“Bearing the Unbearable” by Joanne Cacciatore, PhD


My therapist recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did.

This is written by Joanne Cacciatore, whose daughter Cheyenne died during labor many years ago.  Joanne would go on to found the well-known MISS Foundation to help other parents experiencing the death of a child.  More on Joanne here.

Through 52 short chapters, each one introduced by a poignant quote, we experience grief through the diverse lenses of various people’s stories about loss, grief, and love.

A bereavement educator and counselor, Joanne addresses the painful reality of losing people we love–and the even more painful reality of what happens when we don’t acknowledge, embrace, and process our grief.   She’s straightforward and unapologetic in her assessment of how poorly our culture supports and understands the entire life cycle of grief.

Joanne mentions Cheyenne many times throughout the book, always bringing it back to her own loss experience, ever reminding us that our beloveds are always on our hearts and minds.

Favorite excerpts:

Grief consists of countless particles, countless moments, each one of which can be mourned.  And through them all, we always know in our very cells that someone is missing, that there is a place in our hearts that can never be filled.

…over time grief can morph from a dreaded, unwanted intruder to something more familiar and less terrifying–a companion, perhaps.

It almost seems that the only way to eradicate our grief would be to relinquish the love we feel–to disassemble our loved one’s place in our lives…grief and love occur in tandem.

Legitimate grief if challenged, while the mourning of stranger-celebrities is glorified.  Looked at closely, this really is quite bizarre.

When our beloved dies, we become acutely aware of the death, our own and others’ finitude–in a phenomenon termed mortality salience–and we begin to grapple with this reality….envy toward others who still have what we have lost often arises, and anger–even rage–may also come up.

When grief asks to be seen, she meets it and embraces it as she would a visit from an old friend.

Traumatic death provokes traumatic grief.

Grief by its nature is poetical, elegiac.  And poetry, like grief, is subversive, unbridled, and disobedient.  Poetry violates linguistic norms because it must. Poetry helps us feel.

To love deeply is one of life’s most profound gifts, and the loss of a loved one is one of life’s most profound tragedies.

We are not either happy or sad.  We are not either grieving or grateful.  We are not either content or despairing.  We are both/and.

Spirituality is a way into suffering, not the way out of it.

If grief is a disease, so, too must be love.

Grief, like love, is open-ended.

Being a bereaved mother is, perhaps, the hardest job of all and certainly one worthy of recognition on Mother’s Day.

Sometimes being in grief, or being weak, or being encased in a womb of pain was the only way I could continue to exist in any form.  The alternate was ceasing, becoming my own void–utter nothingness.

Grief can be terrifying. And why would we not be afraid? Deep in grief, we look up and see the reflection in our mirror is not our own, not us as we have previously known ourselves.  We are changed, and we do not recognize the stranger we have become.  We long for our old lives, our old selves.

Fully inhabiting painful feelings helps us adjust to and accommodate them.  They become more familiar and, while they may not abate, they lose some of their power over us….I begin to understand that the monster isn’t separate from me.

Grieving hones our intuition.  We are listening more deeply, and our senses, in ways very different from before our beloved’s death, are sharper, the result of having practiced penetrating awareness of self and surroundings.

Cultivating a practice of surrendering means that we intentionally approach grief over and over–at all stages of our lives.

I wanted to adapt to the weight rather than having to overcome it, to force healing, or to be at war with my grief or myself.

Remembering our dead epitomizes the most unselfish, freest, and most faithful type of love–a love willing to suffer for itself, so that it can continue to exist.  It is unselfish because it is unrequited; our calling to our beloved dead cannot be reciprocated in the ways we so desire.  It is freest because there is no coercion or obligation to continue loving the dead; it can only be an act of choice.  It is faithful because it requires devotion; for neither affection, nor strength, nor kindness can be returned from one who has died (Kierkegaard’s Works of Love).

This is the gift of surrender: a deepened sense of authenticity and trust in myself.

I only knew that from being with my pain, I would also be with my love for her.

Those who have deeply suffered understand life in ways other cannot: they know the only way to attain authentic and lasting contentment is to turn our hearts outward in service to those who are suffering as we have suffered.  I am present with life because I am present with death.  I know joy and peace because I am present with grief and suffering.

I acknowledge that I, perhaps, tend to save more of these mementos than some mothers.  I hoard memories like a bereaved mother because I know some painfully learned truths.  I know life is fleeting, and sometimes children die. And I know that life promises us nothing…I know that no drink, no pill, no religion, and no book can save me from suffering….and I know the secret that life goes on, but it’s never the same.

When I remain conscious of my susceptibility to suffering, I notice the constant hum of fear, a rumble of insatiable terror, and I remind myself how normal it is to be afraid to lose again, to want some type of guarantee or protection against more trauma and grief.  And I know this is unattainable.

The only thing for which life offers even a fleeting guarantee is this moment–right here and right now.  This is all we have, all we ever have.  It is both absolving and terrifying.

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