What does grief look like?

Sometimes I have wondered if I’ve cried enough tears for the people in my life who have died.

Death has been a part of my life since I was a child: my mom died when I was barely 5 (car accident); my maternal grandfather, when I was 20 (cancer); my paternal grandfather, when I was 22 (cancer); my paternal grandmother, who raised me, when I was 26 (cancer, caused by hepatitis C); my maternal grandmother, when I was 29 (natural causes); my father, when I was 37 (“liver failure due to ethanol abuse,” wrote the medical examiner on his death certificate).  I’m the oldest person in my direct family line still standing, and that’s a strange feeling to have, especially when you’re only on the cusp of 40.

In some ways this has liberated me.  Nothing – and no one – is holding me back.  Memory is all I have.

I remember driving my grandmother’s car just a few days before she died.  She was home, in her bed, fading away – she knew it and so did I – and she sent me to get her some ice cream at Baskin Robbins, where we had eaten together so many weekend afternoons when I was a kid.  In the passenger seat, the ice cream melted underneath its clear plastic dome.  I drove really fast down Veterans Boulevard in New Orleans and listened to loud music on the radio.  My grandmother had stepped in and stepped up the morning after my mom died, and I was her everything.  She had told me that so many times.  But being her everything could be hard, and part of what I thought about as I raced to bring my grandmother what would turn out to be the last food she was able to swallow was how free I would feel once she was gone.  No more checking in every day, no more needing to explain my every move, no more feeling guilty about her loneliness and my life away from her in New York City.

The morning after she died, I collapsed in a heap on her bed.  After returning from the hospice where she took her last labored breath with her sister and me at her side, I walked into her bedroom, where she had spent the previous few weeks dying.  The bed sheets and pillows smelled like she had: hair unwashed for too many days, matted to the back of her head, salty and sour and sweet all at the same time, pajamas soaked with sweat all the way through.  The air in her bedroom was hot and still.  Her scent lingered heavily, and when I breathed it in, I remembered that she was no longer breathing and I threw myself on her smelly sheets and pillows and sobbed, “This was really hard, Maw-Maw.  This was really hard.”  Aki, whom I would marry later that year, worked around me as I cried, opening the window shades and the windows, letting in the spring breeze, placing the bedding (piece by piece, eventually sliding the fitted sheet from underneath me) on a pile on the floor, and washing everything.  Eventually I stopped crying, and Aki made the bed, and I fell asleep where my grandmother had lain her head night after night for weeks.  I didn’t cry for her again.


[Ruthie, my paternal grandmother, and me, circa 1979]

I was standing in my office in New York City when I learned that my father was dead.  My husband had shown up at my job unexpectedly, with our third daughter (just 9 months old) in tow.  He called up from the building lobby, and I waited for him impatiently at the elevator bank.  The doors opened, and our oldest girls weren’t with him.  “Where are Gigi and Simone?  Where are they?” I asked desperately.  “They are fine,” he told me as he motioned for us to get into my office right away.  My office door closed, and my husband looked at me and cried, “Your dad is gone.  He’s gone.”  I froze – I was standing straight up, with my arms at my side, my elbows slightly bent, my fingers extended.  I looked like a mannequin, but in this state of paralysis I felt the pulsating of heat and energy through my body.  Through my arms, my stomach, my legs.  I was tingling everywhere.  My eyes stared straight ahead.  I couldn’t say anything.  “Sit down,” my husband said.  “Sit down.”

The tears did not come that afternoon – in part, because I had lost my father long before his body succumbed to alcoholism.  The tears did not come to the degree I thought they should in the days that followed either, when we spent time with family and friends in New Orleans and mourned him.  One afternoon, after my husband and I authorized my father’s cremation and picked out his urn, we drove through the parking lot of the funeral home up to the crematorium.  My father’s body was inside.  We had been advised not to see him: “You should remember him the way he was,” they had told me.  I couldn’t believe that after months of estrangement and hundreds of miles between us, he was just a few feet away.  I wanted to run inside and look at his body and see what had happened but I didn’t.  I felt numb.  I sat behind the steering wheel of the car.  My dad was gone – officially gone – but I didn’t feel any different about him than I had the week before.  He had disappeared already.  But now he could never come back.


[Dad, 2008]

Was something wrong with me?  Had I been hardened by so much loss?  Why wasn’t I a mess of tears?  Was I really capable of love, or was I always readying myself for losing someone?  Was I cursed?  Could I feel anything?

Not long ago I had the privilege of recording a Podcast about my relationship with my father.  Stories I hadn’t told in years came pouring out of me.  I left the recording booth truly spent.  Almost three years after my father’s death, by finding the words to describe my loss and his, I started to believe that I might find him again.  The numbness I once felt began lifting.  A few nights ago, I had a dream about my dad.  He said, “Hello, sweetheart.”

Grief doesn’t have a particular look or a right way.  We all wonder sometimes if we’re doing it wrong:  Feel something.  Feel nothing.  Feel everything.  Rest your head.  Open your heart.  Be afraid.  Cry.  Speak.  Write.  Be angry.  Be grateful.  What’s wrong with me?  Why do I feel this way?  Am I sick?  Am I dying?  They are gone.  Life goes on.  See a picture.  Go back in time.  Remember anything.  Make plans.  Embrace the moment.  Tell stories.  Find meaning.  I’m alive!  My heart is racing.  Am I okay?


“You have a FINE life.”

Two days ago my oldest daughter – an 11-year-old preteen who doesn’t hold back her strong opinions – challenged me.  That’s a good thing.  We all want our kids to feel the confidence to question authority and assert themselves, especially in private moments when we can have a real conversation about why we disagree.

I will confess that what she challenged me on startled me.  We sat together, skimming through various social media outlets on my phone.  She hovered over my shoulder, her long dark curls tickling my cheek.  Her fingers work so much faster than mine, and she clicked away on the device in my hands, at one point opening the new Facebook fan page I started.  “You should read this stuff,” I said.  “I’m writing a lot since my TED talk.”  She’s definitely plugged into a range of platforms, though she’s not on Facebook.  I want my oldest daughter, of all people, to have a window into my thinking right now.  We should share this journey.  I sat quietly to give her a minute with my words.

She scrolled quickly through some recent posts and stopped at the one devoted to my new year’s resolution: “I plan to get the most out of 2016, creating and telling stories about living fully with grief, reaching people who have suffered loss, opening up conversations about life and death and everything in between,” I wrote.

“Oh no,” she said.  “Uh uh.”  And she popped up from the back of the sofa and started to walk away.

“What do you mean?” I replied, wanting to understand her reaction.

“Living fully with grief?” she shot back at me.  “Really?”

“Well, yes,” I said.  “That sums up everything I’ve been talking about recently.  That’s what my TED talk was about.  Living FULLY with grief.  You were there.  What are you saying?”

“You have a FINE life!” she exclaimed.  “Why do you have to live with grief?”

Wow.  I was getting worked up.  This was my eldest daughter, my first-born, the person who started to heal me when she came into the world.  I had longed for a mother-daughter bond my whole life, and she and her sisters have filled me up.  My oldest daughter is a sharp analytical thinker with deep emotional intelligence: she knows how to unpack something she reads and in particular something she hears and comprehend its emotional resonance.  She’s heard a few times that she might want to think about being a lawyer who makes a living making smart arguments.  But she doesn’t necessarily like to spend time unpacking her own (or anyone else’s) feelings.

Once she told me that I overcomplicate things.  Another time she told me that I overstated the description of something we all experienced together.  I get that this will be a conversation we have our whole lives, and it’s okay that we’re not the same person.  I will always push her to talk about her life, and what’s going on in her head and heart, and she will probably continue to roll her eyes and sigh and offer me a sliver of what’s actually inside.


[Gigi at 11]

But a couple days ago, I insisted that we talk more.  She couldn’t easily dismiss something that is bringing me purpose and walk away.  So I asked for more clarification.

I said, “Yes, I have a fine life.  And it’s because I am living FULLY with grief – that’s my point!  Anyone who has lost people they love lives with grief.  It’s unavoidable. What are you saying?  What do you think I mean by living fully with grief?”

“I don’t think people have to be sad and mopey all of the time.”

“Of course they don’t have to be sad and mopey all of the time.  They SHOULDN’T be sad and mopey all of the time.  That’s what I’m saying.  When someone you love dies, it doesn’t have to lead to a lifetime of sadness and depression and isolation.  You can live a FINE life even though you’ve suffered lost, don’t you see?”

“Okay, I guess, fine.”  And she walked away.

I suppose we had resolved this.  I suppose we both understood that we were really saying the same thing.

My oldest daughter is pushing back, and I don’t mind.  I don’t want anything I do here to be overwrought or unnecessarily complicated, so maybe I need to consult with her once in awhile.  I think she gets that my healing continues and that I’m on this path to help myself and others, but we’ll see.  I want her by my side, especially as she gets older.  She and her sisters are my legacy, and as I look at them and see my future and theirs so intertwined, I am hopeful that my own complicated story of loss is woven into our family’s story and that my girls ultimately feel proud of me.


[Mother’s Day, 2015]