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Can Grief be Deferred to Death?

I call it a bad year when all three of my brothers die. Well, fourteen months, if you want to be technical about it. Two of them—Gene and Walt—were done in by Covid in March and August of 2020. Jay failed to survive heart surgery this last May.

But I’m beginning to realize there’s something maybe even worse than losing them. It’s not being able to properly grieve them.

The pandemic effect has quashed families’ ability to gather as families have always gathered in the wake of a loved one’s death, to hug and weep, to recall and laugh, to recall and regret, to bury and pray. These rituals of saying goodbye lay to rest more than the departed. They make vivid and reinforce the impressions we want to hold onto to savor later on.. They may also bring ambivalent truth to the surface, bring resolution to tensions held far too long, bring balm to pain long repressed, and free us to feel unreservedly a love that may have been contaminated by daily vicissitudes.

Vital interactions, vital feelings, these. But pandemic restrictions on travel and gatherings stopped all that that dead in its tracks. No trio of flights from New Jersey to California where they all lived. No repeated clasping of beloved relatives for long hugs and welcome tears. No photos handed around recalling long lives lived through good times and bad. No poignant walks through rooms never again to be resonant with their voices or redolent with the scent of their very being.

And just now our clan has postponed the latest hoped-for gathering in California for an intended collective mourning and celebration of all three of my brothers—already a compromised unitary grieving of three hugely divergent individuals. The resurgence of Covid and dangerously bad air in Fresno prompted their children to pull the plug on it . And I’m thinking it probably isn’t ever going to happen at this point. We’ll just go forward into a future with our shared grief perpetually on hold.

Many years ago, my partner and I were producing a film for a client about the newly emerging awareness of “bonding” between an newborn infant and its parents. This is a two-way dynamic, of course. The intimate physical touching—cradling, rocking, stroking, hugging, kissing, nursing—awakens love between the infant and the mother, the infant and the father. But it’s more than love being kindled. All become more alive. This warm, ongoing embrace awakens the most profound instinct in any human being: the will to thrive.

During our research for the film (eventually called “Falling in Love with Your Baby”), we interviewed two pediatricians renowned for their expertise dealing with dangerously underweight premature newborns that required many weeks and sometimes months in high-tech incubators in a neonatal intensive care unit. We were stunned by something they revealed to us.

With the newborn’s survival dependent on remaining in that incubator, the mothers and fathers were limited to gazing at this tiny pink life they created as it lay encapsulated in a plexiglass crate. The mother or father could cautiously reach through a porthole covered with sterile fabric to place a single finger on that impossibly vulnerable morsel of human being for a minute or two. But no holding, no hugging, no kissing. Just gazing for a while. And then they could go home until tomorrow, when they could repeat the dispiriting process. Day after day. Again, and again, and again.

But then the daily visits might break down. Gradually some parents skipped a day or maybe showed up only every other day. And then even less frequently. Eventually some stopped coming altogether.

Weeks later, when the medical staff finally deemed the newborn capable of surviving at home under the parents’ care, the happy call went out to them: You can come and get your baby now!

But some didn’t come. Didn’t show up.

Imagine that. Some young parents did not race to gather up their new baby in their arms for the first time. Did not whisk it home to the nursery room they’d prepared with such joy. Did not send out a call to come and see, to show the baby off proudly to family and friends and neighbors. They had to be called repeatedly with a request to take their baby home.

Their will to thrive as parents was stillborn. Cause of death: the inability to engage in the live act of bonding with their baby.

What becomes of our need to grieve when it cannot be expressed? Does it, too, atrophy? Deferred incessantly, is it now stillborn, or merely somnolent? Can it be resurrected at any indeterminate time in the future, or at some point will its moment pass away forever?

Dear Jay, my forever big brother, every couple of days I see a piece of architecture or a fascinating new automobile or catch a piece of music that I feel the urge to share with you, as we did so frequently for so long. Or I'm unclear about someone or something from our childhood and want your older-then, more-reliable big-brother recollection. Whenever leaning into that instinct, I am suddenly and unhappily snatched back to reality when I remember you’re not there any more. Thank God I’m in tears writing this. My grief at losing you hasn’t left me yet.

Dear Walt, my younger brother, you were the most generous person I have ever known. How was it possible for you to have an unlimited free flow of time and affection for others, a total lack of possessiveness about whatever you possessed, and a willingness to make a decades-long career of daily care—no, hourly care—for Judy in her unending health challenges? I shrivel with shame in comparison. And I marvel that despite our mother's having been a big-deal Democrat, you became a Fox News junkie, We stopped talking politics but never stopped talking about how terribly much we loved each other.

Dear Gene, our kid brother, I am glad that you are now at rest, freed from the incessant difficulties you suffered your whole adult life as a result of your brain injury. Damn you for riding that motorcycle without a helmet. You, like Walt, were entirely kind, and despite being penniless and sometimes homeless, you were generous to a fault. Your urge to share sometimes brought you to grief, but your sardonic sense of humor and irony rescued you time and again. You were the very model of good will, being an immediate friend and welcoming neighbor to all you encountered,. I revel knowing that your new companions on the other side are delighting in your company.

That’s a start. I think I’ll just have to spend more time grieving Jay, Walt, and Gene by writing long letters to each of them about our life together and my feelings for them. I haven’t done that before, and I can tell already that it’s going to help.

I’m realizing that whether my grief for their deaths lives or dies is entirely up to me now.

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