It sucks. And I wish there was a better word in the English language that could sum up this kind of pain but there isn’t. Not really. You could call grief heartbreaking but it’s not the kind of heartbreak you experience after a breakup. After a breakup, you’re sad but you’re also hopeful. Hopeful that they’ll come back. Hopeful that they’ll come to their senses. Hopeful that their name will flash on your screen via text message. But with death, there is no hoping they’ll come back. You bargain with God, sure. You pray to see them in your dreams or to turn the hall and see them standing there looking like themselves so you can say the last few words you have to say. But they can’t come back. Their name will never pop up on your caller ID. You’ll never hear their unique ringtone when they call. They’ll never call you or text you or mail you a card or letter in the mail for your birthday or Christmas. You’ll never feel what it felt like to be smushed against their chest when they hug you. You’ll never hear them laugh. You’ll never drink coffee with them or think about them without immediately remembering that they’re gone and the love that bursts throughout your heart has nowhere – and I do mean NOWHERE – to leak out. It’s like being constantly congested. It’s like your arteries are blocked.
Depression is real
So maybe we’ll try the word depressing because grief holds a lot of that. Four years after my mom’s death and I’m still depressed. I don’t find joy in any aspect of my life even though seven years ago my biggest dream was having the life I have right now: a loving marriage, a clean apartment, pets I adore and a career as a writer. I’m living my dream life – more or less with the exclusion of owning a van to drive cross country – and yet I struggle to find hope every day. Cloudy days are the worst; at least during the summer my body has a chance to positively interact with Vitamin D and naturally boost my mood. During the winter, I’m a monster. A recluse.
Depressing is a good word for grief in many ways because you certainly aren’t thinking positively when you’ve been dealt such a rotten hand. How CAN you be happy when the person you love isn’t there to embrace it? Aren’t you a BAD person for feeling joy when someone else is dead? And despite how many articles or therapists or close friends and family try to convince you otherwise, you can’t just snap your fingers and expel the grief. This isn’t Harry Potter and you’re not a wizard and life doesn’t magically repair itself with the flick of a wrist. So what do you do? You get angry and perhaps that’s the best word of all: anger.
Let’s talk about anger
See, anger encompasses all of it right? I was angry at everyone who had a mother. I was angry that certain mothers were alive when mine weren’t. Like I said, I could be a monster at my lowest peak. But anger is part of the grieving process. You’re not just angry that someone you love was stolen from you; you’re angry that your life was stolen from you. You’re angry over the loss of your routine, over the complete and utter lack of control you have over what your life has become. And your life has become a shell of its former glory. Nothing and I do mean nothing can fix it. And people just expect you to get on with your life. They expect you to go to work and wash the dishes and pick up the paintbrush or clack your fingers against a keyboard like nothing ever happened. And it’s always done in the spirit of trying to make the soulless body drifting around in heaven (or hell, I guess) be at rest. My mother wouldn’t want me to be miserable. She wouldn’t want me to waste my days; I KNOW that… but ask me how little control I have over that. Right now I want to be angry. I need to be angry.
While anger and depression and heartache all work in my moronic quest to describe my grief, the perfect word is pure, unadulterated anguish – severe mental or physical pain and suffering. Ah, that’s it. Perfect, isn’t it? My journey of grief was just anguish. Over everything. My first few moments of the day were usually perfect but soon the first thought that would flood my mind was that my mother died at 6:21am on a Tuesday morning. I would start my day at ground zero; it’s like I was trying to run a marathon in reverse. Can you imagine trying to build your day with that being your first mental image? A dead body sprawled across the dining room floor or in a casket. It would just evolve from there. First, I’d think of the image of her trying to be revived by the paramedics, then of her lying in a coffin wearing that powder blue sweater we bought together at Macy’s. I was in charge of picking out the outfit she’d be buried in. I stood at the entrance of her closet thinking, “Well, I don’t want to choose anything.” Because choosing something meant I’d never see it again and what if I regretted it? What if six months down the line I’d want to see that sweater? Smell that sweater? Feel that sweater? I’m not crazy. Then I’d think about her body in the coffin, rotting in the ground, wondering if her face looked like Two Face from Batman or at what point in the decomposition process she would turn to nothing but an oversized powder blue sweater and bones. And then I’d have to leave for work. I’d put on a brave face at the oncology office I worked at, watching patients actually expire from visit to visit. I’d watch them go from a moderate build to skin and bones. I’d watch as they walked in by themselves, then with friends, to on a stretcher, to with their spouses, and finally their entire family as they could barely speak or walk. And there I stood, asking them from behind the safety of my plexiglass if they had their $50 copay. What a mess.
Anguish. A severe mental pain and suffering. I’d agree with that. I’d agree since I’d come home after work and sit in my driveway blasting the songs we played at my mother’s funeral. I’d cry and cry and cry to my neighbors’ bewilderment. Why didn’t I do it inside you ask? Because I wanted the attention. I wanted someone to notice me, to ask me what was wrong, to ask me if I was okay. But no one ever did. Not on the outside. They walked past me, thinking I was crazy and I was. I was out of my mind with grief. I was, in a phrase, completely unconsolable.
My husband would often find me lying on a dirty pile of laundry in our bedroom. Sometimes the kitchen, scattered on the linoleum floor next to the washer and dryer. Sometimes I’d bang my head against our cabinets. Sometimes I’d throw my cell phone or a dirty towel with such force that makes me feel like I should have tried out for my school’s football team. Sometimes I’d scream, and I mean screaming an obnoxious scream like I did at her funeral, collapsing onto the ground in front of everyone with a scream that still haunts my nightmares. Sometimes I think of that moment and use it as an example when someone asks me about the poor choices I made during grief. I want them to remember that scene.
Severe mental pain and suffering – without a doubt that’s the descriptor. Because mental is only half the battle. There’s physical torment that always follows. The pain radiating down my neck and to my shoulders after a banged the back of my head into the cabinets. The sore throat I’d develop after I wrapped up screaming. The nausea and gastrointestinal issues that usually followed. The pain in my gut from being so hungry but not at the same piercing time. The headaches, the panic attacks, the difficulty breathing and feeling stressed and worried every second of every day. And let’s not forget the insomnia.
Severe mental pain and anguish – that’s what grief is really like and it’s something that made me feel so isolated and alone because I didn’t want to hear from anyone else that things were going to be okay. I didn’t want things to be okay without my mom because my mom was my best friend. She was like my platonic soulmate, the other half of me who knew the answers to every riddle. The color to my black-and-white counterpart. To accurately describe how close our bond was I want to share with you all a story. Several stories, actually, because this example happened more than once. Like all mother-daughter duos, we argued. And when we did, sometimes it would be nuclear. I’m talking screaming and slamming doors and pounding up the stairs kind of arguments. Teenage hormones, you know? And when we’d fight sometimes one of us would leave. We used to chase after one another when it’d happen, unhappy with how we ended it and looking to resolve it. I’d drive 15 minutes up the road to the movie theater parking lot and scan for her car; my mom would drive to Barnes and Noble and walk around seeing if she saw me ordering coffee from a Barista who thought my name was Britney. When we’d get back home, we’d tell each other what we’d done. And we would miss each other’s cars by minutes. Sounds like a lie but it isn’t. We would miss each other by literal minutes, going to the exact place we both knew the other would be, not knowing that’s where we’d be headed. I didn’t know I’d end up at Barnes and Noble. I’d just get behind the wheel of my silver VW bug that my parents paid for in cash after my mom secretly worked overtime for months before my 17th birthday.
After returning home, we’d sit on the bed or dining room table and talk. Hash it out and by the end of it, we’d flip on a ghost hunting show. When she died, the part of me that was protected died, too. I no longer had a mother to protect me or guide me or comfort me. I was all alone and I didn’t want anyone else but her. I was 26, too young for my mother to be gone.
There’s not a perfect age for your parent to die but I think your twenties are just too young. I wasn’t settled yet. I didn’t own a house or have a family of my own. I wasn’t married. I still had plans, you know? I still had questions I needed answers to. Like, how do you get a good deal at a car dealership? How did you know when you were ready to start a family? What does giving birth feel like? Will it hurt or does Hollywood make out to be something way worse than what it really is? She never got to see me walk across the stage and graduate college. She never got to see me get a new job or hear about what it was like to visit Portland, Oregon (weird, by the way). And when I’d bring these facts up to my friends, to my family, they’d say “she does know” because when you’re tasked with answering that kind of question, what else besides platitudes actually work? Nothing.
What follows next
I didn’t want people to force me to move forward because it was a lesson I’d have to learn myself and I’m still learning it. Four years in and I’m better but I’m not who I was before the loss. My husband, on a real dark day, said to me, “This isn’t you” but isn’t it? Isn’t this who we turn into after a loss? Broken versions of ourselves that spend the next however many years of our lives trying to glue back together the shards of our former selves. But even when it’s glued back together, it isn’t real. It’ll never be the way it was before. Not really. Even though to the outside world, you look repaired.
The journey of grief is just that – a journey – and it’s one that’s isolating, heartbreaking, painful, dreadful and in a word, sucks more than anything. But it’s a part of life. A terrible part of life. A part of life that we hope delays itself as long as possible. A part of life that forces you to be vulnerable and angry and scared and yes, sometimes even hopeful. As I move through the stages of grief, I continue to come to terms with the reality that I’ll never go back to the woman I was before the loss. But I can forge a new path built with the lessons all this anguish taught me – that I will go through this loss again, that I will feel the anger and the dread and the worry about when it’ll happen – to my father, my friends, my spouse. And that I will get through it just like before.