My friends didn’t know what to say to me because Ev died young and unexpectedly. No one had taught my generation about grief, not what to say or do or expect. 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 Imaginary Grief, even if they had never lost anyone close, filled with odds and ends of what they thought sorrow might be like. Whenever I came over, they dug around in their box, took out something braided with hope, and handed it to me to comfort my grief. Then they expected the dinner party to go on as planned. As you might have guessed, this wasn’t what I needed.
When grief punches us in the gut, it hands us two boxes—Before and After. Ev and I had put all our eggs into the Before Death Box because we couldn’t imagine a future that didn’t’ have both of us in it. The After Death Box remained empty for a long time.
When I was finally able to face the emotional tsunami of sorting Ev’s possessions, I created a Box of Memories and filled it with her photographs, mementoes, letters, and events that marked the important days of our life together, because I didn’t want to forget anything. These stories I share with others.
I also collected a Box of Lasts—where we ate our last meal, the last movie we saw, Ev’s last birthday, and those moments when she last smiled at me, held my hand, or we slept cuddled up—without either of us knowing that any of these would be her lasts. I hold on to this box with both hands, and most of these I share with others.
I drove around town and collected 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 walk in 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 was also true. I do not want our struggles to become warm and fuzzy, or our joy to be covered in black shrouds because of grief, because what was good then is still good. My memories need to be as they were, a mixture of happiness and sorrow.
Our last moment together was like a thousand other ordinary moments that come and go every day without us noticing, moments that have the power to bring illumination to our 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 one of them will be the last. My After Death Box turned out not to be a box at all, but a path that went through a wilderness of wonder and courage.
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 there. This is what those who grieve need.