Unwilling

Owen died three months ago today. I’ve been remembering how, with babies, you begin by measuring their new life in days, then you slip into counting by weeks, then months, then years. I suppose it makes sense that something similar happens with deaths, except that it’s no longer about growth, about a presence expanding further into the world. Instead it feels like he is receding, which might be why it’s true (as people warned) that the loss actually feels worse now in some ways. At first, the overwhelming grief was because he had left us so deliberately and irrevocably. That sorrow remains, with all of its complications, but as time passes for us but not for him, it’s hard not to feel that now we are the ones leaving him, which we did not choose to do—which we desperately do not want to do, but can’t help or stop.

“The dead slip away,” Riley says, “as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” I’ve been thinking about other times I left Owen, more or less willingly—the first time I dropped him at daycare, for example, and then I sat and cried in the car, because even though everyone told me (and everyone was right) that he would adapt and come to love it there, it felt unnatural to walk away while he cried and reached for me. I watched him head into school so many times, knowing things weren’t always easy for him there but that I couldn’t go in with him and try to make it better, as much as I wanted to. I also remember, more happily, leaving him in residence when he started his degree at Dalhousie—that was such an optimistic time for us all. Separation is part of growing up, of course, part of parenting, part of life: as wise Joe Gargery says, “life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” But this parting is different, because instead of holding our lives together it has broken them apart.

“Unwillingly”: yes. I think that’s why it still feels impossible, unbearable, to sort out his room, his clothes, his few other possessions. There were things we had to do after he died—practical things, from arranging his cremation and writing the obituary to sorting out his bank accounts and cancelling his phone plan. These steps weren’t voluntary, though: they were hard necessities, responsibilities his choice had pressed onto us. The rest of it, whatever else we do, is up to us. We will be doing things on purpose: we will be making deliberate choices (willing choices) that put him, that keep him, in the past, separate from our present, which—no matter how much we wish otherwise—will keep getting further and further away from his last day.

That doesn’t mean we are or will be “moving on.” Megan Devine (who rightly notes how unhelpful it is to be “reassured” about the imaginary “better” future in the very early days of grief) offers a hopeful vision of what might happen eventually:

In your own ways, and in your own time, you will find ways to stitch this experience into your life . . . Grief changes you. Who you become remains to be seen. You do not need to leave your grief behind in order to live a newly beautiful life. It’s part of you.

Now, though, I still find that new world hard to imagine, much less look forward to. How can I go there willingly, knowing it would represent (in Riley’s words) “a second, now final, loss”? I still, hopelessly, just want to hold on to him, to keep him from slipping away, not from his life, which he had the right to leave on his own terms, as he did, but from mine.

10 thoughts on “Unwilling

  1. roughghosts March 30, 2022 / 7:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Rohan. Grieving may be a universally human experience, but it is one that we inevitably face alone, each in our own way. It is also one that shifts and changes over times, but I don’t think it ever leaves, nor would I want it to. We do, however learn to live within it. Or so I hope.

    • Rohan Maitzen March 31, 2022 / 12:56 pm

      I hope so too – thank you for your understanding comment.

  2. Jeanne March 30, 2022 / 7:38 pm

    It all sounds so hard. Wishing you strength.

  3. Miss Bates March 30, 2022 / 8:51 pm

    So, so hard. I’m sorry, Rohan, for Owen, for his family, for you, who I’ve come to know through your blog and readings. Time and grief are such a strange contradictory combination, hard to push through and inexorable in the way it changes experience.

  4. Lisa Hill March 30, 2022 / 9:14 pm

    I don’t have any wise or consoling words, because I don’t think there are any. But I’m here, and I’m reading this and I’m hoping that you have the kind of support that helps at this time.
    And I’m hoping that at some in the future, you will feel able to sit down to write privately about him, and you will find that he has not slipped away from you at all.

  5. Mary Lu Redden March 30, 2022 / 11:18 pm

    Rohan: I think about you a lot these days and wish that I had comforting words to say. What a hard, hard thing you are living through but yet you are willing to reflect on your experience in a way that helps your readers to grow and understand. Thank you

  6. Arleen Young April 2, 2022 / 9:29 pm

    I remember marking the painful passage of time after my little Stevie died. I would think “a month ago, I had a son,” then “three months ago, I had a son, ” “a year ago, I had a son.” Once, you and I had sons, and they were magical. The magic is still there, but it is different.

    • Rohan Maitzen April 3, 2022 / 10:07 am

      Oh, Arlene. I understand so much better now that you carried that sorrow with you into your new happiness. 💜

      • Arlene Young April 6, 2022 / 2:01 pm

        I want to say more, but don’t know quite how to put it. I am not really a spiritual person, so I lack some of the words that might otherwise come easily, but my lingering sorrow is part of my happiness, in some odd way. I understand happiness differently, because of the sorrow. I understand other people’s sorrow and can empathize in ways I never could before. I can’t say, as a religious person might, that Stevie is always with me, but it does feel as if the soul of who Stevie was is always with me. He did, and always will, make me a better person.

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