Grief never really goes away. It lessens over time, receding into the shadows of your consciousness, but it will always be present. You can never let it go completely.
You might think that it can be tamed, this grief, but it cannot; it has burrowed and become a spirit inside of you, one that demands to be part of you for as long as you draw a breath. And you feel that this state of affairs is the correct one; after all, you don’t want to forget that which made you grieve. That would be a rejection of the life you had before grief came calling.
To keep it from overpowering your days, this is the deal you ultimately make with grief: as long as it doesn’t drop you to the ground in a puddle of tears, you will let it live inside of you, tucked away in the folds of memory and longing. It feels good, this deal, but grief is devious. It lives, like a remora, clinging to the mundane cast-offs of your days, choosing which scraps it will turn to when it’s time for it to re-emerge. These triggers can be anything: an anniversary, a song1, a holiday, a book, someone saying, “Hello.” It can also be something as beautiful as the soft color of the sky at the end of a very good day. Whatever the trigger, grief comes out, unbidden and unwelcome.
Yesterday was Lee’s birthday, which is the biggest trigger in my world. And, as it has been every March since her passing, grief set an alarm that went off a few days before, just to make sure that I was ready. This year, the alarm came in the form of the passing of C—, a former neighbor who recently died in her sleep. While we were never extremely close, we had a comfortable friendship that came from Frost’s “good fences make good neighbors” ethos.2
C—’s death saddened me…no, it grieved me, all the more because I had meant to call her before leaving on my current trip. It had been quite a while since we connected, and she had been on my mind, but that call had fallen by the wayside with the frenzied preparations of our trip. Grief often brings guilt with it when it calls, and the two together can create mayhem in your mind. I, however, am an old hand at this, and do not drop to the ground this easily any more.
Ultimately, I can’t do much more than add C— to the shrine of souls that have left my world. As is the case with many of these people, C— lived a good life, one with love and sorrows and happiness and comfort. That at least makes my grieving for her one of loss, and not unfulfilled hopes. That is more reassuring. Plus—and with all due respect—I had to carve out time for the more important soul who required my grieving.
Yesterday’s spiral into the arms of grief was less this year than last and much less than the year before. I went off by myself, not to cry or rail against the injustice of the world—Lee would scoff at such things—but to celebrate that which we had in our beautiful time together. And, since this, the birthday, is a universal trigger, I made sure I called Lee’s mom and our daughter, Liz, and she and I texted with Lee’s sister, and we all talked and laughed about Lee and made sure that we were all ok.
It was a good day, and, at the end of it, I packed myself up and walked back to the beautiful world that I inhabit right now. It is odd, this juxtaposition of two great loves, but grief and I have come to another understanding: I will let him touch me gently on the shoulder from time to time, to remind me of what got me to this place of so much love and happiness. And I teach him that one needs to celebrate the present as much as the past. Because if there was only grief, there would be no living.Notes:
- One of the biggest triggers in the months after Lee’s death was a song that was in one of my regular playlists. I was at a stoplight one morning when it came on, and I suddenly burst into tears. When the song (The Waterboys’ Whole of the Moon, if you’re interested) ended, the tears stopped, as suddenly as they appeared. This happened at least twice more over the next few months, and the song then reverted to its pre-grief status in my life.
- From Mending Wall, one of my favorite poems of all time. I still have my early edition of Frost’s “North of Boston,” in which it was first published, and treasure it. I wonder if it’s still taught in school today, or if Frost has dropped into the shadows of time.