I have been thinking a lot about what my cousin told me a number of years ago. She had just lost her mom, my aunt, and I had just suffered a miscarriage. She told me that everyone grieves differently and no matter what other people expect of you, there is not a right way to grieve.
We have an idea of what grief should look like. Crying. Lots of crying. But grief is much more complicated. Dull sadness and sharp pain, fog and feeling lost, irritation and rage- it shouldn’t be this way!, numbness, memories, tears, exhaustion.
I don’t cry much in general, and I sometimes wonder if I look sad enough. I cried when we gathered around Anna’s hospital bed, when she was both dying and already gone at the same time. But I didn’t cry at the memorial. I sat dry-eyed thinking, “This isn’t real.” It seemed so much like Anna that surely she was there.
The grief pendulum swings back and forth between surreal and all-too-real. Sometimes life seems normal and I think about other things. Laugh and work on my to-do list and forget. Other moments I bow under the weight of this finality, all of the life I lived with Anna and all that Anna was, suddenly gone.
I think when a person is close enough, their loss is so big it can’t be grasped at once. If we tried to take in the enormity all at once, we might shatter into a thousand pieces. I feel the need to wrap my arms around myself so nothing falls out.
If you have ever lost someone close, you know the days after death are a crazy mess of details and logistics. Death certificate, obituary, talking to the funeral home, choosing a coffin or urn (or in this case, a biodegradable earth ball), preparing for the memorial. The people with the most grief have the least amount of time to feel it.
When it is all over, when everyone else is understandably moved on, when life moves on and you are expected to do all the things you did before, that’s when the reality sets in. Walking around the grocery store with a broken heart, folding laundry with heavy arms, trying to cook with a muddled mind. We no longer even wear black as a sign we are mourning. We all walk around looking just the same, as if death never happened, as if we aren’t broken inside.
It has been such a long, slow loss. I started saying goodbye to Anna a few years ago, when she started talking to me about her death. I think everyone close to Anna knew it was coming, we just didn’t know exactly when. The idea of her inevitable death - and even the grief - have been a part of life for long enough that in some strange way, I can grieve her death without fully grasping that she is not alive anymore.
Of course, even when you know it is coming, you can never really be prepared. Two days before she died, I sat in the hospital with Anna talking about all kinds of random things, as we typically did. The quality of various hospital rooms she had stayed in. My new neighbors’ tree massacre. Orthodontics. Nobody thinks your last conversation will be about braces, but I don’t regret it. I don’t regret the normalcy.
I helped her organize her things, in hopes they would release her the next day.
Even as we prepared for her memorial, I thought, “Anna would know who the person in this picture is; I should ask her.” I wanted her to know that I wore her hat and dress and scarf and earrings to the memorial. She wouldn’t have been surprised, because I wore all her clothes at Easter too. But she would have been surprised that over 1000 people watched her memorial – that is the impact one short, limited life can make.
Anna would have been happy to see how the girls are taking care of her tubie bunny and draining its feeding tube. She would have laughed about Nadia’s gleeful face when she said, “Maybe now we will get her candy!!” I would have told her about when Nadia woke up one morning and asked, “Does Anna remember us in heaven?”
I knew these things were all happening because of her death, but it still seemed that I ought to be able to tell her.
I constantly think of things I want to tell Anna. I momentarily forget I can’t message her like I used to do all the time.
“For superhero night at church, the girls dressed up as Malala and Susan B. Anthony! I’m so proud.”
“My phone has finally started predicting swearing!”
“Are you offended that Nadia’s memorial plant died, or is that an appropriate symbol?”
I feel a knife jab as I remember I can’t send these messages. Apparently we talked a lot, because every day I think of things Anna said.
I hear her voice in my kitchen: “Actually people’s sinks are the dirtiest places because they don’t clean them often.”
In my closet, now full of her clothes: “Almost all my clothes are black because stains don’t show.”
At the coffee shop: “They have this handicap space, but there wouldn’t be enough room to get a wheelchair up this sidewalk.”
My life is filled with reminders of her. Lately, this is how her being dead seems most different from her being alive.
I cannot wish her back to these last months, when her life got harder and harder, when staying alive became all-consuming. In that sense, I’m glad she didn’t have to make the choice about when to stop fighting.
I think back to before TPN, before a feeding tube, when she could eat all kinds of food and shower whenever she wanted and was not connected to any lines. I think back to when she could sit on the floor with the girls, could climb the stairs, didn’t even own a wheelchair or IV pole. There was a time when she could watch TV, when she could drive, when she could even live on her own. I grieve not just for her death but for all the life that she slowly lost.
It has been one month since we stood at her bedside, holding her hands as her life slipped away. Only a month, and already a month. How have we been living normal life for a month, a normal life that looks different from all the months before it? How can she really be gone?
One month ago the reality unfolded. The following days may seem hazy, but I remember the details of that day.
The messages: She is not responding. The MRI shows a major stroke. Your sister is driving down from North Carolina. Come now.
Sitting on our bed, the girls crying, “But maybe she will wake up. Maybe she will be okay.” Holding Juliana and telling her, “No. This is it.”
Telling the woman at registration I was going to the ICU. When she said, “I hope it will be okay!” I didn’t tell her that, no, it won’t be.
Taking off my mask – the RBG mask Anna bought me – to blow my nose with tiny tissues, then quickly putting it back on again, over and over.”
Asking the nurse to remove all the IVs and lines and tubes because Anna finally no longer needed them.
One month ago, Anna died. The days keep coming and keep coming. The distance from that day will become greater and greater, as Anna stays frozen in time, ever 33. But also not. She is all the ages she was before and all that she never got to be. She is free from tubes and wires and medications and thank God, from insurance. She is everything she was meant to be. And while no-one really knows how it all works, yes Nadia, I think she remembers us.