The many shades of grief

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Grief is funny, isn’t it? Well, no it’s not actually funny. It fluctuates between a warm, loving hug of memory, while other times sneaking up when your guard is down, washing over you with a final, cold punch to your throat.

Sometimes grief catches you in a paper gown at the doctor’s office, Googling acronyms you’re not familiar with, and glancing back up at the monitor to check your numbers against notes in your phone. The familiarity of the green and black screen immediately transports you back to your dad’s hospital bed, precisely to the moment a tearful doctor asks permission to “stop trying” to bring him back. Your eyes search his before sweeping across the multiple screens for answers, but an urgent, angry beep rings louder than all the other machines. Two other doctors pull a bloody gauze sheet over his abdomen, while you stare hard at the monitors. A huge, green zero pulses at the same rate as the loudest beeping machine. Your throat clenches and you zoom back into your own doctor’s appointment, lowering your eyes from the green and black screen on your left. You tuck your feet in and try to recover before the doctor comes back.

Last year I promised myself to make doctor’s offices easier. The pandemic didn’t help, but it’s been a year since that promise. A few weeks ago, my dad would have celebrated his 65th birthday. If he was alive, I’d be bouncing between doctor appointments without a worry, except to review the menu with my mom and carve out time for a Publix run. My family specializes in birthday surprises and milestone parties, but now those milestones hit differently. Leading up to his birthday, I went inward, swimming in an undercurrent of brain fog, distraction and irritation. I’ve worked hard to break away from the habit of hiding feelings in dark corners of my body, but grief is a creative bugger, with an ability to morph and metastasize like I’ve never seen.

Sometimes grief is easier to label. While settling in after dinner last night, I opened gmail for an update on Jane, my dad’s sister. I only met Jane two years ago and loved her instantly: her kindness, self-awareness and self-deprecating humor, her intelligence, her way with words. She told me about their dad, her family and she wanted to know everything about us, this family she never knew she had and was so delighted to meet. Despite growing up in completely different circumstances, Jane’s genuine curiosity, emotional generosity and humanity was so similar to my dad. Is that genetic? Jane’s son dropped an email to my inbox at 10:09 pm, only 5 minutes before I had opened it. His mom had “peacefully passed away this evening,” and “was blessed to have 4 of her children at her bedside.” This news gave me a solid cry, a loving connection to my dad, as I’d like to think he greeted her with a bear hug and Starbucks coffee, jazzed to meet his older sister for the first time. They loved and lived so forward, and I admire them for that. Imagining that interaction is grief in its loving, honoring, freeing form.

Grief can suck the breath out of you, replacing an exhale with shaky tears without warning. Grief keeps mortality front and center, while also encouraging you to forge ahead. Grief keeps you humble, tender and loving. The last iteration of grief is my favorite — when grief transitions from bittersweet to making you feel more alive. Suddenly, your dad’s voice shoots out from your heart to your ears saying, “Chin up, Peanut. Go live a little.”

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