When I was 30 my dad died, and though it wasn’t a surprise—he had been diagnosed with a terminal soft-tissue sarcoma 18 months before—it was devastating. He was 55 years old. Death is supposed to be the natural order of things, but nothing felt less natural to me than losing my dad when we were both so young. There was a brief period of relief, when I could hear a phone ring and not fear the worst, when I realised part of the suffering was over—the pain of seeing my parents suffering and my own personal suffering. That period lasted about a week, and then the funeral came, and then I was alone. And that is when the work began. Except work is something you choose to do and receive, at least in theory, something for it. You can work at a job, you can work on the yard, you can work on a tan, you can work on your golf swing. You cannot work at grief. You can say you’re “working on my grief,” but those are just words. What is really happening is that the grief is working on you.
Even if you suppress your grief, if you somehow will it away with a distraction or distractions of your choice, the grief will work on you. The simple act of suppressing it is evidence the grief is starting to have its way, so the only logical thing to do is to “deal with the grief.” Fair enough, but the problem is there is no logic with grief. I decided to play along, though. My wife knew how close I was with my dad, and she had lost her father at an even younger age (she was a freshman in college). She understood how important is was for me to “deal with my grief.” So I went to grief counseling, offered free for 12 weeks thru Hospice, a truly remarkable organisation, and I was told to expect this and to expect that, I was told that any feeling is ok. It was ok to feel relieved, it was ok to be angry, it was fine to be happy and sad, fine to feel all those things at once. I was told the first year is the hardest, and that is why so many cultures honour their dead for a year. I was told that after my 12 weeks of grief counseling were over I could of course come back for more. And six or so sessions in, I knew it wasn’t working, and I knew a dozen or two dozen or three dozen more wouldn’t matter. Or if it was working, whatever progress I had made was wrecked when one of my best friend’s dad died three months after mine. His dad was also 55.
It was that event that made me realise how difficult this was going to be. I was told to watch out for the three-month mark no matter, but I don’t imagine my counselor envisioned me dealing with another death so soon. Not long after my dad died the friend, Rich, called me and asked, delicately, if I could help him. Rich was more than family to me, and he was also very close to his dad, so of course I would try, I would push thru my own grief to aid his, what else could I do, what else are we here for except to help each other navigate this tempestuous and beautiful and cruel world? Poor Rich. What should I do, he asked me? Should I take a leave of absence from work and spend more time with him? How are you handling this, he asked, how does anyone handle this? Oh, Rich. How indeed.
How I remember that day, the funeral for my friend’s dad. I held it together at the funeral, but as soon as people started to shuffle away from the pews, I could feel the roar of relentless, unaccommodating grief. It would not let me make it home or even to my car. I made it to a shrub just outside the sanctuary, and sat there on the cold dirt, and, as people walked by, I cried uncontrollably for my dad, for Rich and his dad and the rest of his family. Grief delights in embarrassing you—or rather, in making you feel embarrassed. Eventually another close friend noticed me, saw my suffering, and found my wife, who I had lost leaving the church in my race to escape the wrath of grief. As I sat there, leaning on my wife with dozens of people still walking past, I understood. Of course losing a parent at any age is difficult, a fact I had learned eight months before my dad died, when my grandfather, my mom’s dad, died suddenly at age 81. (All in all, not a good eight months for my mom.) What I understood was that not only was grief going to be more difficult than I imagined, but also that losing my dad so young was one of those derailments that could knock me off course for a lifetime if I wasn’t careful.
I tried to be careful, I thought. I would honour the counseling, even as I knew it wouldn’t help. I would talk about dad freely, even if it hurt (and it did, and it does). I would finish graduate school (he died in the second semester of my first year of a two-year program). I would keep writing for ESPN.com, a source of enormous pride for him; I had started writing for them just three months before dad died. I would pay attention to my sadness, I would cry as needed. In short, I would “work through the grief.”
What I didn’t anticipate turned out to be just as difficult as what I did. What I felt most keenly was the disappearance of a support system I barely knew was there. Never before did I apprehend how much my dad had supported me, and what an invaluable thing it was. I understood the difference between a void (which cannot be filled) and a hole (which could). My dad’s death left a void at the core of my existence, and to this day I feel it still. I am still surprised about the void left behind, at that initial loss of self-confidence. How could I not feel on top of the world, having just secured a writing job at ESPN.com even before I finished grad school? How could I not believe in myself? Losing that unconditional source of support, that unshakeable love and belief, that was how. It completely blindsided me, but in time that, at least, has eased, though as I said it has never gone away. Having self-doubt is something all artists must reckon with, but this was an added layer, and it makes the natural vicissitudes of writing a little more difficult.
Difficult too was my new relationship with my mom. She had lost a spouse, and you can have any number of those, but I had lost a father, and you can only have one of those. Her grief was immense, mine felt more immense. We each had our own version of grief, but it was impossible for her to support me the way I would have needed, and vice-versa. There was and is an element of naked selfishness in our grief, but that too is a function of grief.
Difficult as well was my relationship with my wife. She had been there before, so there was a natural vein of understanding—at least at first. As it become clear to her that I was not doing well, that I was not “working at my grief”—for she is nothing if not a child of the Protestant work ethic, where everything can be solved by hard work—she lost her patience, even as she felt for me, for my loss. I appreciated what she was trying to do by urging me to “deal with my grief,” but it left a scar. Thinking about my dad and his unconditional love for me and his other two offspring was difficult. I wondered what regrets he died with. Having three kids before he was 26 was his choice—and it severely limited his future choices. What did he not do that he had always wanted to do? Did he have any regrets? What magical and nonsensical and beautiful dreams did he hide from us, from his wife? What made his heart beat insubordinately? What, what, what. It was difficult to consider, what this humble man went through before he died, all his questions unanswered.
Difficult. That is grief. Not challenging, difficult. We like to say things are challenging instead of difficult because it makes us feel that we can learn something from the process, that we can “rise to the challenge” and grow, and there is some truth in that. Some things, though, are just plain difficult, and at the end of the day we have not grown, we have not improved. That, in the end, is all I have learned from grief: that there is nothing to learn from it. I have not grown, I have not improved. Grieving for my dad did not make it easier to grieve for my sister, who died 10 years after he did. It has not made grieving the loss of my dreams easier. It will not make future grieving easier. It has made and will make those things more difficult because he is not here to help me thru them, and while I have other resources at my disposal, there is nothing like a parent’s love, and I feel it all the more when I hear of people who have never had that kind of love. And yet… I could endure it all so much more capably if I knew, at the end of the day, I could absorb a lesson. Any lesson. Instead I am left to marvel at its power, its complexity, its timelessness. Its mystery.
Just what is grief? Grief is different to all people, but not too much different, at least in its generics. Grief is unavoidable if you are human. Grief is patient, it is relentless; you cannot avoid it and if you try it will only be worse, and yet, as I said, you can’t effectively not avoid it either. Grief is all consuming at times, it eviscerates everything in its path and turns around and does it again. And again and again. Grief is humiliating, not merely humbling (though it is that too). Grief is what wakes you up, trembling and crying and terrified, at three in the morning. Grief is unpredictable, it is capricious, it will hit you whenever and wherever, no matter what mood you were in before. Grief is not concerned with relevance; it will burn you as you think of something totally unrelated to the object of your grief. Grief is intensely private and yet just as intensely public; you walk around feeling sure your whole world is exposed, that everyone is looking at you. Grief will push you as low as you can go, and as you cry out “Please, no more!” it will push you lower. Grief is the opposite of the famous Corinthian verse of love. Grief is patient, yes, and it perseveres. But grief is cruel, it envies, it boasts, and it is proud to wreck you; it is totally self-seeking, it is easily angered, it reminds you of all your wrongs, those you committed and those committed against you. Grief does not protect you it leaves you totally disarmed, it does not trust you to honour your grief. Grief will steal your self-confidence and self-esteem. Grief makes what used to be simple difficult. In that way it is like depression, but depression isn’t always circumstantial the way grief is, though if left unattended grief can turn into depression. Grief is needy, needier than a toddler, needier than your dreams; grief says “pay attention to me” when you would rather do anything else. Grief does not honour convention or decency or other people’s feelings. Grief is exhausting. At the end of a grief-inspired moment—a bout of crying, even a happy memory—all you want to do is sleep. Grief totally strips you of hope. Grief becomes a seamless part of your life, it melds with taking out the trash and cleaning out the dishwasher and taking a shower, except it does so in a way that cannot be mapped or put into a calendar on your smart phone.
Grief is all those things, and many more. You can try all you want, but you do not work through grief, you do not deal with grief in a meaningful way. Grief deals with you.