Walking in the Long Shadow of Grief

This camel stops at every tent.
—a Persian proverb my friend and colleague, Bijan Masumian, shared with me upon hearing of my father’s death

Grief: a teardropDeath is inevitable. We each will die. Before that, people that we know die.

As you grow older, you will hear this more often.
–Mike MacNaughton’s dad to him, upon hearing the news of our close friend, Mike Eddy’s death when we were all 22

There is a finality to death. No one can say how how we experience that transition, but we only experience it once and it’s done. We experience the deaths of other people — family and friends and acquaintances — as pain and loss that continues long after the death itself. Each death casts a long shadow of grief over our hearts, minds, and lives. Sometimes, that shadow can stretch out a lifetime.

Grief is a strange beast. A minute…a week..a month…a year…10 years after the death of someone close, it can reappear at the drop of a name. Or a phrase in a song. Or simply something reminding us again of the person whose death left that hole in our hearts.

In my work with head injury survivors many years ago, we learned about the grief process. When my niece, Jessie, was dying of cancer shortly thereafter, I discovered my new-found knowledge didn’t help me one bit. I don’t know. Maybe I thought that learning about what grief was — what was happening to me emotionally and gaining a rational understanding of the emotional roller-coaster ride I was on — would somehow exempt me from feeling the pain.

It didn’t.

The pain will never really go away. With time, it will come less often and pass more quickly —but the pain itself will never go away.
— a work colleague, Pam, upon hearing about Jessie’s death, revealing to me how her twin sister died at age 19

I also misunderstood grief in that I somehow believed that once you hit that magical point of the grief process — acceptance — it ends. Wrong again. Long after you feel like you have grudgingly and with great difficulty moved through the pain to reach an acceptance of the loss, you can fall right back into the deepest part of the grief. To this day, I still cry about Jessie’s death often.

One by one, they all fall away until there is no one left except you and God.
— Sara’s Aunt Katherine, who lived to be 100

I have no deep or great wisdom to offer in terms of solace from grief. The recent death of my best friend of 50 years has me walking in the dark shadow of grief. Not all the time. I try to be Seussian about it — “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened!” — and I share stories to keep him alive in my heart.

But the grief sneaks up to catch me off-guard, sending me spiraling unexpectedly into fits of sobbing despair. In the short time since Mike’s death, I have also had 2 other friends die. At 65, it’s not surprising to hear of my contemporaries dying. I understand Mike’s dad was right on this. But each death still hurts like being hit in the forehead with a ball peen hammer. Each death serves as another sad reminder we are all temporary here.

The quotes I shared above stuck in my memory from what people have said about death and grieving through the years. The following passage provides another, more recent viewpoint. My wife, Sara, knew Mike 30 of the 50 years I did, so his death hit her pretty hard, too. Here she writes not only of the experience of that new grief but also the experience of grief from prior deaths returning unbidden, as well as the difficulty of watching someone you love grieve.

I’ve dealt with grief enough (and often enough) to know that it’s a different process for everyone, and so it hits everyone differently.
It’s a funny animal.
You can go for long periods of time thinking you’ve moved on in the process— even think you’re “over” a loss. And then comes a moment when you find yourself crying or raging or in utter despair, and it jumps you so fast you have to stop to think what just happened.
I go for years feeling okay with all the deaths in my life, and can smile and tell amusing stories about them to myself and others.
And then, WHAM. Suddenly I’m right back at my father’s hospice crib, or the staircase where my brother ended his inescapable suffering. Or the horror of my mother slowly taking the only control she had left and leaving the world with a final, “Fuck Off!”
And now I’m watching my husband dealing with the loss of his best friend alone, because in the end we all live with grief differently. And we’re alone with it.
And sometimes all you can do for people grieving, including yourself, is to LET them.
Be there to listen if they want. Or talk if they want. Or leave them alone, if that’s what they need.
We’ve lost an uncle and cousin and a friend and for various reasons we could not be with their families to cry, pray, tell stories, laugh, or bay at the moon. But our hearts are all going through the grief, separate but parallel.
And it’s just a part of life we ALL share.
–my sweet wife, Sara, writing after our friend Mike’s recent death

We all grieve in different ways and it can be painful to watch a loved one suffering that pain. But the only way out is through. I cannot escape my grief any more than I can escape my inevitable death.

We all die. We all grieve. Let us all remember to cherish the people we love while we’re alive.

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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