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Therese Walsh: Grief and Mother-Numbness

How a father's death affected three sisters.

Contributed by Therese Walsh

I could tell you how my new novel, The Moon Sisters, was inspired by will-o’-the-wisp lights or synesthesia or my desire to write about different ways to view the world, and while any of those things would be true they wouldn’t tap into the marrow of what this book was about for me. The Moon Sisters is, ultimately, about recovery following the death of a parent. In the same way that my novel’s two protagonists—sisters Jazz and Olivia Moon—have very different responses to their mother’s death, my sisters and I had very different responses to our father’s death, and distinct ways of coping with the cataclysmic change his absence brought into our lives.

I have two sisters, both younger. My youngest sister, Aimee, who was just sixteen when our father died, shut herself off from other people and wouldn’t let anyone—not friends, family, teachers, or therapists—reach her on an emotional level for years. She wouldn’t let me reach her, either, and we’d been very close. Empathy was, of course, not the issue. It was this: Even though we all experienced the same loss, we didn’t experience the loss in the same way.

“The death of my father at the age of fifty-six affected me in ways that are very deep and complex, so much so that I still sometimes struggle to try to understand them today,” said Aimee. “On the outside, as I went through denial, it seemed that I was fine. As the stages of grief began to progress—anger, bargaining, depression—the people around me recognized changes in me and tried to help. However, my grief felt very personal. I pushed people away, and when they resisted I pushed harder. I refused to speak with psychologists, and despite my mother bringing me to one after another—convinced that I needed to talk to someone—also refused recommended medication for depression. Externally, I was a dark shadow of who I had been, avoiding committed deep connections with anyone and anything that might have power to hurt me—from family and dear childhood friends to teachers and coaches. My isolation served as a hearty and effective defense against the potentially harmful ever-changing outside world.”

We all saw the changes in Aimee, and I think every member of our family would’ve agreed that she had the most crushing and altering experience after our father died. Grief shaped all of us differently, and in part that shaping was based upon one another’s experiences.

“My immediate response was to shut down and convince myself that I couldn’t be a wreck. Somebody had to be strong. That’s how I coped. That’s how I carried on,” said my sister Heather, who is the middle child in our family. “Denial? Pretty much.”

But extended denial of reality, the first of five stages of grief (Kübler-Ross model), often comes with a cost.

“Dad’s death affected so many different areas of my life: my education, my interpersonal relationships with my family, and with men in general,” said Heather. “In a way, I didn’t care anymore. I dropped out of college, and didn’t go back for five years. I was bartending and partying a lot; my days were spent sleeping and my nights having fun.”

My sisters’ responses were so very different, but each was visible and each was life-altering.

You might wonder what my journey through grief was like. I was, at the time of my father’s death, a young mother; my firstborn was not quite one-and-a-half years old. Parents are the bedrock for their children. I’d lost part of my bedrock at a time when I needed to be one, to create one for my daughter. I felt numb after losing my dad. I questioned the idea of bedrock, of core stability, in general. Maybe there was no such thing. Maybe it was all just ether. I was a benumbed mother for quite some time.

All of this happened seventeen years ago. The grief process wasn’t easy for any of us, but we all did, eventually, get through it.

“I developed a strong internal dialogue to encourage myself when I was down,” said Aimee. “I argued with myself when I was negative. I reminded myself that time would heal me and trusted that I had the power to heal somewhere within. And even in the darkest moments, when I couldn't see the light in my life anymore, I had faith and hope that time would get me through, and the sun would again shine brightly in my life like it had before. It was the dimmest of lights that was my voice of hope, my voice of ‘carry on,’ but that voice got me through.”

The passage of time isn’t only helpful in creating calluses over old wounds; it helps us to recognize patterns of behavior and gives us the opportunity to make new choices.

“I had one bad relationship after another,” said Heather. “Finally, I noticed the patterns and knew I didn’t want to keep going down the same paths again and again. I thought I had to get to the root of problem, which I felt sure was Dad. But just because you know what the problem is doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to fix it; you know, you may know the muffler falls off your car but not how to put it back on. So I contacted a therapist. I spent so long hiding, not wanting people to see the cracks in my armor, but now I am caring less about that.”

For my part, mother-numbness subsided in time, and my son was born nine months after my father died. I’ve written not one but two books about sisterhood and the process of grief and carrying on even when it seems impossible or even pointless. Maybe I’ll write a third. Time will tell. Writing is my way of circling back. Paying homage. Saying I will not forget. And trying to make sense of this strange, fragile, and wondrous life.

Therese Walsh’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published on March 4th, 2014 by Crown (Random House). Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2009, was nominated for a RITA award for Best First Book, and was a TARGET Breakout Book. Therese is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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