August 2016 Articles

The U-Curve: Mawrters in Mid-Life

ThinkstockPhotos-518703569Living with Loss

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

Loss is often transformative, an occasion for insight and an opening for change. In childhood, constant flux—outgrown clothing, shifting interests, fluid friendships—casts a positive light on loss, linking growth to moving on. In adulthood, losses accumulate, the bright side being that we learn to better care for ourselves as we heal. But by mid-life, the burden can feel more like back-breaking sorrow than like hard-won wisdom.

After her husband, Joe DiGiuseppe, died of cancer six years ago, Theresa Timlin ’80 was struggling—raising her son, Joseph, solo; working fulltime; and crying alone in her car. She’d lost her parents and youngest brother in her 20s and early 30s, and had seen how family members mourned their shared losses separately. But as Joseph’s mother, she grieved for two: coping with her own sadness and guiding him through his.

“I wanted Joseph to be able to express his grief,” she says, “but I spent a lot of energy and time convincing him that we’re OK, that we can get through this. At first, my son was my reason to get up in the morning. But then he gave me reasons to experience joy.”

She kept up her involvement in Joseph’s school, social groups, and baseball team, following a “family model” she and Joe had set up to show Joseph the roles both parents could play. During a difficult time, these activities gave mother and son a social life.

“Grief makes you turn inward,” she reflects, “but it also gives you an opportunity to broaden your social world and connect with people”—in Theresa’s case, people who offered support and told Joseph stories about his “larger than life” dad. Just as helpful as these witnesses to Joe’s life, she says, were the witnesses to grief: “People who’ve also lost loved ones, who could say, ‘This is hard, but you will survive.’”

Now, as she packs up a houseful of memories to move closer to Joseph’s high school, her first priority in this “exciting but frightening” time is recreating this crucial network in their new neighborhood.

“I felt like someone had grabbed my ankles and flipped me upside down,” says Mari Vicens ’84, who lost her father two years after graduation, and her mother when she was 30. “There’s this idea, spoken and unspoken, that life goes on and you have to move on, too. But I don’t think there’s necessarily something wrong with you if it takes you longer to come to terms with your loss. For me, grief has been a process, with no ‘closure.’”

Mari finds she fares best by seeking balance between looking inward and turning outward; rather than try to get past her grief, she recalls her mother and father often and deals with her sadness by trying to “pay forward” her gratitude for their lives.

Mari and her sister Aurora ’85 honored their parents by establishing the Carlos Nathaniel Vicens and María Teresa Joglar de Vicens Fund to support summer research in science at Bryn Mawr. In the same spirit, she mitigates an emptying nest by volunteering for a children’s literacy program in an economically disadvantaged preschool—work that she loves and that happily calls to mind reading aloud with her own children.

“Of course, I’m thrilled for them,” she says of her college sophomore son and her daughter, a high school senior applying to colleges, “and I’m grateful that I was able to help them to get to this point.”

But in the way that recent loss evokes past pain, their departure sometimes triggers feelings similar to mourning. This time, however, Mari recognizes the benefit of creating distinct rituals to navigate shifting terrain.

“I thought I was the expert on grief,” says Judith Weinstein ’85, who lost her mother, Marcia, in January. “My dad’s sudden death (in 1986) was tragic, but surreal—as if California had fallen into the ocean. My mother’s death was not tragic, and yet it was harder for me because I was there, watching her get weaker and weaker.”

As friends and former Haffner neighbors, Judith and I corresponded frequently in the year following her mother’s cancer diagnosis and decision to forego chemotherapy. As she traveled between Chicago and her mother’s home in New Jersey, she wrote of her gratitude for the conditions that made caretaking possible: older children, paid leave, nursing help afforded by long-term health insurance. She described declining a business trip—a professional honor that was to be her prize but felt like pressure to leave her mother’s side. She shared anecdotes of uncanny parallels and profound connections, pieces of a puzzle she worked to solve in late-night emails, putting thoughts into words she will one day organize into an essay.

Fortified by her sister Miriam’s presence, and by the kindness of Bryn Mawr friends Janet Ozzard ’85, Elisabeth Lerner ’90, Laura Meislin ’85, and Molly Reilly ’85, Judith says of her mother’s last days, “Everything was highlighted—in French, the term is mise en relief—like the feeling right before a storm, when high-contrast lighting defines everything. Every act—even making coffee in the morning—was a sacred act. I don’t want to get over it. I want to incorporate those meditative moments into my life back at home.”

In crisis, the shock of loss helps us function; the hard part begins when the shock wears off. And yet, with age and experience, we gain greater capacity to process experience, to find in loss—if not a silver lining—then the solace of clarity.

“Seeing this experience as one that elevates my understanding helps to combat my raw pain. We should all be seekers,” says Judith, naming what is so difficult and so beautiful and so Bryn Mawr about living with loss.