I’ve become convinced that grief is like a super high maintenance boyfriend.
Like the boyfriend that needs to know where you are all the time, grief is always there in some expression — no matter how many times you push it away.
Grief becomes a lens through which you begin to see the world; everything — good or bad — cannot be experienced without paying some attention to that grief filter.
And grief demands considerable emotional energy … all the time.
See? High maintenance boyfriend.
Grief is simultaneously a raw, hurt-filled terrain of the heart, and, as the calendar pages flip, its occasional infliction of breath-sucking pain becomes the only tangible connection you have to the one you’ve lost. This is neither good nor bad, as my spiritual director would say. It just is.
(I hate it when she says that.)
This week my family spent a vacation together to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was a joyous adventure, gathering family from all over the country in a rare opportunity to be together. But this week also marked the fourth anniversary of my brother John‘s death, which I guess was part of the plan since the grief feels a little more manageable when you’re not feeling it all alone. John died unexpectedly at age 38, so after his death we spent considerable time parsing through the shock before we could even deal with the gaping hole his exit left in the fabric of our family, if we’re even there yet.
On the one hand, it’s still there: the sloppy cocktail of anger and fear and regret and all the things that naturally come when somebody you love dies. And when I look around the table, all of my siblings present, we still seem incomplete, “like a shadow of our former selves,” some dramatic historian might write.
There’s a natural pause in the conversation when we all know John would have jumped right in and made a ridiculous joke and everyone would inexplicably laugh. There’s the slightly chagrined performance of one of the four of siblings — saying a few words of appreciation on behalf of the group or praying the blessing over the meal that we know John would have prayed. And there are the faces of my parents, deeply lined, foreheads furrowed, smiles sometimes seeming forced. Is it age or is it grief? Maybe the two can’t be separated. Happy, of course, to be with us all, and feeling John’s absence in ways they hope the rest of us will never fully understand.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine a day that John’s loss will ever be insignificant in our family. I can’t imagine it. But I have noticed … a softening. Maybe that’s not quite the right word. It’s a gradual wearing. Rubbing. Making the sharp and jagged edges of his loss — still there, of course — somehow mercifully smoother.
It’s like the constant washing of the ocean waves against the shore, inviting sand … and life … to move into the empty places John’s death left, and begin to fill them in, a little.
There are faces around our family table now of people — amazing people — who never knew John. There are new babies he will never hold and legendary tales of “THE Uncle John” that he’ll never be able to confirm or deny in person. He would have loved to hold the newest member of our family, and I join others in feeling angry that he won’t be able to show baby how to surf or swim along the reef with him, teaching him how to fish.
And there are new memories that we’re making together; not wanting to leave him behind but finding that letting go of the grief is necessary in order to embrace something new, all the while wondering: where are you, John?
All of these new faces and the blessing of time, whether they know it or not, are like a thick salve gently applied to scraped and hurting skin. These shifts don’t fix everything; they just fill in and, well, yes, soften it all just a little.
Maybe this is just part of being human — the hard part that we ignore as much as we can. I wonder, if we embrace it, could grief be beautiful?