The Power of Grief

This year, I lost my grandmother, an aunt, a family friend who was like an uncle, a high school classmate, and remembered the one year anniversary of a good friend’s passing. This happened all within a span of about four months. It was as if the Universe was holding back tragedy, only to have it spill over all at once. I can see now, that these and other events significantly contributed to my stress and a slow but steady spiral into depression, but at the time I couldnt fathom what was happening. I felt like the world around me was speeding past, while I was sloshing through mud, desperately trying to gain a foothold. By mid July, I was at the bottom of a pit, not knowing how I had gotten there or how to pull myself out.

It’s been a gradual process, a rope made of self-care, support from family and friends, therapy, and self expression. I am by no means an expert and I know that everyone has their own unique way of grieving. I consider myself an optimist, not in the sense that I’m happy all the time, but that even in the midst of tragedy I try to find something positive that I can take from it. For better or worse, I try to tease out the silver lining. So I was thinking about it the other day, what does grief have to teach me?

Here is what I have learned so far:

I’ll never be the same

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it’s true. I thought that grief was something you heal from, a period of time that you struggle through before you get back to normal. Grief changed me. Which isn't to say that I am some unrecognizable version of myself, but that when something so significant happens, the remnants of it stay with you. There is no going back to before, because before will always be a time when your loved one was there.

As a child, my own extended family all lived in different states, and we saw each other once a year if we were lucky. In college however, when my grandmother began to need full time assistance, I spent a little over a month of my summer break living with her, cooking, cleaning, driving her to doctors appointments, and staying up late watching TV. I did this for a couple of years until I graduated and my younger sister took over. She was my last living grandparent, the one I had gotten to know the best, and spent the most time with.
We are blessed to be living with my in-laws at the moment. It’s been wonderful to have my own children be able to have such a close relationship with their grandparents. One day, as I was watching my children talk and play with my husband’s mother (Noni, as she’s called in our house), I was struck by the relationship between grandparent and grandchild, and I realized that since my grandmother’s death, no one would ever love me quite like that again. It was an immediate feeling of both sadness and gratitude.

This conflicting emotional state seems to be one of the defining characteristics of grief. At least for me, when I am in the midst of it, I can never define my emotions as either negative or positive. Instead, it feels like being engulfed by a tornado of ambivalence, where swirling winds toss me in different directions, all grasping for my attention at once.
I have learned to let that tornado wash over me, and to not worry about defining it. That I have no control over when it will surface is another matter.

It Tenderizes

I cannot tell you how often I have started to cry while reading a book, watching a movie, or doing random, everyday tasks. While I am normally an emotional person, the morning news (which I have largely stopped watching) can send me into a fit of tears. Grief seems to magnify and personalize everything. I feel the pangs with a stronger force. Even fictional characters throw punches at my tender heart. I have been trying to read the book The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, for months and it’s not for lack of time or interest. When I read a beautifully heartbreaking passage, I am overcome by the tornado, and I have to put it down. It often takes days to feel that I have to built myself back up enough to continue. I’m still only a quarter of the way through.

This constant pounding on my heart, in the long run may serve to make it stronger, the way a guitarist builds up calluses on their fingers. At present though, there is raw skin and blisters.

In the wake of recent tragedies, of continued war and conflict, of so much strife and injustice, it would be easy to sink back into that dark pit. Today, and one day at a time, I am choosing to listen to the lessons grief has to teach me. Today I will choose to be more compassionate, generous, and grateful. Grateful even for the excruciating parts, because they help me empathize on a deeper level with my fellow human beings. It seems to me, that while grief is extremely personal, it may also be the emotion we can all unite around. No matter what your politics, race, nationality, religion, we all will experience loss at some point. We will all be shaken to our core. We will all be changed, hopefully for the better.

To my grandmother, who would have turned 99 this month, and to all of those loved and lost, your life and your death continue to shape mine.
I love you.

How to Say Goodbye

It started to seem like death was swirling all around me. In just the past few months my Aunt, Grandmother, and a classmate from high school all passed away. The one year anniversary of a friends death hit right in the middle of all that in April, and the rawness of the grief took me a bit by surprise.

Mom, Grandpa, Grandma, Sister, and Me c.1990's not long before my Grandpa passed

I suppose I'm an introspective person, most writers are, when something happens in the world, I want to know why. I want to understand my emotions, the reactions of those around me, I want to make connections to the larger story. I try to observe, and to take away some truth, and if that truth pierces me with a sharp enough arrow, I let myself bleed in words.

This is all starting to sound a bit cryptic, but really, what I want to say is, that lately I have been unable to bleed. Is death too big to wrap my head around? Is it shock or fear that makes me numb? Explaining grief may be a futile thing, and from what I hear, it can be different for everyone. It may be a deep, dark pit, that we don't know how to climb out of. It may be a wind that blows from time to time whenever we see a picture or remember a loved one's voice. Or it may be, as it has been for me, a frozen layer of ice that I've had to let thaw gradually, scooping up tiny puddles bit by bit.

It's strange how we forget about death until we are faced with it. Just two weeks ago my Grandmother passed away. She had been on hospice care, and as I loaded my family into the car for a ten hour drive to Indiana we knew it was only a matter of days. She was 98, it was her time. We had been anticipating it for years, and yet, when the words came that she had finally passed there was still a moment of shock.

My grandmother's passing caused us to take an unexpected journey that turned into a 10 day stay. Though it was for a bit of a sad reason, we were able to spend some quality time with family, reminisce, and bring back some things that belonged to her and my grandfather, treasures to remind us and carry on their legacy.

picture of my Grandmother, Mom, and Sister: The Morris genes are strong with this one

Death is the only journey we all CAN expect, and yet when it comes we are never quite ready to say goodbye.

This past week I had a mom friend and her three kids staying at our house while they got ready to move out of state. My son and hers have become best friends over that past few years, and they had so much fun on this extended sleep over. They left last night, and when my son woke up this morning, their absence was definitely felt. 

He cried when I told him we probably wouldn't be seeing them for a long time, and I held him in my arms, all curled up in a ball on my lap. Somehow, his tears seemed to unlock the part of me that had become numb, and all of a sudden there was a flood of emotion pouring out from that once frozen iceberg, so that I am able to write this post.

If we believe in an afterlife, then goodbye is only goodbye for now, and we can follow the same advice that I gave to my five year old this morning:

"we'll write letters, we'll talk, we'll look at pictures, and remember things, until we're able to see them again."

Grandpa and Grandma on a trip to East Asia c.1970's

One Moment

Note: This piece is a somewhat dramatized, but real memory, of a childhood classmate that recently passed away. All the names have been changed to protect identity.

We were seated alphabetically, so it wasn’t like, fate or anything, that we ended up next to each other in ninth grade Tech. Lit. He still had that smile that made his cheeks dimple, the one that had made me fall for him as a naive middle-schooler. I was a couple years older and wiser thank-you-very-much, but he was still unbearably tall and dark, and in a few years he would definitely graduate from school boy cute to handsome.
Dan sat on the other side of him, a notorious trouble-maker who occupied most of his attention.  This was fine by me, since I was trying to remain aloof, lest he somehow suspect the once urgent, but embarrassingly childish crush. Also, I was an honor student, so I had to keep out of whatever nonsense and class disrupting behavior Dan might rope him into.
I minded my own business, learned my “qwerty,” and went onto websites whenever the teacher’s back was turned, like everyone else in the class.  To be honest, much of the time, when he and Dan were joking or making fun of Mrs. Burnett, I didn’t like him. He was seriously immature. Some days I wasn’t sure what I had seen in him in the first place? oh...right, the dimples.
One day, Dan was out sick and the whole class seemed a bit more peaceful, less on edge--really, it was a madhouse in there, poor Mrs. Burnett retired that year, and we may or may not have had something to do with it.
He must have been bored, or perhaps just freed from the pressure of showing off for Dan, because he started talking to me. Somehow we ended up on music.

“Wait, you know Reel Big Fish?” He said, as if this was impossibly hard to believe. In fact, I had spent countless hours listening to the album “Turn the Radio Off” on full blast in the car, to and from my first summer job.

“Yeah” I said, with a bit of a snarky edge, slightly insulted.

He leaned back in his chair so that it balanced on the back two legs, and pursed his lips together as he shook his head.

“No way”

I rolled my eyes. Really? Was it so hard to believe? Did he look at me and think I was the type of girl who was pining after a Backstreet Boy? Okay, I’ll admit, the Spice Girls dance number I did with a few of my friends for the eighth grade talent show may have sent some mixed signals.

“Prove it” he says.

Oh, no he didn’t.

So I start to sing, “She called me late last night, say she loved me didn’t matter anymore…”

I watched his eyes get wide and his smile slowly widen, but I just played it cool.

“I say she never cared and that she never will…” a quick pause as Mrs. Burnett rounds the corner, “I’d do it all again, guess I’ll have to wait until then…”

Now he’s leaned forward, using his fingers as drums on the table. He does a riff and takes us into the chorus, “and if I get drunk well I’ll pass out on the floor now baby, you won’t bother me no more!”

We both chuckle, because it’s a completely inappropriate song to be singing in school, which makes it all the more delicious. He thrashes his head around to the beat like he’s Axl Rose, and I can’t help but let my guard down a little to give a genuine laugh, and then we’re singing in unison, “and if you’re drinking well you know that you’re my friend, and I’ll say...I think I’ll have myself a beer...”

We both inexplicably jump to the bridge, cause now we’re like, telepathically linked in the music, “whaoooh, oooh, ohh, ohh….”  In a half-singing, half-whispering voice while Mrs. Burnett circles around again.

The rest of the song fades into hushed giggles, and he’s convinced. I let myself look in his eyes while he flashes a huge open mouthed smile.

Well that settles it. I’m in trouble.

The day I heard he died, I kept flashing back to this memory, the song played on repeat in my head all day, and I tried to remember how his voice sounded, how he moved, how he was more than a head taller than me even while sitting. I have to dig those glimpses out like precious fossils, gently, patiently, brushing off sand. Mostly, I remember the distinct unease and exhilaration of occupying that seat.
There had never been anything between us but that one moment. We grew up in a town so small, you were bound to have at least one moment with everyone. I don’t know what happened to him after high school, I had forgotten about him completely until I saw his name attached to the article about the skiing accident.
I don’t know how to grieve, since it wasn’t like we were close. I can only empathize with those who knew and cared for him on a much deeper, much more intimate level.
Is a moment enough to grieve? Does the grief come in equal measure to how much time you had together, or is it some wild wind, that blows with a stronger force and speed than you could have ever expected?
A moment, at least, is enough to remember. To know he was there, and that he loved good music, whether or not he remembered the dorky girl who sang with him once.
He was there, and I remember.