I don’t know if this is a real term, and I hope it makes sense. Interstitial grief is what we feel when a loved one dies because it gets into every muscle, nuance, and bone.
It showed up last week during my walk at dawn. I wrote it down on the piece of paper I keep tucked in my pocket for thoughts like this, and it felt true. Right after this, I jotted down “diphthong on singsong,” but I have no idea what that means.
It’s difficult to explain the physical impact of grief to someone who has never grieved.
Grief doesn’t just scramble our brains, making it hard to speak in complete sentences or make simple decisions. It also pounds on the walls in the back rooms of our hearts, and makes our entire body ache as if we’ve been mugged. Which we have. We’ve been mugged by death.
In medicine, “interstitial” is a term for the fluid that exists in the space between cells, bringing in nutrients by diffusion and removing what is no longer needed. The dictionary defines “interstice” as the space that intervenes between things, to stand still in the middle, and a period of time between events. Each definition fits the experience of grief.
Grief is the fluid that enables us to function, and helps us transition from what has been to what will be. It brings in nutrients to keep us alive and takes away what is no longer helpful.
When we are grieving, we exist in the gap between the casual conversations at parties and philosophical concerns that go deeper. We exist in the liminal space between before/after, joy/pain, love/hate, light/dark, friends/strangers, even between life/death because we seem to have one foot in each place. We become aware of the dual nature of reality, the flip side of every coin. For every moment of joy there is a moment of sadness that we didn’t notice before. Nothing, it seems, is either/or, but both/and. Grief takes away the illusions we once used to prop up our daily lives, and helps us see reality with clarity.
There is space between reality and our understanding of it. Grief is a door that allows us to see reality with filters.
When we’re grieving, we live for a time in the valley between dualities, and find a river flowing between the two canyon walls that draws input from dozens of tributaries from both sides. We survive not by trying to understand how the death of our loved one makes sense, but by going with the flow of life with all of its contradictions and messiness.
We exist in the space between our past and an unknown future. The past life we had with our loved one is over, and it’s hard to envision a new future without them in it. We also exist outside the normal flow of time that other people experience. In our heart, time moves so slowly as to feel surreal, like we are floating. Meanwhile, in our head, time is racing down the highway.
Beyond the physical and emotional dualities of grief, we also find ourselves falling in between the gaps in our community. While society says it cares about its people, for the most part it doesn’t provide adequate support for those who are grieving, so we have to find our own way.
We expect religion to have something profound to say about death and grieving, and it does, but the translation we hear through people tends to focus on the positive, on the Think-Only-Good-Thoughts Gospel where suffering indicates that we have done something wrong or weren’t trusting enough. There is nothing wrong about letting ourselves experience the fullness of grief, and feeling our way through.
In time, after the death of someone we loved, whether it’s a spouse, partner, parent, child, friend, or beloved pet, when we have pieced back together a somewhat regular pattern of daily life, and when grief is no longer our primary focus every hour, we feel joy again in addition to the shadows of sorrow.
Death repaints the world a light gray. The colors come from what we do with our lives.