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  • Maya Angelou Nievares

Essay: Dancing With Grief

September 4, 2019

1:18 AM

My dad breathed his last. 

I dreaded this day, like the past few days that led to it. The dates that hold so many memories and maybe even trauma. Moments that I can still remember vividly if I want to, but choose not to relive. Days I want to forget but long to remember for always and forever. 

Some nights, I fear that I will forget. There are also days that I do forget and I get to laugh carelessly, have a good time and not remember at all. I fear that I will get to live better days and forget about my dad. But alas, grief is a reminder that I will always remember. Grief is a reminder that I had, I can, and I will have better days, but the loss will always be there at the back burner, just waiting to knock my socks off and remind me of what I’ve lost.

This time last year, my dad breathed his last. 

Tomorrow I will no longer have a “this time last year” memory with a living father.

Grieving hurts. It’s a kind of pain unlike any other. It crushes the spirit and dries up the bones. More than emotional distress, you can also physically feel it.

Everyone in this lifetime is bound to experience grief: grieving the death of a loved one, death of a pet, death of a friendship, death of a dream and yes, even death of oneself. 

In experiencing grief, we feel a lot of emotions all at once. We have episodes of loneliness, numbness, and emptiness. We have bouts of anger. We have attacks of guilt and helplessness. We have sessions of regrets and resentments. We also have quiet days: times we almost forget what we’ve lost, episodes of getting by. Periods where we can breathe again, only to be left gasping for air the very next day. 

If grief has the capacity to do anything it would be this: Grief makes us feel alone.

I used to dread it at first, the helpless feeling of isolation. I kept on wishing for the pain to stop. I fear the moments when I’m done with all the distractions and I’m left alone with my thoughts. I yearn for my tear ducts to stop producing tears and for my brain to slow down the avalanche of memories that hurt. I was hell-bent on my decision to shove it to the side and not face it. But as time went on, I realized it was not something I can leave behind. And as I move forward with it, let me share these things I wish I knew about grief.

Grief and grieving is full of awkwardness.

The moment death enters the door, whether invited or not, things will start to get awkward. In a hospital death, after you were given a generous amount of time to say goodbye, you are then pulled into this series of processes on how to get out of there, then you go straight to the abyss of deciding for the logistics of the wake and everything that follows.

During the wake, it will feel like you’re in an aquarium being observed how you grieve. Add the welcoming of people and the tiresome relieving of the story of how the person we love died. 

You will find it awkward to respond to people’s words of comfort knowing that some words don’t really bring comfort. The last thing you want to offer a grieving person is a false sense of assurance. 

When you start to move forward, it’s an awkward adjustment, from the number of plates in the table, the sleeping arrangement, the load of the laundry. Small spaces felt bigger and bigger places felt crowded. The idea of something is missing and the absence creates a space, and you’d think these empty spaces make the air flow easier - but they will only leave you gasping for your breath.

Grief and Grieving is messy.

Grief is a process of no specific order.

We all know about the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance which happens in a span of more or less a year.  Yes, these are the textbook stages of grief but there is no telling on what stage you will be. There will be no specific order and you can never be fully done with one stage. It’s a matter of push and pull and some days it’s push and shove.

Let’s debunk the one year theory. They say that a year is enough to go through the stages of grief and things will get better, you will feel better. This is not always true for everyone, because grief has no deadline. The last thing you want to give a grieving person is a false sense of comfort.

No matter how hard you prepare yourself for the impending loss you will experience, when death comes knocking at your doors, which it rarely does, you will still feel unprepared when it storms through your house and nothing will prepare you for the silence that follows when it leaves. Your house is never the same. Your heart will break all over again, and like a landmine, you can’t really tell when or where or what’ll trigger it. It won’t be over in 365 days.

Grief and Grieving is different for everyone.

Each person grieves differently and it’s absolutely okay. The last thing a grieving person would want to hear are people telling them, telling us, how to grieve. 

We have to understand people have their own way of adapting and coping with death and loss. There is no sense in comparing the magnitude of one’s loss to that of other family members or friends. We may have lost the same person, but we can never equate the grief of one with that of the other. Only you can know the depth of how much you lost and at the same time. Only you can grieve your grief.

The hierarchy of relationship is never directly proportional to the deepness of grief. Grief cannot be measured with the blood relation and knowledge of that person but the connection and quality of the time spent together with that person. And no, it is not a competition of who gets to grieve more than who.

This time last year, my dad breathed his last. 

Here’s the harsh reality of grief. You will never understand it unless you experience it. At the end of the day, one of the most important lessons and my takeaway from days and nights of sitting with grief is this: empathy.

Let me share these three responses to the things I wish I knew about grief. 

Grief and grieving is full of awkwardness, prepare to be awkward.

Joan Didion in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, shared her observation that people who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. She had noticed it on her face and she now notices it on other’s faces as well. It is a look of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.

The awkwardness of the first meeting after death is inevitable. The hesitation on what words to say and the silence that follows is one of the most uncomfortable things when it comes to grief and grieving. It also may be awkward to message someone who just lost someone especially if you haven’t talked to that person in so long, but believe me when I say that every message of reaching out will be appreciated. Any gesture, no matter how awkward, is a kind gesture to the one who grieves. 

I get the awkwardness. I get the feeling of the need to put on a face because you don’t want to rain on someone else’s parade. Sometimes grief feels like you are losing your mind. You feel a lot of emotion all at once. In a world where the mantra is “shut up, get over it, and move on” it’s pretty easy for a grieving person to minimize the emotion of sadness. 

It will get awkward. There will be moments when a grieving person just wants to wallow in the darkness. There will be times that they will just want to tell stories about the loved one that they lost. I appeal to you, sit with the awkwardness. Let them retell the story over and over again. Let them feel what they feel. The last thing you want to do is to invalidate a grieving person’s feelings.

Grief and grieving is messy, prepare to get your hands dirty.

Imagine grief as a wave and there you are in the middle of the ocean. You can see the islands not far away from where you are floating, but you are wrestling with these waves bigger than you. You try to stay afloat. There are moments where you get to catch your breath for a second and without a warning you get plummeted again by another series of waves.

To the people on those islands, I cannot paint a clearer picture of how messy grief is. It knows no place and time. I know you will get dirty in the process of creating rafts and building bridges just to be with your loved one who are drowning in the middle of these unforgiving waves. You will get wet in the process of reaching out in that deep ocean of sadness. Please bear with us.

To the people in the middle of the ocean, they say someday we will get to be on one of the islands. There will still be waves but we will get to have moments of joy and life. They say that waves will still reach the shores, and it will again leave you salty, wet and gasping for air but there will be respite. Hang in there. People who once were floating in the very same ocean as ours say that things will get better. With all my heart, I’d like to believe them.

Grief and Grieving is different for everyone, take all the time you need.

Here I am a year after, and it felt like I was holding my breath all those times. Time heals, they say, but I don’t think that will ever be true with grief. No matter how long it has been, we just have to accept the fact that there will be a piece of ourselves we will never get to have again.

Nora McInerny once said that we need each other to remember, to help each other remember, that grief is this multitasking emotion. That you can and will be sad and happy. We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again. And yes, absolutely, they're going to move forward. But that doesn't mean that they've moved on.

September 4, 2020

1:18 AM

This time last year, my dad breathed his last. 

I dreaded this day, like the past few days that led to it. The dates that hold so many memories and maybe even trauma. Moments that I can still remember vividly if I want to, but choose not to relive. Days I want to forget but long to remember for always and forever. 

Some nights, I fear that I will forget. There are also days that I do forget and I get to laugh carelessly, have a good time and not remember at all. I fear that I will get to live better days and forget about my dad, but on the days that I know I will forget, I know that grief will always be there to remind me of grace. Grace from the One who gives and takes away and continues to give. The One whose grace is sufficient for me. 

Grief is no longer a stranger to me. Some days I can freely pull up a chair and sit with it and I’m okay with the silence we share. Some days, we cry. Some days it doesn’t show up. There are days too that it brings a friend, a special guest. Sometimes it’s guilt, sometimes it’s anger, most of the time it’s sadness, there are times too when it invites voices that whispers thoughts of ending it all. I no longer wake up wishing grief to be gone. I think I have grown accustomed to its presence. Though, there are moments that I still wish it doesn’t show up for the day. You see, we are building something here. The picture is not clear yet but we try to dance around each other, sometimes it feels like we are hearing different music, our moves unsteady and each step filled with uncertainty. But in the middle of this all, I am slowly accepting the fact, the hard truth, that we have to live with each other until the One who gives and takes away, takes me home too. 

Oh good grief, this is going to be a long dance.

Artwork by Maya Angelou Nievares

© The Middle Mag PH