When I was younger, I thought grief was a thing you did. A stage. A moment. Something you got through. Got over. Got past.
I didn’t know that grief was more like a tattoo — an ink that stays in your skin for the rest of your life. It may fade with time, stretch as you grow, wrinkle with age. Some call grief a scar, but to me, it has more color than that. I think “tattoo” is more accurate, except that you don’t usually choose the pattern of your grief.
Perhaps, though, the best description I’ve heard of grief was written by Heather Schichtel. She calls grief an “impy, uninvited, grievous house guest.” Her piece titled Grief is found in the book Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul. I recommend you seek it out and read it. It is insightful.
This is how I see my grief now. As an uninvited guest — tall, smug, bony with slick, oily hair. A little like Rumpelstiltskin in the TV series Once Upon a Time. Or like Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge. Greedy. Shrewd. Pompous. And a little overdressed for the occasion.
When you first meet grief, he moves in for a while. He fills up all the space, plays his music too loud, talks over your favorite TV show, sits in your favorite chair, throws loud parties at night, and bangs around early in the morning. He leaves his things everywhere. You can’t escape him or ignore him.
Eventually, he moves out, but he comes to visit. A lot. He carpools to work, calls in the middle of the night, comments all over your social media, and shows up unexpectedly at social events. He especially loves holidays and is by your side in every crisis.
Grief comes and goes. Sometimes sad. Sometimes angry. Sometimes resigned.
He shows up unexpectedly. There’s no rhyme or reason to his visits. I can be a stadium full of screaming fans, my team in the lead and in possession of the ball. A foul. A timeout. Fans on the jumbotron. A group of kids showing off on the screen. I think, “I wish Patrick could play so he had friends like that.” And there is grief next to me, feet up, arm around my seat, cold fingers on my shoulder. “Shh,” I say. “I’m watching the game.” But I pass the popcorn. We both know he’s staying a while.
Grief is made of memory. It glistens on his skin. He loves to reminisce. He brings photo albums and keepsakes. He’s chosen “our song” and will make sure it plays on the radio. Sometimes it is healing to take a moment to pause with him and reflect and remember.
Be careful. It is very, very easy to be seduced by him. If you let him, grief will shutter the windows and lock the doors. He’ll tell you only he can understand. He’s a jealous friend. He wants you all to himself, snuggled up in sadness. Bitterness.
Grief is a hoarder. He piles up lost hopes. Old dreams. Broken promises. He says he does it to protect you. He’ll bury you in them if you let him.
There isn’t laughter in his company. Or newness. Or possibility. If we want those things, we have to step away from him. Open the door. Shove off the debris of loss he wraps around us like a cocoon. We may not be able to push him from our lives forever, but can we tell him to stand back. Make room. You may find you leave his unbidden chrysalis with new wings.
As for me, grief and I are old acquaintances now. I met him as a newlywed, trying to start a family. He went with me to doctor’s visits for myself and later for my son. He heard all the diagnoses and prognoses, treatment options, and painful choices. He sat with me in the waiting room and at the hospital bedside. He went with me to register my son for school and sat with me in IEP meetings. He was there through it all.
At first, we didn’t know each other well. I let him push me around. An encounter with him could take my breath away or reduce me to tears. He’d keep me frozen with fear of what else I might feel in his company. With time, however, our relationship has gotten easier.
Sometimes he shows up while I’m making dinner or cleaning the house. He might catch me running errands, scheduling appointments, or answering e-mails.
“What are you up to?””Oh. You again. Go away. I’m busy.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve got to get this done before school pickup. Leave me alone.”
“But I’ve got problems for you. Can we talk a while?”
“Life is so unfair.”
“It will have to wait.”
“Well, can we watch Netflix?”
“Can we grab a snack?”
“No. I don’t have time. Can you just be quiet?”
And so he just stays, looking over my bookshelves and the dishes in my sink, “hmm-ing” here and there judgmentally to remind me he’s there. As if I could forget.
I’ve gotten to know him in the same way that you know an unusual co-worker or estranged family member. Now, when he comes around, I can say, “Oh, that’s just grief. He’s like that.”
Once you know him, you start to spot him following others. Read him in a text. Hear him in an undertone. You’ll see someone sitting alone, eyes cast down. And there he is, lurking behind them. He’ll wave. You’ll wink, sit down, strike up a conversation with his prey. You’ll share some words, some tears, and finally a smile or a laugh. Grief dislikes company and he hates laughter!
But we need to laugh. We need to keep on living.
We do not need to stop our lives to entertain this selfish guest who doesn’t want to leave the house.
We have to set boundaries. Limits. Rules.
If he chooses to follow us to the movies or on vacation or to the science fair, so be it. He can sit in the corner and wait his turn.
Later, there can be quiet moments for reflection. On our terms. We can face him when we choose. Tears can be healing when they are washing wounds instead of oozing from them. But our lives are meant for more than tears.
We are made for joy.
Grief seems to stop time. Life seems to end. Seems to end, but doesn’t. Seems, to end, but still goes on, whether we choose to go with it or not.
I am still alive. And want to look back on my life and see more than just sadness and waiting.
I want to see dreams. And happiness. Silliness. Friendship. Adventure.
I want to see that I’ve tried, even if I’ve failed. I want to look forward, not just downward and backward. I want fresh, vibrant memories alongside the faded ones.
I may not always be able to escape grief. But I’ve learned to tolerate him.
He may still ruin a party with his bad manners and worn-out stories. He may still sulk around and complain. Sometimes we shed a tear together. Sometimes we pick up a broom and clear out the cobwebs. He’s not all bad.
I’m kinder because I’ve known him. More patient. More empathetic. I do not tiptoe around my old friend, grief.
I ask hard questions– talk about taboo subjects. I know grief is like a vampire who shrinks from the light of caring, so I ask. I share. I lift. I cry. He is easier to face when I’m not alone.
I am more open because I’ve known grief. More genuine. I’m not afraid to be vulnerable. Grief has laid me bare.
We are not strangers, grief and I. But, when I look ahead at my life full of moments… My moments… I don’t want to share them all with this melancholy man in his musty old suit. Grief may want to stay with me. But I do not have to stay with him.
Life holds far too much possibility. Too much beauty to sit in darkness.
Hope is a more agreeable companion.