I’m supposed to be shamelessly promoting my book that’s soon coming out, but this week it’s not going to happen.
Instead, it’s time for another letter from the road nobody wants to travel on. Nine months in. Yeah. You say, “Oh that’s so fast. How can it be 9 months? It seems like yesterday!” I say, “Lucky you.” It must be nice.
I don’t really like the word “Grief” because I don’t understand it. Just the word sounds like throwing up. It makes me picture someone crying so much they can’t move. Which, for me, is not one of my choices. It’s spoken of as if it were a sickness you come down with then get over, yet often referred to as a “journey.” Maybe it is like a sickness—I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I get over it. But it’s the only word we have for being really sad for a long time about something big, so I guess I’ll have to break down and use it.
This is what I want to tell you about Grief, in case you come down with it too, someday, or you have another, less-vocal, friend who gets bitten by the bug:
1. The “journey” metaphor does not work for me AT ALL. At least not so far.
I love all trips categorically–heck, I even like getting on the bus–but I do not like this one bit. Geez. If this reveals itself later to have been a journey, I’ll let you know, but for right now can we not refer to this as some type of trip or pilgrimage I have decided to take? Pretty please? It’s more like a case of malaria. If this is a journey, it is The Trail of Tears. It is a forced exodus from a war-torn country. It does not feel like being on a journey. It feels like being suspended in time.
2. You get used to things.
I’ve said this already, but here it is again. You get used to things you cannot imagine you could get used to. You just do. Walking in the door and talking to an empty house. Doing absolutely everything for yourself. Eating by yourself. Taking up the whole bed. You get used to the person who’s not there being not-there. You get used to trying to remember what it was like when they were.
You also get used to doing whatever the hell you feel like whenever you feel like with or without a good reason. It’s very selfish. It might be the only perk. You never have to share anything or explain yourself. You just leave when you want to go home, buy something because you feel like it, pour another glass of wine or skip it entirely. Nobody asks you anything. You can go to bed ridiculously early if you haven’t got anything better to do.
3. Being around the wrong people is worse than not being around the right person.
Make no mistake: People in the middle of Grief are not necessarily desperate for company. Or maybe that’s just me being a Scorpio. I wouldn’t know. I’m just saying: being alone is not the worst thing. Not just any human being is a suitable replacement for the one who’s gone. A person experiencing grief may not want to be alone. Or they may prefer it to any other option they can think of. Don’t take it personally. If you propose something and your grieving friend gives a weird answer that sounds a little like they might be putting you off, they probably are. Maybe this is because we get used to being selfish.
You might need way more down time than before. I can become thoroughly miserable if I give myself something to do every night of the week. It’s too much. I just need more space between things. And at 9 months, I am WAY better at this than at first! Oh man. Way better. At first, I needed a day of hibernation for every hour out of the house. Emotional overload is like dengue fever–it takes a long time to get your strength back and it doesn’t come all at once.
4. You don’t want people to pity you.
I will say that I make/have made a concerted effort not to seem pathetic. Sometimes I feel pathetic, but It’s not ok with me to show it. I save pathetic moments for when it’s just me and the cats. I don’t mind appearing to be sad, but I don’t want to inspire pity for any reason. That bothers me.
5. You never mind talking about it.
I’m checking back in on this subject. I remember writing before that it doesn’t bother me to talk about Pio. I expect it never will. I don’t mind talking about him when he was healthy or telling you about when was sick. It’s not like I forget about it when I’m talking about something else, right? And no, I’m not going to lose it on you. I don’t want you to pity me, remember?
6. Your life does not go on. It stops and starts over.
Lots of people, when they want to be encouraging, say things like, “Life goes on,” or talk about “Getting on with life.” This, in the literal sense is true. Life on the planet does indeed go on no matter what happens to any of us—there’s no arguing that. But YOUR life–when your husband dies or some such thing–your life as you know it? It’s as over has his is. And it would be nice if somebody would warn you about this, that way you will know you’re not going crazy when that’s the way you feel. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die now, too. It means that life is over and whatever happens next is going to be part of a different one. How you feel about that—whether you like it or not—is irrelevant. It just is. You’re welcome.
7. It’s very hard to reach out, so you hope other people will.
This is another one I’m better at now than I was at first, but I’m including it in the list because it belongs here. It takes more nerve to reach out to people than it did before, even for a extrovert like me. A person in my shoes is probably not going to call you, ask you how you are, and see if you want to go out to lunch. Because you have a life, and what if you’re busy? I don’t want you to have to tell me no. Or say you’ll call me back and then you don’t. I would rather eat my sandwich in peace and not set myself up for disappointment. I’m not going to ask, and then ask again.
When your friend is having a time of Grief, it’s your turn, and it might be for a long time. And if they make some lame-sounding excuse, it’s ok. Try again later. It might just not be the right day. Or the right week.
8. You get pretty good at the art of being happy and sad at the same time.
Maybe they’re opposites on the vocab test, but in real life, they’re not. In real life, they’re like red and blue: when you mix them, they make new color. That’s the color of your new life. Just because one day you’re happy doesn’t mean you’re “over it.” And because two days later you’re having a complete and unexpected meltdown doesn’t mean you weren’t really happy, then. Happy things can make you very sad. Sad things can be very comforting. It’s ok. Purple is like that.
That’s what I can tell you from here, 9 months after my life stopped and started over. And I have one last piece of advise for you when talking to your friend who has lost something immense:
Do not say “If you need anything let me know.” Have I mentioned this? Either offer something concrete, or say, “Have a nice day.” This invitation to “anything,” certainly stated with all benevolent intent, is SO ANNOYING. What exactly is it supposed to mean? It’s so open, it means nothing. Is it an offer of money? I don’t think so. You’ll drive me to the hospital if I get bitten by a snake? If I run out of milk or eggs you’ll be right over? I should call you instead of the fire department if my house catches on fire? I don’t get it.
Try again. You want to offer something? Offer it. Hey, do you need a ride to the grocery store? Wow, my lemon tree is loaded to the ground—want some? Want to have breakfast tomorrow morning? Need anything from the hardware store? Those offers I can manage. But that “ask me for anything” thing—it doesn’t work. At all. I will probably not ask you for anything, even when I need something. And you probably know that. I will probably just figure it out on my own. Which, unavoidably, is the New Normal.