The longer I’m in grief, the more frustrated I tend to become with not only myself (for being stuck in it), but with those who just don’t understand it.  Being young, most of my friends haven’t really experienced a major, devastating loss. I’m referring specifically to the death of someone really close to them whose demise seems early or untimely. Some of my friends have argued that they have experienced this; they’ve lost grandparents.

I try to be respectfully sympathetic while they rattle off how much they’ll miss Mamaw’s brownies.

Don’t get me wrong. Involved grandparents can be terribly dear to us, and so it does hurt when they leave us.  However, we can’t shake the strange contentment that eventually arrives with the rational inkling that tells us something at once horrible and wonderful: that maybe, since our grandparents have lived so long, it’s their natural time to go.

I think it’s easier to accept the passing of those who have already embraced a past-oriented mental state of nostalgia, who have raised their own children and seen a new generation arise; it’s the passing of the torch.  If we really think about it, most grandparents seem to belong to the past even before they pass away.

The deaths of one’s close friends, siblings, or one’s parents are a different story, however.  This holds especially true when you actually live with these people at the moment when death enters your home to pillage and spoil.  It stalks around your childhood and recent photographs, upsetting frames showing young, glowing, healthy people who obviously—up until lately—had a lot of vigor and a lot of living yet to do.  It snatches our hopes for the future and the growth we measure in the present.  Death, like a gardener in a blind rage, tears out the fresh blooms and misses the brittle husks while he tramples your careful landscaping.

Death seems wasteful.  Senseless.  Cruel.

If the way in which your loved one died was especially drawn out or painful, and if you witnessed this demise, you wind up feeling like the helpless victim of armed robbery or rape. Only there are no fingerprints, no traceable DNA evidence, no handcuffs to snare the perpetrator, and no lineup of suspects,  so there’s no possible way to assign blame and receive justice.  You’re just left feeling shell shocked and abused by the world. Even God himself seems like a terrible dealer of justice, so you don’t really want to listen to anything he might have to say about your soul. (I’ll write more on that later.)

Some will say that the days leading up to, and immediately following, a loved one’s death are the worst. I won’t deny that these were terrible times for me, or that they weren’t full of all the sacred anguish and sorrow that comes when a cherished life leaves a household, leaving a burning hole.

But, as my well-read friend, Phillip, has observed, “When all the big fires are put out, the little aches continue.”

Imagine, then, what it’s like to face the world during the “aching” period, in the days and nights, weeks and months—even years—following the death of a close loved one.

You have bitter thoughts on sunny days.  You have nightmares that stay up with you in the darkness.  Your brain tricks you into thinking you still hear your loved one turning his key in the lock or coming up the driveway in the blue hours of the evening.  In quiet moments, you might still hear him breathing.  If his place of death was in your home—as it was with my father—then you might stir up the ghosts of the smells of morphine, bile, hospital astringents, and that indefinable stench known as death while you’re doing something as innocuous as vacuuming the carpet or dusting the furniture.  You become conscious that all the residual sounds, scents, and traumas of his passing reverberate from the molecules of the books on his nightstand and in the non-stick skillet you used to make those simple, final meals before he started to refuse food altogether.

This is your life.  It feels like an endless stretch of dying time in a small death-filled bubble that floats around your body in an encasing force field of awareness.  You, the bubble-child of pains, wander about in the world and feel like it’s a stranger to you, and that the people moving happily in it look like puppets, with the same awkward, painted-on smiles and mannequin poses as the falsest effigies of souls.  (Wow, I read that line and thought, Emo much?)

Emotionally, you vascillate among numbness, helplessness, and rage. Nothing seems worth starting when world has kicked you out of its living circle. You begin to feel a bit unhinged and can’t trust your own mind anymore.  No one you talk to seems like they understand you.  You lose confidence that you will be accepted and understood.  You wait for the proverbial other shoe to drop and for things to get worse than you can imagine.  Life doesn’t seem likely to get happy again, or to hold anything exciting or meaningful anymore.

That’s why C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed that

“grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling.”

Provisional—meaning to have enough just to subsist for the time being.  You have little left in terms of reserves of strength.  You simply exist and—helplessly, miraculously—survive.

Worst of all, it seems to take forever to get out of this land of shadow, which exists not only in your mind, but directly underneath your feet.

I’m walking out of it, though.  I walk every damn day until it hurts . . . because that’s how I cover the most ground.

Thanks, dear reader, for following my footprints.

I hope this helps you when you encounter your own trials and meet others in the midst of theirs.

Sources:

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. 1961.  Quote recorded in my journal. I don’t have the page number.

Schwein, Phillip.  From a late night phone conversation like, two weeks ago.  I didn’t write down the date because I’m not anal. I just wrote down the remark because it was practically poetry.  Thanks, Phil.

"Death and the Maiden," artist unlisted. I'm guessing Gustave Dore, ca. 1870.

"Death and the Maiden," artist unlisted. I'm making an educated guess that this is a Gustave Doré, ca. 1870.

More ditties on grief, in poetry form (mine, from during this past semester at school):

On Getting My Degree This Spring

I’m proud that I didn’t

pull a Sylvia Plath

and wind up in a bell jar halfway

through my days at college,

a college which, ironically enough

in days of old, bought (or sold?)

land from (or to?) a mental institution;

so, it’s fitting that I wonder whether

the Skinnerian model

of behaviorism taught there

—do this, receive that—

will pay off in the real world

that I will soon walk into,

staring into the sun, blind,

with an uncomfortable heat building

behind my eyes

burning,

thinking, will I . . .

find my way?  survive?

rise a phoenix

from the crematory

of the year you died?

The Viewing

I keep returning to this image: leaning my head back against the cupboard door

under the kitchen sink after calling the hospice, seeing myself from a distance

like an out-of-body experience while his body lay in the other room.

I am aware now, though I wasn’t then, that he still reclined in his hospital bed

on the other side of the sink, through the service window, in the den,

and I, on the other side, feeling like death, was mirroring him.

Electronic Elegy

Not quite three months after you,

the laptop that you bought me

(just days before your diagnosis)

Died;

With it, the semester’s files that I

forgot to copy on a backup disk

(because I was tending you, so ill)

and several rare family pictures.

It just burned out, poor thing;

the motherboard got tired of interfacing

(between memory and active processing).

And I could not blame it.

(That last one with the computer-talk was for you, Sheraz.)

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