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.

MawMaw

[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.

PawPaw

[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?

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5 thoughts on “What does grief look like?

  1. Rachel, My heart is pouring out so many emotions right now. The way you expressed your feelings, well it was so beautiful and painful all at the same time. I hurt a lot over losing my parents to. The difference is that I had so much more time with my parents then you had. My Dad died in my arms and that feeling has never left me. I could still see his face and hear his last breath. Death is so hard to handle, no matter what age you are or they are, you still feel the pain. I pray constantly that God will give me the strenght to continue life the way my Dad wanted me to. I was my Dad’s little girl always and he was my Hero always. But my Dad, being a fireman had seen so much death in his life. He always told me that life is to be lived to the fullest !! I feel your pain, Rachel and I am so lucky to know you. You have opened up a conversation that many people avoid. But it is good to let your feelings flow, it is freeing and Important for the soul !! Thank you, so much for letting me open up. Thanks, Gail K. Ordes

    • Gail, thank you so much for sharing! Yes, this topic is hard for so many people. Sometimes I think that I’m writing too much about it and I need to give it a break. But different people will read different pieces and feel different things and that will lead to more conversations, so this will continue.

      • Rachel, I would continue to write if I were you. Unless it is causing you to much pain. I think that so many people just tuck their pain away and try to move on. I feel they do this just to survive something that is to painful to confront.But in my 59 years here I have found that when you do that it can grow into something that will come out in a different way. Not always a good way. You saw that first hand with your own Dad. I hope you do well with your website, also I pray that it will help carry the conversation to those who need healing.

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