Grief never goes away—it just changes shape.
In the fading Autumn sunshine, at the edge of the water, as the breeze dies with the day, I could almost forget that he’s not there.
I could almost tack into the winds of memory, trim the sails of longing, and cruise right on by that little island of grief without so much as a splash. No one would even notice my maneuver. Not unless they know it, too.
That’s the thing about grief. With time, we learn to navigate around it. We also learn to recognize fellow sailors doing the same.
Then, one day, there you are, on your 39th birthday, eight years after someone you thought you couldn’t live without has died. And yet, you live. You laugh. You celebrate. You don’t think about them every minute of the day.
Until a friend who, without ever having met him, understands his particular tone of voice, his particular mannerisms, his particular beauty makes a “Deafie” joke and you love it because it brings him back to life for a moment and you can almost hear him…
…and then the pain hits. Out of nowhere. The anchor-weight of it suddenly drops.
He was there. Right there, in that same place beside the water, cuddling your son and throwing a frisbee with those strong hands and singing “Happy Birthday” to your mom in that deep, flat voice. So real, so…him.
And now, he’s just…gone.
It’s one of the reasons we connected so instantly, my friend and I. My brother was Deaf and her mom was, too. She nursed her mom before she died. I didn’t make it back in time to hug him one last time and sign, “I love you.”
Our friendship is one of the unexpected gifts I’ve found in grief, and there are many—like light-footed stowaways.
It’s the story she tells next that I want to share.
Later, she shared the original viral Twitter thread with me. In the moment, her explanation of it helps me understand why, after so many years, we can carry this quiet pain inside, almost forgetting it’s there…until something reminds us they’re gone. Then, suddenly, it’s back. As tender and raw as the day they left. It helps me feel okay for grieving, still.
The story goes something like this:
Grief is like a ball inside a box. And there’s a button on the box—the “pain button.”
So grief is like this:
There’s a box with a ball in it. And a pain button.
And no, I am not known for my art skills. pic.twitter.com/XDwCCdXVkc
— Lauren Herschel (@LaurenHerschel) December 29, 2017
When the button is pushed, we feel our pain. We feel the full intensity of our loss.
In the beginning, our ball of grief fills the whole box. It squeezes and oozes and jostles to the edges so that every little nudge pushes it up against the pain button. We feel that pain all the time. Sometimes, we can hardly breathe for all the sharp sting and the deep ache of it.
But, as time passes, the ball gets slowly smaller. We can move around a bit more, live a bit more without feeling the pain all the time.
The ball is still there, though. And so is the button. And, sometimes, an unexpected shift can cause the ball to bump up against the button while it’s moving around in that box. And suddenly, there’s the pain again.
It can be anything: a song, a place, someone who reminds us of them, their favorite food, a silly joke they’d laugh at, a birthday they should be at…and there it is. Like it never left.
And the truth is, it didn’t. It never will.
We only learn to carry it more comfortably, most of the time. We make space for it. We live in spite of it.
Eventually, we might even see this box as the gift it truly is.
One day, in the long shadows of early evening, we might taste the sweetness in the pain, and hear the secrets it whispers to us across the water.
Not with our ears, but with our broken hearts.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” ~