When did you first meet grief? Were you a child or adult? Or somewhere in between?
My family introduced me to grief in a dull funeral home in Ohio, somewhere near Columbus not far from Springfield. Grief didn’t touch me that day. There was no way for it through the stoic ritual containing everyone’s best manners. Everyone was appropriately sad but not too sad. No room for a wondering mind to question because there was no one talking about it; grief that is. We went to the wake, then the funeral and finally a family reunion. So in a matter of 24 hours, I was introduced to grief and then pushed outside to play with distant cousins.
Grief reached out again in the death of my brother’s friend, Justin. The story was told to me as an misbegotten allegory; a reason not to wear a seat belt. The three other boys in the car with him were thrown and survived. The seatbelt pinned him in place crushing him against the telephone pole. I never met Justin. Granny thought of him as part of the family. I only knew him the stories of a young high school football star who was genuine and kind.
Grief then was something to observe and mimic, not an personal experience.
Time would fix that oversight. After all someone had to die. No one gets out of life alive.
Death in America is so often sanitized that when you get to adulthood, death is a horrible stranger. You see it but you don’t know it.
My granny died when I was 18. She had been my world; the one who took care of me when the nuclear family I was born into disintegrated. As I grew up and she grew frail, I started taking care of her. I spent every school break and long weekend with her. My world was expanding at that time, like many eighteen year olds. That summer I took an internship at the law firm my sister worked at. It was a good job for someone with no experience in anything except for living in the protective shell of family; not that I would have admitted it.
None of us were with her when she died. I am not sure who was. I never thought about that until now. Was her death a good death? Was it peaceful? What is a good death? As her granddaughter and part time caretaker, we never talked about it.
When my aunt died two years later, I was again unprepared. The shock of her death thrust me back into the realm of my birth family who take passive hostility to a suffocating level. I remember getting ready for the service staring out on to the dam on which my grandparents built their house and my oldest sister telling me to put heels so we would both be taller than our biological sister. It felt off; like she forcing herself make it joke due to the occasion rather than her usual direct attack. K was good at those direct attacks.
I never saw my aunt’s body. My eldest brother returned me to my college life covered in grief and I stumbled through life trying to be ok and failing. I remember as we made our way out of the mountains of central Pennsylvania how he lectured me on how our father’s grief was greater than mine. Had I been too emotional at the service? I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Death came again and again. Sanitized for the public comfort and profit. If you didn’t know it already, the funeral industry makes millions upon millions every year exploding our collective grief.
Then came Shannon. Oh Shannon, you never knew the power you held. I never knew her when she wasn’t dying. When I first started dating Stew told me about Shannon and being with the family through her first cancer treatment. He also told me that the cancer had come back. The first time I met Shannon, she surrounded me in her arms. The warmth was amazing.
Months later, I visited her with him, It was the first time, I saw people gathered around someone before they died. We visited often but not enough. You can never visit the dying enough to relieve post-mortem grief.
I stood in the room with her fresh death and told the nurse what I was going to do. The nurse nodded when I had expected her to protest. I washed her body and recited a prayer honoring the vessel that had carried her through life. There is a stillness to death that you can feel in you in your bones. It wasn’t scary, it simply was.
When Papa died that stillness slid over his body as I held his hand. I knew death was there before Momma and my brother did. My gratitude for the nurse who came and told them, sparing me the task is immense.
Grief flows in and out of our lives until we get to the point where we are used to the ebb and flow of it like the tide . We adjust to our new realities thinking it can’t get any worse and then it does. Megan Devine opens her book It’s ok that you’re not ok with this statement “Here’s what I want you to know: this really is as bad as you think.” Raw grief is overwhelming like being caught in a tsunami. One that can return at a moments notice.
On May 1st, the tsunami hit me again. It knocked me out at first and then sent me through the city of memories and regrets you build in two decades of love and friendship while I fought to keep breathing. I didn’t tell anyone until the afternoon, I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Even then, I only told one person. At family dinner, it came out and the look of shock hit everyone so hard that I immediately apologized. The latest wave brought anxiety with it. My heart is threatening to pound its way out of my chest. I don’t know how to exist in this new reality where he is gone.
I’m not being melodramatic, I really don’t know how to exist in this reality without him. I look over the text messages we passed back and forth daily and his voice is fading. The voice that gave me advice, that missed me and loved me.
I know it will not always be like this. I know there will be better days, but I also know that there be days where the grief washes over me and I don’t know which way is up.
All of this sounds very bleak. Grief doesn’t end but it does transform you (or at least to others), because when you do surface you are different. When the water recedes, a memories that you had passed over is uncovered. And you remember the love, you had for them. After all, “But what is grief, if not love persevering?”
Will it be ok, again? A lot of people will try and tell you that it will be. That grief is something to move through and there will be something better around the corner. But that is a lie. It may never been ok again. The world is shaped by grief in ways that can not be explain to others that have not gone through it or who have chosen to ignore it. The world will never be the same without my Papa. Nor will it be the same without the man I loved for nearly two decades.
Ignoring pain doesn’t heal it. Time doesn’t always lessen it. What has worked for me and allowed me to live with and in grief is not trying to be ok. Thank you again to Megan Devine for her work on grief. I let myself grieve, cry and exist with this new reality. There are times like the last two weeks when I have poured myself into work to distract my mind from the loss. And there will be days like today when my body says enough and I let the grief turn into words.