Grief is an insidious guest, settling into a life, a home, a daily routine as if it has the right to take over, to claim ownership of a person’s most public and private self. It can pounce in unannounced and sprawl itself across our hearts, heavy and stifling, robbing us of a sense of buoyancy and hope. It is a weighted shroud wrapped around the body, heavy black blinds draped across windows that once let in the sunlight. Or, ever adaptable, it can slink in slowly, weaving its way through a back door to settle quietly in a corner, an ever-present entity that hovers around the corner, just beyond eyesight, watching us from a distance, warning us that something dreadful is pending.
I did not fully realize the all-consuming power of this emotion, one that almost all people will experience at some point in life. My life has been marked by few tragedies and none that have left me debilitated by the oppressive power of real grief. I suppose, however, that if I am truthful, I have been quietly coming to terms with this complex emotion for months on a variety of levels; I simply have not been able to name it properly for it disguises itself so cleverly.
Grief can look like sadness, confusion, lethargy; it can feel like frustration or anger, which sometimes bursts forth in strange and inappropriate moments, directed at others, who are usually innocent and unconnected to the source of pain, or it can backfire and erupt as anger at yourself. Inexplicably, it takes many forms as our minds and bodies struggle to understand this strange and forceful emotion and to process its meaning in our lives.
I was told I should feel grief when my father died last year, and perhaps I did. But the grief over this death was hard to categorize. It felt more like rage to me, mingled with sadness for a relationship never realized, for opportunities missed to have a healthy father-daughter connection that we are told is the norm in this lifetime. I watched with a certain detachment as my sister cried and told me of her last visit with him, how he looked shrunken in a hospital bed. She was visibly distraught and has struggled this year with myriad emotions that surround the death of a parent. I cried too, a little, but not really for the loss of my father for I felt I had lost him years ago. I cried more for the loss of an idea of who I had hoped my father would be. And because I knew that all the things I never said to him would now remain locked and buried in the recesses of my mind, pushed down and swallowed like lumps of dry bread to fill my aching stomach.
Grief can pounce or slink, can visit your house like an unwelcome guest, filling room after room with its presence, and it will not leave until it is ready. Now, watching my dog of 15 years lose all his faculties, my heart is filled with a different kind of grief, a grief that is slow and spreading, like a drop of India ink in water, its dark color subtly filling the once clear liquid making all things murky. I know it will fill me, too, one day when I find he has left me on this earth to move to another realm, and I will have to adjust to this reality. It grows closer each day as I watch his eyes turn to milk, unseeing, his back legs buckle under the weight of his body, his disorientation as he grumbles and barks into space at imaginary (or real?) things as he lays for hours in one position, eyes half-open, gazing at nothing, panting with each breath he takes. This grief is slow. It is gradual and permeates my heart in small increments. I realize this is the natural course of all living beings, but it makes the long decline of my most loved companion so hard to witness.
Some say it is better to prepare for death, that if a person is ill for a long time the grieving process is woven into the decline so it is not such a sharp, acute experience when the sadness hits full force. Illness or old age gives one time to accept death, to adjust to sadness and a world where the loved one no longer exists. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps now, as I carry my boy’s aging body up and down the stairs to help him relieve himself outside, I am processing minute particles of grief, picking them systematically out of my heart, so it is no longer peppered by shrapnels of sadness. I know he cannot stay with me forever, and I am trying to focus on the goodness of our time together, the beauty of his expansive and accepting heart, yet it is hard to fight back the weight that lingers on the edges of my consciousness, the fears that find their voice inside my dreams. I am grieving the loss of him now, every day, as he changes. And I can only hope that I will be able to accept the inevitable and adjust gracefully when the time comes.
But the most profound grief, a feeling I have not experienced and pray I do not have to, is when someone is taken from you, creating a sudden shift in your world, an expansive void that opens, chasm-like, revealing mile after mile of rocky terrain going nowhere. My nephew of 22 years was lost to us in an auto accident two months ago and the pain, sadness, fear, anger and utter despondency that fills my sister’s world is inexplicable. She is struggling with a kind of grief that has no name, a kind of grief that may forever reside inside her heart, no matter how much time passes. Yes, she could pull herself together to get through the funeral and the other responsibilities that surround death, but she is now lost in a maze with no map, a profound sorrow that no person’s words can help; no shoulder is broad enough to bear the burden that has replaced her heart. I know how deeply she is grieving and also know that these emotions, the struggle to get through each day, to inhale and exhale, may continue for months, even years. Grief attacked her world, bounded into her life unannounced and it now lives side by side with her and her family.
We’ve all heard about the stages of grief, the Kubler-Ross study that tells us we all will pass through steps as we process our loss and sadness. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. But no one can tell us how each of us will deal with death, with tragedy, with grief when it comes to call. How long does each stage last? How many days until the sunshine feels warm and we welcome its light? Every person’s experience is unique. Whether you are grieving the loss of a parent or friend, the impending death of an aging or ill animal, the traumatic shock of a life taken in accident, the path of grief is rocky and winding, a path to be explored alone to see how you will react to its presence in your world. We cope in different ways, some people choosing to talk and share their emotions while others shut down or turn to the comfort that can be found in writing or meditations of the soul. Grief forces us to confront our own mortality, to ask the hardest questions we are presented with in this life: Why am I here? What is my true purpose? What really happens when a being dies? How can I ever experience happiness again after such deep and intense loss? And the most difficult part is that there are no answers; no one can tell us when grief will pass, when we might feel normal again, if ever, and the resolutions we find to those other questions, those bigger existential giants that have plagued man for centuries, are solely up to us to ponder, to come to terms with, in whatever manner we can.
For regardless of what happens, life does go on. And if you are alive and breathing then you have to strive to move forward, to continue to fill each day of life with as much light and love as possible. We might never know why some things happen and to accept this ambiguity is, perhaps, the first real step toward some kind of peace after profound loss.