I wrote the following on 4/30/14 in my journal, but wanted to share it with all of you. Because grief is weird, and I wanted to reach out to those of you who’ve ever lost someone you loved and know exactly how contradictory, crazy, tumultuous, lonely, and weird grief can be.
Never is the question “How are you?” more loaded than when you’re mourning the loss of someone you love. And it seems impossible to answer it the way you’re supposed to – gracefully, with just the right amount of solemnity and just the right amount of good humor to allow the person asking to join you in your grief without drowning them in it.
It goes something like this:
They come at you, face full of pity, telling you how sorry they are, then asking the dreaded question. How are you? The thing is, you were fine before they asked that. You’d gotten all your crying out earlier, and you’d managed to pull yourself together, and you were looking forward to seeing your friends precisely because you didn’t want to think about things like aging parents, or grieving, or nursing homes. You wanted to be normal. And then they ask you how you are, and it makes you feel guilty – because if it isn’t apparent, if they have to ask, then clearly you aren’t grieving hard enough. And what does that mean? Why aren’t you More Sad? And so you feel the need to explain yourself, like “Oh, I’m OK now, but I was devastated before,” or “It’s all still really surreal right now.” And those aren’t lies exactly, but they aren’t the whole truth either. Because sometimes you actually are OK, and you want to reserve the right to be OK, and you start to resent people who bring their sadness to you, because they want their turn to share in your grief, and you get a little pissed off and think “It’s not my fault you weren’t there with me when I was crying to myself at three A.M. Stop trying to out-sad me!”
But, of course, anger is a part of the grieving process – and you remember all the times when your friends have lost loved ones, and you didn’t know what to say, and you become immensely grateful that they’re even putting up with you and your emotional ping-pong, because they get you, and they trust in your love, and they know that this is what you need to do to process the fact that your parents are dead. They follow your lead, because they’re you’re friends – they’re your family – and every death you share reminds both you and them how important you are to each other.
Then there are the people who don’t know. The people who missed the announcement on Facebook, or who aren’t close enough to you to have been told. The employers or acquaintances who never knew your dead loved one. They ask the question innocuously. How are you? And they’re expecting the usual “Fine,” or news of your writing career, or your love life, and it’s then when you want to scream, HOW AM I? ARE YOU KIDDING? THE ONLY FATHER I’LL EVER HAVE IS DEAD, AND I’VE ALREADY LOST MY MOTHER, AND ASIDE FROM TECHNICALLY BEING AN ORPHAN NOW, BOTH MY SIBLINGS HAVE FAMILIES OF THEIR OWN AND I DON’T, SO I FEEL LIKE MY BRANCH OF THE FAMILY TREE IS COMPLETELY SEVERED AND FLOATING ADRIFT IN SPACE! AND DESPITE HAVING GREAT SIBLINGS, WONDERFUL FRIENDS, AND A PARTNER WHO LOVES ME, I STILL FEEL FUCKING LONELY BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE A “HOME” TO GO TO AT CHRISTMAS! THAT’S HOW I AM!
But you don’t say that, because that would be hugely unfair to someone who had no idea what was going on with you. So you tell them – my father died – and brace yourself for having to relive the sorrow all over again with a new person as they express their condolences days, weeks, months after the fact.
Someone who hasn’t seen me in a while asked me “How’s your mother?” when I was in New York last week. And I gulped – how could she not know? – and said “She died in 2006.” And I got to relive my grief again, on top of the new grief for my dad. Awkward.
Anyway, what I try to remember is that there’s no correct way to grieve, and no one knows what to say. There’s nothing to say. You both want to be cheered up and want to wallow in sadness. You want to remember, and you want to forget. You remember smiles, the feeling of hands on your face, laughs, fights perfectly, even as you struggle to remember exactly what your dead loved one looks like. And photographs start to feel like a lie, because they capture faces, they may even capture moments, but they don’t capture feelings, or what the people in them meant to you, and the longer you look at photos, the more your dead loved ones start to feel like characters in a story you heard once, and it seems insane to you that the story is yours, and that it’s allowed to go on without them.
At 34 years old, no human experience feels more contradictory to me than grief. But amid all the conflicting feelings there has been one constant. Love. My family pulling together and being there for each other. My friends being there for me. The Boy silently standing beside me with hugs at the ready. The sharing of happy (and hilarious) memories of my dad. Cuddles with my friends’ new babies that give me hope. So much love that it breaks my heart and mends it all at once.