grieving, mothering

the powerlessness of grieving, especially as an observer

A little over half an hour ago, my teenage son was suddenly quiet, then said (almost whispered), “Gina died.”

Gina was my aunt, married to my mother’s brother, who was my ex-husband’s best friend. Yes, I married and had a kid with my uncle’s best friend. And, yes, when we divorced I lost more than the house and my wedding album; I also lost that side of the family.

(This is an overly simplistic accounting of the events. What really happened was more heartbreaking and mostly my fault. But it’s too complex — and too private — to go into here. Suffice it to say that my ex had prior claim.)

Even though Gina and I haven’t spoken for more than a decade, and even though there is still animosity that her family has toward me, she was still a part of my son’s life. And my son is clearly upset by this news.

I don’t know how to help him; teenage boys are resistant to motherly attention and affection, surely moreso when they feel more vulnerable. I called The Philosopher, just to let him know what had happened, and asked for his advice. “Don’t keep asking him if he’s okay,” he suggested. “Just let him know that if he needs to talk, even for someone just to listen, that you’re there for him.”

So that’s what I did.

But it’s a rough place to be in. I know all too well what grieving feels like. I know that it’s not something that will end for him when the funeral is over or after a year has passed. It will remain at holidays when her absence is a presence, when he sees his (my) cousin get married without Gina there, when (if) my uncle starts dating again, when a thousand things happen that he knows would have made her laugh her infectious Italian laugh.

Despite our differences, Gina was an amazing woman. She had a sense of optimism and faith in the goodness of people that few possess. She was kind and generous and knew the value and rewards of both struggle and success. She never made apologies for who she was, but she also never tried to force you to like her. She was the sort of woman you could take at face-value, the kind of woman you were glad to have known.

And I’m glad my son knew her, that even after the fall-out his dad brought him to see her (and my cousins), that he experienced all of her good qualities when he was old enough to remember them. I know — better than most — that tonight’s news put a little hole into his heart. I wish I could make it better, like when he was a toddler and a hug and a few well-placed kisses made everything feel okay again.

But if grieving Jack has taught me anything, it is that even hugs and kisses don’t make the process any easier. It’s something he’ll have to walk through — not alone, because there are adults in his life who love him and are here for him — and experience from the inside. I know the value of having someone sitting next to you, just in case they’re needed. And so, tonight, I’m sitting, just in case I’m needed. He might sleep well tonight, but I’m not so sure I will. Babies grow older and grow up, but that doesn’t mean mothers (and fathers) stop wanting to make sure they’re okay.

As for Gina: she was the sort of woman I hope I can be one day. The world is a lesser place without her, for sure.

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