“When someone you love dies, you don’t lose them all at once. You lose them in pieces over time, like how the mail stops coming.” —Simon Birch
I have come to the conclusion that, once you lose someone, your life continues on in a world of grief. Each person grieves in a different way, dealing with the loss, and they grieve differently over time. It never ends, though. The tears may end, the ache may dull, but we don’t wake up one day and suddenly find ourselves living the same life we had before death entered it.
I had friends who lost parents when they were quite young, but old enough to remember. I always wonder how often they think of their parents, how life is after. I wonder if it’s a daily shadow, something that follows them everywhere, or something that comes to them at big moments, or perhaps small ones, now and again. Do you always miss your dad, even after your mother remarries? Or does his birthday sting, but most days go on without him? The first person I actually knew who died was the son of one of my mother’s friends. The first person who died that I loved was my aunt.
I made my way through a large part of my childhood without feeling the emptiness of death. When it came, I didn’t know what to do or how to cope. I wonder if anyone ever does. I do know that I didn’t mourn then, that the death stayed fresh with me for years, until I was able to begin to cry and grieve for her. Now she crosses my mind often, but not daily. I still feel an overwhelming hollowness, a numb day of near sleep walking on the anniversary of her death. It has been ten years, and I think that I have begun to let her rest in peace in my mind, but things are not ever the same. And she was only my aunt. My mother lost a sister, my grandmother a daughter, my cousins a mother.
Today I made a trip to Goodwill in an effort to clean out my life. If I am not using things, there is no reason someone else shouldn’t. It’s a mixture of cleaning and charity. I finally pulled a large box of recipes out from under my bed and brought it with. The heavy box literally contains hundreds of recipe cards and is one of two things I received after my uncle died. My mother, who has lost two siblings, does not talk about death. She doesn’t talk about the brother and sister she lost. This made her giving me his possession all the more meaningful. I sorted through all of the cards right after I got them. I pulled out dozens that I have not used, but someday might. And then the box went under my bed. I stubbed my toe on it, considered throwing it away, but I’ve had it for more than a year. It’s like his mutt of a dog. No one really wants it because it’s a burden, a little weird and impractical, but it’s his, so we hang on to it. We love them because he did. I tried to make a healthy decision and start a healthy process of letting go, so dropped the collection off for someone else to venture through. And then I cried.
I didn’t know my uncle well. I knew that he loved his fish and flowers, proudly caring for them. He loved my grandmother and was her constant companion. He lived a hard life of addiction and harder one of sobriety. He talked endlessly, about anything. He endured a long, painful death, but it was still too soon. As I left his box behind, I felt a sense of betrayal, of abandonment. I cried the entire way home, knowing I did the right thing, but wishing I hadn’t. I would never use the cards, but they were a little piece of him that I had, a link to him.
It’s best that I let that bit of him go. It’s not really him, anyway. There are many more things that remind me of him, more appropriately. It just made me realize that grieving never ends. My grandmother and her sister just lost their brother this week. They lost a sister a few years ago, leaving them in the middle of one round of mourning and beginning another. It’s a process that goes on until we die ourselves. We are always with the memories of our lost one, always with their death, always without them, always a piece of them. The world will always be one without them, one of mourning. That does not mean that there isn’t joy in that world, that mourning does not also include rejoicing in their memory. It just means that grief changes, evolves, and continues on in different ways. It’s just like us.
“The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost.” –Arthur Schopenhauer