An Untidy Story of Grief


Several years ago, I lost a deeply important person in my life. He was quite literally here one day and gone the next. In the hours that followed, shock eventually gave way to a grief that pulsed like an open wound—raw, aching, excruciating to even the slightest touch.

The faintest silver lining was that I was not shattered alone. All of us who had loved him dearly shattered together. Our independent little worlds all stopped spinning that day. Suddenly, no one was worried about mortgage payments or the rough patch in their marriage. Old rifts and annoyances were forgotten. None of it mattered. We were bonded by our tears, by our disbelief, by shared chicken casseroles and funeral plans. We sat around big bonfires in silence. In the wake of the greatest loss of our lives, we had never been closer.

A shift happened after the memorial. Not for us, but for those outside the inner circle. Their worlds started to turn again. They had to get back to work. They were leaving for vacation tomorrow. Their son had a baseball tournament. I remember how confused I was. How odd it felt that their lives were plodding forward, while mine remained frozen in time. The social media posts in the coming weeks of birthday parties and family gatherings felt like they were existing in an alternate universe. My world collapsing was a speedbump for them. Now they continued on smoothly, uninterrupted.

There was only a little group of us left, still warm from the assembly line of hugs, grasping handwritten cards with muted flowers. The ones for whom nothing would ever be the same again.

Our bond became tighter after that. We were never as connected as we were in those weeks. We texted, we called, we checked in often. We were together constantly, the only ones who understood each other. It was a terrible time, but to say there were no gifts in it would be a lie. We were all in the same devastating place. We laughed at old memories and stupid movie quotes. We yelled at God. We gave each other more grace than ever before.

Then another shift came. I can’t say exactly when it happened. Grief blurs time in a way I will never comprehend. The changes came slowly and seemed inconsequential, at first. The casseroles ran out, signaling the end of our communal meals. Then well-meaning bosses began to call, just to “check in” and see when we’d be ready to come back. No rush, of course. The school needed volunteers for their next big fundraiser, and could we possibly make four dozen cookies? In short, our real lives showed up.

It was time for each of us to step out on our own, to navigate the rocky path without the comfort of each others’ presence. We would never again be a unit bound by an identical experience of grief. We dispersed into a spiderweb of opposing directions, which is a byproduct of this process no one seems to mention. Though the beginning is so painful, it’s often never done in isolation. But as the months and years pass, that initial shared experience transforms into something completely unique. And while that is what being human is all about, it carries a grief all its own.

To see where our paths have led us is an interesting thing. Some isolated themselves for a time. Others threw themselves into work. A few never talk about it, and carry a weight I do not envy. The courageous sought counseling. The hopeful got married. The audaciously hopeful birthed babies that have breathed precious life into our circle. A few—and these are the hardest—have stepped off their path completely, choosing to stay behind. They do not want to move forward, despite wild encouragement and outstretched arms. They say no. We beg them to keep going, but often learn there is nothing to do but give them more time. And so we do, and pray for the very best.

As for myself, I’ve been all over. There have been many mistakes. I’ve pushed others away and shut down completely. I’ve run away when I should have pressed in. I’ve experienced debilitating anxiety and defaulted to anger far more than I’d care to admit. I have consumed exorbitant amounts of cookie dough. The worst (by far) is that I have been judgemental of others’ journeys on their own grief path. Something I had no right to do.

In spite of all that, there have also been shining moments. Moments where I’ve been really brave. Times when I leaned into the pain, even if it showed up in the produce section of the grocery store. Days where I stepped far out of my comfort zone. People I set healthy boundaries with. I have allowed these years to mold me into someone new.

There is no tidy way to end a story about grief. So I suppose saying I’m still here will have to suffice. Still alive, on the other side of something I thought would be impossible to survive. I can’t believe it. But I’m grateful. I’m grateful we’re all still here.