In early May, I marked the 10th anniversary of the death of my first wife, Renee. That same week also brought the 12th anniversary of my mom's death.
Since then, I've been thinking about the nature of grief.
From what I've observed, a lot of people not only carry the burdens of their losses — but in addition to the losses, they suffer guilt about the course their grief takes.
That is, sometimes they feel guilty because they can't get over their grief. Sometimes they feel guilty because they're not grieving enough.
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I've been on both sides of that dilemma.
In 2011, I married again, to Liz. We just celebrated our fourth anniversary.
Liz and I are good for each other, and we're good to each other. I love her. I hope to grow old with her. She's my wife and I'm grateful she is.
Still, I find that, even a decade after Renee passed, there's probably not a single day — heck, rarely an hour — I don't miss her.
This isn't about Liz, my present wife. There isn't a competition between them. My missing Renee doesn't imply there's anything wrong with Liz.
I just miss Renee. I've finally admitted to myself that maybe I always will. Not to be too clichéd, but it's as if when she died, some part of me died with her, and I don't know how to reinvent that part. It's gone. It's not coming back.
All this leaves me feeling guilty toward Liz, even though she's admirably understanding about it. She lost her dad when she was 15, so she knows a lot about long-term grief. She gets it.
Even so, my grief makes me feel unfaithful to her. I want to let it go. But it won't go. It's always there, lurking: a sense of emptiness, of sadness, of a happy past aborted.
Truth is, though, if I didn't miss Renee, I'd probably feel guilty about that as well.
My maternal grandfather, Oscar Chestnut, died when I was 12.
Nearly a half-century later, I still mourn him. For some reason, I particularly associate him with Christmases, and nearly every Christmas since 1968 I've caught myself crying, just remembering how much I loved him.
I feel guilty about that sometimes, too, because I lost three other grandparents over the years, and I loved them, and they loved me — yet I hardly miss them.
Don't think me harsh when I say this, but a few years back our family's boxer, Max, was run over by a truck. I wept more over that dog than I did over many fallen humans I've cared about. I feel bad that I don't feel worse about them.
My mother's death in 2003 nearly paralyzed me.
However, when my dad died in 2012, I barely grieved over him at all. He'd slipped into dementia in his latter years, and had become angry and paranoid and impossible to deal with. By the time he passed, I mainly felt relieved.
Now, 2½ years down the line, I think about him a lot, quite tenderly.
Now, I remember our better times together, when he was healthier. I think about the truths he taught me, about the preaching trips we took together. Driving through town running errands, I catch myself smiling at funny things he used to say.
I didn't will myself to change my memories of him. Over time, it just happened.
The reason I'm talking about this very personal, private baggage is because I sense that many people struggle with these same issues.
What I think I've learned from my losses is that grief is unpredictable and unaccountable. It has an economy all its own. Its rules don't make sense.
Different people grieve differently. One person loses a spouse and is ready to glue back together the shards of his life and remarry within six months. Somebody else loses a spouse and never is able to get past it, never remarries, abides in a shrine to the past.
Also, we as individuals grieve differently over different people.
One person you lose, you miss inconsolably. Then you lose someone else and hardly feel a thing. Or you feel nothing at the time of that person's death, but years down the line, out of the blue, memories poleax you — or leave you doubled over laughing.
It's all OK. It's all normal. It is what it is.
Don't over-analyze your reactions. Don't try to force yourself to change them. Don't judge yourself too harshly.
Bawl in a fetal position when you feel like it. Dance when you feel like it.
Get up the next morning, wash your face, comb your hair and get on with living as best you're able for that day. Along the way, be gentle to yourself, and gentle with others, who probably carry their own weights of grief and guilt.