Honeybees keep their own boundaries inside the hive. The frames fit tightly together; closely linked but separate. Side by side the rows of drawn comb created from the geometric shape of each bee’s handiwork. Each chamber or cell of the comb serving a purpose—storing pollen, honey, water and baby bees in all stages of development.
Inside the individual cells the queen lays a single egg that is nearly invisible to the naked eye, or at least to my aging eyes. Eventually that egg grows to look like a small, curled grain of rice. And not long after it gets to that size, a worker bee comes along and puts a brownish lid on the cell so that the rest of the bee development takes place in hiding. Unseen, the white larva is transformed. It grows from grainy larva to full grown bee. Sometimes a beekeeper will see the new baby bee pushing her way into the world of the hive.
However, if the frames aren’t pushed together snugly or one is missing all together, the bees feel the need to fill the gap with something. Preferring the close-knit community, the bees begin the effort to fill in the space with new waxy comb. The in-between space becomes a mass of comb criss-crossing between the frames. The expanse of new comb is filled by the bees with food stuffs. From the beekeeper’s standpoint this is when a hive gets really messy.
I think sometimes a loss can leave such a gap in one’s life that it feels just as massive as the disconnected space between the frames does to the bees. That large opening is so unexpected; it is hard to know what to do with the space that remains. And often our first instinct like the bees is the fill the space.
After months or years of care giving, the absence of the person we provided for can feel like the Grand Canyon. A gap of time and tasks can feel that overwhelming. Or perhaps the person who died was larger than life; such a huge presence in one’s life that his absence leaves a giant hole in the fabric of the world. Or maybe the death is sudden and traumatic… leaving a huge rip of doubt, sorrow and fear.
Whatever the reason, grief can have the same urgency for the mourner as bee space can have to bees. It can leave one feeling like filling that space with anything; food, alcohol, television watching, sleeping, activity, commitments… anything might seem to feel better than the empty space itself.
After my mother died it was comforting for a while to keep taking care of her things. She left behind a small hobby farm, animals, gardens and familiar chores. Taking in her dog as a member of our family, caring for and solving the problems of her horses and home filled the time and space she left behind. In a sense, doing all of these things felt a bit like taking care of Mom.
But, the reality was that none of these things was exactly like taking care of Mom. Mom wasn’t there to share in the doing. She wasn’t there when the lawns needed to be mowed. She wasn’t there to see the daffodils bloom or fill the bird feeders or harvest the first honey crop from our shared beehive. Even as I tried, I couldn’t fill the space created by her absence with doing things at her farm. There was still the deep sorrow of her absence and filling the space she left behind is impossible.
Unlike the bees, I had to learn to live in the open spaces differently. I learned to look for the presence of her—in her own garden beds and later, by transplanting some of her perennials, in my yard. This summer as my kitchen counters filled with tomatoes, I envisioned her kitchen overwhelmed with tomatoes or apples or beets; things she grew and transformed into canned or frozen foods stored for later. My summer table has been set with her vegetable placemats and cloth napkins. In fact, I can look around and relish the ways in which she is present in my space. It doesn’t fill the gap created by her absence, but it does remind me that she is always with me.
Looking for the presence of mom caused me to think about closure. Our culture has given us this construct called “closure” as it relates to living with loss. However, I’m not sure that it is closure that we are looking for at all. In her book In Lieu of Flowers, author Nancy Cobb says this about closure.
“Closure has become a catch phrase, an attempt to explain people’s search for meaning and their need to bear witness as they grieve. When we use the word closure, I think what we really mean is connection. Closure suggests completion. Our grief is a natural opening where the connecting between the living and dead is forged.”
Instead of urgently filling the space created by a death, maybe there is an opportunity to live in the space differently. Rather than trying to close the gap… it could be about noticing the gap and living into it with curiosity, love and openness.