations with them. I even ask them for advice now and then. I’ve had many conversations with my grandmother who was struck by such tragedy. My aim was to let her know she had a granddaughter who remembered and wrote about her. With my brother and sister, I tell them of my doings and discuss various aspects of science with them. Of my father and Diana I ask advise for some of life’s decisions. Of my elegant mother I ask what I should wear on this or that occasion.

I miss these people who helped shape me into who I am today. I miss the people I became good, close friends with as an adult. I still think about and talk to them anyway.

I grieve for those I have lost. Muske-Duke’s poem reminds me that there is nothing wrong with viewing the empty hole that represents the space they once occupied.

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