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You Don't Say
I know you don’t know what to say. You didn’t know what to say when you heard she was diagnosed and you didn’t know what to say when you saw her for the first time with her hair falling out and you sure didn’t know when you found out she died. And that’s okay. How could you? I didn’t expect you to know what to say any of those times anyway. But I’ll be real honest, I didn’t think we would still be so uncomfortable. I thought once the facts were out there, that she was sick, that she died, you and I could figure out what to say to each other. Say something. Say anything. Or say something else. I didn’t expect us to still feel so uncomfortable.
Maybe you didn’t know what to say the first time, the twentieth time, or the last time you saw me. Or maybe you avoid me because it’s just too hard. Maybe I remind you of what could be or what could have been or there for the grace of god. Maybe my story reminds you of someone you love who’s gone. Maybe I make you think about other cancer stories. Maybe when you think about my story, you think of that kid in your grade school that died. Or that kid from high school. Or that awful summer night those neighbor kids got in that car accident because my story, like theirs, upsets the natural order, where children don’t die first.
If you’re a parent, you look through your parent eyes, because your kid eyes don’t fit you anymore. And with your parent eyes, you see in more dimensions, you anticipate danger quicker and easier than you can happiness. You used to feel more spontaneous and be more naïve. And now if you tried to be like that, it would feel like you are trying to button a child’s coat on your adult body. You understand what grandma meant by time flies. You might even throw around a life is short comment to your own kids. Your grown-up eyes have seen more. More happiness. More devastation. And let’s face it, devastation of any kind is hard to look at.
When you are faced with looking at something that’s devastating, you have two choices. Look away or keep looking.
Grief works like that too. Either you are okay looking/being/holding/sitting with someone who is grieving, or it makes you look away. Here’s what I’d like you to know. You might need to look away. You might prefer standing over there or even walking away forever. But I can’t. My grief isn’t going away. I will wear it and bring it everywhere I go. I’ll drag it or it will drag me, forever. It’s not like I can leave at the door or shut it out of my thoughts. I cannot separate myself from my grief. I don’t think any grieving parent can. There are some days that maybe you can’t find it on me. I took a shower, my clothes passed my teenagers fashion patrol, and I’m in a good mood. I cracked a joke, or I got something done. But I’m not over it. It’s a façade. A veneer. It’s still there, I just covered it up for you, for us, or for the event or for that moment. Or I covered it up for myself, so I could make it through to the next minute. But it’s still right here, with me and in me. We are a package deal now. I hope that you and I can figure out how to make space for my grief and me. Not just me.
And I know you want it to be gone or lessened for me. And I love you for that. The thing is, this can’t be done. It will never be gone for me. I’m not sure it gets lessened. I haven’t been grieving long enough to know that. And if I’m being real honest, that thought is scary for me. If it’s lessened, would that mean she’s lessened? Every morning and every night, I’m still trying to figure out how grief and I will coexist. How will we get out of bed, get out the door or do the stuff you non-grievers do? And some days, I sorta figure it out. Other days, grief acts like this uncontrollable toddler, the one the whole store hears crying. And the grief toddler is tethered to me. And it’s all over me. I cannot tell you why one day, my grief and I can be in harmony, and the next day we can’t.
You’ll ask me what made yesterday okay and today so bad? I don’t know. What I can tell you is that yesterday was okay and today is bad. I don’t know why. And tomorrow might be bad and the next day good. It’s all a surprise to me.
Sometimes, if I’m real honest, I think you want my grief gone or lessened more for you than for me. My grief and I make you uncomfortable. It makes you uneasy to see my grief sitting so near to me, blocking your view of the old me. Or what you hope is the fixed me. Maybe you wish I would not let my grief tag along with us as often as I do. I get that. My grief makes me uncomfortable too.
Have you noticed when I refer to her in the present tense? Don’t think I’m in denial. I know my girl died. There are some days, even these years later, I just still can’t believe it. I still want to say her name, talk about her as if she’s next to me and sign her name on your birthday card, along with the rest of ours. I need to do that. Please don’t tell me some version of she’s in a better place. She’s free of her illness and she’s happy. Her happy place was with me. If I feel guilty about what I did or didn’t do, let me feel guilty. On good days I know I did my best. On bad days I’m convinced I could have tried harder. I know you are trying to help when you tell me to try to get better for my other kids. I am trying. Depending on the day, this is what my trying looks like. You lather on these mini-pep talks, reminding me my kids need me, lots of people are counting on me, rooting for me. I know all that. It’s just hard and heavy and still so very raw. And the thought of other people relying on grieving me is overwhelming. At any moment, my grief and I fight to see who gets to be in charge, and some moments, my grief wins.
So that’s it. That’s what it’s like, for me, on this day, to be a grieving parent.
Today my grief and I are getting along. I’m not sure why.