Sometimes when you sit with something for a long time, it becomes a feature of your landscape and you fail to notice it. This most often manifests itself around your house — the pile of mail is so ubiquitous that your brain believes it belongs and stops seeing it’s there. In my apartment, there is a pile of old magazines, political solicitations, mailers from local gyms, and chinese restaurant menus piled in my entryway. I never notice it, except to toss something else on there.
Grief is the same.
Not new grief, of course. New grief can be so searing and so white-hot painful that it blocks out your ability to feel or sense anything but grief. Or it can be so cold and numbing that you feel nothing at all. Old grief is a different beast.
My mom died of AIDS when I was 14 years old.
This is usually the point when someone begins apologizing profusely to me. “I’m so sorry that happened to you. That’s so terrible, I’m so sorry.” I call this the “reaction management” stage of the conversation. I understand it — it’s so foreign and often tough for people to hear. I’ve had the better part of a lifetime to work on how I feel about it and it’s all brand new to them.
“It’s fine, I’m okay, it was a long time ago.” That response is intended to be gentle, affirming, and to make the other person in the conversation feel better. To reassure them that I’m not completely damaged and broken.
“I’m fine,” I smile.
This is not untrue. It’s also not true. Grief is paradoxical in that way.
The problem with with the reaction management stage of conversations about grief is that it can become the only stage you ever live in. You get stuck there, or you choose to stay there, because the number one reaction you’re attempting to manage is your own. I spent ten years, maybe more, stuck in the reaction management.
A few years ago, I began acknowledging that I was maybe… not all the way fine but mostly still fine, thanks.
I think this is where I should tell you that I’ve had these major revelations and that I’m all better now and that I’ve sorted through things and it’s done and a bow is on it and I have a stack of Lessons to share.
I regret to inform you that’s not the case. 16 years after I lost my mother, I’m still muddling through. Still trying to untie the gordian knot that is this kind of brutal, primal loss.
A friend asked me for some advice on grief once.
I replied: “In my experience, it’s best to settle in with grief as a new friend. If you fight it, it becomes a stalker. If you welcome it in, get cozy with it, and chat, you can learn a lot. It’s a total bitch, though.”
I’ve thought about writing about grief and my mother for a very long time. And in the interest of taking my own advice, I’m going to welcome in the grief, get cozy, and try to learn a lot.
This, I can already tell you, is going to suck. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. It’s hungry work. It involves being sad. Terribly, gut-wrenchingly sad.
But I’m tired of living with a cluttered corner that holds more junk and trouble than I can comprehend. I know that when you finally go to that invisible corner of your house and clean out all of the gym fliers, you usually find some sweet things that have gotten lost in the shuffle — a card from a friend or a coupon for something you want to try.
I’m wading into this mess that is grief betting the same thing. That as I tackle this as best I can, I’ll find some sweet things that have gotten lost in the shuffle.