This issue came up at an early performance. I was at the Hudson Valley Health Alliance performing for their Memoir Project. People were meeting to write their memoir about their experiences with cancer. During our post-show discussion a woman spoke in very strong and adamant terms: “My husband died nine months ago and you have to understand that the “dance” did NOT end with the death. I am still Dancing.”
Of course she is right. The Actual Dance -- the ritual of the existential transition with someone you love – continues past the particular point of loss. There is an arc to this process. It begins perhaps with a jolt -- “the news.” It continues down a slope or hill into the depths of fear of what that moment will feel like or be like, not just for yourself but also for the one you love. Sometimes this is called anticipatory grief. Then the next phase begins, usually referred to as grief. Grief is painful and yet it is a beginning, not an ending. Unlike “anticipatory grief”, which is a hurtling toward a fearful moment, grief itself is a beginning toward an uncertain and painful future. Will it ever end? How does it end?
The play, “The Actual Dance” does end at a particular moment. It does so only because the particular story ends at that moment. There is more to write. There is another story – many stories in fact – that could be and are written. Some of the most heartfelt comments I get about the show relate to the moments in the show where I wonder aloud about what it is going to be like “living alone.” In these moments of wondering I am reflecting ‘anticipatory grief.’ There are those in the audience who then come up to me and say: “Yes, the hardest parts for me is the emptiness in the home on early Sunday mornings.”
So part of the ritual of loss, the extended Dance if you will, involves the silence of an empty house or apartment where once there were two, and now only you. There are other elements that are all expressions of pain and sadness.
The question comes up then implicitly, if not explicitly, of when does the Dance end? There is a fair amount of standard literature and advice around grief. (See here for a nice article about “when does grief end” by Fredda Wasserman). There are stages of grief. There is advice on coping. There is not, and what I do not have, is a word for the point when The Dance – the ritual part – ends.
Indeed, for most people, the loss of a loved one changes everything. (A line in the show: “everything, every thing, is now different.”) Also I am not sure that the two things are the same. “The End of the Dance” and the end of grieving. I do believe there is an end to the Dance. What I do not know is what word to give that point. I have witnessed it. One person gained a lot of weight after a particularly tragic loss, and a full decade later I saw the weight leave as part of an awakening of sorts in that person. Yet another person found a new love and experienced ‘love’ in an entirely new and wondrous way.
I shy away from labeling this moment because in part it is unique to each person. Mainly though because I don’t know what that word would be.
Yet I am sure that over time somehow people return to a way of their own lives without the other. There eventually is joy and happiness. There is an end to the Dance. There is an end to the Music. Perhaps a new normal with a new and different texture.
Do you have a word for that moment?