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Grappling With Grief

Updated: May 9

I’m burning down the road towards fifty-four, within a month now, leaving behind fifty-three years, never to see it again. The years stack up behind us, under us, and sometimes they fall to the side one by one like a stack of dominoes. One could say we are marching towards death, and that’s okay because we have been since birth.

I say welcome the march, the trek, and wear sturdy boots.

Ever since my mom died on August 31st, 2023, I have been grappling with what it means to grieve. Dancing around with the meaning of time, and with that, the meaning of life. I ask questions like, “What will life look like now, without her?” And as I sit on my porch, on the chairs that were once hers, a round table beneath my elbows that held a thousand cups of coffee over the years, and an umbrella that once sat above our heads, that holds our conversations like a locked vault, I ask, “Is this life an accumulation of loss?” Yes it is, but I am thankful that it is also an accumulation of love. 

I assure you, I am not being morbid with these thoughts. However, with a death like my mother’s, which was not tragic but nevertheless it took a piece of my heart and squeezed my chest a little tighter, has made me think of all of the death that I have left behind me and wonder what deaths are before me. Who will I out live and eventually grieve for, or who will out live me and will they grieve? Have I left enough of an impact that they will grieve, and if I have not, why is that? How can I change to be a better man? Grief is love, so perhaps I must love harder.

It is good to hold a clear mirror up to your face.

These are the conversations I have with myself, in the darkness of a room, or one with a shallow light that comes from a lamp as I meditate or flow from one yoga pose to another. These are the thoughts that go from my mind to my hands as I play on my keyboard like a pianist, writing down my soul, and they are the thoughts I have when I walk the trails in solitude, only the birds singing to me and the rustle of animals through dead leaves. 

My own mortality has been itching at the back of my neck lately. It’s like a pesky fly that won’t go away. More so, the mortality of those I love, especially that blue eyed girl, haunts me. If my mom’s death sent an arrow through my heart, my wife’s death would be the long blade of a sword, turning with sharp slices as it enters, leaving a wound that could never be healed. I sometimes wake at night in fear, hoping that I die before her, not wanting to experience that kind of pain, knowing she is stronger than me. Uncertain if my darkness wouldn’t permanently take over and I would go to some abyss never to return, but then I realize how selfish of a thought that is, to want to die before someone else in order to not feel the pain. She would have to face it then and I would not want her alone in this world. Can I ask to be granted a wish, to die together in very old age, holding hands, knowing it is coming, and looking at one another through glassy eyes and say, “Well, what a journey that was, my love. I will see you soon.”  

Death does not workout this way. We do not get to choose when we die, unless we go through the “Open door” as the stoics call suicide. However, suicide is the worst kind of death to leave to the living to navigate. Some would say that I am guilting the people who have taken their own life, but I am not. Far from it, I am just experienced with this type of death. David made me experience it. He took the open door because he needed to. With that, he left behind many of us to navigate the “Why’s” that terrorize the survivors. I asked, “Why” for going on twenty years, and I suspect I will be asking it for another twenty. Those same dark places where I have tried to reason with my mom’s death, I try to reason with David’s. Richard, an old friend, took the “Open door” and with that left me with more unanswered questions, thinking about last conversations, and what else I could have done? Mostly, I miss their friendship and I realize that I have become lonely. 

There are times when I wake up at night not recognizing the room I am in. My wife thinks I am getting up because I cannot sleep or I am too hot, but often it's an old ghost coming back to haunt me, leaving me confused about where I am or even what year it is. I sometimes wake and feel like the child who endured so much pain and still survived. It makes me stand from my bed, raising my head from my pillow, so I can remind myself that I am a man and he cannot hurt me anymore. I don’t have to worry about the beatings, the bruised ribs, the shovel across the back, lying on the ground thinking, “He’s going to kill me this time.” My father took the open door I mentioned. He took it in 1995 taking himself off of dialysis. It took seeing a Medium for me to confirm that he never loved me, which gave me relief and helped me forgive him even more. Oh, the power of forgiveness, knowing that it is a gift you give to yourself. The beatings now made more sense. You don’t do what he did to someone you love, so I can now turn that page, and still be okay with being comforted by his death. I no longer have to feel guilty that a heaviness lifted from my shoulders and a sigh of relief followed after he died. I wanted my dad to be my hero, but he just couldn’t. He was too broken. 

I had a hero once. He wasn’t my father but someone else’s. His name was Dave and he was my father-in-law. He became my hero early on because he was one of the first men, especially from my dad’s generation, that I felt safe around. However, in 2001 Dave and his wife, Ruth, showed up at our door and when I answered he said, “Chuck, we’re going for a walk.” Dave recognized that I was depressed. He recognized his darkness in me, and even though depression is individual, you have a common bond when you share this type of illness. Dave and I walked, two men, leaving stigmas to the roadside, and shared space within our darkness that made us bond in a different way. It was one of the first times I felt loved by a man. That one conversation has saved me more days that I’d like to mention. It was one of the most meaningful moments I have ever had in my life. Dave died in 2014. His daughter carries many of his traits and I am grateful for this. When Dave comes up in conversation, she silently cries because silence, a few words, were something they shared. You don’t need many words, just the right ones. 

Charlotte still makes me smile each time I say her name or think of her. When I see my students sit before me I thank her because she was my greatest teacher before I became a teacher. Charlotte made me aware, patient, and ready to work with people with disabilities, and more importantly, to look at someone’s ability first. And Charlotte had plenty of wonderful abilities. She has become a character in a story, a memorable sunrise, and a dragonfly that follows me on a trail. Her memory also takes me back to when I was a boy, hugging her, feeling as if she could protect me from the monster that lurked. When she died in 2010, so did part of my mom. A million pieces of all of her family scattered on a dusty floor. I am glad my mom and Charlotte are together again, but I sometimes feel like I had two mothers, and with that much love I am both grateful and tortured. 

How do you make it home through the darkness? How does one get through the forest of grief without a compass and map? No one really knows. It’s such an individual journey. One that will leave your legs sore and boots dirty and worn. 

I am finding out what life is looking like without my mom, just like I had to find out what it would look like without the others I have mentioned here, and there will probably be more. The deaths do pile up, and I guess that means that I am living. 

There is nothing easy about grieving. It has become a study for me as I wake one morning with a smile, listening to a heart that sits on my nightstand, holding my mom’s voice. And the very next morning, I can listen to that same message that holds the words, “I love you,” twice in a matter of seconds, and sit in tears. I know this, it is not something that will go away, and that is okay. I know this because with all of the death I have experienced in my life, I am convinced grief is perpetual. Certainly, one must live their life and live it well, but the tears that fall should never have an apology come with them. 

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1 commentaire

Good morning Chuck, I really enjoyed your piece this morning. Your stories today are filled with hope and understanding and grace despite our flawed nature. Thanks for sharing your words of truth because it helps us in our journey too.

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