What means grief?

what means grief

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.

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grace and kindness

beamFor the past few weeks, I have been unbelievably happy.

I went through a particularly bad stretch of sadness and grief in late August, which lingered into early September. But on a pretty autumn day mid-month, a switch literally went off in my head, and I was happy. It was so sudden, so swift and so powerful that I literally remember thinking, “This is what it must feel like to be bipolar.”

What has been unexpected is that it has largely remained that way ever since that day.

I have been reluctant to share this widely because it is a feeling that seems so much at odds with that of a “man who has just lost his Beloved,” as one dear friend so kindly put it to me. A few other close friends have noticed and been drawn into my upbeat little world; to them it is good to see me so buoyant after years and months of hardship, sorrow and loss. But it still seemed wrong to me, and I struggled to understand why I would feel such joy with so little guilt.

After a great deal of thought and consideration, I have come to embrace this special state of grace. For that’s what it is, and I am entirely at peace with it.

My wife is gone. There is nothing in this world that will bring her back to me, and no amount of magical thinking will change this.

For the two months immediately following Lee’s death, I felt as though I were living on a plain outside the entrance to a long tunnel. That place was cold, wet and lonely, and, although I knew that there was no hope of Lee ever returning home, I was compelled to grieve for her in that place. It was the last bit of duty I truly owed to Lee, and the sadness and despair that hung over me was as necessary to me as gravity.

Then came the happiness. And with the happiness came a surge of confidence that was both invigorating and terrifying. I resisted these emotions at first, but in the end, I took my hands off the wheel and let them drive. In truth, I was exhausted from eight years of cancer, pain and caretaking, and tired of the grief that had been building up like plaque on my soul.

And so, I turned back on the road home again, away from the place of my mourning. It was a comfort unlike any I had felt in ages.

I truly enjoyed the initial stages of this sustained energy, but I was also disturbed by it. It occupied my mind for quite a while, without any resolution. But, in the middle of an email conversation with a friend, she made me realize that what I was feeling was honest, and it was based entirely on love.

Pondering her words, I came to understand that I have carefully been placed on the road that I should be traveling.

I refused to characterize it as such while living amidst it, but Lee and I walked together through hell, knowing all the while how our story would end. For more than three years, we counted out time, embracing tiny moments of love and tenderness amidst a river of sorrow and pain. And while it is easy for me to look at our last years together solely as the two of us trying to provide comfort and care to each other on the slow glide path to death, I now know that we were also preparing me for life. But I truly was so focused on helping Lee live in our diminishing world that I wasn’t paying attention to her kindnesses.

She and I spoke quite frequently about my life ‘after.’ I resisted as much as I could, but Lee persisted. We ended up joking about it: after Lee died, Famous Beautiful Actress would magically find and fall in love with me, and all would be right with the world. (Then FBA got married, and that was that; I don’t want to break up a home.) I now look back on many of our conversations, and I have a much richer sense of how much Lee wanted me to know that it was ok to be happy, to fall in love again, and to move on. It was a gift that I did not fully discover until after she departed, and it is the foundation of the grace that is woven so tightly into my life at this moment.

This perspective also helps me understand why I don’t need to worry about joy and guilt: it means nothing to the presence of Lee in my heart, which will always reside in a safe place. If anything, the honesty with which we both dealt with our love and her death tightens the bond that keeps those walls strong.

Kindness has truly been the sustenance of the grieving process for me. It has nourished and warmed me, regardless of where I lived in relation to the tides. Close friends have provided so much love that I struggle to comprehend the enormity of it all. I have had people previously unknown open their hearts and give up a little part of their life to help me carry on. There are friends I haven’t seen or spoken with in decades who have reached out with simple and profound messages of love, hope and care. My families, dealing with their own crushing losses, have still taken the time to keep me in their thoughts. I will never adequately be able to thank everyone who has reached out to me, but do want them to know that they have all contributed to this place that I’m at in this world right now.

Since the arrival of joy, the sadness has poked back at me at times, but I am much better at recognizing the movements of the tides. My newly resurgent confidence lets me rise defiantly above the water and send an empty boat back out to sea. And each time this happens, I let a little bit more of Lee go, which she — and I, despite my reluctance — recognized long ago as something that had to happen for me to be able to move on in the world without her. It is a kindness that I can only repay by continuing to move along this new road with integrity and love.




Twenty-nine years ago today, Lee and I were married.

I remember waking up at that morning about 5, in a panic. Lee was sleeping soundly, so I got on my motorcycle and took a long, bracing ride to see if I could calm myself down. It helped only a little. The entire day, I could barely take a sip of water, let alone eat. But, since we were putting the wedding on by ourselves, there were lots of things to do, and being busy helped.

The nerves were just that: nerves, and nothing more, but I couldn’t explain them. I had no doubts whatsoever about marrying Lee; of that I was sure.

Looking back on it through the lens of twenty-nine years, I now know that something in me realized that this was the biggest thing I would ever do in my life. I was taking a leap into a world that I had no idea existed only a year before, and it scared me. Lee told me later that it scared her as well, but the fact that we–she and I–were doing it together calmed her.

It wasn’t until about an hour before the ceremony that the butterflies disappeared. I went in to give Lee one last kiss as she dressed. I walked in her room, and there she was, standing serene, confident and stunningly beautiful. And, with a short, “I love you” kiss–the kind that many couples share a few times a day without ever really thinking about it–all the nervous energy that had tangled itself up inside me just washed away.

Lee always radiated that power and that confidence, and that’s one of the things that I will miss most about her. A month and a half after her death, I’m only just learning how to try to pull that strength out of me to push me on through each minute of every day.

Grief turns out to be surprisingly tidal. It has an ebb and flow that that moves outside the normal cadences of life, making it hard to grab on to a consistent spot in time that you can reliably claim for rest. I have been reflecting hard upon this over the past few weeks, and have come to accept this. If grief truly nestled within the contours of my daily life, I think it would dig a pit of despair inside me.

However, the thing that has surprised me most in this short time is discovering how much Lee is part of me. I feel as though that many of the things that make me the person I am today are a direct line from that beautiful, strong and loving woman to whom I married 29 years ago. I just never really noticed this before she left, because her physical presence was so great in our daily lives.

And right now, when that presence has been replaced by an unbelievably deep silence that shadows me daily, there are times when I am able to draw on the essence of her that has burrowed inside me. I use it as a protected piece of shoreline that remains safely above the tides of grief, but still lets me view the majesty that was our relationship.

Knowing how much Lee loved the ocean, I think she would approve of that metaphor.

I wish I had a better image to share than the one above, but this is the best I can do for now; it’s how I feel. But I’ll also leave with my favorite photo of Lee, taken right around the time I went to give her that kiss on our wedding day (her sister Anne is on the right). She was so happy, excited, and ready to go on an adventure into that unknown new world with me. And an adventure is exactly what we got.


[Click the image to see it bigger. Image of Lee © Phil Dorion.]