Exactly one minute before I was due to drop The Five-Year-Old off at kindergarten this morning, she said something remarkably insightful. But before I get to that, some background.
A week or two before Christmas, The Five-Year-Old watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for the first time. She immediately added Obi-Wan Kenobi to her current circle of imaginary friends. She is also a huge fan of the Kung Fu Panda movies, which is why that circle also includes Shifu, the Red Panda Kung Fu master voiced by Dustin Hoffman.
Unfortunately, Shifu and Obi-Wan do not get along. At all. The Five-Year-Old is constantly having to put one or the other of them in time out for arguing. And she regularly complains that their fights keep her up all night. Which brings me to my story…
The Five-Year-Old, sadly: “Mommyo, a terrible thing happened last night.”
Mommyo, internally: Uh-oh.
The Five-Year-Old: “Old Ben Kenobi died last night. I guess the robot hand that Shifu made for him was poisoned. And there was nothing I could do to help.”
Mommyo: “That’s terrible.”
The Five-Year-Old: “Yeah. I have two feelings about it. I’m sad Old Ben is gone, but I’m relieved I don’t have to listen to him arguing all the time.”
There was no time to go into the conversation further with The Five-Year-Old this morning, and I suspect the moment will have passed by the time I pick her up this afternoon, but I’ve been reflecting on that comment all day. So often grief does seem to be intermingled with relief. The question for us is whether we allow ourselves to feel it, or if we feel guilty for not remaining overwhelmed by the sadness for whatever period of time we deem suitable.
The Victorians had an extensive code for expressing grief, the precise rules for which were based on your age, gender, country of origin, and relationship to the deceased. An English woman over the age of 17 who had lost her husband, for example, was expected to wear full mourning (black crepe) for a year and a day, second mourning for nine months (basically black crepe plus mourning jewelry), and half-mourning (lilac and other pale colored dresses plus whatever jewelry you like) for an additional three to six months more. Parents were mourned for a year, and in-laws for a month or two.
All very scripted. As a result, whether you were mourning your loved one properly or not was clear for everyone to behold. Theoretically at least, there was no need to endlessly examine your emotions to see whether you were feeling the right ones or whether you were venturing into crazy town. Your clothes spoke for you. So long as you (and in some cases your servants) were wearing the right outfits and strictly keeping to an approved set of activities, you were golden.
It seems to me that there was some comfort in that, even if you privately resented being subject to such restrictions. After all, so long as you observed the outer trappings of respect, you were free to be privately relieved that you would no longer have to get up in the middle of the night to give Pops his medicine, douse a howling cat with water, or bathe Aunt Ethel after another unfortunate incident.
In our day and age, mourning is not scripted. We are left to blunder about in our own psyches, balancing careening emotions of grief, relief, apathy, regret, guilt, and exhaustion. Shaky at first, but smoother over time as we settle into the loss, or the loss settles into us, until one day we are finally able to regard our loved one from a comfortable distance, savoring the joyful memories of happier times and viewing their faults with more objectivity.
At least, that’s how it seems to me.
More 8:59 a.m. insights from The Five-Year-Old:
- “Why does Santa miss some kids?” (Caterpickles)
- “How can someone be my friend if I don’t like them?” (Caterpickles)
- Trophies for Everyone! (Caterpickles)
- How The Five-Year-Old helped me to understand the Victorian practice of posing with their dead (Caterpickles)