You won’t feel a thing in the beginning. People will look at you dubiously, wondering if you really care or have processed the news even. They will nudge you, shake you, and even beg you to shed a tear or two.
But it doesn’t hit until they start to disappear and you’re faced with a reality that you thought wasn’t possible. Possibilities. We never think about a dreadful possibility until it happens to us. I know this because I said it.
“It’s just impossible to imagine a life without her. I just can’t bring myself to think about it,” I had said.
But that May morning, I had to shake all possibilities and imagine - no, scratch that - I had to face a world without her. This was the day my mother died after battling cancer.
How is one really supposed to fight their own body? It’s the only safe space we return to and sleep in after a day of facing our battles. But this is what cancer wants you to do. Fight your own self, your own cells that rage against your healthy body. And so, she succumbed to her own self and gave up.
But what about her children? Her family? All her loved ones she couldn’t say goodbye to? But I guess death is more about the living and less about the dead. They’re the ones left behind with a giant, shaky boulder called grief.
You will come across people grieving, crying, and mourning every day. You may even offer your shoulder to cry on, or a hand to hold on to, and even offer a glass of water as the norm dictates. You will have attended funerals and cried at the sight of memories appearing on your phone screen. I know because I did too. But this was always a fleeting feeling. People died, I cried and moved on. The next day was always a new beginning, something to look forward to.
But this was different. Something I had never felt before. It was unfamiliar, which is why it hurt so much more. Remember I said grief is a boulder? Well, actually, it’s a pebble at first.
As days pass and turn into months, the pebbles collect and fuse into one another, forming a stone. Then a year passes and you miss them on birthdays, graduations, weddings, and all the firsts that you thought could not happen without them. It just wasn’t a possibility in your head.
Now, the stone is a rock. The first year is the hardest because you don’t know how to carry this rock every single day. It weighs you down when you walk up a staircase. It clinks with the shiny metal in your purse as you get ready for a farewell. Sometimes, when you’re not thinking about it, you will find it waiting for you, glistening in its black glory, as you return home from an evening out.
Little by little, this rock becomes a giant shaky boulder that has comfortably and unapologetically overstayed its welcome. So now I think, if it has made itself home, why shouldn’t I nurture it and tend to it?
But this is only possible if it gives me some breathing space. Why must I carry a boulder over my shoulders and also choke, gasping for air, when the going gets tough?
Why should I lay in bed, burdened by grief but wide awake, even when the muscles in my body beg for some sleep?
Why must I also spend days lazing around, doing nothing, finding absolutely no joy in the things I once enjoyed?
But somewhere a part of you knows that this is not the way to deal with grief. So you get online. You read books, you listen to podcasts, and finally, you write.
You feel the boulder has sprouted wings to carry itself a little further away from you. Maybe it feels guilty for putting you through what you went through. But slowly, you can feel a little window opening in your heart, taking a shy first look at the possibilities you thought could not exist.
You begin to entertain these possibilities, and even ideas, little by little. You make plans for brunches, outings, readings, you cook and eat your favorite meals, and you wear color again. Meanwhile, the wings on your grief boulder have sprung to fruition, and lo and behold, you begin to rise. It’s shocking at first, really.
The thing keeping you captive, all these years, is slowly becoming a reason for your ascent. The weight that stopped you from taking on a possibility is pushing you to jump at one now.
The grief that came in waves that drowned you before - you now surf them like an athlete.
Many years ago, all of this was a faint possibility for me. The chances of this gradual, painful change were so thin that I almost gave up. But as poet John O’Donohue writes in his poem,
And when the work of grief is done, The wound of loss will heal And you will have learned To wean your eyes From that gap in the air And be able to enter the hearth In your soul where your loved one Has awaited your return All the time.
My work with grief is still not done, but it’s a train I’m catching soon.