And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?
There is a scene in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.” Kathleen Kelley, the protagonist, is sitting at her computer like I am now. She has just suffered personal loss and is writing to what she calls “the deep void.”
“People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they are really saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all...has happened.”
It did happen.
Six weeks ago it happened to me.
My mother passed away.
She left a life well-lived.
She also left Christmas decorations, sweaters, jewelry, journals, a cat and a big hole in my heart.
Ahhh yes. My heart. That pesky thing that at times is so heavy that it doesn’t feel like it resides in my chest cavity but instead I have to drag it around on a large chain, Jacob Marley style.
Her leaving wasn’t a surprise, we knew it was coming. But like so many things in life you don’t really know something until you do.
This was a post I never wanted to write.
This was the post I dreaded during the year and a half after we heard the words cancer.
This is the nightmare that came true.
The thing that I didn’t want to happen, happened.
It’s been six weeks now. Which means that the cards have stopped. The flowers. The check ins. The looks. The How are yous.
Life continues to keep going and you can’t help but feel like you are expected to do the same. Most people are still kind and empathetic. They recognize that you are still grieving but there is also an expectation that you should be functioning at a mostly normal capacity by now.
Once you realize this is the expectation you start putting on the mask. The “This is hard but I am doing okay” mask.
Masks can be extraordinarily helpful. They protect you from bulls in china shops, people with the best of intentions and your own emotions when you know you don’t have proper control of them.
But the problem is this: you can get so used to wearing one that you start to believe that it is actually your face.
Your face, your true face is a revenant, a ghost. It isn’t pretty or put together. It is shell-shocked and tear stained.
It is both pleading for someone, anyone, to understand it and terrified that someone actually will.
It is comfortable in the dark, so much so that when exposed to light it can easily become overwhelmed.
It, your true face, is a skeleton, just ripped apart from whatever it was that happened that you didn’t want to happen.
It will never look the same again.
Hence the mask. And the false sense of security it brings.
Your true face, safe behind the mask, starts to think, maybe the world is right, maybe I am okay.
Except that is not true.
The truth is, I am heartbroken.
And that is why I needed to write this.
Because someone else might need to hear this too.
That is it okay that you are still not okay.
That it is okay to be your disheveled, unpredictable, half- here, half who knows where, real face in the midst of fresh grief.
And fresh can mean any length of time. Grieving is time sensitive to the griever.
I am going to take off my mask now.
I am taking it off so I can share some of my experience about what freshy grief has looked and felt like so far, with the sole purpose of helping someone feel a little less alone in their own grief. (Or you could just feel relief when you realize you are not as crazy as I am.)
Freshy grief is:
- Any little thing occasionally can and will be a trigger.
- The bookends of the day, right before and after bed, are the hardest parts.
- Dreading milestones like a birthday.
- Little things make you irrationally angry. Like grocery store lines. Infuriating.
- Going from really good to terrible in 5 seconds and then be fine a few seconds after that.
- Being surprised when you laugh or feel normal.
- Feeling guilty for feeling normal when you truly are doing fine.
- Starting to pick up on physical cues from your body about when it is time to take a few moments and be sad. Mine starts with a pit in my stomach or an over active hyper mind.
- Totally mundane things still pop in your head. When I reflect back about final moments with mom, I sometimes fixate on the pajamas I was wearing.
- Your tolerance level for B.S of any kind is zero.
- Your tolerance for small talk is about 5%
- You find yourself repeating phrases like “I am taking it one day at a time” “Thank you very much for your kind words” so often that when you don’t understand or didn’t hear someone correctly you just continue the conversation with one of these phrases without knowing if they make sense. Example: “Did you get the trees trimmed in the backyard?” But to you, it sounded like “Mer per meh tees imm le back ar?” So you respond with “Thank you for the kind words,” and you get a sympathy look
- That’s another thing. Sympathy looks. Sympathy looks everywhere.
- Feeling irritated about sympathy looks.
- Feeling irritated when people don’t give you sympathy looks.
- Just feeling irritated in general.
- Internal screaming. Lots of internal screaming. And swearing.
- Wanting to crawl into a hole and not come out for a very very long time.
- Feeling both awkward and grateful when people offer you help.
- Being upset at people for leaving you alone.
- Being upset at people for not leaving you alone.
- Feeling alone quite often. Even when surrounded by people.
- Being hypersensitive to any kind of exclusion, whether intentional or not.
- Walking around in a haze-like state and wondering if it is permanent. Life feels like the aftershock of an earthquake, or a permanent high pitched ringing after the bomb explodes.
- Having a multitude of surreal moments. Like talking about cremation and the Cubs in the same conversation.
- Trying to not go dark, trying to mourn and grieve without losing sight of hope.
- Finding yourself wanting to tell her things or show her things and then feeling the familiar pang when you realize not only that you can’t, but you won’t be able to ever again in this lifetime.
- Distractions in the form of netflix marathons or good books.
- Being impatient with yourself and your loved ones.
- Finding moments of deep, incredible beauty.
- Holding on to whatever memories you can.
- Crying. Lots and lots of crying.
Freshy grief feels like you are walking along the bottom of the ocean. Dark. Murky. You can’t speak clearly. You can’t hear. Life seems muffled. You can’t swim.
Freshy grief feels like you are in alternate universe. Where Donald Trump is going to president, the Cubs are world series champions and mom is not here.
Freshy grief feels like you are sitting on the bank of a river. And everyone else is floating by in their inner tubes. Some laughing. Some crying. Some worried. Some waiting.
The world doesn’t stop for a broken heart.
And it is infuriating because you want the world to stop.
Hey you, how can you complain about the weather right now? Can’t you see my tears?
Who gives a crap if I want paper or plastic? I am never going to kiss my mom on the cheek again.
No, I don’t want a quote on auto insurance, I want to call my mom and have her tell me that everything is okay.
I want to see her again. I want to touch her again. I want to hear her voice and have her tell me about the time when I was little and held her hand and we paced up and down the hallway for hours because my 18 month old self insisted that I practice walking.
I want to see her “you’ve got to be kidding me” face.
I want to hear her giggle and laugh.
But I can’t.
Doesn’t anyone understand that?
A wise friend said to me. “Grief is love with no place to go.”
That is true.
Others go places with their love. Others have things to do, trips to take, stories to tell, work to do, lives to lead.
Grievers find ourselves stuck with love and no place to go. Crying behind closed doors so not to feel exposed or mess up the world around them.
Trying to walk through and not run through or sit down in this valley of the shadow of death.
Writing blog posts at 2am that you never wanted to write.
To all of you who are not in the midst of grief.
We, the grievers, still need you.
And it isn’t fair to you because we are not going to tell you that. We may even insist we are fine.
You may need to barge through our walls and tick us off.
It isn’t fair to you because we are going to be irritable and overly sensitive.
It isn’t fair because nothing that you do or say will probably be right.
But the good news is, is that we don’t need you to say anything.
We just need you, your presence.
We just need you to be there, with your own unmasked face.
It gives us security and space and courage to take our masks off.
You don’t have to say anything. Just take in our hollow eyes. Our vacant expression. Our disheveled hair. The bags and wrinkles. The bones that used to contain life.
And when it is time, touch our ghostly skeleton cheeks.
And point out what we have missed.