The Imperfect Layers of Grief
or how to suck at mourning.
This week, after my travels with Mark, I wanted to write a post titled, We Suck at Planning. We’re not the types who do deep dives into the web and ensure we don’t miss every detail of a trip west. Glenwood Springs, a stop on our most recent train trip, boasts of geothermal hot springs pools. Only we didn’t know that. Mark said it was a town with one Hampton Inn and I didn’t ask more. We weren’t too concerned to learn the train’s late departure would cause missed time at the hot springs. Our logic went, “If we would have known, we’d be disappointed, and now we’re not.”
But the world feels heavy right now. The U.S. sadly achieved one million deaths from COVID, including the brother of my writing partner, whose beautiful tribute you can read here. There were several other tragedies as loved ones mourned the killing of ten people at a Buffalo grocery store including elders with names like Geraldine, Celestine, Pearl. The shooter was a white replacement theory terrorist. Another hate-filled church shooting in California swiftly followed with more victims.
I am trying to hold this grief and whatever of mine bubbles up on occasion.
In this setting, I happened upon an article by Kea Krause on Twitter. I moved the we suck at planning thesis to the backburner. Grief was on my mind, in a full-on roil. In the Twitter article, the author wrote about her two miscarriages. While scrolling through Instagram, she was curious about some social media influencers who had turned their losses into a composed picture of grief as if to say, this is how grief is done. She named this phenomenon “aspirational grieving.” She writes of the stigma surrounding miscarriage and the difficulty for anyone, let alone someone who might be inclined to monetize their grief, to mourn a baby no longer there.
We all grieve in a different manner. It’s worth pointing out, the five stages of grief, while groundbreaking at the time, has been overtaken by eight pillars of grieving, or four tasks of mourning, or any number of ways in which we find ourselves working through the absences in our life. Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word memoir: Baby Shoes. For Sale. Never Worn is a prime example of unconventional grieving if grief can be unconventional, which it is not.
The ways in which we grieve are as divergent as the people we mourn are unique. There’s a phrase uttered about those with dementia: If you meet one person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, you’ve met one person.
This past weekend, my colleague and I taught a Grief Expressions writing experience through Hospice of Cincinnati. Not unexpectedly, I too found myself launched back through the portal of grief. The participants in our classes expressed the many layers of their losses, including old, crusty ones from five years ago, tangled ones from childhood, ripped in pieces ones from marriages or miscarriages. Those who lost a loved one to COVID carry the added fissures of the politicizing of a disease in which so many more could have been saved.
What is it we want from these workshops, from the above-referenced social media posts? Is it someone to listen? Maybe some of us are better show-ers than tell-ers. Is it closure? I don’t know. Closure does not come in the form you think it will.
Closure, as a matter of fact, doesn’t come at all. A dear writing friend once wrote this about grief: “You never get over it, you just go through it.” Crawling through the layers upon layers erupting in that workshop, inside me, inside the loved ones of COVID victims and the victims who died at the hands of a murderer.
After the class, I drove to a plant nursery, toasted to a friend’s upcoming nuptials, and watched Grace and Frankie as they wrapped up their years of friendship. Mark was out of town. The emotional weight of my son’s upcoming wedding, to be held without my deceased parents, without my older sister, who I had written about in the workshop, and without my son’s deceased father, has been sitting heavy on me for weeks.
Anyone who has experienced a deep loss knows there will be a first or a first anniversary of everything. Mark and I have experienced this. And we’ve watched as our children have moved through their lives without one birth parent, processing monumental or life-altering events. Graduating from high school, college, or graduate school without their birth mother or father. First adult job attained without their loved one present. Revealing your personal challenges during the #metoo times and this dark period we are entering which might limit their ability to be who they are and be with whomever they choose. Or what about in the future, guiding children or nurturing others in this world. Finally, weddings. Days in which unions are celebrated, and those no longer with us are remembered deeply.
The morning after the workshop, I awoke in tears. I dreamt of my first husband, Devin, my son’s father. I’ll save the details for private sharing, but it was a beautiful crossing of time travelers.
In the workshop, we mapped our grief through these layers. Most said their artwork was not Instagrammable, mine wasn’t either. It was hectic scribbles over a rough terrain, where looming mountains and slides of rock often obscured the next steps in a journey. But you know what? Many of them also said, I had forgotten about this, or that. And it brought a smile to my face.
Readers might tire of my references to learning a new language. But in Italian, the imperfect verb tense applies to grief. English has no general imperfective tense and is usually called past progressive or past continuous tense. (think, was doing or were doing). In Italian, the tense used to describe an unfinished action is called imperfect.
Maybe we suck at planning was the perfect metaphor. To grieve well, one must be imperfect or suck at it. It wasn’t something you planned to do, nor is it easily navigable on train trips or codifiable in timetables. It’s certainly never something you complete or close out like an email inbox.
It’s an unfinished action, as imperfect as an Italian verb. In the past, yet ongoing.