Actually Useful Advice


A very few times in my life, someone has said something actually useful to me. When I was in my mid-20s (yes, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth…) my grandmother died. I was sad. She was old, she had been sick most of her life, it wasn’t a surprise… but I was still sad, and it was hard to pretend not to be.

My co-worker’s housemate Jen asked how I was in that breezy “I don’t actually want to know” way we all have. I don’t do that anymore, by the way, so if I DO ask you, I’m asking for the real answer, whatever it is.

Well, I gave Jen the real answer, which turned out to be completely cool with her. And we talked for a bit, in the course of which conversation she said the useful thing, which I paraphrase here:

“I don’t think we ever ‘get over’ losing anyone. The way you feel right now, the way you miss your grandmother, that’s never going to get smaller. It’s just that your life will get bigger around it, so it takes up a smaller portion of the whole.”

That, as I say, was one of the only useful things I have ever heard about death. And we were in sore need of useful things about nine years later when our son, Joseph, was stillborn. I won’t go into detail about the aftermath of that because it’s not possible to describe it, and if I could you wouldn’t believe me.  I can tell you that I was a complete basket case for about two years after that. I didn’t know it, but looking back, I should have retreated to a rude wooden cabin and written dark doomy poems instead of pretending to be useful doing anything else. But, as I say, I didn’t realize how bad it was. Then for another two years I was a partial basket case, still pretty much useless. For the past year I’ve been feeling like other things have grown enough around that loss that I might be a productive member of society at some point.

And here’s why Jen’s commentary is genius, here is the dirty secret of bereavement: I didn’t want to get over it. I didn’t want to feel better, I didn’t want to get back to “normal”, whatever that might mean now. I frankly didn’t understand why the earth hadn’t stopped short and flown to pieces off its axis; feeling “ok” seemed like the worst act of betrayal I could ever make. It felt as if I would be saying “yeah, I guess it’s ok that my son died six weeks before he was due… no big whoop. Let’s go out for dinner and a movie!”

Of course, that’s absurd, and anyone in grief should grab the good days with both hands and make the most of them. But that feeling is as real as real when you’re in it: if I ever laugh or run or write again, I will betray the memory I’m hanging onto by my fingernails.

But the truth is that it’s impossible — I won’t ever get over it. There’s no way I can forget my gorgeous, elegant grandmother, or my kind, funny father. There’s no way I will ever feel better about losing my little boy. I’ll just feel a whole lot of other things too, and that’s allowed.


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