Photo by Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

How We Carry Our Grief

The phone rings. There’s a rap at the door. The doctor urges, “Sit down.” A policeman or surgeon or mother hands you the news.

You don’t even have time to wave goodbye to your old life, to claw and scurry for it as you’re thrust into this new, unwished for world.

At first, the loss is everything — a hot, swirling sun that churns through the core of you. You see nothing but this glaring sun; try to close your eyes to it, and the scorched spots still blaze against your eyelids. You cannot forget; your brain is on fire. Sentences march through your mind over and over: He is dead, he is dead, he is dead. It’s the sound of your mind chewing on the impossible.

You exist here in the inky space between worlds — you cannot return to Before, but you don’t yet belong to After. You hover and shimmy here, in this purgatory.

The world pulses on, impossibly. Traffic lights flash from yellow to red to green. The moon creeps across the sky, stars tease from their perches. People rush to jobs, to errands, to intact families while you dangle between worlds, drenched in cortisol and adrenaline, your sternum throbbing as if some organ has been ripped away.

You press food to your lips because our bodies, stubbornly, press on — defiant, dripping with the urge to live. You sleep for seconds or hours, before you’re ejected, thrust back to the nightmare of waking.

You linger here, shock-coated, for longer than you could’ve imagined, frozen and fogged.

You’ve been dropped in a labyrinth.

Rocketed to outer space.

Abandoned in a forest. Near a witch’s house. No breadcrumbs in sight — just strands of smoke that tickle the sky, beckoning.

Pick your metaphor. Scramble them all together. Try to find your way.

Still, life presses on. There are checks to write, floors to sweep, children to feed, cupboards to fill.

You go to the grocery store for bread, and there’s that sharp sun, loitering amidst the baby carrots. She loved carrots, you think, the tears welling up against your will. It’s embarrassing, the force and heft of grief, how the mundane becomes sacred. You worry that everyone can see the exposed wound of you, the gleam and glitter and gristle.

You forget that we are each hauling our own suns, sharp and shimmering, burning and blinding.

People say, Be strong. People say, Get over it. Don’t grieve like that. It was God’s will. They’re in a better place.

Ignore them. They are foolish. They are blind.

Find those who will sit with you in the startling silence, with the simple wisdom of a gentle pet. Who will show up for you over and over again, unrushed.

With deep grief, progress is measured in months. In stutters and slips. A good afternoon here, a setback there. There’s no quick fix, no drive-thru, no listicle to light the way. No tidy stages to check off in your bullet journal. There’s just the zig-zag of emotions that motor through you.

Rage at your dead, at yourself. Feel the guilt that fills you to the gills.

Ask, where the hell are you?

Search for signs.

Sit, flooded with disbelief, in the lingering tentacles of shock. Sometimes, you can barely move, so heavy your loss.

There’s just this: for shards of seconds, you feel, after a good cry, the gentlest lift. A subtle sigh.

Rinse and repeat.

You might find comfort among others who are grieving. Among those who stumble through their days, scanning for After, running their fingertips across Before. You might find, in hearing their stories, that you feel a sliver less alone.

You might find comfort in finding someplace for your love to go — like writing letters to your dead in ink or sand. Like reaching out to someone else who is numb and raw, whose path veers near yours. Like writing songs or psalms, or starting a scholarship or foundation. In reigniting their name, retracing their sheen.

You might press the ashes of your loved one to your lips. Consume. Commune. You are not the first or last to do so.

You might do none of these things, or all of them. They help a little or a lot. It’s not that they ease the pain — it’s that in fits and shudders, they help you relocate your love. They cast a current, reminding you of what once was.

Slowly, we learn to live with this sun. It’s you again, we whisper to the morning light. Still here? we ask, the rays that stretch and spread across our limbs an uneasy answer.

Our loss becomes knitted into us. It’s been months, years, decades. We mostly notice the pain on Thursdays. In the glimmering dusk of December. On death days, those slippery portals to the past. Sometimes our bodies remember before our minds do, and we’re yanked back to those bright bursts of pain. How did I live like that? we wonder, awed and strangely proud. It’s like childbirth, or like any painful becoming — our minds begin to blur the jagged edges of the hurt, but our cells still carry the memory of sharpness.

Sometimes, we glance back at those first moments when we were wrenched from one world to another. The way certain memories are carved into us, etched deeply. Our ancient selves, flickering and fluttering in the in-between.

This grief we carry, this love? It shapes us. It’s fused into our bones, written across our spines, tinted in star trails. Calcified, iron-stenched. Palms pressed to heart, bright and burnt.

We wear our losses in our bones. In our minds. In our full and broken hearts. We lug them with us for the vastness of our days. We are rewritten by these loves and leavings. We do not need to let them go. We do not need to get over it. They reside in the slipstream of our lungs. We are full of them, in the same way we are full of the dust of dead stars. In the same way we hope we’ll be remembered — the sweetest echo, a lingering song. An aftershock of essence. Haunted. Held.

Writer on sibling loss, grief, parenting, wellness and mental health. Voracious reader. https://linktr.ee/LynnShattuck

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