When I was little (and by little, I mean before 1997), grief and mourning were fascinating subjects to me. When other little kids were playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, my friends and I often pretended we were Jews hiding from the Nazis. After we spent an afternoon acting out slipping behind false walls and into straw-lined wagons, we would type out stories about the adventures we’d created. There are several beautiful young adult novels about the Holocaust, and I devoured them. In almost every story, there was a dead family member haunting the protagonist; the deceased was always dark and glamorous, representing everything joyful about pre-war times, memorialized in a well-worn photograph. I thought about death and losing a family member as something glittery that catapulted you into a grown-up life with grown-up thoughts and feelings. I distinctly remember thinking how wonderful it would be to get so much attention. Mostly, it did not feel real.
When I was 12, and my father suddenly died in one month after my birthday, grief was unimaginably real. The mind protects itself, and I have almost no memory, positive or negative, of any attention that I received because of my status as a wounded child, part of the family robbed so early. I remember being mad and disappointed and scared, all at once, and just sad in a hollowed out way. I remember being angry at people for crying and acting sad; it wasn’t their dad who died. I remember being possessive of my grief, and jealous of people who tried to share it with me. I don’t remember any glamor. I don’t remember my first day back at school or the first Sunday we went back to church.
The thing that I remember and carry with me about my grief at that time is embarrassment. Maybe because I was 12 or maybe because I was kind of tough and rebellious in the aftermath, I remember being embarrassed when someone would reference what happened. If someone even said the word “Dad” around me, I would turn red and pray to God that they wouldn’t catch their own “mistake.” I was terrified that someone would say the word father or brain aneurysm, then see me standing nearby and say “Oh! Sorry…” awkwardly. I don’t know if that transaction happened many times or at all, but I spent years being jumpy and terrified that it would. I always wanted to skip the explaining part. I just wanted people to know. I never wanted to say, “My father died recently. Unexpectedly. A brain aneurysm.” I doubt I ever had those words when I needed them.
It’s 12 years later. I have lived exactly half my life having no idea about grief, and half my life living with a slowly evolving piece of grief as my keystone. My grief knives me at normal times- Thanksgiving and Christmas, junior prom, my wedding day. Springtime. When I’m planting something (my father was a tree farmer). As a young married person, when I ask for advice, and my mother mentions the way she and my dad built their life as newlyweds. When I think about having a son or daughter, and wonder how I will explain to them about the grandfather they never met. He still will be one of their grandfathers. That’s marvelous to me. It grieves me at the same time.
That’s my new grief. It’s like a bruise that sometimes you press just to remember that it hurts. As an adult, I love talking about my father. He was hilarious and loved the ocean and watched the Simpsons and loved football and hockey and I think baseball, too. He was Kevin and almost everyone he met completely loved him. He used to make everyone laugh and he would laugh so hard and as his laugh was winding down he would say, “I just…” and finish off laughing. I love him so much. The last words he ever said to me in person were, “Remember, you are a child of the King.” He used to send me off to school everyone morning with those words.
I would obviously like for this tender experience with grief to be my only, but it’s already been proven to me that there will be more, and that each one will be different. People are going to die too early or too slowly or too painfully around me for the rest of my entire life. There isn’t a right grief, or a wrong grief, I don’t think. To people who haven’t had their first huge grief yet, there is no such thing as “the right thing to say.” If you knew the person, share your favorite memory. If you didn’t, give the griever a tightly squeezed hand or a well-meant hug. And then move on. A person’s grief will keep on flowing, but it will probably get softer every year.
*I’ve been wanting to write about grief for awhile now. I just finished “Back When We Were Grown Ups” by Anne Tyler, and her description of grieving for her young husband was so lovely. Then I sobbed my eyes out during the short storyline devoted to a father and husband who died long ago during my weekly viewing of Glee. The above is just my take.