What the last three years taught me about grief

When I finished my MFA around this time last year and was getting ready to leave New York, one of my closest friends from graduate school said something to me to this effect: "I just realized, for the entire time that I have known you, you have been grieving. I don't know who you are when you are not grieving. What a couple of years, huh?" And he was right — I lost my grandfather during my first couple of weeks of graduate school, lost one of my closest friends in my third semester, and lost my uncle a few weeks before graduation. And there were a bunch of almost-losses thrown in there too... moments when the doctors gave up on someone I loved, and then that person miraculously made a comeback a month later... that kind of thing, not deaths (not at that moment anyway) but still fairly traumatic. I had lost my other grandfather a couple of years before, and I have lost one grandmother and had to put my dog to sleep since. It's been... a lot, shall we say? During this same period, a lot of people around me were also dealing with the loss of people close to them (or maybe I was more tuned into those that were because of my own experiences). In struggling to make sense of my, and their, experiences, I did what I often do in such situations —I read, and I wrote.

I read about the five stages. I read articles about how different cultures deal with grief. I read poems about death and the dead. I read memoirs about bereavement. I read more than I ever had before about the Buddhist view of death, learned to begin to trust the belief system that means everything to me in life when it came to questions about death.

I wrote my own poems, letters, elegies. I drew mindmaps and memory maps. I wrote and mailed poems to friends who were grieving, even if for someone else, convinced we could help each heal in ways we couldn't do alone (this was before I read some of the cultural stuff about grief, understood how some things that are intrinsically a community experience for me are a deeply individual experience for some of my Western friends, and learned to back off around them).

And I started to find some clarity within my confusion, some acceptance of confusion. I am finally in a place where I can look back... and today, as I learned of someone I love deeply losing someone he loved deeply, I needed to look back.


Grief is circular. The wikipedia version of the five-stages-of-grief theory... I don't buy it. As if one starts at denial and ends at acceptance, and anger, bargaining, depression are steps along the way. Grief isn't linear like that. Grief, as I've known it, tends to bounce around a lot more — anger to denial to acceptance to longing to love to depression to anger to acceptance to forgetting to depression to love. Something like that.


There are other completely different emotions that are part of the experience of grief. Like longing for a particular flavor of coffee that we used to share. Like laughter. Like bewilderment at reaching the first anniversary. Like a fear of forgetting. Like forgetting that the person is actually gone, not-coming-back-kind-of-gone (no, this isn't denial. Long after one knows that the person is gone, one sometimes just forgets it. Maybe this is particularly true of people who weren't an everyday part of one's life anyway, like a close friend who lived in another country — it's easy to forget that, although I haven't heard from several others in a long time too, theirs is because they're bad at keeping in touch, and hers is for a different reason).


Out of everything I read, Joan Didion's "A Year of Magical Thinking" made the most sense, resonated the most deeply. Something about its rawness, its honesty, its vulnerability, its disjointedness. Yes, above all, its disjointedness. The absence of order, that made sense as I thought about grief.


Speaking of Joan Didion's memoir, this:

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.

In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly become the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic.” — Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking


Every death is sudden

it doesnt matter how many years the person was sick. It doesn’t matter if we’d known there was no hope. it doesn’t matter if they had been unconscious for weeks. Ultimately, that moment — now they’re breathing, now they’re not — is always a moment. It’s always sudden.


People want to avert their eyes not just from death but also from grief. Close friends, who could tell each other everything, suddenly feel a wall. I don’t want to bog them down, I don’t want to remind them. As if they could forget. As if we don’t both know that we both wake up to that knowledge each day.

I learned over the last three years to reach out to people when they were grieving and let them know they were loved and that I was there if they needed anything. And I learned, just as importantly, not to be offended by their refusal to let me be there.


I learned that mourning demands time and energy — a lot of time and energy. Again, Didion talks about this idea, that "grief is passive but mourning — the act of dealing with grief — needs to be active."

Paul taught me that. When I told him about M's death and how none of our mutual friends were in the same city — or even on the same coast — at the time, he pushed me to organize a memorial. When I protested that not everyone would be able to make it, he told me that people would appreciate even the ability to say they can't be there. He told me to take the time to acknowledge that my life had changed in an important, even if invisible at the time, way. When I did organize the memorial along with a couple of other friends at our college alumni reunion 6 months later, I finally understood what  he was talking about


It doesn't end — not really. You think you're at "acceptance" and "moving on," and then a package gets lost in the mail, and the helplessness of losing something suddenly, for some reason, reminds you of the helplessness of losing someone, and you are bawling into your pillow in the middle of the night and not moving on at all.


That bawling into the pillow in the middle of the night? It is part of moving on.


Perhaps most importantly, and only a very recent discovery: it is possible to come back to oneself afterward. In the last three or four months, I have finally come back to myself... not to the self I used to be, of course, but to a new self, a self I recognize and enjoy. It took a while, but I'm there.

Maybe it's time for a reunion with said friend from graduate school:

Here you are, now. This is who I am.