“We haven’t talked in three weeks,” I once messaged my daughter. “You know how long that is in DAD YEARS???” Jess promptly replied: “Hahahaha! Geez. Well, your little lady loves her dad! I’ll give you a call.” Which she did.

It seems natural to miss our children when they aren’t with us. What kind of father would I have been if I hadn’t missed Jess? What kind of father would I be now if I stopped missing her because she is dead? I miss my daughter because I love her. And love has no time limit.

Many Americans are uncomfortable with this kind of talk. Some insist that therapy is called for if we continue to share fond memories of our dead beyond a finite and expected timeline. But not everyone sees it this way. In Egypt, for example, the accepted period of mourning is five years or more. One study in Cairo revealed that a major loss, particularly the death of a child, is expected to cause suffering and grief for decades. An Egyptian mother was thought to be acting quite normally when she experienced days of overwhelming sorrow seven years after her child’s passing.

“Grief is expressed so differently from culture to culture,” writes respected death researcher Paul Rosenblatt, “that it is absurd to use notions of pathology derived from one culture to evaluate people from another.” It is equally unjust to do the same from one person to another, Rosenblatt adds, particularly in the area of a perceived “living spiritual connection” with our dead. “Some people are grieving the permanent end of the relationship,” he observes, “while others are grieving the end of one form of the relationship and of those aspects of the relationship that involve concrete actions.”

We may accept the advice of others and foolishly expect a quick recovery from loss. A week or so is fine, the thinking goes, a few months if you must, but more seems excessive. “‘Time heals,’ we are frequently told,” writes Charles Corr with Southern Illinois University. “However, this is really not accurate. There are no fixed end points for mourning.” Nearly seventy percent of bereaved parents report that it took three to four years to put their child’s death into perspective and continue living in any meaningful way. They add that they are forever changed by the loss.

I too am changed. I mourn deeply and love Jess ceaselessly, yet I am also more prone to whimsy and flights of fancy than I was before she died. I was delighted to discover that this is expected. Clinicians have found that many bereaved parents take on some of their child’s endearing character traits as a type of personal memorial. I have certainly embraced parts of myself that Jess loved, or that remind me of her.

And so I ask myself, just as Jess might have done, is she still with us? Is my daughter free of our time-enslaved existence, wandering at will and interacting with our world? If so, where would she go? Egypt, for one. She loved it so. And why not? Ancient Egyptians, like modern Christians, saw time as both linear and cyclical.

Okay, okay, bear with me.

We are familiar with the first idea: in our physical world, time is linear, it has a beginning and an end. Many parents, myself included, mark the calendars of our lives before and after the death of our child.

The second aspect is a bit harder to grasp but is solidly in the realm of Christian theology. Eternity is outside of time itself. Describing it as cyclical is perhaps the closest we can come to understanding the unfathomable. After all, what do time and space mean to the God who created both?

C. S. Lewis related that as he anxiously waited for the results from a biopsy, he prayed for a good result. He joked that logic assured him such prayers were likely to be a bit too late, but he wasn’t certain. If God is outside of time as we know it, Lewis posited, then surely it would be no difficulty for him to step back to the day the cancer may have begun and heal it—in which case, the test results would be benign. (Which, in fact, they were.) Lewis wasn’t far from the ancients in his thinking.

Egyptians saw eternity as both the changeless pattern of all existence and life’s continual renewal. They believed that because our dead are eternal, they exist outside of our physical world. They retain their personalities and continue their bonds with us. This ongoing relationship provides a hope for our loved one’s presence in this life, they thought, and for a reunion in the next. Perhaps in our modern obsession with therapy, in which “getting over it” is seen as a desirable goal, we have lost an important source of solace.

Prior to the twentieth century, observes Dana Luciano with Rutgers University, mourners made space in their lives for natural and sacred grief. “Grief’s time moved, like Sundays, at a different pace from ordinary time,” Luciano writes. “It was slower, more capacious, almost spatialized, enabling contradictory feelings (pain and pleasure) to be indulged at once and without traumatic contradiction.” This slowing of time facilitated thoughtful introspection and a continuation of the natural affections that perpetuate our essential humanness. “In this light, the altered flow of time experienced by the mourner could (and, I argue, was) understood as a version of sacred time,” concludes Luciano, “the regenerative mode that transcended ordinary time in a ritual revisiting of origins.” She has a point. For many who grieve, time is far from ordinary.

I learned of my daughter’s passing two days after her death. I still refer to that evening as “the day I learned my daughter died” to indicate when my grief began, the onset of my personal timeline of sorrow. One scholar suggests that this chronology is different for each individual. Douglas Davies, an expert in the history, theology, and sociology of death with the University of Durham, coined the phrase Grief Mean Time to indicate when actual mourning begins. “Experience counts,” he writes. “The question ‘when is death?’ thus becomes ‘when is grief?’” This question offers insight and relief for many of the bereaved.

For example, author Cara Paiuk’s father died of cancer shortly after her fourth birthday. As an adult, she relates that her few memories of him are flimsy, flickering, and distorted with time. “What I lost was intangible—an idea, a dream, a whisper of a parent,” she writes. “I am mourning a past that never was and a father I will never know.” Paiuk relates that her sense of loss seems hazy and undefined.

Journalist Philip Yancey lost his father a month after his first birthday. However, it was not until the author was eighteen that he learned of disturbing events that contributed to the death. “The most important fact of my father’s death I learned by chance, from a scrapbook,” he says. Yancey’s father, a twenty-three-year-old husband and parent of two, died of polio after being removed from his “iron lung” in a doomed attempt at faith healing.

The death had cast a pall over Yancey’s life long before he learned that his father’s treatment had been cut short against medical advice. This shocking news, though, was something else entirely. “Once exposed,” the author confesses, “the mystery of my father’s death acquires a new, compulsive power.” Although nearly two decades had passed, Yancey’s reaction was typical of the first year after a sudden, unexpected loss. Survivors often seem to obsess over the death, replaying it in their minds, filling in details that they do not know and may never learn. In a very real way, an important aspect of Yancey’s grief began the moment he read a few newspaper clippings in a family album.

Another beginning of grief may be associated with identity loss, such as occurs with Alzheimer’s disease or the slow advancement of dementia, when valued interaction with loved ones declines along with social recognition of the afflicted as a person. One study of 129 subjects, conducted by a team of psychologists at the University of Barcelona, found that those who lose loved ones to the slow degradation of these diseases experience a unique form of anticipatory grief: the expected distress, anxiety, and sadness associated with loss; as well as a slow reorganization of the family dynamic; and a growing sense of detachment. With Alzheimer’s and dementia, the researchers write, “anticipatory grief is considered an active psychological process of thoughts and emotions that is very different from the mere anticipation of death.” Survivors report that they mourned these losses in prelude to the grief that began with the end of biological life.

Davies concludes his essay on Grief Mean Time by suggesting that the onset of sorrow is also a start of something else: “Death can mean the beginning of a sensed presence of the dead, or of an eternal God with whom a sensed affinity seems to guarantee one’s own immortality.”

Ancient Egyptians also saw death as a beginning, using the word “shadow” to symbolize the eternal soul. Our loved ones, like shadows, often seem present but just out of reach. After the soul and life force are reunited, they believed, our dead will become transfigured spirits, known as akh: shadows.

“Within these burials and mummies there is a lot of emotion, there is a lot of feeling,” observes Basem Gehad, field archeologist with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. “Beloved people, beloved families. You can hear their voices, you can see their faces.” The mayor of Nekheb (modern Elkab) was one such man. Nearly 3,500 years ago, his family inscribed Paheri’s tomb with a paradox known to many who grieve. He seemed at once a part of this world while existing apart from it:

At night a light is lit for you until the sun shines again.
"Welcome!" you are greeted in the house of the living.
You arise by day, beautiful and cleansed of the dark.
You travel eternity in joy, filled with the praise of God.
Your soul does not leave you; it is your own forever.

Paheri’s inscription describes mixed emotions that many of us know—light and dark, presence and absence, hope and sorrow. Ancient Egyptians believed that earthly ties continue in eternity. They placed palm leaves in circles as a sign of our endless union. A tomb painting for the artisan Pachedu, in Deir el-Medina, uses a sacred palm tree to symbolize his connection to the invisible and physical worlds. Some 3,300 years ago mourners often laid palm fronds before funeral processions to ease their loved one’s passing. Egyptians still plant palm leaves on graves in remembrance of their dead.

My daughter’s grave is covered with ferns. Wherever I see the hardy plant I am reminded of our bond in life and death. This solace does not alleviate my grief. The pain of her absence remains. Yet at times, if only for a moment, I feel the shadow over my days is transformed into pure spirit. Such thoughts give me a surprising sense of quiet joy.

My fancy again flits to Egypt. I imagine Jess in eternity, perhaps wading through the Nile or standing before the 3,000-year-old statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel—while simultaneously feeling her near as I type. This is the first time I’ve sensed her presence since this morning, and that is a very, very long time in Dad years.

Photo: Jess Autumn Bannon, May 25, 2014, by Sean Rayford. Used with permission.

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