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21 – Things We Don’t Talk About Because They’re Difficult: Grief

“Look at that man!”

We’re at one of those giant drive-through tractor trailer fueling stations. I have just finished taking Sophie for a protracted ramble so that she could have several good sniffs all around the general area to find the most acceptable patch of grass for considering the possibility of having a leisurely pee, and am about to spend 12 hours or so refilling the RV gas tank and scrubbing the road smears off the windshield. Mom has put the phone down and is people-watching. Turning to follow her pointing finger, I see a man sporting sunglasses, a shaved head and a white beard that reaches halfway down his considerable expanse of chest.

“He looks like your dad. His legs are skinnier than your father’s, and he’s a littler shorter, but the belly is definitely the same.”

“Ha!” I laugh. “I’m going to tell dad you said th…”

Oh. Wait.

Then comes that still-bewildering moment of stunned realization and a quick stab of sorrow. I’ll never be able to tell him anything again. He’s gone.

It isn’t that we forget. It’s that every now and then our brain gets busy with other things and neglects to constantly remind us. Then it remembers, and then we remember, and then there it is. Grief.

Here is a truth we don’t often discuss. Throughout life we have family groups – birth family, legal family, extended family, chosen family, family of friends – and when a member of our family dies, we grieve.

If we’ve had time to prepare, it can be a blessing that allows us to say things that might have been left unsaid, to tell them whatever it is that matters most. It can give us a chance to repair the dings and scratches we would rather they not carry with them when they go, or that we would rather not carry ourselves when they are gone. But no matter how hard we try to be ready, even if we have no regrets, nothing can take away the sting of that moment when we finally know there is no more time. No matter how good or not our relationship with them may have been, we grieve.

If we were close to them, we grieve the loss of all the time we thought we would have. We grieve the them-shaped hole their absence cuts through our life. We grieve the empty place that used to hold their companionship and love, their happy laughter, their knowledge and understanding of us, the support they gave, the easy way they had of smoothing over small hurts and helping to heal large ones.

If we were not close, if we fought, if they damaged us seemingly beyond repair, we still grieve what might have been. We grieve the death of the story in our head of the relationship we could have had, should have had, almost had.

But grief is a shapeshifter. It can be a trickster pretending to be anything but itself.

Sometimes it’s sobbing until our eyes are swollen and our nose runs and we look and feel like hell on a biscuit and that just makes it all worse because nothing will ever be good again. When that happens, we know we’re grieving. When that happens, everyone around us knows we’re grieving. Whether they think we’re hysterical or overly dramatic or simply devastated, they recognize our pain.

Sometimes it’s a frenzy. Of projects, of motion, of accomplishments, of assignments, of work, of anything so long as it keeps us fanatically focused on anything but the main thing until we’re so physically exhausted we fall into a semi-coma of sleep just to wake up and start it all over again. When this happens, some people will admire our ability to be so productive in the face of grief. Others will know this cannot last.

Sometimes we’re angry. It was too soon. It was too sudden. We’ve been left alone. The world is a cruel place, how could it take them from us, how could it yank the rug out from under everything, why do people have to die at all, it’s all just so wrong and we can’t do a damn thing about it, and people keep trying to tell us “It’s better this way. They’re at peace now. At least they’re no longer in pain. At least you got to see them and talk to them before they were gone…,” At least, at least, at least. And we know they’re trying to help, but they make it so much worse and we’re so angry we want to scream at all of them and sometimes we lash out even though they are not the thing we’re actually mad about, but we know they’re trying to help, and we wish they would all just go away, but we know they’re trying to help, so maybe one or two could stay if they would just shut the hell up and let us rage and storm until we come to terms with the unchangeable fact that someone we love is gone, and will never be coming back. It is final.

Sometimes we retreat into depression, that sad, gray, blankness of nothing, when everything is difficult or overwhelming or just not worth the effort, and who gives a shit anyway because we can’t work up the will to try to fight any of it. This is when we discover who is willing to walk past the awkwardness and discomfort of witnessing our sorrow and gently pull us back into the world. Or sometimes just hug us until we feel alive again.

Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re grieving. We’re just tired. We don’t feel depressed or angry or heartbroken, we just don’t have much energy. Things aren’t overwhelming, but everything is a little bit harder. We don’t want to sleep the day away just so we don’t have to be conscious, but we want to take naps even though we had a full night’s sleep. We don’t lose our appetite, refuse food and begin to wither away, but we find we’re forgetting meals and feeling it’s not worth the bother to do anything about it later. We don’t lose all interest in the world and everything that usually matters to us, but we have a hard time working up much enthusiasm for anything. Instead of thinking “Yes!” or “No. Just, no.” all we can dredge up is a half-hearted “Eh, okay. I suppose.” as we let the world pull us along in its orbit.

Sometimes we simply miss them so much it hurts. The yearning to hear their voice again becomes a bone-deep ache, or stabs though our core without warning, a jolt like an electric shock.

And sometimes none of these things happen.

One person’s grief is not the same as another’s. We grieve in the ways we are able to grieve. It looks the way it looks. It takes as long as it takes.

Grief is hard. It’s hard to feel. It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to know how to get through it. It’s hard to know what to say or do when someone else is trying to get through it. Still, like death, it’s a universal human experience.

The man sees us watching and waves. We wave back. He looks a little like Santa on a sunny vacation before the seasonal rush begins.

“Remember how the kids used to love it when dad would dress up as Santa?”

Dad loved the joy such a simple thing brought. He even dressed as Santa when he and mom lived in Haiti – which took some commitment, given that it really never got cold there and dad seemed to always run five degrees hotter than everyone else.

“Everybody loved Santa dad, didn’t they?”

Then we’re off into reminiscences of dad and holidays past. We grieve, we remember, we laugh. We carry on.


  1. Mia

    Amber!! I love this one so much. What a beautiful description ❤️

  2. Kerry Williamson

    Wow! This one took my breath away. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better post on grief.


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