The Authenticity Experiment, the lifetime grieving edition. The Alaskan Poet said to me, “I’m beginning to think that grieving is a lifetime process. AND I also think that it’s possible to be at peace with that and just realize that you can grieve and move forward.” And, I think she’s right.
It’s no surprise to find grief here—thoughts about it, stories about it, rants and rages about it. But there’s a particular grief I’ve been thinking about. Last week, two of my oldest, dearest friends—sisters—lost their child and nephew.
Yeah, a 25 year-old kid.
The Opera Singer used to say, “Comparisons are odious.” She’s right, of course, but how do you handle the grief of losing a child? It seems so much bigger than other deaths. A child: someone you created, carried, fed, and sent out into the world? All that potential lost.
And so I want to tell my friends there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is just grief. Whether you are slamming medicine balls against a wall or in the fetal position under the kitchen table, there is grief. Whether you play only the A-side of Tracy Chapman’s debut album over and over again for one year or you drop out and take yourself on a bike tour of New Zealand, there is grief. Whether you throw yourself into work focusing only on the concrete tasks of the day or you take yourself to bed for a month, there is grief. Whether you talk or blog incessantly about grief or you ignore it and pretend it never happened, there is grief.
You can sit in the basement and watch all 8 seasons (192 episodes) of “24” or you can write a haiku a day. You can remodel the house and buy new blinds, new floors, and new furniture or you can refuse to vacuum the stairs for six months. You can fall in love or you can break up immediately. You can eat nothing but carbohydrates or you can go paleo and become as lean as ever. You can try and read and carry the same book around for nine months or you can resign yourself to the fact that even catalogs require too much brainpower.
You can walk. You can walk and walk and walk. You can walk 3,754 miles in one year, thinking your thoughts, crying a little on every walk, talking out loud to yourself, to your dead person, to the gods. But the terrible thing is, your person will still be dead. And the beautiful thing is, your person will hear you. All of us who have lost people will tell you this: the dead hear our prayers, our cries, our pleas.
For a while last fall, almost every time the Woman Who Is Not My Girlfriend came over, the stairwell from my front door filled with cigarette smoke. Only the stairwell. You couldn’t smell the smoke in the garage (which is where my mother smoked when she was alive) or out front (as if some passerby had stood smoking in front of my house) and I don’t have a neighbor so it didn’t come from there. The smoke stayed in the entry stairwell, drifting just to the top of the stairs so we could smell it in the living room—it never filled the living room, never filled any other part of the house. It was simply a visitation.
I told my sister Jule about this and she said, “You let mom smoke in the house?” And I said, “Jule, she’s dead. How do you tell a dead person not to smoke in the house?” We laughed really hard about this. Then we cried. Because that’s grief, too. The manic swings from crying to laughing. The need to sleep 12 hours a night or to not sleep at all. The need to sleep only five hours and then go to the gym and lift the heaviest weights you can safely manage. The need to drink or drug yourself into oblivion so you can get a little rest.
I know many of these examples personally. The Alaskan Poet knows them. The Idaho Playwright knows them. The Philanthropist knows them. The Basketball Player knows them. The Sailor knows them. The Liberal Preacher knows them. The Very Important Poet knows them. The Child Barista knows them. My Wisest Mentor knows them. And so do all the folks who don’t have nicknames: Stan, Cindy, Holly, Laura, Jon, Rita, and you out there reading.
We are all grieving something and we need all the grace and kindness that exists out there to get through. And we need also to remember that grief isn’t linear, that we circle around and around the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross mulberry bush of loss. This is grief, too.
I wrote back to the Alaskan Poet. I said, “Grieving is a lifetime process. It spirals around and you wind up at the same spot, just a little higher. I always think of mountain switchbacks.” It gets—if not easier, than lighter—the higher you go on the spiral, but it can still bring you to your knees, will probably always bring you to your knees at some point. But like the Poet said, “It’s possible to be at peace with that and just realize that you can grieve and move forward.”
And so Karen, Rob, JJ, Carolyn, Elizabeth, and Danna, be easy with yourselves. Grieve any way you must. Don’t judge it and don’t stop it. But also, keep moving forward. Your community is here waiting for you and loving you. We’re all along together for this trip up the mountain.