I first read about visitation dreams in Elizabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help us Grow.” In her chapter about these dreams, Lesser opened with the story of her father’s death, and the vivid, near-lucid dreams she and her sisters had about him afterward. I have never had such a dream, but I’ve heard about others having them. Almost universally, they are reported to feel like, well, a visitation, an astonishing kind of reconnection with the dead.
When my grandmother died, I started waiting – hoping, really – to have a visitation dream about her. Perhaps proving that the bargaining stage of grief is at least a real thing, if not a discrete stage, I reread Lesser’s chapter on visitation dreams, wondering in my methodical way how I could get this done. In that chapter, Lesser says that she has tried to initiate visitation dreams many times, with no success. The only advice she can offer, she writes, is to feel the loss you’ve sustained, and truly engage the space opened up in the world by the death of the person you loved.
I put the book down, freshly reminded that my usual way of going about things is not suited to the matter of communicating with the dead. I considered what it meant to feel this particular loss. With the exception of the morning I got the news that she died, when I wrote this piece through tears while listening to Clair de Lune over and over again, I have struggled to feel anything other than numbness. This is complicated by the fact that there is a lot of darkness unfolding in the lives of those around me now: deaths, conflict, illnesses, personal shatterings. The January days fly through my fingers like dark grey streamers. There has been none of the tender openness of present pain; I’ve just been hunkered down, unwilling to move in any direction, numb. I haven’t begun to really engage with the open space, with the gap in my life that she left.
Another reason is that the gap opened gradually. I lost the presence of my grandmother over a long time. Her last coherent words to me were an expression of exhaustion and a wish to be gone already. When old age and dementia take someone, the loss is incremental, and sometimes barely perceptible. But when the loss happens suddenly, there is a sharpness to it that pierces us, and lays us open. You don’t have to work to access the empty space left by a sudden exit. It is unmistakable; it is stabbing at you.
Without the sharp tool of abrupt change to pierce our bubble, the work of grief becomes a little more mysterious, and perhaps more intentional. Grief is work you do for your own sake, and as a recognition that someone was important to you. Wikipedia has an unexpectedly poetic definition of it: “Grief is a multifaceted response to loss.”
It does not necessarily mean deep agonizing or emotional instability, or a gnashing of teeth or wringing of hands, although in some cases those things are certainly called for, absolutely called for. This is work I want to do, regardless of whether it nets me a visitation dream or not. I suspect it won’t, because my mind has never worked that way. But I don’t want her just to slip quietly from my life. I want to mark it in my own way, which means intentionally grappling with the change.
In short, I want to find ways to walk into the empty space where she was, and look at it, see its contours, notice its impact. And then, I’ll just see how time assimilates the gap into my life.