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“How Old Would She be Now?” and Other Grief Equations

by Eleanor Haley

“When will I ever use this?” is a timeless refrain. Kids have been saying it since the invention of geometry. And as someone who’s currently supervising two kids in “teleschool,” I can assure you, it’s something they’re still saying today.

The truth is, the most complicated math I do is helping my kids with their homework. How meta. I also use it for the sporadic cooking adventure, when I sometimes pretend I’m a business person who uses spreadsheets, and when I lie awake at night doing grief equations in the darkness. 

You know what grief equations are, don’t you? They are questions like:

How long has my mom been dead?
How many years until I’m the same age as her when she died?
How many days has it been since I last saw her?
How many Christmases has she missed?
How many grandchildren has she not had the chance to meet?
How old are the rest of my loved ones in my mother’s generation? 
If they all live until 100, how much longer will we have together?

To be sure, I’m not engaging in such calculations for my love of math. No, no – it’s a mix of unadulterated grief and existential panic. I’d love to pretend this is a new thing, brought on by certain current events, but it predates the virus-that-shall-not-be named. Honestly, I’m always existential, and I also think having a baby in my late 30s triggered a new wave of anxiety for me. 

Having a baby close to 40 isn’t that big of a deal these days, but my own mother died in her 50s, which I consider relatively young. She had just seen my youngest sister off to college. Only 7 out of her 27 grandchildren had been born. She never had the chance to retire and reap what she so tirelessly sowed. 

So when I calculate how many years I have until I’m the same age she was when she died, it sends me into a tailspin of subsequent equations about how much of my children’s lives I will miss if my path mirrors hers. Though I have no reason to believe my life will end anything like hers, besides the 10% of pancreatic cancers that are hereditary, that doesn’t stop me from considering the possibilities.

The aspiring optimist in me wishes I could flip the equation and focus on the positive numbers. Like how many years I was lucky enough to have with my mom, or how many precious hours I spend with my daughters, but I can’t do it. The answer to “how much time is enough with the people I love?” will always be infinity. I guess I’m selfish that way.

Grief math is something a lot of bereaved people do.  Not in any intentional way, but sometimes it becomes a part of the thought process.

In the beginning, it feels like ticking days off on a dark cave wall. One day, two days, three days down until you’ve lived without them for a week – then a month – then another – and so on. How you feel about the days adding up depends on the moment. Sometimes they measure the distance you grieve putting between yourself and the life you shared with your loved one. Other days, they might feel more like progress.  

As more time passes, you may count by larger intervals. How many anniversaries or birthdays has it been? How old would she be now? Would he have learned to drive or fallen in love? When will I have lived longer without him in my life than with him? When will I be older than she was when she died? The exact grief equations depend on your life and life you shared with that person. 

Most recently, my own thoughts have been on Mother’s Day, which is this weekend. This year will be my 13th Mother’s Day without a mother. Thinking back, I remember the first Mother’s Day after her death was bad, and the second was worse. The next ten years were a random mix of good and bad, and this year I’m feeling okay.

I guess this goes to show that grief, in and of itself, isn’t governed by rules, logic, or equations. Though I will say, as days, weeks, months, and years go by, the ratio of good days to bad should change, so that the intolerable moments are fewer and farther between. Though, I can’t promise you’ll ever stop doing the math. I know I never have.  

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