Teresa has contributed to the Life is Sweet series for the last 2 years (you can read her previous pieces here and here), and sent me this post even before I had officially decided if I was going to be doing the series again. This piece resonates deeply with me, as I'm sure it will for anyone who has experienced the loss of someone that they love.
If you weren’t expecting the news that someone you loved has died, feel the air audibly be sucked out of your chest in what feels like one long breath. If you were expecting this news, even if you are sitting beside them when it happens, feel the air be sucked out of your chest all the same. Immediately cry, or stand in shock. Either is fine. Look around and marvel at your surroundings, wonder how people can be walking and talking, how your refrigerator can still drone on humming and your neighbours can still be chatting over the fence when the whole world has been turned upside down.
Poke the pain of death like you would a cavity: Tongue it occasionally, remember the person you just lost in detail and then immediately regress and think of nothing when it starts to make you feel like you are swallowing a lump of cotton. Don’t think too deeply of the person yet; do not let yourself think of how their hair smelled, or how their crooked smile would make you laugh no matter what or how they hated pickles. Don’t think of how when you called he used to say ‘Hello, my little love’, because you knew he thought of you as the definition of the word, you were love. Don’t think of how your fathers face would light up when his favorite Beatles song came on the radio, or how your mothers hands always smelled like basil or how salty your lovers lips tasted the last time you kissed them goodbye. Don’t think of any of those things now or you will not make it through.
Haphazardly pick out clothing and pack a suitcase composed of every black garment you own, spend no time picking out anything of significance, anything you wear will be associated with this day, you will forever look at your sweater and think ‘I was wearing this when I found out you died’. Go to a funeral home; shake hands with someone you immediately hate for the need of their presence alone. When the funeral director says ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, wonder how someone can use such a common place word to describe what is happening right now. This is not a loss, this is a bomb. You lose your keys, your parking ticket, your shoes and you may think you are going to lose your mind if this man refers to your loved one in past tense one more time. This is all okay.
Turn on your autopilot. Be with your family and try to awkwardly comfort one another. My family calls this bonding time ‘fighting’. Say thank you for fruit trays, add their name to the inventory of people you must later thank in card form for bringing sustenance that will inevitably go to waste. Dress up in your black clothes and somehow make it through the services we put ourselves through. Ask yourself questions like ‘if I wear makeup and look good, will people think I didn’t really love him/her’? The answer is no, by the way.
If there is a open casket wake, you should practice learning to swallow the vomit in your throat before the first time you see your loved one. Wonder in your head if this is the artists interpretation of what they think your beloved should look like. Then stand next to the body in the line of your wounded family and present yourselves like you are on the firing range. Present the dead to the mourners like a circus attraction and be disgusted with yourself when you say ‘well here he is, yes he looks very good considering’.
Watch the funeral from an out-of-body standpoint. Distance yourself if needed. If you can’t stop crying, berate yourself for not being strong for others. If you can’t seem to cry, berate yourself for not being emotional enough. Listen to people say the stupidest things. Many people will come up to you and tell you where they were when they heard, as though the person you loved was an assassinated president. They will ask without an ounce of subtlety what happened in excruciating detail, and you will be forced to recount it over and over and over and over until you are gripping the side of the sink in a funeral home bathroom. Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself that this is it, this is hell and you are living through it. These first few days will be a mixture of devastation and love and sadness and you will not find a way to balance it all.
Become immediately horrified at yourself the first time you laugh or find yourself happy afterwards. Become disgusted with happiness in general, even its smallest measure. Find yourself immediately hating people who say things to you like ‘they are in a better place now’ or ‘only the good die young’ as though these thoughtless placations are going to cushion the gaping hole left in your life.
After the services, begin the task of actual grief, the one that happens for the next few months after everyone is gone and thinks that you should have that whole sadness thing wrapped up by now. Obsess over what your loved one would think of everything you are doing. Have a good day and then watch it go to smithereens the first time you pick up the phone to call them and tell them a funny joke, only to be met with a disconnected line. Or pay the bill for a year so you can listen to the voicemail recording over and over, because you cannot bear the thought of this little piece of your universe going away. The first time you find yourself in the middle of the grocery store putting your loved ones favorite items in the cart, just leave. Walk away. Give your self permission to lose your marbles a little. The world is your grief oyster and you can do whatever you want. Try and get through the distribution of their possessions without driving yourself mad. Keep what you want, for as long as you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need to move on, tell them to go away. Eventually, when you feel like it, keep their favorite sweater and coffee mug and only things that will make you smile and give the rest away. Positively go mad trying to decide what to do with intimate items, because throwing away your loved ones undershirts and socks seems rude and insulting to them. Donate it to somewhere that can use it. Spend a week in your bathrobe. Or get up everyday and walk out of your house fresh as a daisy, whatever makes you feel better. Do nothing because you think you’re supposed to or because some grief book told you to.
Eventually one day, wake up and not feel an immediate sense of dread. I don’t say that like a platitude meant for the grieving, some one size fits all piece of advice that will wash away your sorrows. I say that with all the love in the world and with the experience of losing both parents, a fiancee and several family members and friends before the age of 25. I say that because it’s the only piece of advice that ever helped me. I wish I could remember who said it to me. My fiancees funeral was a blur, a play I was in, one where people said varying levels of disgusting things to me: you will meet someone else, you are young, he did not suffer. He wasn’t even in the ground yet and I had people telling me to get over it, to not cry because he ‘wouldn’t want me to’ (what he would have wanted was to BE ALIVE you old bat, I remember screaming in my head). Then finally either someone recognized my tight smile or took pity on me or maybe (as I like to think) she passed on this sentence because someone once gave it to her when she needed it. I don’t remember her face or her voice, just a hand on my shoulder and a woman saying ‘Time ain’t gonna fix this for you sweetheart. Neither will moving on or meeting someone else, this right here is gonna hurt for the rest of your life. I’m not gonna sell you promises and assurances that probably won’t come true, but I will promise you this: One day in the not-so-distant future, you will wake up and this will not be the first thing you think about’.
I clung to that sentence like a life raft, clung to the idea of that day when I would wake up and not have to remember what happened to my life all over again. I clung to it until it was true and if you’re reading this and recognizing yourself in these words then I’m here to pass them onto you and promise you that one day it will be true for you too.
Teresa is a writer, traveler, nutritionist, tour manager and hula hoop champion. She likes bukowski, the ocean, holding hands, Roswell reruns, and long, romantic walks down the organic produce aisle. You can find her on twitter @thebandiswithme