Forgetting pain, but not the loss

Five years is a long time. It’s longer than a presidential term and nearly as long as a senatorial one. It’s about a quarter of most students’ lives. And it’s long enough to almost forget the crushing grief that comes with losing a loved one.

It’s been nearly five years since my favorite aunt died of pneumonia. The actual half-decade anniversary is Dec. 17. Or maybe Dec. 19. Dec. 16? Dec. 18?

Five years is long enough to forget anniversaries that don’t require the exchange of presents or come heralded with commercials encouraging you to buy, buy, buy to remember Columbus or veterans or whoever we’re supposed to be honoring on Memorial Day,

It’s long enough to forget that sudden, gripping, almost physical pain that comes when the loss is still fresh, when the disease or accident managed to figuratively rip through one’s heart with as savagely as Mola Ram literally tears the still-beating vessels of his victims in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

However, five years is also long enough to forget the characteristics of the person you love. I think my aunt liked Indiana Jones and might have appreciated that analogy, but I can’t remember if that’s true.

With the exception of bargaining, the commonly accepted five stages of grief set out by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” ring far too true.

First, denial. Five years ago, a high school freshman refused to believe that she had to deal with any problems more significant than rapidly approaching finals and play auditions.

There’s anger – the family that stared in silent disbelief at the minister who ended up soliloquizing about how Jesus also died at 33, because she evidently wasn’t aware just how proud my aunt was of her self-professed heathenness.

And then the depression. There was a somber Christmas and countless nights spent laying awake in bed, listening to countless Harry Potter podcasts to stave off the tears and anxiety that would come that night.

There were weeks and months when little things would set off tears or, worse, that wrenching pain, somewhere between my lungs and stomach.

Things like nail polish – my aunt loved painting nails and always did mine when I visited – the Barenaked Ladies coming on the radio or my iTunes shuffle – she especially loved “Pinch Me” because it included the phrase “I just made you say ‘underwear!’” – or even walking by cans of frosting in the grocery store – when I was a kid, we baked a cake and went to the store to buy frosting. Aunt Amy said something about it being more expensive than it should be and I attempted to solve the problem by stuffing the can into my toy purse.

But eventually, we come to accept the loss. There came a day when I was able to splash dollar-store polish on my fingers and toes and listen to Steven Page sing, “I think I’ll hide out under there” without remembering. Weeks or months will pass without thinking of her; just like they go by without thinking of the other slightly-less-far-away relatives I only see once a year.

It’s easier to live without the pangs of a recent loss, but moving on from pain has the unfortunate side effects of losing the sharp memories.

 

Reach the writer at julia.shumway@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @JMShumway