Good Grief

I have to give myself some credit, I put on a brave face. Raised on Henry Rollins and windmills thrown in pits, I was always a tough kid. When my parents split, I handled it with a studied, tearless resolve, calmly aware that whatever legal drama that was about to unfold would be far better than more years of animosity and arguing in the house. As a goth teenager, I only cried if I got eyeliner in my eye, using the aesthetic of mourning and melancholy as accessories, along with a pair of sturdy combat boots and a metal lunchbox. As with a lot of feisty, overly well-read sixteen year olds, I had a tendency to replace pain or sadness with anger, as though yelling or breaking juice glasses was more noble than curling up with a box of Kleenex for a good old-fashioned howl. As an adult, I held onto the belief that sorrow was tantamount to weakness, and processing anguish was something solely reserved for people who had that kind of time.

Last March, my mom was diagnosed with cancer following a routine scan to figure out why her back and stomach were bothering her. As they called us to the doctor’s office to share the results, we knew it was bad. Doctor’s usually tell you what you need to know over the phone, ’cause they have long afternoons of golf to get to. When we went into the exam room and were told that my mother’s liver was covered in metastatic lesions, I felt as though my skeleton caved in, but I pursed my lips and asked the doctor the necessary questions as though I were interviewing a writer for House. I looked at my mother, so small and shocked, and I knew I had to rise up and take charge. Not because I was so close to her (although we spoke frequently, we didn’t really get along) but because she didn’t have anyone else to be there and step up. It felt like the right thing to do, and moreover, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. Selfish, I know. Over the following five months from her diagnosis to her death, I made a point to try to keep myself together, and for the most part, I did. It took a lot of yoga, a lot of aggressive music, and several Yankee games, but I was able to stay sober and present for my mother, without casting more than a fleeting internal glance on how I was feeling. I figured I’d deal with it later.

After mom died, I had to execute the funeral arrangements, clean and sell her house, get rid of cars, animals, things, and find a place to live. I didn’t have the spare time to get all soggy and snot-covered. A lot of people observed that I didn’t seem to be grieving. They asked me if I was okay in that tone that led me to believe that they thought I was about to skinny dip in the East River wearing some concrete Converse. I kept saying that I was fine, that it would hit me later, when everything was done. I didn’t believe a word of it. To me it was just lip service to get the perfume-soaked old broads off my back, and to shut that stupid hospice grief counselor up. I was fine. I’d read Camus and Hesse in grade school, I’d learned how to cut through emotion with logic, to temper desperation with reason and philosophy. I. Was. Fine. Similar to the way women mourn in Bali, I tried my best not to cry, as though that were a humiliation, a demonstration of how incapable I was to cope and take care of what needed to be taken care of.

Two days ago I was walking to a cafe to do some work. For the past two weeks or so I’d had nightmares every night. Not always graphic ones, like zombies eating my dog or Rush Limbaugh flashing me his genitals, just uncomfortable dreams, ones that made me wake up restless and exhausted. Some of them about my mom, most of them just about random shit. On my walk I was wrestling with this fatigue when something happened, something inside of me broke, I guess that’s the only way to put it. I couldn’t stay at the cafe. I went home. I was agitated, frayed, unable to focus. I looked at my apartment, everything having been moved in and unpacked, Simon’s issue of The Economist and his gloves on the chair, my books all lining the shelf. I saw the photograph of my mother holding me, one of my favorite ones. According to my mom’s handwriting on the back, we’re at the zoo. In the picture I’m an infant, reaching for the camera, while my mother smiles, holding me at my waist. I started to cry. For four hours I collapsed into a drooling, mucus-spewing mess. (To be fair, I didn’t help myself out by listening to The Magnetic Fields and Cat Power while this was going on.) I struggled to work, but found myself staring at the screen, the window, the floor, sobbing. Even in my days of alcoholic emotion, where I’d break the nearest plate to emphasize a point, or make out with somebody’s girlfriend to express joy, I’ve never felt overwhelmed quite like this. Trying to rely on logic to pull me away from the puddle of fluids I was creating, I struggled to think of a trigger. I couldn’t. Still can’t.

In normal people, responses to grief can be really intense. Breathing problems, cotton-mouth, appetite issues, and nightmares are commonplace. Repetitive motions to try to ward off or avoid pain can occur. (I will admit to a vigorous shaking of my head when I have a particularly vivid memory.) Hallucinations are even reported in certain cases of early grief. Basically, it’s scientifically proven that it’s okay to lose your shit. But six months later? Is this a sign that I’m one of the ones who starts a motel and harasses people with a knife in the shower?

I’m not sure what the grieving process is, or what’s considered normal. I’ve lost a grandmother, a dog, close friends, and I’ve always processed it as an event, just like writing about something difficult. I answered the questions in my head, the who, what, when, where, and why, and let that serve as an epitaph. As though understanding something disarmed its potential for an emotional response. As though telling myself that death is just a part of life and it happens to everyone, move on, would get me through the loss of my mother without much more than ten minutes of yowling in the pew of a church next to her bright pink coffin. Maybe for some of us mourning isn’t something that we do in a house of worship, or among the company of friends and family. I’m beginning to realize that I can only really be vulnerable in my solitude. Which is makes sense, when I think about it. It used to be that I could only be vulnerable when I was talking to my mom.

In Ethiopia, grieving family members are given assistance by a community group called an edir. The edir cooks, cleans, and donates money to the family. Many cultures respond to death by helping: feeding the family of the dead, planning a funeral, hosting a party, performing religious rites. I didn’t feel let down by my mother’s Catholicism or by the community of people she surrounded herself with, they were like worker bees, plying me with baked goods and teary-eyed stories. In response, I felt as though I needed to be there for them. My mother was the kind of person who refused help even when she needed it, and, like my stature and love of Neil Diamond, it’s something that she passed on. Perhaps the other day was some sort of delayed response, the "later" I kept waiting for, a moment where I was alone and there was nothing to do other than work and sit and think. It’s in those moments that I realize I won’t hear her chopping basil while listening to Cher, or smell her Obsession perfume as she puts on her coat, or hear her gasp for air in the way she did when she truly laughed at something, never again. I’ve suddenly come to realize that this isn’t a vacation, she isn’t coming back. My mind and my insides have slowly grown accustomed to the tiny moments of defeat, I go to call her, I can’t, I try to plan a visit to her house, it’s no longer hers, I want to send her an email, but I don’t even know the password to her account to delete it. When she was dying I told her that I found myself mentally treating it like she was going on a trip,  like a cruise or a Caribbean adventure. "Me too," she responded. "Isn’t that funny?"

Although I’m not taking this route, if you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one, grief counselors can be helpful. If you belong to a temple or church, your clergyman or staff there will have resources for you. Groups like GriefShare can help you find a support group, there are even ones that are based online like GriefNet. Contact your local hospital for other support group options, and, of course, if your loved one had hospice, grief counseling is available for a year or more following death. Most cities have grief counselors available as well, the best thing to do would be to look up a nearby mental health practitioner or a counselor certified by the American Academy of Grief Counseling who can help give you guidance and strength to get through the aftermath.


  1. says

    You might be interested in Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. Don’t worry, it’s not “about” grieving, it’s just a real book about a year in which grieving took place. Though I haven’t lost anyone this close to me yet, I feel well-prepared by this book for how impossible it is to actually be prepared.