I started cussing when Ma died. Hard core mouthfuls. Obscenities I never knew I knew. It was the only thing that made me feel better. It was the only thing that made me feel good. And I liked it.
That’d be hard for Ma to handle, if she knew. I don’t have to imagine what she’d say. She’d tell me, “We don’t talk like that.” She’d tell me, “What we do, is pray.” But the problem is, it took her two months to die. And somewhere during those two months, somewhere in the midst of the morphine and the oxygen and the vision of her body, decaying around her, I forgot how to pray. So, when she died, I swore.
Grief. No one ever talks about it. We talk about loss. We talk about sympathy. We mouth words of empathy, in our own self-relevant ways. “I lost my father three years ago…” Etc. But we never talk about grief, or its overwhelming complexity.
We expect the first days to be the toughest. What we expect, is to mourn in patterns. In ways that make sense to us. We expect to be overcome by the bedside, the funeral, the interment. We expect to lean on loved ones. Or, if you’re like me, to withdraw from them. We expect to cry, to fold into ourselves now and then, in the days that follow. We expect to experience…something familiar. Something we can understand.
What we do not expect, what we are not prepared for, is everything else. We do not, for instance, expect it to come at us, from the ether, in unintelligible waves. In the shower. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the night. In the middle of a conversation about something as irrelevant as botany. We do not expect it to make our limbs grow cold. Or to cause us to forget the names of our co-workers. Or to indefinitely remove our appetite for our favorite foods. We do not expect to begin shaking in rigid, uncontrollable fits, as we are sitting, relaxing, in a sports bar, on a Sunday afternoon in March.
I would read, later, that such a reaction is not uncommon in those under extreme stress. Fight or flight. When our bodies are at their most primordial. Survival. It makes sense, now. But at the time…I didn’t know.
Grief is never passive. At some level, we understand that. Even as we long for time to speed by and our hurt to heal, we know there’s more to loss, and its process, than those first sharp, painful days. But we often fail to recognize the dull, spasmodic moments that arrive in the later stages of bereavement. When we’re not sad. When we’re not depressed. When we’re not angry. When we’re not alone. When we’re just sitting down for dinner wondering why we feel not quite right.
Grief is like wading through molasses.
I wish someone would have told me how disorienting and isolating it would be. How it dims our senses. Our sensibilities. How it pulls us out of our life and out of our self. Had I known, I could have absorbed it better. I could have compartmentalized.
But no one’s going to tell us the truth. No one’s going to tell us that grief is what insanity feels like. That grief is what insanity…is.
Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe they’re afraid. Maybe they worry we won’t understand. And they’re right. We won’t. Unless we’ve been there. If we’ve been there, we know. We understand the words even if we cannot utter them, ourselves.
We experience our loss in different ways, but we all search for the same clarity and mortal understanding. We relive the same scenes. Repetitive. Obsessive. We ask the same question. Over and over, again.
We insist on meaning. And that is our mistake. That, is our narcotic.
It is the thing that causes our throats to tighten and our hearts to race. It is the thing that brings us to our knees, and forces us to walk the floor. It is the thing that drives us, as it did me last weekend, five hours from home, to scream the word WHATNOT on a McDowell County mountain.
Ma loved whatnots.
Dolls and trinkets.
Little things of no real consequence.
It is easier to scream “WHATNOT!” than”WHY?“.
In “The Year of Magical Thinking” Joan Didion talks about the blank look she sees on the faces of people who have recently lost someone. Like Didion, I see it, too. I recognize it because I’ve seen it on myself.
THE LOOK is one of extreme nakedness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off.
It is the look of the invisible. It is the look of the lost.
As I sit here, I have no real clarity. No honest understanding. No full or final knowledge.
I have no answers.
But I know the hurt recedes, even if the emptiness grows fuller. We find peace in between the quiet, and the mournful moments. We learn how to heal ourselves in sudden, and sometimes frightening, ways.
I still don’t know how to pray. But it’s easier for me to understand the abstract concept of life after death than to find meaning in the knowledge that my mother is no more. So, I still believe in god. I still believe in heaven.
I just wish someone would have told me that grief is an illness. That I’d have to lose my mind in order to find it. That on a cold January night, a year from when it first began, I’d be standing by her graveside, reaching for something higher than myself, and breaking my voice over a word I don’t know how to spell. I don’t even know if it’s really a word.