Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.
This is not a truism we consider daily. Typically, it is reserved for the day we are handed bad tidings – the cancer diagnosis that forces us to stare down our own mortality, or when the dreaded or unexpected news arrives that someone we love is dead or dying. From that day on, everything is different; we are different, mourning for what was lost, for who we were the day before, and for what we can no longer have.
There was and is no easy remedy, no standard step-by-step process for any of us. There is no beaten path to follow from beginning to end in the art of living. The famous “stages” of grief – Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance – are not “stops on some linear timeline.” Such places are more reminiscent of landmarks we might visit during our first or subsequent visits to another country, places we will never forget. Some we land upon by accident – the onslaught of memories that accompany the first time you see someone else drive the same make and model Chevy your husband once drove or the faint scent of his cologne on the collar of a stranger standing too close to you on the light rail. There is no way to predict when grief will take your breath away and send you scurrying behind dark glasses or to the bathroom at work where no one will see you cry. Other trips we plan meticulously – the first anniversary of his death, the scholarship in his name, the star named after him. Others are unavoidable – Father’s Day, his birthday, the empty seat at the Christmas table, re-runs of Cheers, reminders of things that humored you or humbled you or made you laugh until you ached. And all these things, you weave into your new life. It is what you must do – at your own pace.
In my new life, the man I love is reeling from the recent passing of his dad and the stunning loss, just days later, of one of his dearest friends. Coming in such close succession, these harrowing losses remind those of us still here of the fragility and fleetingness of life, and the finality of death. My daughter tells me she would like to be more supportive of him, more ‘there,’ more empathic for him and for his grieving mother who just days ago fell and has been hospitalized ever since, but my girl is not up to the task – not fully, not yet. She feels selfish as she explains her inability to step again into that space in which the recently bereaved struggle – an often desolate hole where they may wail or deny or blame or feel guilty; where they may rage at those they love the most, or where, choking on the sharp stone of grief, they might say nothing at all. It is a desperate place, where they may find they are no match for the grief, every minute a searing realization that the one person they want to talk to is out of reach. Forever.
A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.
So where in the whole world do we turn? Inward. Forward. Backwards. Forward. At our own pace.
For almost four years, my daughter tells me, her day begins not with a profound sadness but with an almost involuntary affirmation of her adjusted reality “Dad is dead. Dad is dead.” Shredding to bits my supposition that she has found a more conventional way back, it occurs to me, in a moment of devastating clarity, that she is not the child she once was; she is a young woman who has found a new way through the ever-shifting contours of grief, no longer stuck between what was and what might have been. Worried that I am worried about her, she is quick to point out that she is not sad, this is not self-pity; it is a shift in perspective that enables her to move on in a world that never stops moving.
Immediately following news of his death, I fooled myself into believing the clocks had stopped. Nobody knew what to say to me. I didn’t know what to say to myself. I concentrated on the word, “widow,” a word that a day before had not applied to me. Unmoored by loss, I recall a surreal and sunny November afternoon in the Arizona desert. My bare feet in the grass, I found myself remembering -verbatim – a passage from a short story I’d first read in my high school English class, about the anguish of Irish youngsters about to board an emigrant ship to America, not knowing how to say goodbye to the family they would never see again:
They stood in silence fully five minutes. Each hungered to embrace the other, to cry, to beat the air, to scream with an excess of sorrow. But they stood silent and sombre, like nature about them, hugging their woe.
~ from “Going into Exile” by Liam O’Flaherty.
In that moment, loss was no longer literary or abstract. It was palpable, transforming the space in which I stood into a place I no longer recognized. The trees he had planted made no sense, casting long shadows on blades of grass that would no longer flatten under his footsteps. The mailman was delivering letters that bore his name. What should I do with them? Were the hummingbirds flitting about the honeysuckle waiting for him to feed them? Disoriented and uncertain, I was lost in my own home, no longer confident about what might happen at three o’clock or seven o’clock. Before, I had no doubt. Letting go of him meant letting go of the certainty of my life.
My daughter tells me she cannot feel at home in our home because its rooms have become open wounds. Her father was her first word, but she will not watch old family movies, where she could see again how he helped her say ‘daddy’ the first time, or clap her hands or take her first steps. Nor will she go to the grocery store where he used to take her on last minute errands for me or to the Dairy Queen, where he bought her ice-cream every Friday afternoon. With practice, she has perfected the routines and rituals by which other people now define her, by which she now defines herself. An all-around “good kid,” she is the part-time retail worker who looks like Audrey Hepburn. Kind and interested, she is the full-time college student who never misses class and maintains a solid GPA. Circumspect and tentative, she is the one who will take the extra step to be safe. No alcohol, no drugs, no texting while driving, no speeding, no spending foolishly – no father.
She has woven his loss into her life, learning to drive without him, striding across the stage to receive a high school diploma without his cheers ringing in her ears. She is almost finished with her first two years of college, along the way earning her first paycheck without the winks and smiles that would have encouraged her to keep on being great at being herself. It is beyond her grasp that so much – and so little – time has passed and that one day it will be ten years, twenty years, forty years, since he last held her hand in the frozen food section of the grocery store, to keep her warm.
Worried that she has worried me, she emphasizes that it is not a sadness that envelops her these days. In fact, she sometimes faces the reality of her changed life with a humor that others may find irreverent. She is no longer undone by grief. The daily reminder of her father’s death, that the saddest thing that could ever have happened has already happened reminds her that whatever happens today could not be worse. No rush hour traffic or broken air conditioner or math final or pissed off customer could be any worse. Steeled thus, the sadness locked deep within her, she goes about her days, working, studying, laughing, loving, finding joy and hope, pausing in the doorway to check on two baby birds in a nest tucked under the eaves. Signs of life – they are everywhere.
She has sought help from people in the business of helping people sort out their grief. Not entirely convinced of its usefulness yet, she balks when they tell her that to fully heal, perhaps she needs to process it more or cry more or allow herself to be really sad or go wherever there is. She does not want to dive into that dark, desolate rabbit hole. While her coping strategy may seem perverse, it is practical, a kind of acceptance. The little girl who made memories with the father who loved her is gone. In some strange ways, she tells me, it is as though she has become her father’s death. As much as his life was part of hers, so is his death.
So what do I say to those in my life who at this moment and the next and for who knows how long, will move within a landscape of private grief, perhaps seeing right in front of them only what’s missing – their altered world? What I want to tell them is that these early days are the worst, that they will learn to live within their changed world, themselves changed, but what I cannot tell them is how. There are no rules for grieving or mourning and no right way to get through it. There is your way, and there you are.
There are certain losses you do not get past, but you incorporate them into who you are. It’s always a part of you. No matter how much you reconstruct your life and make a new life, I still think that there is room for part of you to always be aware that this happened. To always have a part of you grieving.