April 20th marked 88 years since my father was born. It also marked the first time that he was not here to celebrate the occasion. I thought I was doing pretty okay that day, getting ready for work, driving kids to school, and doing all the normal things I do without feeling weighed down with sadness and a sense of loss. I was doing okay, until halfway to work the image floated through my mind of my mom waking up in the morning without him. On his birthday. And that struck me as impossibly sad. Tears filled my eyes and spilled over as I continued on my way to work, all the while willing myself to get it together. I hastily wiped at my eyes before exiting the car, thankful for the dark glasses that would hide the tell-tale trail of mascara.I wasn't prepared for the fact that grief is so unpredictable. It wasn't just sadness, and it wasn't linear. Somehow I'd thought that the first days would be the worst and then it would get steadily better - like getting over the flu. That's not how it was.
The quote by Meghan O'Rourke seems to fit so perfectly what I have experienced over the last nine months. No, grief is certainly not linear. It may move in a generally forward direction, but only because that's where time is going and time drags everything and everyone along for the ride. Instead, grief performs an erratic dance; it swirls and leaps and just when you think you've made it to someplace smooth and steady, it suddenly loops back to where it was in the beginning. Unpredictable indeed.
People talk about the stages of grief, and there probably are identifiable stages, I am sure I have experienced them all, but they don't neatly line up and usher you from one to the next until you arrive --ta da!-- at the finish line all completely healed and whole again. One day--one minute--you're fine and the next you are wiping tears from your eyes because some song or some object or just some random thought mercilessly punched you in the gut once again.
Unless you've been through it, it's hard to understand. And even if you have, there is a hesitation to acknowledge grief past a certain point. Beyond the initial expressions of condolences, no one really wants to talk about it. Maybe it's part superstition. Maybe it's truly a desire to not want to bring up the hurt in the one who is grieving. (As if we had forgotten all about it.) Maybe it's just a matter of not knowing what to say. The end result, though, is that you become isolated on a deserted island of grief. You don't dare say anything either, even writing about it is risky, because you figure everyone expects you to be done grieving. You've had enough time; get over it and move on. But that's not how it is.
After my brief meltdown in the car, I made it through the rest of my day just fine, no more morose thoughts to lead me astray. I taught my lessons, talked to my students and fellow teachers, and did everything as I normally do. When I came home I did something else I always do; I grabbed my iPad and hopped on social media to see what exciting things had been going on in other people's worlds. Scattered throughout my Facebook feed I found a few posts that could best be described as heartwarming. They were from members of my family. To my dad. Wishing him a happy birthday.
Now, I know there are people who think that sort of thing is weird if not just plain crazy. A few months ago I was listening to the radio when a couple of radio talk-show hosts went on and on about how stupid it was when people posted as if the person was still alive. I naturally would have to disagree. It wasn't crazy. It was beautiful. The messages we all left said virtually the same thing. We love him and think of him everyday. Although separated by miles, there on my dad's Facebook timeline, we gathered together to share our grief and our love and our gratitude for all that he meant to each and every one of us. We left messages to honor a man who deserves to be remembered.
And in so doing, I was reminded that the island of grief I sometimes inhabit isn't really deserted at all.