They left me with your shadow saying things like
life is not fair & I believed them for a long time.
But today I remembered the way you laughed
and the heat of your hand in mine &
I knew that life is more fair than we can ever imagine
if we are there to live it.
I listen to podcasts when I take Buster for his daily walk. Moving my body became as essential as breathing during the height of the pandemic when we were all confined at home. Without it, I lose what little mojo I have to get stuff done and find myself getting short-tempered, impatient and cranky. Never a pretty combination, especially for those who are working from home with you.
In a recent episode, a young woman whose sibling had died shared her thoughts about the comments people had made to her – what she found hurtful instead of helpful, what she found thoughtless instead of considerate. Some of it, I related to. Some of it, I didn’t. But what struck me, and not for the first time, is the ways we make on our own pain worse when we’re grieving and how we try to universalize the needs and wants of the bereaved, even as we acknowledge that everyone’s experience of loss is different. For example, we complain about the words people use when they ask how we are instead of appreciating that they care enough to ask. We fool ourselves into thinking that perfectly phrased sentiments exist, and that, when uttered, they will somehow ease our pain. It’s what’s led to scores of articles chastising people for what they say to friends and family who are grieving, as if those magical, healing phrases existed and worked for everyone.
When a friend called to check on me after Jimmy died, I discovered I didn’t care how she phrased her concern. Most of the time, I was too numb to hear the exact words anyway, but I didn’t miss the love behind them. On any given day, I might be too fragile to answer, but it was never lost on me that she cared enough to want to know.
When friends offered to help, I rarely knew what to ask for. I was too uncomfortable admitting that my guest bathroom was filthy or that I had no idea what to make for dinner. Often I just didn’t didn’t know what I needed. So people would guess. Whether or not their actions hit the mark, I appreciated those persevering souls who didn’t let my reticence stop them. The meals that showed up, the counters that got cleaned, the household supplies that got dropped off, I was grateful for all of it. I appreciated that my friends were willing to try, even if the casserole was terrible, or we already had enough bananas and paper towels.
We don’t always say or do the “right” thing when we reach out to a friend. Death is shattering, and grief is scary. If you haven’t lost one of your most important people, how could you possible know what to say or how to help someone who has?
But this isn’t a piece for the people who love us and want to help. It’s a gentle plea for the grieving to see what’s hiding in plain sight. The miniature miracles all around you. The still hot latte waiting on your desk when you drag yourself back into work after a family member dies. The flowers on your front porch from your neighbor’s garden. The two enormous Tupperware bowls full of summer fruit your workout buddy drops off, more salad than your family of four could eat in a week. The garbage cans that get put on the curb on the days you’re too broken to leave the house. The way even your most terrified, uncertain friends keep showing up, no matter what. As Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.”
After Jimmy died, I walked and walked and walked. Some days, it was the only reason I left the house. I walked to survive the pain, to keep myself from curling up into a ball on the floor, to avoid being alone in the house. But even in my grief, I couldn’t fail to notice the beauty that was all around me – the purple lupine covering the hillsides, the warmth of the sun on my back, the blue green lake waters sparkling in the light. Everyday miracles pulling me back to life as I trudged alone behind Buster and my husband, Dan, carrying Jimmy with me.
There is no way back to the life you had before your beloved died. That life is gone, and so is the person who lived it. The path to a life in the aftermath of loss is built with small, round stones, not large pavers. The sunlight in the trees, California poppies brightening up the highways, the sound of a child’s laughter, the smell of summer barbecue, a hug from a friend, the sweet tart taste of the first strawberry of the season. These are the pebbles that lead you back to the land of the living. The key is to look for them, even on the hardest days. To remember that the pain and longing will always be there, reminding of you of all that is lost but that life is still a gift, if you are here to live it.