Ann Hood on Building a New Nest
Local author Ann Hood navigates prolonged grief disorder after losing a child, ending a marriage and starting a new one while confronting an empty nest.
Last year, the American Psychiatric Association added prolonged grief disorder to its manual of mental disorders. The basic definition of an individual with prolonged grief disorder is someone who has lost a loved one a year ago and still feels intense longing for that person. (They offer a list of symptoms, of which experiencing three or more contributes to the diagnosis.) The person’s grief, they add, lasts longer than social and cultural norms.
I was surprised that I suddenly had a mental disorder. I just thought I was grieving, that I missed my brother and my father and my mother and Grace, my daughter who died when she was five. Those were the people I’d lost. But I’d also lost a marriage, the home I’d made during that marriage, and my family’s ancestral home. Some of this happened a very long time ago. Some of it a few years ago. And sometimes I still long for the people and things I’ve lost.
Around the same time, I embarked on an enormous knitting project: a temperature blanket. This required a lot of planning and charting and, ultimately, knitting two rows a day of over three hundred stitches each. Even if you know nothing about knitting, six hundred stitches are a lot of stitches. A temperature blanket involves recording the highest temperature every day and matching it to your carefully designed chart that assigns each temperature a specific color. Then you knit your two rows of, say, Rage because it was over 100 degrees or Fjord because it was below thirty-two. If you are me, you do this while watching a British mystery on Acorn television. Two rows takes just about as long as an episode of “River.” After an hour knitting my two rows, I don’t have time for the cute mittens or luxurious cowls I usually knit. It is just me and this blanket, slowly counting off the days of 2022 in Technicolor. The power of two needles and a skein of yarn still amazes me.
Not too long after I began knitting the blanket, my daughter Annabelle began getting college acceptances. We’d spent much of the months before traversing the country for college tours, and now welcome packets with college logos and socks printed with mascots landed on our doorstep.
Was I imagining it, or was I knitting faster? In fact, I was even cheating, peeking ahead at the next day’s temperature and knitting ahead of time. Spring, with its lovely greens and yellows, marked time as Annabelle revisited schools and made her decision. It was real then. My youngest was going to college. “What will you do with your empty nest?” people asked me. That was what I was doing, I thought. Knitting a new nest of sorts.
Then my oldest, Sam, came to a talk I gave at a fancy private club in Manhattan and afterward we went for a dinner at a suitably fancy restaurant and as soon as our martinis were placed before us, he told me he was proposing to his girlfriend. In two weeks. Such joy, these life changes. A daughter off to college, a son marrying the wonderful woman he loves. And me, knitting more and more.
For almost thirty years, my life revolved around my kids. Planning Halloween costumes and school lunches; choosing camps and classes and vacations; cheering them on at recitals and plays, SAT tests and college applications. It was, of course, natural that they would — and should — leave me. I was wildly and happily in love, and eager to move my nest back to New York City, the place I’d missed since I left it in 1993. But grief comes in all forms. And with it, the feeling that you don’t know how to handle it, these changes, these endings. Even happy ones.
A summer of deep reds and hot pinks, and Annabelle moved into college and I moved back to Greenwich Village, carrying my ever-growing blanket with me like a middle-aged Linus. One afternoon, as I knit with one eye on Nicola Walker on my television and the city sounds of laughter and construction outside my window, I suddenly paused. 2022 was coming to an end; my blanket showed me that. Some constellations of color and math reminded me of a hard fact I had tried to ignore: Grace had been dead twenty years.
Those first anniversaries were marked in a blur of cooking her favorite dinner and crying in the shower. Then it was the big ones that knocked me down: ten years, the year she would have been eighteen, the year she would have graduated college. Now this. Two decades without her, my raspy-voiced, bespectacled girl. The blanket draping over my lap felt more like a cocoon than a knitting project. I wanted to climb under it and hide there. In fact, that is exactly what I did that night. It did not feel like an overreaction to do that. If society thought I shouldn’t have, then society — and psychiatrists — were wrong. Maybe they’d never lost something as precious.
I admit that sometimes it all feels like too much. But then, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t I still miss walking into my mom’s house and smelling meatballs frying on the stove and find her sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a cigarette? Shouldn’t I wonder, painfully, what marvelous things my brother would be doing now if he’d lived past thirty? Shouldn’t I long for another night of pizza and beer with my dad? And Grace. Is it really a mental disorder for a mother’s arms to still ache for the hug she knows will never again come? Or is it just this messy, glorious thing called life? To grieve forever, even as we fall in love again, celebrate what we still have, build new nests. To knit a blanket so large that it covers all the holes in our hearts.