We know Ariel’s been doing tons of work with grief in past years and now we’ve got another perspective from a reader…
I’m not an expert on grief or the grieving process. I haven’t read the self-help books. I rarely take heed of anyone’s advice on how to grieve. Joan Didion famously wrote a meditation on grief that is equal parts beautiful and sad. She tells us that grief has no end, and that it’s nothing like we expect it to be. She describes the “comes in waves” phenomenon, which nobody can quite nail down in words but everyone knows exactly what it means when it’s said.
I can’t compare my grief to ocean waves, however. For me, it’s more like a car crash that you see coming but are helpless to stop — one that leaves you damaged and scarred, inside and out.
My aunt fell ill on a beautiful October day. She complained of a headache to her sister while meeting her for lunch. She was walking sideways. Something was off. An ambulance was called, and the events were set in motion.
Once my mother called me to tell me, I rushed to the hospital to see my aunt, a brilliant woman, confused and agitated. Over the course of the next few weeks, tests were done and a brain tumor was found. Prognosis: “It’s not if, it’s when.”
Thus began the slowest-moving car crash of my life.
I try very hard not to think of my aunt in those final months. She fell ill at the end of October and passed in the beginning of February. That slow decline was the most painful thing for us to see. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Instead, I think of how she was before: intensely private, thoughtful, intelligent, and kind. So kind — I don’t think any of us were worthy of her endless patience and compassion.
When she left her house that afternoon, she didn’t know she’d never be back inside.
My grief was strongest during those first months. Things nagged at the corner of my brain. When she left her house that afternoon, she didn’t know she’d never be back inside. I wondered if there were dishes in the sink (probably not, knowing her) or what book she was half-finished with that she would never be able to pick up again. Perhaps her bed stayed unmade that day, because she thought she’d rest after lunch. Maybe she didn’t drop off the mail because she planned to do it the next day. What were her plans? How did her friends find out that she wouldn’t return? These are the things that still haunt me. These are the things that push into my consciousness and bring the heavy, heart-stopping grief back to the surface.
I was a coward in my grief. I couldn’t go into her home to help my mother or aunts clean, sort, gather. I couldn’t see the moments frozen in time. Those are the shards of glass that remain embedded from the crash that I can’t seem to extract without more damage.
I was cruel in my grief. Nothing else was of importance, other than my aunt laying in hospice. Nothing could take precedence. Nobody was allowed to have a good day in my presence. Nobody could possibly understand what I was going through or the bond I shared with this woman. How could my family be making these decisions for her? How dare they smile, joke, laugh?
I was selfish in my grief. In the several conversations with my aunt in her in lucid moments, we never talked about what was coming for her, only what was coming for me. She asked about my novel-in-progress. I lamented that I was having a hard time with it, that it required a lot of research around sensitive topics. She fixed me with a steely glance and her old voice came back to the surface as she commanded “do the research.” That would be the last time I would speak to her. The crash happened on a Sunday afternoon. It was over.
In a way, there was a tiny piece of relief. Like when you see the car coming at you, and you tense up, and the moment takes forever to arrive. And then, the heart-stopping crash happens. But in the seconds after, you assess the damage, and you realize you’re breathing. And you can move your arms and legs. And maybe it will be okay. She was gone; she wasn’t suffering. Selfish again — I wouldn’t have to smell the smell of hospice anymore. I didn’t have to see the haunted faces of the residents, dying alone, waiting for the end.
The heart-stopping crash happens. But in the seconds after, you assess the damage, and you realize you’re breathing. And you can move your arms and legs. And maybe it will be okay.
But of course, the lingering effects of surviving a car wreck crop up, like shards of glass that remain embedded in your skin. In this case, those were the discoveries we made after my aunt’s death. She had been writing poetry and short stories in a writing group, unbeknownst to all of us. A member of her group came to her funeral and sought me out. “You inspired your aunt to write,” she told me. That was the biggest shard of glass. The thought that I had inspired her the way she always inspired me, and I had no idea, made me sick with guilt and grief. I wasn’t worthy of it.
I remain private in my grief, avoiding things that will trigger the inevitable nightmares of the crash. Only my husband knows that there are times I cannot move because the grief pins me down. Sometimes it’s on the floor of the bathroom. Other times it sends me to bed at 8pm. The grief is always there, like a moving car, waiting for a moment that my brain stops moving to race in at 80 mph and sideswipe me.
And yet, as these things do, time marches on. I learned how to keep moving, but it was clumsy, like a toddler’s first steps, and I’ve never been able to get back on solid footing. Much like the fear of getting behind the wheel after the car crash, I shun everything that reminds me of her. I can’t look at photos. I can’t visit her gravesite. I stopped writing. To this day, well over three years later, I can’t face that expectation.
Instead, I read her poetry. I try to find meaning in the lines. I run my hands over the type. I picture her, poised over a keyboard, typing steadily. It keeps the car away for a little. The stretches in between crashes get longer. Sometimes I can go a week without tensing and waiting for that impact.
And I breathe.
Comments on Comparing my grieving process to a car crash
Your words rang very true for me. I too had the kind of grief that comes from finding out suddenly that you are going to lose someone. My Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, out of nowhere, and we had him for about two months before he died. I got to say goodbye, which some people never get, but I also got the indescribable torture of knowing I was going to lose him while still having him and you are so right it’s exactly like watching a car crash coming. I couldn’t bear to be anywhere but with him while he was dying but at exactly the same time I could hardly bear to be with him.
For a long time I kept up the story of how lucky I was to get to say goodbye, as I know some people never get that (as was made abundantly clear to me by other people in my life in pain about their losses) but I’ll say this, saying goodbye is FUCKING HARD. It’s like peeling your skin off. The grief was most acute immediately after, but gradually the crying jags and waves of utter bleakness become less frequent and you just begin to function. It has taken nearly four years though to fully stop bracing for impact and unwind from the cringing in terror that began the day I got the news and the car crash came into view.
But the way through is those shards of glass, such a good metaphor. They do need picking out of the wounds and the wounds need caring for. I won’t lie, it’s not nice work but the discomfort of tending the wound is never as bad as the trauma that caused it, healing is, unfortunately, usually painful….. But it takes time to get to that point, you’ll never feel ready for it but at some point you’ll have reached the point of being able to and you’ll surprise yourself. I very much needed someone to help me with those shards though, someone I didn’t know and wasn’t responsible for. I was lucky in that I also had some friends who had lost parents and very significant people in their lives, who I’d seen slowly come out the other side, but as well as them I needed a therapist.
I can’t say you ever recover, I’ll be forever changed and scarred, but it really really does get better than it has been. Much love.
Thank you for your kind words and I am sorry for your loss. This phrase: “saying goodbye is FUCKING HARD. It’s like peeling your skin off.” Just resonates, so much. Love to you!
This brought on the water works. Last week I got the call that my uncle had a serious fall and was taken to the hospital via ambulance. To then get the follow-up call that the fall was a result of an diagnosed brain tumor.
I am luckily intimately familiar with how I process grief. And know what to expect from me over the next weeks and months. Your piece was beautifully written and very accurate.
Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m sorry to hear about your uncle – we are all sending you tons of hugs.
This post came at such an appropriate time for me. My dad was officially diagnosed with advanced and rapid progression ALS in April and we though don’t know exactly how much time we have left with him, it likely won’t be past the end of the year.
It’s been both a blessing and in some ways a curse to have this time with him. I know not everyone has this chance, but it’s like a ticking time bomb that you’re just waiting to go off and sometimes you just want it to be over so you can pick up the pieces and move on. And it’s so hard to see a loved one decline.
Thank you for sharing your story.
So sorry to hear this sad news about your father. Sending you tons of hugs. <3
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