It’s been nearly 4 weeks since my mother died. The hardest question to answer is the one everyone keeps asking: “How are you doing?” I do not know how I am doing, exactly, but I am starting to learn. I am beginning to understand a few things about grief, and it’s helping me know what to expect on the road ahead.
1. Grief is a time machine.
Every few days, what everyone calls “a wave of grief” will crash over me. When it does, and when the tears come, a familiar feeling accompanies them: I’m a little boy left behind at the store, or lost in the woods, afraid that I’ll never see my mom again. I knew that feeling a time or three as a child, that momentary terror, that gasp of I am alone. The grief resurrects those moments, transports me to that feeling I had at 10 or 12 years old. I suppose my brain is summoning up something it can recognize, something it can pin these pangs to: my childhood self, afraid that he’s been left alone for good.
2. Grief is a mansion, not a room.
Things get worse before they get better. This surprised me. I thought the biggest pains would be immediate—watching her die, the torture of a funeral, the first few days without her voice. It turns out those pains were precursors. They were pointed and time-sensitive; they belonged to the events of her passing. Now a new pain has developed, the pain of permanent loss. Every day brings a fresh set of reminders that she’s not here. She can’t get on the phone when I need her after a hard day or before a tough meeting at work. She can’t receive the text with the photo of Bel goofing or Henry at baseball or Lou on roller-skates or tonight’s dinner prep. My reflex is to reach out to her, and now the reflex is no good.
The grief is a not a new room I’ve entered; it’s an entire mansion. Every few days, I stumble down another corridor. There’s more to explore. I hope to map it all soon, have it sized up, but I am coming to accept that this will take some time.
3. Grief is hard on the body.
It is the plug coming out of the drain. It is the slow leak of a tire. I feel as though I’ve taken lethargy pills. Things in my life don’t matter any less to me now; I’m not despondent or despairing. It’s just that I feel like I’m taking in less oxygen—all action is taxing. Writing this short reflection is hard, every sentence a struggle. I started to google “chronic fatigue syndrome” the other day, thinking something else must be going on with me. I did an inventory of what I’m eating, how much sleep I’m getting, how much exercise. But no, it’s just the loss. Grief is a deep dive, and it’s taking a while to reach the surface. Soon, I hope, I will breathe normal again.
4. Grief is not sadness.
I have whole portions of days where I don’t feel sad at all. I know this essay is sad. I should probably put a picture of Eeyore at the top. But I would not have known before now that grief is a foundation for emotions of all kinds, including joy: sometimes missing her makes me remember her goodness, her gifts, the ways she’s loving me still. I tell stories about her and smile. My kids quote one of her funny phrases and we laugh. This, too, is grief.
Sadness comes and goes. Grief is a constant companion.
5. Grief can make you inconsolable.
That word means something fresh to me now: inconsolable. I’m not without consolation overall. Lord knows I have been given comfort in spades, and I’m grateful for it. My wife, Michaela, is a wonder. My sister, Kaysie, is a saint. My kids and Kaysie’s kids and our extended families and our friends and on and on—we can turn in so many directions for comfort. We have especially the comfort of the memory of our mother, Dawn, who was as good a person and guide to this life as we could have ever hoped for, and we’ll be following her lead for years to come.
Still — at times, when the wave crashes, for a few moments, or sometimes for hours, the pain is a wound that has no salve. There’s no hug, no words, no prayers that can bring it to a close. It just is, and it stays that way for a while. You just have to breathe, and wait, and move your body around a little. Eat and drink. Eventually the pain lifts. The comforts settle back in, and you give thanks and keep going.
Okay, that’s all for now. I may add to this list over time.