I’ve always been … not comfortable with grief, exactly, but accepting of it. In my 42 years, I’ve lost close friends, both siblings, beloved pets, a desperately wanted pregnancy in the second trimester, and my mother.
I know the drill by now; I know that when grief wants to come in, you just have to make space for it, fix it a beverage, get it a blanket and some snacks and maybe some fuzzy socks. You can try to ignore it, turn your back on it and read a book or binge-watch “Law & Order: SVU” (for example), but it’s really not going to take the hint and go away that easily. So at this point, mostly, I’ve made my peace with grief, mine and other people’s.
I know other people’s pain makes some people uncomfortable, and I totally get that, but that’s not how I feel. I also know that some people, in deep grief, just want to be left alone, and I try to read those signals and respect those boundaries, but again, that’s not me.
If I am grieving, I want you to acknowledge my loss. If you are grieving, I will acknowledge yours – and then back off unless you indicate that you want me to stay.
I still remember returning to work the week after my miscarriage and subsequent D&C. It was my very first day back. I was still bleeding. My breasts were still leaking. I had cabbage leaves shoved in my bra to try to help with the engorgement. I was putting some yogurt in the work fridge, and my coworker came up behind me.
“Oh, is that the yogurt that helps you poop?” she asked me. “I never tried that brand, but I always find yogurt is great for curing a yeast infection.”
I closed the refrigerator door and turned around and stared at her for a second, waiting for her to tell me she was sorry or to say something, anything, that let me know she knew what I was going through. She said nothing. I turned and walked away, thinking, “How on earth can you talk to me about bowel movements and vaginal flora and not the fact that I just lost a baby?!”
So now, when I see people after they’ve survived a big loss, I always say something. I’m kind of awkward, and grief is inherently awkward, and grieving people are often behaving inexplicably, so it’s never the smoothest social interaction, but I at least manage to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Please know I’m here if you need anything or want to talk.” Then I wait. If they seem receptive, I offer specific things I could do: watch their kids, fold their laundry, bring them groceries, make them a lasagna (I make a great grief lasagna). If they just mumble “thank you” at me, I retreat with no hard feelings – but at least I reached out. And I hope they know I’m still here if they change their mind.
I personally find it to be a beautiful gift – a horrible, painful, beautiful gift – to be with grieving people. It’s all part of the messy human experience, and it makes me feel closer to … something to witness it. (I’m not a super-religious person, and I don’t know what I believe, really, but grief feels sacred to me.) It hurts to be in the presence of grief, no doubt, but it also reminds me that all we have, ultimately, right here and right now, is one another. I have cried in the arms of people I don’t know all that well. I have held people I don’t know all that well while they cried. This is humanity, in its most primal stripped-down form.
But now, as I fast-approach 43, I am suddenly and unfortunately finding so many grief companions. Losing a parent is normal and natural – and still brutally painful, all the same. As I watch friends around me start to join me in the Dead Parents Club, I find myself navigating an emotion I can’t quite explain. It’s not jealousy! Please understand that. There is no Pain Olympics; there is no good hand to be dealt here. I’m not jealous of anyone’s experience. But I do feel something that I guess could most accurately be described as “yearning” when I hear people talk about their parent passing away “surrounded by loved ones” or “peacefully in Hospice, holding my hand.”
That has to be its own kind of slow-motion horror, actually witnessing a parent’s last breath, feeling their hand go slack in yours.
And yet. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to have held my mom’s hand, to have kissed her forehead, to have thanked her for everything, to have apologized for everything, to have played her favorite songs. All I got was a late night text from her about strawberry scones for Mother’s Day on an absolutely normal Monday – and then an abrupt phone call from an unfamiliar number on Tuesday morning – “Pamela has passed away,” a euphemism I hate – four words and it was over.
That’s its own sort of blessing, I guess, in some ways – she would have hated lingering, being weak, being sick, being doted upon. Hated hated hated hated it. But sometimes I still wish I could’ve doted on her, whether she liked it or not.
It’s been almost two-and-a-half-years now since that phone call. Most days, I’m OK. Some days I feel like – as confessional writer/genius/polarizing figure/my potential hypothetical bestie Taylor Swift said, “Every single thing I touch becomes sick with sadness.”
But whether it’s a good day or a bad day for me, I’m here for y’all, my fellow grief-stricken people. I can maybe cheer you up, or maybe we can just be sad together. Regardless, I’ll make you a lasagna.
Then, we are still sad, but at least we have each other – and lasagna.