December 7, 2019

The Great Lie Of Grieving: It Gets Easier

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My father died on October 8. It was Yom Kippur. They say that God takes only the saintliest and most beautiful of souls on that holy day. I didn’t know this until a rabbi told me after hearing that I had lost my father. But it is one of the truest things I now know.

I know a lot of things, especially when it comes to death and loss and suffering and memory. I’ve made a career out of it. If anyone should have been prepared to face loss with grace and dignity and understanding, it should be me. And yet, in the weeks since he disappeared, I have heard myself say so many times to myself and others, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know it would feel like this.” Each time I say it, it is with a sense of wonder. Not the kind of bright, childlike wonder, but the kind one feels only when it’s too late to go back — perhaps the kind of wonder experienced by the poor souls of Dante’s “Inferno” as they descend into the circles of hell: My God, it exists, it really exists and it’s happening to me.

I thought I knew myself but I had a blind spot, and all I can think about is what I didn’t know until now. Usually I write about things I know and that I think others should know. But this time, I want to write about all the things I didn’t know: all the things they never tell you.

No one ever tells you that while you’ll forget a lot of things in the weeks after the death of your father — like why you walked into the kitchen, who you were about to call, what day your son has basketball and swimming, what your car looks like — your memory, in other ways, will kick into overdrive and you won’t be able to stop images of your father and your childhood from rising to the surface. You won’t be able to stop the memory of your last conversation with your father, your last glimpse of his face, from running through your mind. You won’t be able to stop hearing your mother’s voice when she called you: “Your father. He’s not breathing. I think he’s dead.” You won’t be able to unhear her sobs as she pleads with his body: “I love you, please come back to me, please don’t leave me.” Those words, and the sensation of hearing them, will be inscribed on your skin. They’ll leave traces in the breath that goes in and out of your body. You and those words will become inseparable. It’s written on your face.

No one ever tells you about how there isn’t just one layer of grief. 

No one ever tells you that when you’re in the grocery store checkout line trying to look normal and buy a bottle of wine and the cashier asks for your ID, that your hands will shake. Hard. And no one tells you that when you can’t find the ID in your wallet, that you will start sobbing uncontrollably, that you will yell, loud enough for everyone in line to hear, that you’re 42 years old and your dad just died.

No one ever tells you that things don’t get easier. No one tells you that they get harder. No one tells you that even though you think you will wake up the day after the funeral and feel 1% better, you’ll actually wake up with a new, profound and permanent sense of pain and grief, and that you’ll come alive with the realization that this is the new weight you’ll have to learn to carry.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know it would feel like this.” Each time I say it, it is with a sense of wonder. Not the kind of bright, childlike wonder, but the kind one feels only when it’s too late to go back.

No one ever tells you about how there isn’t just one layer of grief. No one tells you that in addition to contending with your personal sense of loss, you’ll break down under the weight of seeing your younger siblings in pain. No one tells you that your chest will rip open when you see your youngest sibling, your 29-year-old baby brother, crushed and crying his eyes out, and that in that moment you’ll remember holding him when he was 3 years old to comfort him, and wish you could do it again. No one tells you that in the days after your father’s death you’ll visit your mother in the house they used to share, and that you will want to die because it hurts so bad to leave her alone in that big empty house she and your father built together. And no one tells you that when you think you’ve scraped the bottom of grief’s pit, your 6-year-old son will start to break down under the burden of sadness that is too much for his little body and soul, and that during the funeral, when his tears finally come and he starts to wail with his whole heart, you’ll realize that there is no bottom to grief — that it is an endless maze where you bump around and try to feel your way out of something that has neither form nor end.

No one ever tells you that such grief is like waking up and realizing you have a stone inside the now hollowed-out place that you call your chest, and that you will carry that stone for the rest of your life. Common sense tells me that the stone must get lighter, that I’ll forget it’s even there after a time. But my friend Audrey tells me that this is the Great Lie that people tell — that it gets easier. It doesn’t, she says. And in my heart I know she is right, that I will have to carry this stone with me everywhere I go, and that some days it might feel light, but on others it will be too much to bear no matter how much time has passed. The weight of grief — I want to forget that it’s there. And yet, I can’t. The guilt I feel from simply desiring that reprieve is the sharpest of rebukes.

Losing a parent — especially when you have spent your whole life chasing a deeper understanding of that parent — is a loss like no other.

No one tells you that in the weeks after your father’s death, you won’t stop eating. No one tells you that instead you’ll want to fill your body with all the things that he loved to eat, the things you told him to stop eating, the things you said were killing him. No one tells you that you’ll find yourself eating those mini grocery store powdered sugar doughnuts, making that rice with two sticks of butter baked into it, and drinking Squirt soda. No one tells you that you’ll think constantly about baked potatoes, that you’ll both crave them and be sickened by the thought of them. Why? Because that’s what his last meal was. A sad little baked potato pushed to the side of his plate, just before his final moments. But then you’ll remember that it was one of his favorite things to eat, and that your mother had made it for him with love. So much love wrapped up in a baked potato: the last supper.

Love and loss are always wound together, aren’t they? It’s strange that we work to unravel them when they seem to coexist so exquisitely.

No one ever tells you that a month after your father dies, you’ll still catch yourself whispering, to yourself, “my dad died” over and over because you don’t believe it. You can’t believe it. And that’s the thing: No one tells you that seeing his body, the life gone out, and touching his hand, growing colder with each second, won’t make you believe it’s real. No one tells you of the horror that is the body absent of life, that it grows cold so quickly, that it becomes colder than the temperature of the room in which it lays. It doesn’t seem possible. And yet.

No one tells you that it — death — is the one thing we can’t really talk about in an honest way. 

Perhaps most importantly, no one tells you that while some of your friends will lean into your grief and show up in ways you never imagined, others will shrink away and remain silent. They won’t call or email. They won’t send flowers or soup. They won’t even text you. And when they see you at a party, they will avoid you because they don’t know what to say, how to act. But somehow, you won’t resent them for it because you’ll realize that what has happened to you is terrifying and uncomfortable for them — that they don’t know what it feels like and so they don’t know what to say. But it will still hurt. You’ll still get angry that they weren’t there for you even though you understand.

And so it happens that you will learn so much from all the things that no one ever told you. You’ll realize that you carry not only the weight of profound loss but also the weight of responsibility, because now you understand — at least to a certain degree — what others are going through when they lose a loved one. And with knowledge comes responsibility.

I never knew that one of the most powerful revelations that can come from loss is the understanding that I have fallen short, that when friends lost loved ones, I didn’t do enough, didn’t say enough, didn’t listen closely enough. I have always prided myself on being a good friend. I’m that friend who will help you bury a body if it ever comes to that. But extreme declarations of loyalty are useless if I don’t show up in the right ways for people who I call my friends when someone they love has disappeared from their life.

And here’s the thing: I’ve made an intellectual career out of studying and writing not only about trauma and loss, but more precisely about all that we cannot know when it comes to the suffering of the other. And yet here I am, marveling at all the things I didn’t know, as if I expected otherwise.

Losing a parent — especially when you have spent your whole life chasing a deeper understanding of that parent — is a loss like no other, and it is impossible to comprehend, even as it is being experienced. But it’s also true that we will all face this kind of loss at some point. It is deeply and devastatingly universal, and yet so much of what happens in the wake of such loss is unspoken.

Maybe some things need to remain unspoken until we find ourselves inside of them. Maybe it would be too much to bear otherwise — the anticipation of an unavoidable loss that changes the world as we know it. But there are other things that need to be spoken, things to which we must always bear witness. That things get easier in the wake of a loss might be the Great Lie, but there is also an expanse of truth that becomes clear alongside the loss. There’s no silver lining to death. Everything does not happen for a reason. The death, pain and suffering of others is always incomprehensible. But when these things happen, when we see others in our lives experiencing these dark parts of what it means to live in a broken world, we can show up for them in all the ways that matter.

That truth, and the understanding that I have more love and empathy to give when others experience loss, might bring a little light to the eternal darkness I felt on Yom Kippur.


Monica Osborne is a scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”