The Shape of My Grief

For months, I have been trying to feel the shape of my grief.

The experience of losing my Aunt Terry reminded me a lot of losing my father. And not just because I thought of her as my mother. In both instances, there was the phone call I wasn’t expecting, telling me a heart had given up. When I first learned of my father’s death, I cried for hours, until I started to dry heave instead of cry. When I learned of Aunt Terry’s death, I cried for hours, stopping when I was overtaken by the worst headache I had experienced in years. In both instances, I felt a part of myself, a part of my identity I was only just beginning to know, had also died, and was lost to me forever.

When Dad died fifteen years ago, the biggest physical impact his death had on my body was how much I slept. For the first several months after his passing, I would get up very early to go work at the coffee shop. I would come home and take a nap. I would get up, make dinner, and then go back to sleep. I remember waking up to the dark of my bedroom in Pasadena, where I lived at the time. He died in November, and so the months after his death were ones where light was naturally in shorter supply than other parts of the year, even in California. It was early enough in my grieving process where I would still not always remember upon waking Dad was gone. Reality would sink in after a few moments of consciousness, and I could taste disappointment, bitter and thick on my tongue. This was enough to make me fall back asleep immediately, as I had reduced interest in being awake in a world where I could no longer talk to or see my father. I cannot remember what broke me out of this pattern, but it lasted for some months before something did.

With Aunt Terry’s death, my appetite disappeared. Normally, my hunger is routine, so much so that my dear husband can accurately predict when I am going to be hungry just by looking at the clock. We were in Buffalo for a couple of weeks after Aunt Terry died, and we were constantly busy taking care of various arrangements that had to be done. Although everyone at work had told me to take as much time off as I needed, I worked at any interval I could manage to help focus my mind on something else. With all of these goings on, I expected to be starving. Instead, my stomach remained silent for large swaths of the day.

I am a lot healthier, happier, and more mature than I was fifteen years ago. I have a career I enjoy, a husband I adore, and treat myself physically and mentally a lot more kindly than I used to. Maybe it is these factors that have contoured how I have felt the loss of Aunt Terry to be so different from that of my father. Instead of feeling flattened, burdened by being awake, it is quite the opposite. Instead of a steamroller, this grief is fine mist in the air wherever I go. I am in the grocery store and trying to choose between two loaves of rye bread. I start to wonder why this choice is so much harder than usual, and then the [previously invisible particles of my sadness come together in enough of a critical mass to remind me why.

My father’s death has taught me we carry the sorrow of losing a loved one with us forever. It is our job as living mortals to figure out how to bear the weight of these losses and still walk upright. As time has passed since losing Dad, my sadness for him is a boulder that has been worn down in size each year, like a stone sitting in a running river for some millennia. It is now a smooth, small jewel: no cracks, no edges, so very familiar after having run the fingers of my mind over it many times, again and again.

Four months into living without Aunt Terry, I am trying to figure out the shape of my grief for her. It has been much wilier than the loss I felt for my father: I will think I have a hold on one end of it, but as soon as I try to tighten my grip, it is gone. When I pass her photo in our living room, I will hear a creek on our floorboards. I do not bother to turn around: the grief of losing her is right behind me. No matter how fast I try to pivot on my heels, it remains at my back. For now.

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