My Grief Is With Me
My grief is always with me. It’s with me when I am sleeping, having dreams of my father who has been dead for six years now. The grief started with his loss; that’s when it took root and I confess that I cultivated it because the grief replaced him. I could no longer love him so I grieved for him. The grieving was all I had, it gave my life meaning. I dedicated myself to grief; it consumed me, it became my obsession, even my secret. It had to become a secret because our culture shuns grief, puts time limits on it, advocates moving on, getting over loss, healing. None of that was for me; I rejected all of it.
After my father’s death, my mother and I worked minimum wage jobs at a local factory in my rural Southern town. We were poor before he died, but now the poverty was more acute. We had been hurt and abandoned by family and in our isolation we welded to one another as our life disintegrated. We discovered that even after surviving the worst experience of our lives things could always get worse, and they did. We did not have access to grief counseling or health care, we lived with food insecurity, we even went without heat in the winter to keep energy costs down. Our grief was shaped by our social class. Without access to resources and financial security, our minds and bodies deteriorated. We had flashbacks to the trauma of his death, we were depressed, and my anxiety—which was already a problem—intensified to the point where I had trouble functioning. We were poor; our lives were worthless and expendable. We were only workers, productivity numbers, cogs in a machine. So we woke each dark morning, drove to the windowless factory, and choked on our grief. My grief grew so powerful I was overwhelmed by it. I sometimes hid in the bathroom crying, feeling as though I would lose my mind or have a nervous breakdown until I made the choice to embrace grief, to forge a relationship with it, to succumb to it and accept it as a permanent part of my life.
I kept waiting to heal. I kept waiting for the day when I was back to normal or did not think about him so much or could at least talk about him without sobbing. At the funeral, people said time would heal the wound of his death; they said the loss would make me stronger, they said all things happen for a reason. I listened without believing because my lived reality proved otherwise. I discovered what no one around me would admit: time heals nothing, tragedy diminishes you, everything does not happen for a reason. Maybe I did not want the wound to heal or I unconsciously knew that the closing of the wound was impossible. The wound still bleeds, still oozes, still throbs. The pain is still there. I don’t know who I was before the pain; I have come to believe I am the pain, the wound. There is no longer a separation between the wound and me, the grief and me; we are fused as one. And I’m not stronger because of loss.
What is strength? Is it going on or giving up, letting go or holding on, crying or being stoic? Strength is all of these things, strength is relative, amorphous. Bringing it into the conversation serves no purpose when we all live different lives and do the best we can. People tell me I am strong. I nod my head to appease their good intentions, but I know they are wrong. There is less of me. I’m not strong or weak, really, I’m just here. I have survived for six years somehow, and I don’t deserve praise for it. I had no other choice.
If I could go back in time to the funeral and say what I really wanted to say, I think I’d let out guttural screams of “no” over and over. No, he’s not in a better place. No, it did not happen for a reason. No, time will not heal me or fix me. No, no, no. Maybe I would tell them to stop speaking at all, just think about the beautiful life that is gone, acknowledge the loss, absorb it, feel it because it’s real and terrible and incomprehensible. I’d tell them to let me grieve how I want, to offer support but also give me space, to understand that grief is personal and complicated and messy, that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and there’s no time limit either. For some, grief is an ongoing process that never ends.
My grief is with me. I’m now in college, coping better with my depression and anxiety because of access to therapy. I am passionate, I write, I love poetry and literature and films and art and my mother. My grief is with me. I hear a song he loved, see a show on television that we watched together, smell his cologne on another man, have vivid dreams of him, and any progress I think I’ve made is completely erased in a single moment of confronting the magnitude of his death and everything that came after it. My grief is with me. It is my own and no one else’s. It hurts but it also reminds me that I knew a beautiful and kind man and his love made me who I am, just as his death also makes me who I am. I can live no other way. I am haunted by him. I ache for the life we had together. My grief is with me, it is part of me, and I am at peace with that.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Caitlin is a contributing writer at the Ellipses Project. She is currently an undergraduate majoring in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her academic interests include feminism, women’s literature, fat acceptance, class, and embodiment. Of particular importance to her is how art and writing can be used to cope with grief, trauma, and mental illness. She has a penchant for Pre-Raphaelite art, British detective shows, and old Hollywood films.