In the heart of grief, there is no grace
“And this evening when I close my eyes against the darkness and think about her, I’ll imagine iridescent wings fluttering, if only for a moment, against cloudless blue skies.”
― Nancy Stephan, The Truth About Butterflies: A Memoir
There are a few paths we will all walk. We all have a date we’re born. We all have a date we die. Our births and our deaths are our own and no matter how impoverished we are, these belong to no one else, despite the incredible number of other people who were born or will die at exactly the same time as we. In between these dates, for however long we have, we will live our lives the best we can and hope that fate is merciful.
No matter what that fate brings us, there is one thing we will do if we love at all. We will grieve. It’s like I told my 90-something year old father — we have only two choices. Either we die first and break everybody’s hearts, or they die and break ours.
As with most things in life, grief comes in degrees. There are small griefs — a distant relative, the parent of a friend. It registers and you are sad, but you go on and you do not founder, you do not go down. And then, with nothing to guide you, with no precedent, with no understanding of just how much something can possibly hurt, you hit the big one. A child, a spouse, a sibling – someone as integral to you as your breath – is taken. Warning or no warning makes no difference. Your grief will be the same regardless. If you are warned, you know that freight train is about to hit, but even when it finally happens, you have no idea how hard that impact is going to be. If you have no warning, it is the strike of a billyclub to your knees, bringing you down.
We all know the ways of public grieving. We hold together. We seem fine. We may leak tears, we may weep for a moment on the shoulder of someone we trust. I am not talking about the grieving we do around others. This grieving is framed by the approbation of others. We cannot deal with their reactions if we lose control or we want to save face or it’s just not their business. Whatever the reason, we put on our public faces and render grief into something it is not — polite.
I am talking about the private grief that nobody will witness. This is grief at its most honest. In the heart of grief, there is no grace. It is a face contorted until it hurts, and tears and snot and sometimes vomit and shrieking, until you’re raw and curling up and sobbing. Until you don’t so much sleep as fall unconscious because you have nothing left. It is death without death. Only later, when you’ve absorbed it into your skin, your bones, your heart, does some semblance of grace appear. But not yet. And even later, not all the time.
There is no way around this grief. You cannot bargain with it. Avoiding it only makes it worse by creating an emotional abscess, a blazing infection of anguish, that will be all the more devastating when it finally opens. This is the burning room with the burning door. You must walk through the burning door. There is no other way out.
Nor can I give you the solace of telling you that you will recover. You won’t. It. Will. Always. Hurt. And sometimes, it will hurt just this much all over again, as if it was yesterday that they were taken from you, not two years ago, not 20. Normal is gone and now you are left alone to craft a new normal that will never shine quite as brightly again.
I learned this truth on March 10, 1994. Four days after my brother turned 35, AIDS took him after a battle so valiant and brave – and so filled with rage and disappointment – that it was literally all-consuming for those of us who loved him. When I got the news, my legs gave way beneath me. I was caught by a friend and nearly dragged to a room where I was surrounded by the women with whom I worked, pressed close in that physical comforting for which there is no substitute.
I had only begun to understand what grief was. Seven days later, I found out I was pregnant. Even in the storm of anguish that was my brother’s loss, I was delirious with joy. It was a fragile pregnancy, so after work, I would come home and curl up in bed, talking to him, telling him how much I loved him. I named him Sib, short for Sibling, and I knew he was a boy.
Two months later, at 15 weeks, when I had begun to believe my baby would survive his journey, I felt two strong, sharp tugs. At that moment, I knew, but there was nothing to be done. My child’s death would be confirmed two days later when I stared at the still form in the ultrasound. I do not know how I drove back to the doctor’s office, but by the time Darryl arrived, I had used up the last of my strength. I ran to him, buried my face in his shirt and shrieked until my throat felt bloody.
This was what it was to grieve. It felt as if I had been hit with a hammer blow that crushed my sternum, my ribs and pulverized my heart beneath it. Between these blows that happened over and over, aching numbness was my only respite. I pretended to function, but I was lying. I spent long hours sitting in the ugliest and most comfortable chair beneath the walnut tree, just watching the leaves move against the blue of the sky, observing the gauzy, sunlit insects in their aerial mating dance, my mind and heart empty.
I drew only one picture in that long time. The woman is naked against a black night. Her hair is in spikes, her head thrown back, her mouth open and wailing. Her hand is around her own throat. And at the base of her belly, there is a void with a still gray form held within.
Time ran on regardless of my anguish. Slowly I found myself having flash memories – more like I was reliving moments of beauty. My brother as a child, tushy on my feet as I launched him across the room into a pile of pillows. Rolling the plush soccer ball of many colors up and down our hall and talking, talking. Watching TV with me on my side and him leaning against me as if I was a couch. Those moments curled around my belly, speaking love to my child I knew he could hear. Seeing his little heartbeat flickering steadily.
My doctor told me something that I cling to even now. He grabbed me and said, “Listen to me! Do you remember the joy you felt this morning? When you were still looking forward to holding your baby?” I nodded, clinging hard to Darryl, who was listening with his chin on my head, arms wrapped tightly around me. “That joy is still yours. It cannot be taken from you. NOTHING that has come later can EVER take that joy from you. It is yours to keep.”
It took time, but one day I woke up and realized it was true. I could remember every bit of how happy I’d been, the lovely moments when all was well and nothing but good was coming my way. The joy was still there and it really was mine to keep. That was the day I remembered how to breathe again. Eventually, we all breathe again, and the air is still sweet.
This is dedicated to Stephen Leslie Spier, March 6, 1959 to March 10, 1994; to Sib Spier North, soul departed May 15, 1994; to Veva Drake Spier, August 15, 1925 to March 11, 1999; to Sam Davis, March 18, 1989 to May 21, 2011; to Arthur Mahoney, October 23, 1975 to April 8, 2012.