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Dallas, May 16, 2015. Today I will attend graduation ceremonies for two of the grands. The younger will receive a BA in psychology from SMU at 3 p.m. Three hours later his older brother will receive his law degree from SMU law school. Lev is supposed to be here!

 He died six years ago, right before the oldest grand graduated from high school. He was so angry. Grumps was supposed to be at graduation! Three years later, his other grandmother died shortly before his wedding. Again, he was angry. Nanny was supposed to be there!

 Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross listed anger as one of the five stages of grief. In my own experience, it was not a stage that I passed through. As every major family life event and holiday approaches, with every task of his I now have to perform, with every tough decision I have to make, in every crisis, I am angry. His chair—his place in the family circle—is so painfully, obviously empty. Lev, where are you? You are supposed to be here. You are supposed to do this. I can’t do this alone. I need you!

 The vocabulary of grief 

I had never paused to think about the vocabulary of grief. Grief was simply the fog that encompassed one after significant loss. But then I read Joan Didion on the difference between grief and mourning. Didion’s husband died on December 30, 2003. In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, she wrote that she resolved that spring to be on the road to recovery by summer:

“I did not yet have the concentration to work but I could straighten my house, I could get on top of things, I could deal with my unopened mail.

“That I was only now beginning the process of mourning did not occur to me.

“Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.”

I have thought about Didion’s words for several months, so I asked Dr. Helen Harris to explain the difference between grief and mourning when I interviewed her last week at the Baylor School of Social Work. Here are her definitions:

  • Grief is the experience of loss and response to that loss.
  • Bereavement is the state of finding that someone or something important to you is gone. The root word of bereave means “to rob.”
  • Mourning is what we do in response, both corporately and individually—cultural rituals, family norms and individual responses.

In other words, bereavement is not simply a synonym for grief. Finally, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I have been robbed. The family has been robbed. And every major life event is a new robbery, new bereavement. The losses keep coming, and none of us were prepared for it. Nobody warned us.


 So how do I celebrate graduation in the midst of bereavement?

  • Taking pride in the boys’ accomplishments and milestones;
  • Rejoicing to be with family;
  • Giving thanks that I can attend graduation;
  • Having faith that there is eternal life and that somehow—in that divine mystery—Lev knows, sees and celebrates.

How do you cope with the empty chair, the empty place in the family circle?
Did you experience this anger and bereavement, this sense of being robbed?
If so, how did you process it?
What were your mourning rituals, if any?