Four Ways to Acknowledge Loss: Seeing What’s Left in the Empty House

The scary house is gone. My grandson Robert, age two-and-a-half, stares forlornly at the ordinary-looking yard, unable to quite take in the transformation.

For the three weeks leading up to Halloween, this lawn was one of Robert’s favorite haunting places. Our neighbor created a spooky graveyard, complete with a turning black-robed ghoul that twisted its sinister head to glare right at you, a skeleton that popped up from behind a tombstone, a gargoyle with evil red eyes that crouched menacingly on the porch roof, a wicked looking fence, a tower with a secret compartment that housed a pulsing corpse, and a blue-eyed ghost that floated mysteriously in the background. The first night Robert saw this spectacle, he held tight to his grandfather’s hand and stared. He didn’t want to get too close and he didn’t want to leave; he watched from a safe distance and noticed everything.

Even in the daylight, Robert didn’t want to get too close. But he was captivated by all the scary activity and he loved sitting across the street from the house, waiting for a car to drive past so the “up and down” man behind the tombstone would thrust upwards and surprise us. Every day that I picked him up from school, he asked to go to the scary house. This normally racing, spinning, bouncing boy would then sit still and we  discussed the gargoyle, the ghoul, the crow, the pumpkin, and more.

But today, the day after Halloween, the yard is mere grass. Robert holds my hand and we talk about all the creatures that were there, just yesterday. He notices the indentation the tower made in the grass and stands in that spot. He is sentinel-still and solemn, trying to understand this great and sudden loss. Then he points, excited. “The ghost.” he says. The ghost is still hovering on the screened-in back porch. The ghost is Robert’s favorite and we are both very glad to see him. When we finally have to go, he waves goodbye to the ghost, content that at least something is left.

As we walk home, I think about some of my own “scary houses,” things that both intrigued and frightened me. My mother’s Alzheimer’s was a terrifying mansion.

I remember visiting the Alzheimer’s Association and having the social worker show my father and me a picture of the brain with advanced dementia. After I returned home, I wrote about my feelings, saying, “ I look around my living room and imagine a man walking in and silently removing the sofas. No comfortable way to sit down. Another man comes in and takes the coffee table. No place to set down a teacup. One person removes the pictures and lamps, another hauls out the books. I imagine the room stripped down to its original emptiness.

“My mother is going to lose everything,” I say aloud, hearing my voice echo in the imaginary emptiness  …

Then I remember walking into my house before I bought it, and falling in love with the emptiness, the scarred wooden floors, the wide-open space, and the plain cream-colored walls. Even without any of the comfort and familiarity of furniture, the rooms had their own beauty.

I close my eyes and imagine that beauty. I pray I will have the courage to discover who my mother is, day by day, and to love her as her new emptiness unfolds.”

Robert knows just how to take in his loss: stand still, take your time, remember everything you’ve lost and then appreciate what is still there.

As for my mother, even though she’s passed away, she never “gave up the ghost.” She’s still here with me.