I had thought it was a normal day.
I was sitting in Panera, reflecting on my life, when the woman next to me began eating her sandwich, chewing with her mouth open.
This was bad news for my tranquil personal time, because when I hear that sound, I often recall this unhappy memory from when I was a precious four years old:
My parents, brothers, and I are sitting at our dinning room table, having dinner. My father, Scott, screams across the table “DON’T CHEW WITH YOUR MOUTH OPEN!!!!” I freeze. I don’t even know who he’s screaming at, but terror fills my entire body. I stare at my plate as intensely as I can, not thinking, not moving, just waiting for this moment to end. Every muscle in my body memorizes how it feels in this moment. These moments seem to be happening more and more often.
So on another day, twenty-four years later, when I heard the sound I was so conditioned against, I quickly recognized that I would not be able to sit there in my own serenity any longer. I felt agitated as I packed up my things and left, wondering why this mood of disturbance was becoming so intense so quickly.
By the time I got home, there was a torment coming up from somewhere deep within my soul. I was so worked up and confused that I knew I would be no good for conversation. Instead, I went straight to the bathtub to surround myself with heat and water and darkness.
I asked myself “Where is this deep unsettling coming from?”
I waited and listened for the answer.
Gradually, I realized that I did not feel alone. There was someone else in the room with me. I had experienced this before, and I can only describe it as some kind of unresolved spirit, the story of someone who has passed on, without being able to let go. The whole thing felt very weird, and I kind of wondered if I was going crazy. But I also sensed that ignoring it would only make it weirder, so I just stayed there and paid attention.
The other person in the room started to show me things. I felt their terror and their fear. I saw an image of a sterile, frightening, white tiled room. They were lying on a hard table, completely paralyzed. Doctors were doing very strange things to their body, and they were scared shitless.
They were so afraid that they left their body in order to get away from it. But then…their body died, and they were suddenly stuck in the in-between. They were not spirit, not body, not alive, not dead.
This person asked for my help: “How do I die?” they begged to know.
I told them to go into something physical, a tree or the ground, and then fade away gradually, naturally.
I left the bath, not knowing what to make of the experience. Perhaps it was just my imagination, as it can be very vivid sometimes. I went to bed early to try to break the weird mood.
The next morning I turned my phone on for the first time in three days. I had messages from both of my brothers, and immediately felt that something awful had happened. I called my brother, holding my breath, praying to God that our mother was okay. When he told me that our father had died, I felt relief.
That I could handle. That made sense even.
He said that Scott had gone in for surgery the afternoon before. His diabetes had gotten so bad they had amputated his feet. There had been problems, and he had died on the table.
I understood everything now.
I understood his terror in those last moments. I felt true grief for him.
I felt true grief for a man I barely knew.
Grief is somehow different than other emotions.
I think because grief is not really an emotion. It’s barely a feeling.
It’s a state, a process.
It’s something you DO. Something you have to be active about.
Grief is not something that just happens and then you’re done and you move on.
You have to make grief happen, or else it just sits there and buries you.
When you experience a loss, you have to facilitate your own grief.
If it doesn't happen on it’s own, it can get locked up, and you can start to get weird.
Grief is very quiet. It is extremely subtle.
If we do not pay attention to it, it just kind of sits around the edges...lingering...waiting for us.
And it is very patient.
We must pay attention, because there is both grief and there is the fear of grief.
The fear of grief will have us thinking that there is something very dangerous, very scary about being sad, in recognizing loss.
But grief doesn’t care about this.
That is the advantage of grief.
Once you give into it, once you let yourself just pass away into the essence of loss, you are freed from caring somehow.
You are free to just let the loss be everything.
Nothing else matters. Nothing else is there.
All that is there is that which is no longer there.
That which will never be there again.
This is all you have to feel, this is all you have to know while you grieve.
In some ways, greif never ends, but it also won’t last forever.
Let yourself feel it. Let it run it’s course, and it will eventually lighten.
It will eventually become a little less intense, or come around a little less often, or stay around for shorter stints.
And when it does come back, it often surprises us. It comes at the oddest moments, from the oddest reminders.
Let this happen. Let it arise.
Tell it that it is welcome here, it is welcome to come in and set up camp for as long as it needs, because you know you cannot get away from it, you cannot live without it.
And that is just it. Life cannot be separated from death. They are the same thing. You cannot live without grief.
Every part of life contains its own loss.
When I think of my husband, and notice how overwhelming my gratitude for his presence in my life is, I cannot help but know how horrible it would be if I ever have to live without him. What pain, what daily shock I would experience.
Every time I look at my son and swell with uncontainable love, I also swell with that pure knowledge that the extent to which I want him near me is the same as the extent to which he is not mine. I cannot have him. I will never have him. I get to be with him for this moment, but his life is his own. I cannot own him, and oh, how that kills me. I want him here in my chest for all eternity.
I wonder if I’m being unnecessarily morbid for having these thoughts, but I don’t think so. I’m being honest with myself.
I must acknowledge the inherent capacity for loss there is in all things I love.
Because love and loss are the same thing.
And it is okay to grieve.
It is okay if it hurts like hell sometimes.
It is okay if it empties you out.
Because then, when it's finished, you have this special gift: you are empty.
You are so empty.
Whole new things can enter your body and your heart now.
When we love someone dearly, intensely, and they die, they are both gone, and they are not gone.
They are gone from us, and yet, we can get to know them in a new way.
We can explore our memories and ask some questions and find some resolutions we weren’t able to when they were here with us.
My Grandmothers love surrounds my heart every day, and when I start to take the small things way too seriously, I hear her laughing at me, and I relax a little bit.
My relationship to my Grandfather has opened up wide in order to help set some things right in the last year. He has been dead for thirteen years.
My relationship with my father has found new resolution now that he is gone. And I am really grateful for this.
In the weeks following Scott’s death, my husband and I took a lot of adventures. We drove all around the county finding any little corner of the countryside we hadn’t yet seen before. This was such a wonderful way to pace the process. It allowed me the space and quietness I needed to feel the huge hole in my chest, while at the same time providing some distractions, some alternate attention grabbers to break up the feelings a bit. It kept things moving, even though I was feeling the same thing over and over and over again, it kept it going in cycles, reaching a bit more resolution each time we went around. It mixed pain with pleasure.
My father was dead. Finally. His mental illness began escalating before I was born, so my entire life has been spent grieving the loss of a father I never even really had. I spent twenty-eight years trying to figure out how to do this, so by the time he passed away, I had gotten good at it. His death finally gave me the opportunity to say what I’d been needing to say for decades: “I have no father.”
A month before he died, I had a dream about him. We were sitting together on a bench across the street from my Jr. High School. I was grown, but he was about thirteen. I could see that he wanted to reach out, he really wanted to be able to connect with me, but he was genuinely incapable of it. He truly had no way of reaching outside of himself enough to get to another person. I felt such sympathy for him. Such compassion and sadness for the traps he experienced in his own mind and heart. I felt so badly for him. But I was also aware that there was nothing I could do either. There was nothing I could do to reach him. All there was room for was frustration…and grief.
Now, as I sit crying in the coffee shop typing this, I realize how true that was. All there was ever room for in our relationship was frustration…and grief.
Perhaps others would describe him differently. I hope so. I hope other people knew more sides of him than I saw, because from where I was standing, a little girl who could never become good enough for him, he was extremely limited.
I spent years being angry at him, hating him even, and I’m glad I did that. I needed that. I needed a way to realize that it wasn’t me. That I hadn’t done anything wrong. That I was whole and complete and well, regardless of how my father had treated me.
Then, once I had spent all my anger, all that was left was grief, grief that I had never had a father who just loved me for exactly what I was. I may spend my entire life grieving this, but now that I’ve been doing it for quite a while, it doesn’t come up as often, and when it does, it doesn’t elicit the same heart pangs that it used to. It is an awareness. I sometimes pray for some form of the father love to come and fill it, but I’m also okay knowing that there’s a hole in my chest, a hole that may never be filled.
This is grief. Allowing yourself to feel that hole, that physical absence of something or someone you want near to you and can not have.
This is the pain, the relief of grief.
Allow this, and it will show you what you need to do.
Know also that grief is exhausting.
It is like early pregnancy, you just need to sleep so much more than normal.
Because all of your energy is pouring out of this new hole in you.
Make room for that in your life.
Let yourself sleep.
Allow grief to do its work in you, and you keep the pathways to your heart open.
This way, the ones who are still here may find you, and love you as you are.
Autumn is the season for grief.
Fall is for everything dying away.
There is serious comfort in being surrounded by this expression of death.
If you don’t know how to grieve what you must grieve, go and make a great pile of the leaves. Lie down in them, cover your whole body with them, and just stay there for a while...
See what happens when you let death surround you.
There is utter pain, but hidden within that pain, there is comfort, there is true release.