A Brief Reflection On Grief
I came to the realization today, driving on the highway on the way back from bringing the kids to school, that my understanding of grief has been too shallow.
The catalyst was nothing more significant than a song on the radio. It was a song about loss in familial relationships, and it triggered a domino effect of realizations that suddenly and unexpectedly overtook me. I felt my face involuntarily transform into a contorted mask, as tears began to flow. I found myself trying to blink my vision clear enough not to crash as I navigated traffic on my way home.
Nobody in my life has recently died. I’d just dropped off six healthy, amazing kids for a regular day in the classroom, and had a seventh little one sitting happily in his car seat in the back. I was on my way home to a loving and beautiful wife. The spontaneous upwelling of deep, gutting emotion would seem almost inexplicable, if not for the fact that I have been processing some very deep, very old wounds.
Grief was something I thought I understood until recently. It was comprised, I believed, by those waves of intense mourning that come after the death of a loved one. When my maternal grandfather died, I was 14. I felt guilty that I couldn’t seem to access the emotions related to grief at the time. I remember lying in the half-built tree fort I’d put together in our back woods, looking up at the sky, trying to will myself to cry. I couldn’t do it. I remember the awful wailing sobs of one of my aunts at the funeral, coming to terms in shuddering fits with the irrevocable loss her father — a good man deserving of such a sense of bereavement — and how uncomfortable it made me, almost to the point of embarrassment. I remember my own father breaking down half a decade later when his mother died, expressing sentiments of wishing to be a better father to me that never quite materialized.
After my grandfather died, one of the things I lamented was that I wasn’t closer to him. By the time I had the chance to get to know him, I was an awkward adolescent and he was suffering from ailments that made him gruff and short-tempered. They also skewed his perception of reality, and so, he would think sometimes that I was doing something I was not, and reprimand me for it. For a young man going through puberty, dealing with a grumpy old man who was losing his grip was the last thing I was interested in. But when he died, and I saw the impact his life had had on countless others, I realized that I had missed an encounter with greatness. Although I couldn’t process my grief at the time of his death, for years, I would dream about him. He would show up unexpectedly, even though I knew within the dream that he was supposed to be gone. I would awake with a sense of emptiness and loss, knowing that his return had been nothing but the working of my subconscious mind. I don’t think those dreams stopped until I was in my 20s. It took a long time to let him go.
The unassailable permanence of death, the departure of someone who has been a constant presence in your life to the inexorable pull of whatever is on the other side, is the archetypal form of grief, but it isn’t the only kind.
When I was 18, I fell madly, deeply in love with a girl in the kind of way that uproots everything else in your life. It was that deep, inescapable, love-at-first-sight kind of rapture that Dante felt when he beheld Beatrice during those fleeting moments in Florence all those centuries ago. I was a young man in my prime, ravenous of appetite, and I could not eat. I couldn’t sleep. I’d get up early in the morning to get to school before classes began in the hopes I’d catch a glimpse of her uncanny turquoise eyes; eyes that took on a depth and luster in the particular angle of the morning sun that made them more captivating than anything I’d ever seen. When graduation finally came, and I faced an inevitable return from Texas, where I was boarding, to my parents’ home in New York, I was desperate. I wanted to marry that girl, but I was a child and I knew it. There was no way I could make it happen, and I had to leave her thousands of miles behind. The last night I saw her, I held her for a long time, standing in the rain. As I made my way home, I found myself wracked by deep sobs, so violent you would have thought my soul was leaving my body. I’d never felt so sad about anything in my life. She wasn’t dead; far from it. But I think I knew that it was over, that magical thing that we’d had for six months. The thing that made me feel better than anything ever had. And sure enough, when we met back up the following summer, just to see if we could pick up where we left off, I could tell that what had been was gone, and could never be again. The chemistry was still there, but it was little more than a glossy veneer over a hollow space. We were lovers without real love. The pain of leaving her behind a second time was more of a dull ache and less of a bayonet to the gut. As I dropped her off one last time, watching her walk to her door that August evening, I knew I’d never see her again. I think she knew too. And we both knew that it was for the best. There was a grief even in that recognition. I was experiencing the death of the most intense and wonderful thing I’d ever experienced — not because of circumstances, but because it simply wasn’t meant to be. That’s a surprisingly hard thing to let go of, too.
The Skojec File is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
These days, I am not that same fit, slender boy of 18, with nothing but a bright future ahead of me — an ocean of possibility that helped drown out some of that feeling of lost love. I am nearly 45. My beard and what’s left of my hair are now bristling with white; my body is weighed down by the decades of food and drink in which I have sought solace as I have processed one kind of pain after another. I was never an athlete, but I was big and strong and knew how to work hard; now, a sedentary writer’s life hunched over a keyboard before a glowing screen has softened my body and sapped my strength. Bright hope has given way to the sourness of regret over lost time, experience, and opportunity. My life is very likely more than halfway over, and I have often preferred to be numb than to feel. As I have written about here before, I have only really begun, in the past two years, to process and face my childhood traumas, and the way they have spun tendrils out in my own life, my own behaviors, my own ability to betray and neglect and wound. I have not yet begun to see all of the adults of my childhood enter into their inevitable procession into death, but this is coming, and soon. And sooner than I would like, they will all be gone, and it will be my turn to follow where they have trod.
For now, my grief is focused on the living, and on non-fatal forms of loss. I grieve for squandered youth; for years spent being angry and anxious without even knowing why. I grieve the scars I’ve left on people I love because I failed to truly see who I was and what I was doing; how wounded I was and how it led me to inflict more wounds. I grieve the loss of the vitality and strength that came so effortlessly to me before, and has already become so elusive now, my mistreated body groaning in protest at duties it once would have shrugged off without a second thought. I grieve for relationships with loved ones that have been damaged or become damaging, people who have cut me off and others whom I have had to cut off, even as I try more than ever to choose love over hardheadedness and spite. Some people are simply committed to paths we cannot walk with them, and as such, present insurmountable obstacles to continuing contact, even if we wish it were not so. And just as I grieve my own failures as a parent that I can’t take back, I grieve my parents failures with me. I wish they understood the damage they did; I wish they had ever found the strength to face and accept it and the will to really change. I wish they had taught me what kind of man I should be, instead of setting the example for what kind of man I did become. I do not like that man. He was mired in negativity and self-doubt, anger and acquiescence and fear. I am too old to undo the damage of so many miles spent on the wrong path. I can only hope to push in the right direction for the time I have left. I can only hope that I can understand the damage I’ve done, and find the strength to face and accept it, and the will to really change.
As anyone who has mourned loss knows, one of the characteristics of grief is the way it sneaks up on you, like the proverbial thief in the night. Some grief, like the loss of a loved one, is expected. But when we open the door to self-examination and change, we also open ourselves to realizations of loss we tend to be better at avoiding, and as such, don’t see coming. Still, I think this opening of self, even with its attendant risk of pain, is the better path. All grief is, in a sense, a coming to terms with kinds of loss that can only be described as “death.” Sometimes, though, that death is not the death of a person, but of an expectation or perception. Sometimes it’s the death of how we wanted things to be, or who we thought that someone we loved actually was. Sometimes, it’s the death of how we used to see ourselves, as the ugly reality of who we’ve actually been comes into focus. Sometimes, it’s the death of everything we believed was true, leaving us orphaned in a chaotic world without any trustworthy sense-making tools.
Grief can come by way of the realization that the only way to begin healing ourselves is to begin confronting things that will cause others to resent or despise us. That our changing in the ways we need to in order to become whole will likely alienate the people who helped to break us, even if they always were, at the deepest level, our tribe. This process can, depending on our circumstances, be a path to self-exile — a loss not to be taken lightly.
Grief is what we experience when acute emotional pain leaves the deepest recesses of our being. I don’t know that it’s possible for such pain not to be transformative. It changes us because it must. We cannot stay the same, or the pain can never leave us. We have to change shape. We have to push what is inside…out. We cannot wake up every morning with the hope that we will see our dead loved one’s face, or be on normal speaking terms with the people who betrayed us — or whom we have betrayed. We cannot undo loss, or pretend that what has happened was just a dream. We have to wake up instead and face what is different now; we must bear the burden of regret, knowing that we will not forget what was, but also that it no longer is what is. We must embrace the idea that when we are powerless to change what happened, we nevertheless have the power to change where we are going, and to take the steps necessary to move beyond our present pain.
In that sense, grief is a good and gracious thing. It is the painful rehabilitation of a deep wound. The process is arduous and at times excruciating, but healing lies on the other side.
And with healing, there is hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for the clarity that comes from earned wisdom, with fewer of the same mistakes and regrets.
I heard someone say recently that maturity comes not with age, but with damage. I think that’s right. Our wounds shape us. Our grief forms us, and alters our path. Maybe, if we’re determined to actually learn something from our various moments of grief, these will add up to life more fully lived, and a death with fewer regrets.