The Ugly Side of Grief

There isn’t a thing to eat down in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. Cheryl Strayed

About five or six years after Jimmy died, my carefully constructed façade of “I’ve got this” cracked. I don’t recall any one incident causing it, but I do remember the feeling of slamming into the stone-cold reality that Jimmy was gone and never coming back. The discovery that the denial had been there all along, flowing silently just beneath the surface. The magical thinking I’d been engaging in. What Joan Didion says will have you leaving your loved one’s shoes right by the front door because you are convinced he’s going to come back and need them.

I thought I’d done my work. I’d been trying so hard to be a good little griever and face my sadness. I read, I wrote, I walked, I talked to my therapist and lots and lots of other bereaved parents. I leaned in gratefully every time someone said Jimmy’s name or shared a story or memory. I rejoiced when someone who never knew him said, “Tell me about your son.” I felt lucky we had so many friends and chosen family who understood how much it mattered to keep his memory alive. I made mental lists of all the ways it could have been worse.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the day when all of that ceased to be enough.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d had plenty of hard, dark moments during those half dozen years. Times when all I could think about was everything Jimmy was missing out on. I’d read about one of his high school classmates moving in with a girlfriend, traveling to an exotic locale or buying their first house, and a rush of envy would bubble up inside me. How unfair it was that Jimmy would never have these experiences. How much he’d wanted to live on his own, fall in love, have children. We attended one of his best friend’s weddings and another’s marathon race to try to qualify for the Olympics, and the pain of Jimmy not being there to share the joy nearly doubled me over.

Back then, I could calm myself down by concentrating how much Jimmy had been there to witness or be part of and all the ways his closest friends carry him with them in their own special ways. The way when I got quiet and let the melancholy go, I could feel Jimmy there, rejoicing right along with us.

But grief morphs and changes with time, easing off in some ways, becoming more acute in others. I’d been focusing so hard on accepting Jimmy’s absence and all that he wasn’t here to experience that I hadn’t noticed just how bitter I could feel about everything I had lost. The fury I felt about all that I was missing out on. Our too quiet Christmases without Jimmy’s carefully chosen gifts, the sound of his voice on an unexpected afternoon phone call, the grandchildren he would have given us. Everything I will never know about music and movies because he is not here to tell me. The way his kindness and calm acceptance of his life and all its limitations would inspire me to do better, to be better. There are days when I cannot look at pictures of intact families celebrating or read about the birth of a dear friend’s first grandchild without the black bile of bitterness rising in my throat.

It is not okay that all this was stolen from me. It never will be. But self-pity is a dead-end road. And bitterness will imprison you in the past and eat you from the inside out if you let it. There was nowhere to go with all of my negative thoughts and misplaced rancor. My expectations about how my life would turn out were just that … visions and fantasies promised by no one. My future life wasn’t guaranteed. It never had been.

The turning point came when I realized that with each of these dead-end thoughts, Jimmy was drifting farther away from me. There was no space for him in the bitter barn, as Phoebe from Friends calls it. It hasn’t been easy (turns out, I’m quite comfortable in the bitter barn), but I am learning how to stop swimming in my own manufactured misery and focus instead on everything and everyone that remain.

Grievance is not the same as grief. Despite the siren song of self-pity, there’s nothing healing or helpful about counting the ways you think you’ve been wronged or mistreated. Life is hard, as Scott Peck said, and none of us gets out of here unscathed. No matter how salty or bittersweet your sadness is, it will never preserve anything about the person you love. If anything, I found that it just blurred Jimmy’s image even more and made him feel farther away than ever. Despite the seductive nature of self-righteous anger, it has never kept anyone alive, even in memory. I realized that if I stayed on this path much longer, Jimmy would soon come to be made only of grief.

These lives of ours are incredibly short, and there’s no way to spare yourself sorrow. We will eventually lose everyone we love, whether they leave us or we leave them. The only way to avoid the pain is to brick up your heart and deny yourself your dreams.

Margo, Molly, Jimmy sitting on a low stone wall in front of a fort in Florida. Margo is wearing a light blue tank top, white LIVESTRONG hat, sunglasses and wearing a backback. Molly is wearing a blue swim shirt with orange and white sleeve and blue basketball shorts. Jimmy is wearing a red Stanford hat with sunglasses perched on the brim, a white t-shirt with turquoise writing and black basketball shortsI am still the mother of two children, one who is still here and one who is not, but who is still teaching me and helping to carry me through. Twenty-one years with Jimmy is not a small amount of time, and nothing else I’ve done compares to the joy, frustration and adventure of raising my two children. Jimmy died before he could launch his grown-up life but that doesn’t mean he didn’t leave his mark on the world. He was a gift, and it was a privilege to parent him, even on the hardest days. As much as I resented and railed against the demands of his brain cancer, some of our sweetest, most memorable talks happened while waiting for chemotherapy or a transfusion or during the wee hours of the night in hospital room. My ache for what is lost and longing for what could have been is just a calibration of just how titanic my loss is. But I can’t ease or eliminate my own sorrow by wasting time resenting someone else’s life.

I haven’t been able to eliminate these uglier feelings but I’m learning that it’s also okay to acknowledge the underside of grief. The part that’s gritty and grim and not fit for public consumption. The dark feelings we all have and hate to admit to. But when I do share them with those who get it, I only feel more seen.

As the ten year anniversary of Jimmy’s death approaches, I am slowly getting better at making space for someone else’s joy without comparing it to my own. My shattering loss doesn’t obliterate anyone else’s sorrow any more than their happiness limits my own. It’s not a zero-sum game. Plenty of people have lost far more than I have and found ways to go on. Despite the Jimmy size hole in my heart, I wouldn’t trade those 21 years for anything or say that today’s agony isn’t a worthwhile tradeoff for having had him at all. I had what I had. I got what I got. My goal is to find a way to make it be enough.

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