I am not an authority on grief. I have neither studied it, nor written any theses on its effects on the human psyche. I have no professional training, whatsoever. And until 365 days ago, I barely understood it. I have lost people that I’ve loved, and been deeply saddened by their absence. I’ve cried. I’ve missed them terribly and thought about them often. But never had I felt the sickening, suffocating sort of grief that makes you question what point there could possibly be to moving forward. The kind that shreds your entire sense of self and leaves you in absolute pieces. The kind that takes up your whole being, leaving no room or energy to do anything but miss.
When you google the definition of grief, you get results like “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death” and “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement”. While those words certainly get the point across, there are no words in existence that can really capture the way you feel when someone who is unspeakably important to you just ceases to exist. Believe me; I’ve been trying to find such words for a year.
And while I have never taken so much as a Psych 101 course, I have lived with the complexities of the cruel but effective teacher that is grief for an entire year and, therefore, I feel reasonably qualified to share some musings.
1. Grief is not linear.
I had heard of the five stages of grief. I was vaguely aware that they affected people differently. But I truly had no idea what sort of rollercoaster I was boarding when the very kind doctor took us into that very quiet waiting area to tell us the very sad news.
There were times when I felt like I was going through all five stages in the same day, or sometimes, in the same moment. There were times when I was simultaneously numb and in excruciating pain. Rational thought and normalcy have no place in grief.
The worst day of the entire thing for me was not the night of February 26, 2019. It was not the day of the funeral, when I saw my mom’s beautiful, still face for the very last time. It was eighteen days after she died. The previous seventeen days had been so, so hard, but they were filled with more love, support, and chicken broccoli ziti than I knew what to do with. On the eighteenth day, however, there were no calls. No texts. No check-ins. Not because people had stopped caring. In fact, the checking-in resumed the very next day and continued for several weeks. It was just a lull. But on that day, I was on my own with my pain. And that was the first time it really sunk in that, no matter how much or how hard my family and friends loved me, I was always going to be on my own. I was a rock. I was an island. Before my mom died, I had never experienced that. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Grief changes you.
I am not the same person I was a year ago. How could I possibly be? For one thing, I am much less likely to sweat the small stuff. When my mom first died, I felt like shaking people who were complaining about school closings and busy weeknights. Didn’t they know how much worse their lives could be? Of course, that subsided as time wore on. This morning, for example, when I found no fewer than four separate piles of cat puke on my rug, I almost cried…okay, I did cry. But, on days where my mental health is otherwise fairly stable (aka not today), I find that things that once would have ruined my day, are much easier to shake off. Sorry, rude lady that rolled her eyes at my kid at Trader Joe’s, you are not going to live in my head rent-free.
The other, and broader, way that I feel fundamentally changed as a person, is that for the first time in my life, I’ve had to stand on my own. Like a bicycle right after the training wheels are removed. My mom and I were always a team. No one understood us the way we understood each other. Losing that was like losing a piece of myself. I’m still learning how to be me without her.
3. Grief has layers.
Yes, much like ogres and onions, grief is a many-layered phenomenon. The layer that I feel is the most obvious is the missing of the actual person. Like my brother said in his unbelievably touching eulogy, my mom was effing cool. She was funny and smart and weird and I genuinely miss hanging out with her. When I’ve lost loved ones in the past, this was the layer that I was well-acquainted with. There was this person you loved and enjoyed spending time with and they are no longer here so you miss them. Painful as all get-out, but simple.
Then there’s the layer that you feel for the other people affected. The first call my dad made from the hospital room was to my mom’s lifelong best friend. The exact timbre of her cry of anguish and disbelief when my dad told her the awful news is burned into my memory forever. In that moment, I forgot about my own pain entirely, because I hurt so much for her. And of course, there’s my dad, who still has to go home to that empty house. To this day, when I go over there, I still half-expect to find her in her sitting up in bed, watching The New Adventures of Old Christine, with her reading glasses propped up on her head, ready to tell me about yet another expensive pillow she ordered on her seemingly endless quest for the perfect pillow. Thinking about him going through that sensation nearly every day makes my stomach hurt.
And there’s regret about all the things you never said or did, and all the things that she will never get to experience. She died before she got a chance to visit Italy. She died before my son, who was the light of her life, started saying “I love you”. She died before my brother found himself a nice girl. She died before she found the perfect pillow. It’s so desperately unfair and infuriating that she will never get to do or see so many things that mattered to her.
Then there’s my own selfish grief. I’m not saying that feeling sad for yourself when you suffer a terrible loss is selfish, or that selfish has to be a bad thing. But the things I find myself getting most upset about have very little to do with my mom at all. When a friend from my childhood has a baby, or a mall that we used to go to together goes bankrupt, I want to call her and tell her. I am so used to mentally tagging something as “tell Judy about that” that it took at least six months of sudden, painful realizations that I could no longer “tell Judy about that” for my brain to break the habit. There have been so many stupid, “Hey, what was the name of that place we went that time?” type questions that I will never get answers to.
4. People do not know how to handle one another’s grief.
Grief is such a personal thing and no two people experience it in exactly the same way. Throw in the fact that humans are generally not skilled at dealing with things that make them uncomfortable, and you get some really interesting reactions. Like the people at the wake who said awkward things like, “Well, it happens to all of us in the end”. And you get an abundance of “Let me know if you need anything”. Like, sure, random person my mom used to hang out with whose name I can’t quite remember, I will definitely be in touch. I know these sentiments are all meant with the best of intentions, and even in the throes of mourning, I appreciated them.
The truth is, there is no one right way to help a person who is grieving. In hindsight, it truly was the little things that made all the difference. Like all the amazing, generous people who brought or sent us food in the days when we could not possibly have fed ourselves. Like when my best friend, without consulting me, bought several pairs of black flats for me to try on so I wouldn’t have to go buy funeral shoes myself. Or when my cousin tracked down some liquor for me during the wake because I needed something to take the edge off after my introverted ass had to hug a bajillion strangers in the receiving line. Or when I asked if people were planning on coming by after the wake and one of my friends said the most beautifully simple thing. “We’ll be wherever you need us to be.”
5. Grief can be beautiful.
Pain has driven the production of art for as long as art has existed. There is something so inexplicably beautiful about sharing your pain with other people, especially when those people are in pain as well. I don’t feel like I understand that bit of the human experience enough to go into any great detail, but I what I do understand, is that after the funeral, when my brother hijacked the piano at The Common Market and led a room full of sad, suffering souls in song, it was just about the most beautiful moment I’ve ever been a part of.
6. Grief is forever.
The most accurate description of grief I have ever come across was from a reddit user. The entire comment is beautiful and you should definitely read it. But for the tl;dr crowd, I’ll paraphrase. Grief, the comment said, is like shipwreck, in that when it first happens, you feel like you’re drowning, and you’re surrounded by the wreckage that reminds you of the beautiful ship that once was. And for awhile the waves are a hundred feet high and coming at you fast, and it is all you can do to hang on and survive. And after some time has passed, the waves are still huge, but they’re coming less frequently, so there is time to take breaths and rest and live in between. And someday (and I feel like I am personally approaching this point, though not quite there yet), the waves get smaller and easier to see coming. And even though they knock you out, you’re prepared for them when they come and able to trust that you’ll be okay after you emerge.
I am going to spend my whole life missing my mom. And the wild thing about human nature is that I want to miss her. I want the pain to knock me out and leave me breathless. I want to love her fiercely and messily and beautifully, the same way I loved her in life. I want to hold space for her memory and let it prop me up the way she propped me up when she was here.
A year ago, grief was an unwelcome house guest, but now it’s an intrinsic part of who I am. I am not an authority on grief. But I’d say I know it it pretty well.