This past weekend I attended the annual fall meeting of the Board of Directors of the Bereaved Parents of the USA. One of the topics that came up in our discussions was the inevitable change in family dynamics when a member of the family dies. Many events can shift the interactions among family members – a child relocates to college, for example, or starts an independent adult life, or someone moves far away, or makes a significant life change. However, death means that someone is gone completely, irrevocably, utterly. Death may shift a family dynamic more intensely and permanently than anything else.
An image came into my mind that I’ve seen over and over in dental offices. It’s an image of a mouth that has lost a permanent tooth. The loss of the tooth leaves a gaping hole in the orderly row of teeth. The neighboring teeth begin to lean in toward the gap, exposing parts of their roots that then may be subject to decay. The tooth above the gap extends down as well, with a similar root exposure. All these teeth move toward the gap, but cannot fill it, and they create opportunity for further issues and deterioration as they move.
This seems to be what often happens to families when someone dies. I think of my own family. My brother brought to our world a presence that we all counted on more than we could have imagined. His energy and existence gave us support as we settled into our roles over time, and we supported him in turn, all of us rooted down close to one another in a way that made sense to us. When he died, a gaping hole opened up. We found ourselves trying and failing to stay upright beside a chasm that offered no support, trying to fill in what he provided in terms of emotions, ideas, and actions. Of course, though, we can’t. We can’t stop leaning into the hole, but the hole remains. He is irreplaceable. And as we try to compensate, we lean precariously, risking damage, experiencing increased stress, feeling unbalanced.
The dentist, of course, has a solution to the dental version of this problem. In goes a dental implant to fill the gap, a fake tooth looking just like the real one, and the other teeth settle back into their habitual locations, supported on all sides once again. Would that there were such an easy solution for those of us coping with the loss of someone we love, someone who formed such an important part of the stability of our lives.
What do we do to prevent ourselves from falling into the chasm? How do we find something to hang on to, a support that can help us even as we realize that we have no implant option and that nothing can fill the hole? Humans latch onto a myriad of things under these circumstances – words of wisdom, spiritual and religious teachings, exercise, work, alcohol, drugs, nature, art, music, each other, among many others. We pull these things close and try to stabilize ourselves, we throw them into the hole and try to fill it up.
And we change, too, as we shift. We try to do things that the person who died used to do. We try to adopt roles this person held so naturally. We try to augment aspects of ourselves that are like the person who is gone, qualities that perhaps didn't fully develop because someone else in the family had a lock on that particular area.
It hasn’t been that long since my brother died, and honestly, I’m not yet sure what will reliably keep us all from leaning over so far that we expose our roots to damage and decay. I’m going to keep trying things, though, to see what might help. I think that’s what Frank would want me to do, to fight being pulled down into the chasm left by his untimely death. I’ll fight, Frank, I’ll fight.