The Unpredictability of Grief
Her father died ten years ago. But the strangest things would allow the sense of loss back in
A month or so ago, meeting a new friend for lunch at a mall midway between our houses, I arrived early and thought I’d wander through a jewelry store. I was attracted by a strolling violinist, someone pouring sparkling juice into tall flutes, and chocolates on silver trays. They were celebrating something, but the moment I moved close enough to identify the music and notice the type of chocolate, blood began pounding in my ears, and an unexpected shroud of sadness enveloped me. I had to walk away.
The tune was one of my father’s favorites. The chocolates were the kind which for 25 years he’d asked me to ship him from our native New Jersey to his retirement home in Las Vegas. The double memory trigger overwhelmed me, grief throbbing. By the time my new friend arrived, the tears were sluicing down my face as I explained.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you recently lost your father,” Angela said.
“Actually, he’s been gone for ten years,” I tried to explain. “But some days that doesn’t make any difference.”
While it might not have been our choice of conversations at our first lunch, Angela and I spent the first half-hour talking about grief: how it sneaks up on us at the most unpredictable (and often inopportune) times; how, just when we think we’ve moved past the worst of it, grief rides back into town, sometimes on a flashy fast horse, other times on a quiet, sweet pony, but either way — wham!
Angela lost her mother decades ago, and her favorite cousin only recently. For both though, she reported that reminders regularly brought back her grief in new and unexplainable ways.
“Exactly,” I agreed. “Grief is unpredictable as hell.”
We compared notes, about when and how (and how quickly) something comes along and pitches us back to emotions we thought we might not tangle with again.
A scrap of song drifting through another driver’s open window. The color of bridesmaids’ dresses at a wedding. An old movie stumbled upon while clicking through channels. A date on the calendar. Smells of a neighbor’s cooking. The set of an elderly man’s eyeglasses. A book on someone’s coffee table. Coffee.
Or, nothing at all.
In the wake of my father’s death in 2006, I thought — the pragmatic no-nonsense 40-something woman I was — that I’d grieve simply and move on quickly. I was busy: two young sons, freelance jobs, graduate school, an occasionally skittish marriage. Besides, my father and I had lived on opposite sides of the country for 30 years. We weren’t close.
And yet, grief has meandered through my life over a dozen years on its own languid, unhurried course. Some experts have amended the familiar five stages of grief to seven, though acceptance remains the final step. There’s no question that I’ve accepted Dad’s death; I don’t expect he’ll turn up! But there’s nothing in the stages lists about what comes after that last stage, or how so many of us slip back and forth between stages, for years.
As I wrote my book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press), which traces my path through the first three years after my father’s death, my research revealed that grief goes on — and doesn’t go away.
Only the form changes, the intensity varying, but never completely waning. That day in the mall, the tears fell, my heart ached with such sadness. A few weeks before though a momentary splash of grief — enjoyable almost in its wistful, flitting way — popped up when I remembered it was March 15 and how Dad had often called me on that day and when I said Hello, he’d say, “Beware the ides of March!”
Grief — and its windy ways — interested me even before grief and I got to be on such familiar terms. My tender and tough Noni died when I was eight. When I’d see my mother cry five years after, 15 years after, 40 years after, I didn’t understand it yet but her emotions never seemed odd to me. When your mother is gone, she’s always gone, and so why would that hurt less at age 60 than at age 45?
Not long ago, at a specialty foods store which stocks nostalgic items, the sight of a Black Jack gum packet, Noni’s favorite, brought my cart to a halt. My gasp spurred another shopper to ask if I was okay. I was fine, happy really with my discovery, even though for the rest of my afternoon a melancholy descended. But that was okay since it also brought luscious warm memories of the fierce love I always felt from Noni. That too was grief — 49 years later.
The problem with typical assumptions about grief — that it’s finite and the goal is to “get over it” — is that they don’t account for grief’s own idiosyncratic behavior. There’s no getting over or being done with something that seems to have a mind, a trajectory of its own, disconnected from charts or timelines. Grief, it seems to me, arrives when it wants to and stays as long as it stays.
This makes sense when we recall how memory works: in non-linear, episodic, thematically linked but also random ways. Since the real work of grief is remembering (not forgetting), it’s no wonder grief behaves in the same way, presenting us with out-of-sync, non-linear, sometimes linked but often random episodes.
When someone is taken up with the busy-ness of death — funeral planning, dealing with death certificates and insurance, responding to condolences — it’s often said, “it hasn’t hit her yet.” It meaning the reality of the loss. It meaning, sometimes, grief. My elderly aunt says she didn’t begin grieving until three weeks after her husband died when the house emptied of grandchildren and casseroles, and she had no more death-related tasks to dispatch. That was six years ago. Whenever grief does begin, I haven’t seen much evidence that it makes an exit plan. She tells me she talks to her husband each evening while she watches the news.
My father died in autumn, four days before his 80th birthday. I was at my mother’s house in Las Vegas when the birthday arrived, and she and my sister suffered greatly that day. I found it only mildly interesting. The first Father’s Day without Dad, eight months later, similarly affected me very little. A few months later, however, when my husband and I arrived for a swim at his parents’ house, I realized it was one year exactly from the sweltering August day I’d gotten the call about Dad’s stroke. To deal with the swift and stunningly sharp emotional pain, I swam lap after lap, unsure where the tears stopped and the water began.
Last week, I watched the BBC Like Minds digital documentary, “Grief is Not Something You Have to Get Over,” in which a psychotherapist posits that grief enters our lives like a huge ball and instead of finding a way to get rid of it, we make room for it: our lives grow a wider circle around it. Grief changes shape and at times, recedes into the background. And since we can’t predict or control when memory triggers will find us and ignite new grief episodes, it may pop to full size at any time.
That day at the mall, grief hit me full force at the jewelry store. I made room for it, absorbed the impact. As I told my friend a story about Dad and those chocolates, I could feel it softening, shrinking. After lunch, I went back to the jewelry store and — with delight this time — reached for a dark chocolate-covered Jordan cracker, and let it melt on my tongue.