Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Public Face of Grief

On the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I’m mindful of all those who lost someone that day, as well as everyone who has lost people since then to sudden death. The entire world can change in an instant without any warning, without any time to prepare, and without any chance to say goodbye.

When death comes to someone we love dearly, the world changes, and we are forced to change with it. When we first leave our homes and go back into public, we are numb and in shock. The streets of the city feel different, and it seems that people are looking at us differently. This may be true because the face that people were used to seeing on us is gone. We wear a different expression now. And if people know we are grieving, they may also treat us differently because we are going though something that scares them, and they don’t know how to handle that.

In the first days of griefafter Ev’s death, I did not look at people. I stared at the ground in disbelief at my wife’s sudden death. I did not want to be seen. I wanted to be anonymous as I walked to work and walked back home. I didn’t want to stop and chat. Those who knew what had happened were cautious, not knowing my emotional state or what I needed from them.

In all honesty, in those first weeks I don’t think that my face showed any emotions, but my eyes must have looked terribly sad.

Two months later, I began to wonder if people were reacting to me differently when I threw Ev a birthday party. I promised her I would, and I wanted her friends to have an occasion to share their stories and celebrate her. The memorial service had been rather somber. I thought a party would be a grand way to send her off on her journey across death’s sea, like the Irish did with their kin during the potato famine, putting them on ships to America, not knowing if they would ever see them again.

The party was held in Tilden Park high in the Berkeley hills on a warm day of sunshine. Evelyn’s friends laughed and sang, danced to a fiddle and Celtic drum, and there was cake with a lot of frosting, which would have delighted Ev. Although it was hard for me to celebrate, I could see that other people were still happy, and I needed to know this.

And yet, if they reminded me that joy still existed in the world, did I remind them of death?

After that party, and after additional months of restlessness, loneliness, and anger, grief had become a companion. I think my face now conveyed a new seriousness. If someone said something about grief, I moved closer and started asking questions, wanting to compare notes on our struggles. When this happened at large gatherings, I noticed that everyone else moved away, leaving the two of us to talk alone.

With Ev’s death, invitations to small gatherings stopped. I figured that people did not want a grieving person to dampen the celebratory mood. Most of our friends were couples, and I was a single. This presented a problem for table seatings. If I was invited, I knew that another single person would also be there and we would be expected to interact with each other all night. The single people I knew at work and were twenty years younger. Although they were caring, and surprisingly curious about grief, we weren’t likely to hang out in the same places.

Our appearance shifts again when we are no longer afraid of death. The worst has happened and we have survived the battles. There is nothing left to fear. This power, this knowledge of, and familiarity with the darker side of human life, gives us strength, but it also scares many people. They want to believe that life is a happy affair. They don’t want to be reminded that death is always present. We know that death can come at any time, and it won't matter how good, rich or beautiful we are.

Not being afraid of death gives us power. We have learned the way of sorrow and become warriors. This is what you can see this on our faces.

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