I don’t recall having any concept of grief as I was growing up. Loss didn’t cross my path in any life-altering way until far into my adulthood.
One of my grandfathers died before I was old enough to understand what it meant to lose him, and my brother and I did not attend the funeral – knowing what I know now as a parent, I think my parents chose wisely when they headed north for a few days and left us home with our other set of grandparents. I don’t recall having any sense of how the loss affected my parents, although I know now that they must have been grieving, particularly my mother because it was her father. I remember being caught completely off-guard once when I was older, probably around 11 or 12. We were driving on Route 29 toward my grandparents’ house in Bethesda, and my dad had put one of his family cassettes into the stereo deck (over the years he often tape-recorded stories and conversations during family get-togethers). The recording must have been six or seven years old, because suddenly my late grandfather’s voice came over the car speakers. My mother burst into tears. Sitting in the back seat, my brother and I turned toward each other wide-eyed and silent, not having the slightest idea how to react or help.
My grandmothers both lived well into their 80s, and my other grandfather into his mid-90s. At each of their funerals, I felt great sadness; this emotion was outweighed, though, by enormous gratitude for having enjoyed so many years with them, years piled up with proof after proof of how much they loved us grandchildren. The mix of tears and laughter felt balanced, and in some sense logical – at least according to the assumptions about loss and grief I made at the time.
Those assumptions were crushed by the earthquake of my brother’s death. There are aftershocks –
and not just from my own ongoing grief journey. Many aftershocks are still coming from what people tell me about their own experiences of loss and grief. My eyes have been opened.
Some people come to a place of peace and acceptance faster than others. Some throw themselves into work and put their grieving off for months, years, decades even, until the time comes when they are somehow ready to face it. Some tumble deeply into despair and feel compelled to live there for a while. Some experience relief – maybe because the deceased had been suffering unbearable mental or physical pain, or perhaps even because the relationship had difficulties that were inescapable while the person was alive (let’s name the elephant in the room here – no one has flawless relationships with everyone in their lives, and relief is not an uncommon reaction to loss). Some self-soothe or self-medicate with any of a variety of tonics – alcohol or drugs, lots of food or denial of food, a heavy-duty exercise regimen, music, movies, going out, staying in, taking risks, taking time away. Some talk about it all the time, some stop talking. Some surround themselves with photographs, some put all the photographs in boxes and shut them up in a closet. And it isn't all or nothing -- an authentic grief experience can occur at any point on the continuum between extremes.
The more I communicate with people about grief, the more I see how each experience is as individual as a snowflake. Even as they are all formed from the same substance -- the water of loss -- each snowflake of grief has a unique shape, travels a unique trajectory, and follows a unique timeline. It can be a challenge to release assumptions and judgment and let them fall as they may. But I think that’s what allows acceptance and love to come in and cushion the fall.