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The other day, I felt like crawling out of my own skin.
I’d been irritable since the moment I’d woken up. I tried all my usual self-care go-tos: yoga, meditation, a bath, writing. Still, the feeling persisted.
“I think you might need to cry,” my wise mind whispered. As a perimenopausal mom in the midst of a pandemic, irritability is a fairly chronic condition. But I still forget that, sometimes, when I’m feeling extra prickly, it’s not about hormone shifts or introvert overload.
Sometimes, my irritability means I’m holding back grief.
My kids and husband were all home; because…pandemic. So I escaped down to my basement office and sat on my purple yoga mat, clutching a picture of my dad. The photo is from Christmas a few years back; my dad had just opened the customized football jersey we’d gotten him that said Papa on the back, with the number 44 for the year he was born.
In the photo, he’s just slipped the jersey on over his flannel shirt. His arms lift skyward, a sweet smile on his face. The dining room chandelier backlighting him glows like a halo.
My dad died unexpectedly nearly a year and a half ago, only 10 days after being diagnosed with cancer. He’d seemed healthy and his family was flush with longevity; his illness and death came as a shock.
In the first months after he died, I cried all the time. I cried in the car and on the screen porch and beside my bed. I cried in front of my kids because I wanted them to know that grief is part of life—a healthy emotion we feel when someone we love dies. Once, when my daughter was leaving my room during one of my crying spells, she said, in a soft, sweet voice, “I hope you have a good grief.”
Compared to many losses I’ve suffered—most notably, my younger brother who died suddenly when he was 21—my grief over losing my dad has been less complicated. Softer. To bend my daughter’s words, it’s almost a good grief.
So soft, in fact, that lately, with everything else going on in the world, I’ve barely noticed it was there.
But sitting on my yoga mat, gazing at his picture, he came back to life. I could hear his voice again, deep and familiar. I could feel the calm, loving energy that he emitted.
There it is, I thought. There’s my grief.
I began to cry. “Is he really gone?” I asked myself. “Yes, he’s really gone,” I said. (For me, grief involves a heapin’ helpin’ of talking to myself.) My mind flashed back to his body, the impossible stillness. He died.
How abstract death can feel. How hard the mind must work to let go. Even though I was there, I saw the shell of him, stroked his arm, kissed the top of his head. In the Christmas picture, he is so alive. In my heart, in my mind, in thousands of memories, he continues to exist.
So does my grief.
Grief takes up residency inside of us. It becomes a part of us. When we first lose someone we love, it’s a giant wound that we can’t escape. We can’t avoid noticing it: the one who is missing is nearly all we can think about. The reality of the death blinks like a ticker tape through our minds, over and over, as we try to absorb the strange reality of goneness.
In the first hours after my brother died, I told my aunts who’d come to be with me, “I don’t want to be one of those people you can just look at and know they’ve gone through something awful.”
I was only 24, in deep shock, and not yet at home with myself. I thought the tragedy of my brother’s death might stain me, that I’d wear it like an ugly coat, that it would be visible to everyone who glanced at me.
And for a while, it was. Every morning when I woke up, I’d have to remember that my brother was gone all over again. In my small hometown, when I’d run into acquaintances in the grocery store, I could see my loss cross over their faces; it could almost reach out to touch the awkwardness that hovered as they figured out how to interact with tragedy.
But as time passed, I found that none of us get through life untouched by loss. So the question becomes, how do I learn to live with this hole where my loved one was? Do I try and avoid it? Do I cover it up, which only creates more emptiness? Or do I soften myself toward the hole, tend to it, create space for it?
Grief is uncomfortable. It physically hurts. It’s inconvenient. Sometimes, like the other day, my unattended emotions left me restless and agitated. I didn’t feel like turning toward it; I wanted a break.
Western culture doesn’t exactly support us in turning toward grief. We have few grief rituals, and many of us shy away from even uttering the words “death” and “died,” instead, leaning on euphemisms like “passed away,” as if death was something that could be sugarcoated.
But grief is like a dog whining to be let out: we can try to ignore it, but it’s probably going to sh*t all over the carpet, leaving us with a bigger mess.
So over and over again, I remind myself to turn toward my grief.
It can be terrifying to turn toward it—even for someone who’s been writing and speaking about grief for decades. It stills feels like launching myself into outer space—a place with no bottom, no oxygen to surface to.
I know from experience that the hole that opens when we lose someone we love never closes entirely. I will always miss my dad. I will always miss my brother, though he’s been gone now longer than he was here. Sometimes, years later, when we least expect it, our wounds ache and bleed. Our grief accompanies us through all of life’s milestones, reminding us of what we’ve lost, of what we wish had been.
Still, with time, with attention, with patience and self-compassion, the hole comes to exist alongside all the other parts of our lives. We stop expecting it to ever fully close. We accept that the loss becomes part of the story of our body, of our heart, of our experience. We may no longer wear it like a weighted coat, but it’s inscribed on us.
I try to remember this when I’m out in the world, when the grocery store cashier seems sullen, when someone cuts me off while driving, when one of my kids is in a mood: we are all speckled with holes. We are all grieving. In some ways, it’d be easier if, when the pain is acute, we wore black armbands or ugly grief coats. If there was some way we could mark our troubles. If we could expose our wounds, or at least our gauze, to strangers, so they might know, might acknowledge us, might be gentler with us.
And so we could remember to be gentle with ourselves. To keep turning toward our aching hearts, our irritability, our longing. To allow ourselves the sharp blessings of a good grief.