by Barbara Donsky
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end of a love or a season?
~ Robert Frost
Who among us has not known the death of someone near and dear? Death can come in an instant as it did at the hands of terrorists, for those who had gathered for a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. Or it can linger painfully long, as it does for so many fighting the arduous battle against cancer. No matter how it comes, the cultural expectation today is that we grieve for a while and then we move on. But that is not the case. At least, that’s not the way I see it.
There is no love as strong and unconditional as that of a mother for her child. For proof of that, we need look no further than the animal kingdom. At the fastidious care and grooming given young chimpanzees by their mothers. At the extraordinary mourning rituals, the sorrow palpable, upon the death of a young elephant, the mother gently tending the body of her dead baby for three days, the rest of the herd disconsolate nearby. It would seem that instinctively elephants know that mourning requires others, that mourning requires rituals to mark the passing of a loved one.
So it is when a child loses her mother at an early age, she’s left with an emptiness that can never be filled by anyone else—a ‘hole-in-the-heart’ that has a way of marching with you down all the years.
The late Sir John Gielgud—he who dominated the British stage for much of the 20th century and left an indelible imprint on it—when asked how he was able to bring such pathos and anguish to his portrayals, attributed this ability to the death of his mother when he was a young boy. Whenever he needed to call forth a certain sadness or a sense of despair, he would think of that life-changing moment—the pain, the panic, the bottomless sorrow—and all of the emotions he felt then would rise to consciousness. The rawness of those feelings never left him, not once, he said, and he fully expected they’d remain with him until his dying day.
Children may not be able to summon the words to talk about death and dying, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the pain, the loss and the disintegration of their world every bit as much as an adult. What’s more, children who suffer the death of a parent or a sibling do not get over it. That is a myth. Rather, they pick up the pieces of their broken hearts, as Sir John did, and go on as best they can.
Why is today not like all my yesterdays? So begins Veronica’s Grave: A Daughter’s Memoir, a coming-of-age story of a young girl whose mother dies in childbirth, but no one tells her. Realizing that her mother is missing, she decides she must be lost. She wants her back; she’s determined to find her.
Colin Murray Parkes, a British psychiatrist and pioneer in bereavement research in the 70s, argued that the dominant element of grief was a restless ‘searching’ — a restiveness, an inability to sit still. In Veronica’s Daughter, the unresolved mystery of her mother’s disappearance would, indeed, manifest itself in an off-again, on-again aimless searching, abetted, in part, by that inveterate sleuth, none other than Nancy Drew.
The memoir was written with all bereaved children in mind, written with the hope that by shining a spotlight on the nature of unresolved childhood bereavement, others might be more mindful of the challenges children with unresolved grief face. The statistics are stark.
One in seven American children will lose a parent or a sibling before the age of 20.
Death, for a child, is an isolating event. Ideally, what we want to do is to take the time to talk with them, to let them know that we, too, remember their loved one fondly. That we are there for them. For no child should have to grieve alone.
About the Author: Barbara Donsky, the author of Veronica’s Grave, to be published by She Writes Press, is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hunter College, with a doctorate from Hofstra University. Publications include a dissertation Trends in Written Composition in Elementary Schools in the United States, 1890 -1960. Articles in educational journals including “Writing as Praxis” and “Trends in Elementary Writing Instruction”. And a short story— “The Trouble with Harry”—published in the Naples Review in Florida.
A former reading specialist with a private practice for school-age children in Oyster Bay, New York and an adjunct professor at C W Post College, Long Island University, she served for many years as a trustee, president and capital campaign coordinator of the Boys and Girls Club of Oyster Bay-East Norwich. Barbara lives in Manhattan with her husband and blogs at: Desperately Seeking Paris.