I rushed from my car and to the front door as first responders lolled around in my parents’ yard. I couldn’t understand the lack of urgency. The last I’d heard, my father wasn’t breathing.
The scene was the same inside, where my mother sat composed on a couch with her best friend and neighbor. I don’t recall that we spoke, only that Mom shook her head back and forth, the universal motion for “No.” I dropped to my knees and screamed.
That’s what grief is supposed to look like, right? The truth is, the shock and pain I felt upon learning my dad was dead is only one dimension of mourning. Not everyone goes straight to tears or demonstrative expressions. Even if they do, grief may show up later in a variety of ways—as things like irritability or detachment, or as fatigue or digestion problems—over the course of a life. Or even over the course of a day.
The oldest child and the only one near home, my sense of responsibility surfaced within that terrifying hour. A first responder asked what funeral home we’d be using. I stifled my tears. My father’s heart attack death was unexpected, and decisions needed to be made. My mom needed me. The following day, I planned the funeral and sifted through papers to discover whether Dad left life insurance to support Mom. After the funeral, however, obligations no longer felt like an escape. The rest of life had arrived and revealed my naked insecurity.
Alone in my kitchen, I cried out for a protector. Until that moment, I’d never realized the existence of my 67-year-old father, physically no match for danger, made me feel safe. Never married at 39 years old, I wanted to not be single—to find a husband—more than I ever had before. Maybe that sounds profoundly selfish. Believe me, I’ve castigated myself up and down for thinking of myself at all, but I came to realize years later that my mother and I were in the storm of our lives, and we both struggled to cope in our individual ways.
Shock. Duty. Insecurity. Regret. Longing. All faces of grief. What incredible complexity, I learned. Grief is like a tangled ball of necklaces in a little girl’s jewelry box. The temptation is to walk away. The intimidation of all those emotions may scare us off from dealing with grief head-on. But the only treatment for grief is to grieve. To untangle the emotions.
Professionals spend careers identifying buried grief. For laypeople to determine whether an associate is suffering, I suggest we listen with compassion, question with curiosity, and learn with humility. Grief is as individual as the relationships lost. Yet we all experience grief in some form and find common ground .
“To understand the ways a person responds to and processes grief, we must evaluate the individual’s personality, the loss that’s being mourned, and cultural parameters,” says Dr. Robert A. Neimeyer, the director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. Anger, depression and regret—these speak of symptoms of grief. He believes grief itself is a rupture in the attachment of things or people who give us meaning and identity.
Another factor that impacts expression of grief is whether the death is viewed out of the natural order of things, as in the case when a child dies before a parent, or in a violent death.
“The meaning of mourning will vary as a function of who we are and who we lose,” Neimeyer says. “And we don’t grieve the same when we lose a child as when we lose a partner.”
According to Neimeyer, how a person responds to and copes with loss in general will likely mirror their response to a loss by death. If they tend to withdraw, a death may cause them to retreat from the world. If they feel insecure, they may seek to reclaim that which was lost.
Insecure—that was me. Trying to reclaim that which was lost. Any ex-boyfriend I cared about enough to hopefully marry can testify to that fact. How did this show up in my impossible situation against death? How did I try to reclaim my father? And my mother, who died of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) three years after him?
I latched onto their stuff.
A resident of Hermosa Beach, Calif., Rachel Greenberg lost her 57-year-old husband in 2013. After a morning of surfing, he suffered a brain hemorrhage and never awakened from a coma. Her initial reaction to his belongings was to push them away. His work lunchbox was tucked into an out-of-sight spot in the garage.
“I thought something good would happen right away to offset the good with the bad,” she says, “but it didn’t.”
Greenberg began to go through her husband’s belongings several months later. Over time, she gave many belongings to his adult son, but kept two surfboards for herself.
“It’s almost like a bridge and being connected to your loved one,” she says, “but I found over time, memories prevail.”
I, however, in my personal experience with grief, feared that I’d lose the memories.
By the time my mother died, I had been married to Richard for 16 weeks. Thankfully, I’d met him after a much-needed internal examination of my drive to marry. I walked down the aisle in 2009 motivated by love instead the drive for a protector.
Still new to the role of wife, I meditated every day on the good fortune of finally finding a soul mate. My joy lived alongside the wretched pain of loss as I remained in possession of a childlike desire for the security only a parent offers.
Tasked with cleaning out the house, I discovered my parents’ belongings connected me to them.
At first, I kept most of the belongings where my parents had left them. I left my dad’s bright orange postal hat on a hook by the back door. I returned my mom’s sketches to a cabinet after appreciating her talent far more than I ever did during her lifetime. On the coffee table, I let lie a list of numbers to call if she needed me or anyone during my honeymoon. (Evidence I’d been a good daughter—right?)
Sometimes their things prompted outbursts of anger and sadness. Other times, discoveries flooded my being with the peace of a sleeping child.
As new information was uncovered, my emotions shifted with perspective. Sometimes it came in the form of a long-ago letter or a story they’d written down, and sometimes all the pieces suddenly fit together in my mind, creating a healing. I’d drive home smiling.
I’d found a way to regain the security they’d given me. No matter it was transient. Temporary. When I needed them most—while my grief was raw—they were there.
I packed the majority of the keepsakes into nine plastic storage bins and put them in our shed. We put the house up for sale last spring. It sold immediately. I’d taken nearly nine years to clean out the house. I’d also untangled the bulk of my emotions.
One may assume I’m over my grief now because the house is sold. That’s not so. My grief isn’t the same. It’s not obvious, but it’s there in the placidity of midnight as I gaze into the heavens. It’s in the awkwardness of Christmas celebrations. In the solemnity of someone else’s funeral. It’s also there when I share stories about my parents with neighborhood kids. When I chat easily with strangers as Dad did. When I stand up to bullies as Mom had.
I will never stop loving my parents or missing them, thus, my grief will always exist. And I will exist—I will thrive—despite its reality. Or perhaps even, because of it.