When my wife died in her 40s, I didn’t know grief from a pot of tar.
Both evoked strong feelings, but, being male, I couldn’t tell you how they differed. I soon learned to discern. Over the first year, grief played different roles and brought up enough images and metaphors to fill a red wheelbarrow, all which helped me survive the trauma of death.
Grief began as a purple gorilla sitting in my living room, pounding me down. Later it was a round Rubik’s Cube and I couldn’t understand where to begin. When I tried to explain grief to those who had no clue, it was like describing a rhino to an Inuit.
Grief is an animal.
It’s a grizzly bear that knocks us off our feet. If we fight back, it claws us across the chest. Grief is a wolf that stands on our throat and stares in our eyes as it devours our heart. It’s a Steller’s jay that scolds us every day for what we did, and did not do, to keep our loved ones alive. It’s a coyote that nips at the back of our legs when we aren’t giving grief our best effort, and it reminds us to play when we despair too much.
Grief is edible.
It’s an onion. We cry harder as we peel grief’s layers away and go deeper, wondering if it will ever stop. When we reach the middle, there is stillness and we begrudgingly understand death’s place in life. It’s an artichoke. Odd and slightly sinister looking, we have to work to remove the outer leaves that prick our fingers before we get to the nourishing center. It’s an apple. We eat grief before reaching the seeds—the seeds that will grow when we are ready.
Grief is a mineral.
In the beginning, grief is iron. It’s heavy and weighs down every step we take. We can bang on it with a hammer as much as we want, but it does not change its shape or reality. Our loved ones are still dead. Grief is a crucible that burns distractions away and reduces us to our elemental core.
Grief becomes the shadows on our landscape.
It’s a hot, barren desert where we are parched and weary. It’s an icy mountain that we try to climb, but find ourselves unable to get warm there. It’s a dark forest of thistles and brambles that pull at our clothes. We are lost until we blaze a new trail. It’s a humid jungle where hundreds of tiny insects bite and suck at the sweat running down our neck. It’s the edge of a vast ocean where we stare at the emptiness and wonder if there is enough left.
Grief creates its own weather.
At times, it’s an avalanche that buries us, or a thunderstorm that buffets us around. It’s a cold rain that drips off trees and down our backs long after the storm is gone. It’s a fog that hides the world and makes every sound seem distant.
Grief is hysterical laughter in the middle of the night. It’s irrational fear because it opens the dark closets we’ve hidden in the back of our minds.
It’s unpredictable, wild, and sexy in the way that it makes our entire body yearn.
Grief is a labyrinth we have to find our way through, with dead ends that force us to retrace our steps. It’s a Gordian Knot we can’t untie. It’s a jigsaw puzzle we piece together, and then watch as our new life slowly takes form.
Grief is the art that visualizes our feelings of falling apart, like Ambroise Vollard in Picasso’s cubist portraits, or despair like José Clemente Orozco’s victims. Our lack of inertia is the soggy lethargy in Salvador Dali’s, The Persistence of Memory.
Grief is the music that evokes unspoken emotions that reside inside and give sounds to our feelings. Favorite songs can yank us from doing okay into sobbing in only a few notes. Some songs we play on a loop to help us keep our sh*t together.
Grief is change.
It’s a chrysalis, because the life we had is left behind as we transform into something new. Not better, just different.
It’s a mortar and pestle, and we are the acorns. Our tough, protective hulls are removed and we are ground down into meal, soaked in the River of Life to remove our bitterness so that our stories of struggle and endurance can be nourishment for others who are grieving.
Grief is a mercy, a catalyst for change, and a grace.
Grief is a journey that takes us from what has been to what might now be.