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. To follow, please leave your email address.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Public Face of Grief


On the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, I’m mindful of all those who lost someone that day, as well as everyone who has lost people since then to a sudden death. The entire world changes in an instant without any warning, without any time to prepare, without any chance to say goodbye.

When death comes to someone we love dearly, the world changes, and we change with it. When we first leave our homes and go 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 face 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 grief, 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 walk to work, and walk back home. I didn’t want to stop and chat with anyone. Those who knew what had happened were caring but cautious, not knowing my emotional state or what I needed from them.

In all honesty, in those first weeks after Ev’s death, 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 do this, and I wanted her friends to have an occasion to share their stories and celebrate the wonderful person she was. Her 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, sending them off in 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.

But 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 depression, despair, 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 arriving. I figured that people did not want a grieving person to dampen the celebratory mood. But most of our friends were also couples, and I was now one. This presented a problem for table settings. You set in combinations of twos. 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 only single people I knew were at work and they were twenty years younger. Although they were caring, and surprisingly curious about grief, we weren’t likely to be hanging out in the same places.

Our appearance shifts again when we are no longer afraid of grief. The worst has happened and we have survived the battles. We have 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 it is. We know that death can come at any time to any of us, and it doesn’t matter how good, or rich, or beautiful we are, and our faces reflect this reality.

Not being afraid of death gives us power. We have learned the way of sorrow and become grief’s warriors.

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