I lost my father five years ago. I lost my mother five months ago. Both experiences remain equally painful. Somehow, time has done nothing to mitigate the heaviness I carry with me. I am told it will, yet I continue to be incredulous. Turning the pages of a calendar changes nothing. None of the life-death cycle makes any sense to me, especially the paradoxical reality that there is nothing heavier than emptiness.
That’s far more philosophical than I tend to be. But I’ve done a lot of thinking the last few years. Soul searching, if you will. I’ve asked all the questions that one in this unenviable situation tends to ask. What is the meaning of all of it? Is there really life beyond this world? Will I get to see my parents again? How will I ever feel normal again when the two people who anchored my world are no longer here? And like all of those before me who have uttered the very same questions, I have yet to discover any answers.
The loss of my mother and father has created a feeling in me of being set adrift – a tiny boat suddenly severed from its moorings. I feel somewhat confused and unsteady. The world is a very different place when your parents are gone. You see it very differently. Suddenly, I am no longer just living my life– I am thinking about it. A lot. Some days, it’s all I can do.
Becoming an adult orphan has engendered much contemplation of everything that is me, including my own mortality. That is a sobering thought, one that I had managed to escape until recently. Now, I can think of little else. As such, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my own life – where I’ve been, where I am presently and of course where it is that I go from here. I realize, with more than a little uneasiness, that I am only okay with the first part. I can honestly say that I am pleased with what has been. I have a beautiful family for which I am most grateful, a successful teaching career and the good fortune of having published five novels. I’ve enjoyed many other blessings as well. Life has been good to me. In fact, I can’t think of one thing that I’ve attempted to achieve and not been able to.
Here’s a horrible truth, something I have not shared with anyone until right now. This is it. I am no good at grieving.
Now I’m not being melodramatic or super critical of myself. It’s simply the truth. I am no good at grieving. I say this only because others I talk to seem to be . Or at the very least, they appear to be better at it than I am. They offer advice and encouragement that suggests they have figured it all out. I’m envious. This advice many are eager to share comes in the form of statements like you’ll forget about it one day or you have to just let it go and move on. I listen to their words, politely, respectfully. I suppose they mean well. But while I understand what they are saying, I remain doubtful there is any truth there. I know better. Most often I am unsure if the person dispensing the advice has suffered any loss of his or her own although in many instances I’m inclined to think they have not. Either way, the exchange always leaves me feeling inadequate somehow and in need of offering an explanation to all who observe the distant look in my eyes and the dark rings that lie just below before making the same inquiry – Frank, are you okay?
This question has been asked so many times that my response to it has become involuntary, almost robotic. Yes, I’m alright. That is all I ever say. I find it just comes out now, no thinking required. And once it’s said, the conversation typically ends there. Life resumes its normal flow.
What I really want to say when I’m asked if I’m okay is the following: No, I am not okay. I have not been okay for quite some time now. I want to disclose to every person who expresses interest in my well-being what it’s like to carry around this emptiness – how regardless of where I go and with whom I spend my time, it’s always right behind me. How it hangs on my shoulders, this invisible backpack that’s filled with sadness, fear, regret, longing, desperation, uncertainty, memories, love and so much more. I want to explain that while not visible to the casual observer, it’s still there. Even though I get up every day and go to work, and on occasion venture out socially as well, it’s still there. I want to reveal that I never take it off. Regrettably, it goes with every outfit, regardless of color or style. And those straps - the ones some might suggest I slide off in order to relieve the burden – they have become one with the bones and muscles that support the enormous load. When asked that question, Are you okay?, I want to be perfectly honest and say that while the weight in my backpack does feel lighter sometimes when I sit or sleep, the little relief I get is fleeting; it’s only a matter of time before the hardship and strain return. I want to discuss how I’m trying to move forward, to be strong, but that my legs don’t move as fast anymore. I’d like to describe how the color in everything all around me seems to have been drained. Even the photographs to which I cling now so desperately seem to have faded to black and white. It’s all different. My favorite chocolate cake does not taste as sweet anymore. The constellations are dimmed and all of my favorite songs sound as though they are being played in the wrong key. This is my new reality. I’m not sure how long it will be this way. So please forgive me if the question Are you over all of this yet? receives nothing more than a silent stare tinged with a brush of contempt.
Conventional wisdom dictates that life is for the living and that being mired in the past is unhealthy. I not only accept this as truth I embrace it. There is much to love and appreciate in this world. Montauk sunsets. Walks in the rain, the New York City skyline viewed from the 59th Street Bridge and the sound of a child laughing. There’s the warmth of the summer sun, music, flowers and the smell of a cool ocean breeze. And of course there are moments with loved ones still here, those that light our path when life’s more typical challenges leave us feeling weak and forlorn.
Still, despite the beauty and brilliance that this world has to offer, some like me are left no choice but to trudge a bit through these wonderful moments. To lug the backpack with us every step of the way. It’s not by choice. There’s no negotiating with grief.
So when you see this happening to me or anyone else who is grieving for a loved one, be sensitive and kind. Reserve judgment. Don’t critique and don’t feel compelled to impose a better way of toting the load. True, all of us experience loss. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has the same shoulders.