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.

If you would like to be notified whenever I post something new, please enter your email here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Boxes of Imagined Grief

My friends didn’t know what to say. They had never lost anyone close. My wife died young, and no one had taught my generation about grief’s landscape. No one knew to tell me that life was over as I had known it, or that I would be thrown into a land cratered by death for more than a year.

Yet everyone had a Box of Imagined Grief, with odds and ends tossed in for what they thought sorrow was like. Whenever I came over, they dug around in their box, took something pithy out, and handed it to me to comfort my grief. Then they expected the dinner party to go on as planned. As you might guess, this wasn’t what I needed.

When grief punches us in the gut, it hands us two boxes – Before and After. We stuff everything into the Before Death Box because we can’t comprehend a future that doesn’t have our loved one in it. The After Death Box remains empty for a long time.

When I was finally able to face the emotional tsunami of sorting Evelyn’s possessions, I created a Box of Memories and filled it with her photographs, events, letters and trinkets that marked the important days of our life together. These things I share with others.

I collected a Box of the Lasts — where we ate our last meal, the last movie we saw, Ev’s last birthday, and that moment when I last saw her smile at me — without us knowing that any of these would be her lasts. I hold on to this box with both hands, and these things I share.

I drove around town and assembled a Box of Death — the place where she collapsed, the route the ambulance sped to the hospital, the ICU room where she lay connected to wires and tubes until the doctors said it was over. The bag of clothes the paramedics had to cut off. Our cold, silent house where I stared out the window for the first week. The memorial service. The scattering of ashes. The months of anger and despair. Time does not exist here, and I go to these places alone. These I keep to myself.

I do not want to forget the blunt force trauma of death because, as wrenching as it was, it happened, and I cannot undo it. I also do not want to forget the goodness of life with Evelyn, because that also was true. I do not want every memory to become warm and fuzzy or covered in black shrouds, because our relationship deserves honesty. My memories need to be as they were.

Our last moment was like a thousand other ordinary moments that come and go every day without us noticing, moments that have the power to bring joy to someone’s eyes, or take it away. I want to live this moment as fully as I can, and then I want to live the next, because some of these moments could be transforming and some of them will be the last.

Those who reach into their Box of Imagined Grief because they don’t know what to say, need only reach into their Box of Hearts and share the compassion they find. This is the only thing that those who grieve need.


  1. Thank you. Very thoughtful and very real. The box of imagined grief is a rough one with others, I agree. My personal book of lasts is one that is packed full of conflicting emotions since my partner had a terminal disease. Those last months I found myself taking many more photos and videos of events and holidays. At the time it sometimes seemed macabre but now the family and I are so fortunate to have those memories So it can also be labeled a box of hearts. :)

    1. Kind of ghoulish, Pete. But you are right. Even though, during this time, our loved one was struggling with a terminal disease, and we will always remember this, we also get to see their smiles, their strength, the love in their eyes, and the ordinary day when nothing happened except that we were together. And that is everything.

  2. ...wow..that ls so good..l just lost my second husband to death 5 weeks ago..lt ls so raw rlght now..the flrst we were marrled 30 years and he dled of cancer..l remarrled 2 years after and we were marrled ten years and he dled unexpectedly..just trylng to flnd a way to keep golng..thank you for your lnsghts..

    1. Five weeks. So raw, even though you know grief's land. When loved ones die unexpectedly, it can shatter our trust in the world. You will be on my heart today.

  3. The weeks and months following Bonnie's death, I reached out to everyone and anyone, past and present, for just something, anything, that they would say, thinking that it would offer me some sort of reprieve from the grief that I felt. It did not.

    You're right, Mark, they mean well, or perhaps they just feel they should say something to us, as they reach into their box of imagined grief and perhaps tell us about someone - a parent, sibling, friend - someone they once lost, a long time ago. However, it does nothing to assuage one's grief.

    It has always been my contention, having lost parents, siblings, friends - all of whom I loved very much - that there is something very special about the loss of your significant other, your life partner, that goes well beyond the grief one experiences in losing anyone else in one's life. At least it has been for me. In my view, those that have never had the experience of that particular loss can't come close to knowing how it is.

    Of course, I never had children to lose, so I can't speak to that aspect.



    1. Outside of a child dying, which I can't imagine, the death of a spouse is what will hit many of us the hardest, because we have chosen to build a life with this person. We expect our parents to die before us, although this does not lessen the impact. The deaths of friends and siblings can also be traumatic. No death of anyone we dearly loved is easy to deal with. As a person in one of my grief groups said, "Grief sucks."