grief /ɡrēf/noun, deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.
Grief causes physical pain. There are studies that prove this, but you’re just going to have to trust me here, because grief also causes lethargy, and I’m too tired to go find the links. In my grief over the loss of one of my favorite people; a mentor, colleague and friend I’ve known for the duration of my career, I have back pain, a headache, and generalized body blehs. I’m not sick, I’m just sad.
Grief is distracting, it pulls focus. It requires energy. Your mind won’t let you not deal with it for long. Grief doesn’t care about your plans. It takes over. Grief feels impossible, as it represents the loss of someone you really can’t spare from your life. It usually comes with a sense of shock. This one certainly did. In my experience, even if it the death was anticipated, even if there’s some notion of relief, the absence is still loud, jarring. Who you were and what you understood about the world was different when this person was in it, and there’s a shift now that they aren’t. You can feel it in the air, in your mind.
I’ve had some practice with death. I have official funeral clothes. I can close my eyes and smell the flowers. Death has always been part of my life, a big part of my story, my family’s story. Losing someone is a real bitch. Obviously, the closer you were to the person, the more you depended on them to person alongside you, the more of a bitch it is. Grief over death is a pain that is unique from other pain, and there are some things about it I find actually weirdly relieving: this grief is absolute, and it’s shared.
With other sadnesses; depression, loss of a job or a relationship, or say, an international pandemic that’s forced you to change every single thing about your life, it feels like the sadness comes with questions. You’re expected to have a plan, to be working on processing your way out of it, to be in motion.
With grief over a death, you’re allowed to just melt into it. It comes with permission to release it all, to sob, to say out loud, THIS IS AWFUL. I HATE THIS : FULL STOP. Not “this is awful, I guess,…but it could be worse,” or “this is awful, I suppose, but I’m learning from it” or “this is awful, maybe, but I’m sure it will get better.” For a short while, anyway, you can just rest in the misery. The worst thing that could have happened, happened. It’s allowed to just be fucking awful. There’s something liberating in that.
And it’s a shared misery- you’re not doing it alone. All around you, people are seeing you, hearing you and nodding, saying, “I know. Me, too.”
With the loss of my friend and colleague, I’m not alone, in the pain or the importance of this person in my life. At the hospital where I knew him and where he worked for three decades, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone he had not taught or touched. At the funeral, it was kind of beautiful to be openly sobbing with coworkers. I’ve known these surgeons, PAs, nurses, techs for a long time, and together, working in surgery, we’ve SEEN SOME STUFF, but never felt free to cry. We walk people through the darkest, most painful moments of their lives, we have to make terrible decisions, we struggle, we ache, but we largely don’t express. We bottle, we compartmentalize, we move immediately on to the next trauma, we take it home, we drink or walk it off…the surgical culture is pretty stoic. It was a relief to cry together over this thing we all could agree was…just awful.
I’m grateful for the tears, for the man I knew and the time I had with him. I’m so, so sad that he is gone. He’s left a large hole. Now, those of us left behind can’t fill that hole, but we can honor his character, curiosity, wisdom, grace, and humor by embracing those parts of ourselves, by sharing them with others, as he did with us. We can love ourselves and each other fiercely. We can keep living, and grieving.