By Rachel Pieh Jones
C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.”
No one ever told me grief was so physical. I feel it in my bones, they ache. I feel it in my muscles, they are sore, as though I’ve run a marathon. The few times I have tried to run, I struggle to see the ground through my tears and my legs feel weak, my pace slow but my body screaming that I’m trying as hard as I can. I’m dehydrated from crying, from forgetting to drink enough water. I’m hungry but can’t eat, nothing looks appetizing. I haven’t slept all the way through the night since the day my daughter’s friend fell.
What is it for anyway? Who cares if I’m in shape or strong or feel the wind in my face? The child of my friend is gone, my daughter’s friend is gone. My 5k pace is irrelevant, sleep a luxury repeatedly interrupted by damp cheeks and a runny nose. Grief forms in a lump in my throat and lodges there, moving in uninvited. It fades and comes back and it is hard to swallow food, to force sustenance past the sorrow.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” No one ever told me that, either. Fear of how to respond, fear of how things will change, fear of fragility, fear of how to respond to my daughter’s grief while facing my own.
No one ever told me grief was something you owned (or does it own you?), something that settles in and takes up residence like the lump in my throat and the dampness around my eyes.
No one purposefully neglected to tell me these things about grief. Loss, pain, sorrow, heartbreak, they are all simply topics that aren’t discussed in depth and that are experienced in both unique and universal ways. To say: this is how you will experience grief robs it of the unique, yet to say: this is how we mortals experience grief is to give the gift of not being alone. How do we talk about things for which there are no words, in any language that can capture the whole of it? The pain of tragedy burns so deeply and transformatively that we pander around in art, movies, poetry, flowers, songs, essays, trying to grasp the unfathomable. That’s what tears are for, they are the words of the utterly crushed.
But now I have to talk with my children about grief, about endings, about things that cannot be changed. There are so many difficulties in life but the only thing that cannot, ever, be changed is death. For those with faith, there is hope of life after death but this is not the hope of a miraculous physical resurrection in the days before the funeral, before the burial. Death is final, the last word before eternity.
How do I talk with my daughter about her friend? She hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened or what she is feeling and thinking. She resorts to action in place of words and so I’ve been letting her light candles and stare at them, her eyes full of wonder, confusion, and sadness. She taped photos to her bedroom walls and filled the first pages of her Christmas journal with cutouts from the memorial service bulletin and notes on what their friendship meant to her. She found a small bag of gifts her friend had given her and buried it deep in her dresser drawer. She showed me some selfies they took together.
I’ve told her about how my body is reacting to this sadness, she knows. She sees me crying while I do the dishes or yawning in the middle of the afternoon after a sleepless night. She hears me talk about the messages passed between the adults involved. We share memories of her friend, pictures, words that feel both full and far too empty. I don’t know if, as my daughter grows and faces more loss, she will remember these discussions or her current sadness, she is only ten. She struggles to articulate what she is feeling. Later, she might feel like no one ever told her grief would be so physical, so close to fear, so inconvenient, so exhausting.
Though I don’t know exactly how to talk with her about grief and loss, we still talk. I tell her about the accident, I answer her questions. How is a body transported internationally? What happens at a funeral? What does her friend look like now? I don’t know how to answer all her questions but that’s what I say. “I don’t know.” This is one thing I want my daughter to know. When she experiences sorrow, now and in the future, it is okay to not know everything. It is okay to be surprised by what sadness feels like, or doesn’t feel like.
The friend who died lived in a different country and one day my daughter said, “I don’t miss her today because I didn’t see her every day. But when I go there to visit and she is gone, I think I will feel sad again.” The words had a question mark in them. I think she was asking, “Is that okay? To not feel sad now but to feel sad in a couple of weeks?”
This is another thing no one told me about grief but it is something we all know. There is no timeline, no proper moment to start or end the mourning. It becomes part of our days, woven into the sunrise and the dirty dishes and the photos on our computer screensavers.
C.S. Lewis also said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”
It is scary to raise my daughter to love, hoping she will stay tender and vulnerable, in other words able to be wounded. But this wounding love is also what makes us strong. In love we build friendships and communities and when grief takes our breath away, these connections step in and become our strength. We are so easily broken but when there is no strength to stand, the communities that love us move closer, tenderly gather the shattered pieces, and hold us.
No one ever told me that explicitly, either, but I think I’ve known it all along. That love both breaks and heals. Walking through loss with my daughter and sharing our grief is strengthening our relationship. Even though it won’t miraculously heal scars or close up black holes of loss, shared grief is what love looks like.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.