The Inoculation Effect of Big Time Grief

I’ve been thinking for a very long time about the inoculation effect of grief. This is a term I believe has relevance to the experience of “high” grief, or as I call it in my novel “big time grief.” I’ve never read or heard anyone use the term. Here’s the general definition from the Oxford:

Inoculate: The deliberate introduction into the body of a micro-organism, especially in order to induce immunity to a disease; vaccination.

What does this have to do with grief? Here’s what. I think of the pain I suffered during my bereavement almost as a kind of inoculation against future pain. Not that I can no longer feel anything, just that I can handle it now. It seems to me that I became aware of this effect after quite a lot of time had passed, and I do think one has to have done the grief work in order to feel the effect, but the truth is, no matter what trauma I’ve faced–and there have been a few since my son died–I’ve always kept myself on a relatively even keel, emotionally. I’ve consoled myself by thinking that nothing could be as devastating as what I’ve already been through. What could? If I survived that, I can survive anything. I mentioned this notion to the group of bereaved folks I wrote with last night, and I saw recognition in many of their faces. Of course, we wish we had our children back, but life only goes one way and we are forced to learn those lessons that are given to us. I wonder if anyone else has felt that serious grief can inoculate us, so that we are able to face whatever else lies ahead.

Initially, a few of the bereaved parents in the group last night seemed somewhat resistant to the idea of writing as a way to help us explore, understand, and express our inner worlds, especially when I said I had written a novel. One man asked “Is your novel fiction or non-fiction?” I explained that all novels are fiction, and he said, “But this is REAL LIFE.”

Meaning, what can YOU–a fiction writer–possibly know about the REAL pain I’m feeling?

I explained that I too had lost a child, and that my novel had been inspired by the experience. That seemed to appease him, and I didn’t feel the need to explain that I would be employing exercises that used fictional techniques. Once I told him that I too had lost a child, he seemed willing to trust me. I was a member of the club that no one wants to belong to. I so well remember the feeling of being resentful, even suspicious of anyone who hadn’t lost a child, who hadn’t been where I was but would presume to tell me how to feel, what to do, how to act.

I want to share with readers a poem the group last night wrote. The group’s thoughts are listed in no particular order. They composed this poem after I read them a wonderful list poem by Elaine Equi called “Things to Do in the Bible” and we then composed:

Things to Do When You Lose a Child:

Cry – Get Mad – Yell at God – Cry – Pray – Yell at God – Try to Breathe – Freeze and shut down – Pray for help – Find your center – Look within for wisdom – Count your blessings – Comfort a wife – Cry – Bang the Steering Wheel – Cry Cry Cry – Find Spirituality – Figure out how to survive – Talk talk talk – Scream and swear at God – Listen for his voice – Fight with your husband – Get Back to Work- Honor His Memory – Resent everyone- Celebrate his life – Pray – Give to Others – Light a Candle – Hate Life – Cry – Look at Pictures – Eat – Cry – Spend time with a husband – Cry – Talk to friends – Get Help – Cry – Scream – Take a bath – Hug a friend – Swim a mile – Try to sleep – Walk in the woods – Eat your heart out – Go to Bed – Not get dressed – Rage at the moon – Hate everyone – Hate God – Swim upstream – Ignore your living children- Feel guilty – Write a book

The last one was mine, of course. Not everyone can write a book, obviously. But writing CAN be therapeutic, I’m convinced of it. Here’s a poem I composed at some point, among the first semi-coherent writings I managed. I think it gives a good idea of how grief feels. Or at least how my grief felt. A version of this poem appears in Saving Elijah.

I am a clobbered egg
ex orb exploded
white shard in your eye
it hurts.
There there.
This sweet yellow yolk
rots now,
threaded with bloodeous black,
glutinous maximus,
sweet rot drips
all over the imported linen,
sticky on the gold rimmed China,
soiled with the grotesque muck
of my child’s grave.
There with my child, so cold.
I sweat this stuff in your face,
all placid and complacent as a baby’s toes.
I yield up nothing you want.
No angel wings,
No down for your bed,
No meat.

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2 thoughts on “The Inoculation Effect of Big Time Grief

  1. Inoculation Effect. Thank you for finding a label and words to describe this phenomenon. Yes, I too experienced this effect after losing my son, Chad, three years ago. After the shock wore off and my family and friends returned to their lives, I was left wondering why I should go on. Obviously I had another son and many blessings, however, this emotional pain was as crippling as any physical disease. MY HEART WAS BROKEN. I felt that the pain was too great to survive.
    After a long climb out of the abyss, I made my choice to stay. I became inspired to make the remainder of my life the very best that it could be. I examined my fears, my passions, gathered the gifts of my experience; and now I step bravely on to the center stage, determined not just to survive but to become. What do I have to lose? Nothing! Thus, the inoculation effect. I explore personal endeavors I would not have considered in my wildest dreams. The real tragedy would be to shrink from taking risk-to not live life as large as I am capable. We don’t ever know how much time any of us have here. I’m supported by spirit and friends. From my heart I’ve written a fiction novel, which I hope will find its way to print. I believe it provides a much needed awareness with regard to AD/HD and its propensity for addiction.
    A drug stole my son, a boy, a young man, who was at the happiest point of his life just four short months before taking his own life. You may visit a website posted in Chad’s honor at chadkesler.net.

  2. Fran, I discovered your blog today when my copy of Bottom Line Personal arrived in the mail. I enjoyed your piece on Grief Support, and was excited to see you had a blog.

    The term “inoculation effect” is perfect! There is most definitely a shift deep within any person who has suffered a deep loss, and the loss of a child tops that list.

    As a bereaved mother, the phrase “I could never survive that” is no longer in my vocabulary. As you said, I have lived through this, I can live through anything… period.

    So, I do believe that the grief from deep loss does give us the tools to face whatever lies ahead.

    Thanks for the great reading…
    Corinne

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