Grief is nothing but a painful waiting, a horrible patience.
Grief cannot be torn down or scaled or overcome or outsmarted.
It can only be outlasted.
Survival is surrender to the brick wall.
I navigated the days after Jimmy’s death the same way I endured the birth of my two children … by trying to breathe my way through the all-encompassing pain. I rocked back and forth between the waves, grateful every time a feeling of numbness settled briefly. I wondered how long the ordeal would last, when the misery would end. But unlike the birth, which also delivered joy, there was no joy waiting at the end of this labor.
Although it’s been more than seven years since my son died at the age of 21, I remember those early days well. The fierce desire to remain in the warm womb of my blue flannel sheets. The bone deep tiredness that came from staying up too late, being unable to fall asleep, the jarring need to wake up early. The inability to escape from the relentless reality that Jimmy was gone. The insane desire to turn the baby monitor back on, even though the person whose ragged breathing I was desperate to hear was no longer there.
My restraint frayed, then tore. Insults were everywhere, and all acts were personal. The Trader Joe’s shopper who jumped in front of me in line, the drivers who cut me off in traffic, the Blue Shield customer service representative who struggled to grasp the reason for my need to cancel my son’s health insurance. Daily bits of evidence that the world didn’t care my son was dead.
Living in a home where grief is fresh means every day feels like a hike up a slippery, steep, muddy hill. Every step precipitous, every move requiring a strength and energy I could no longer muster. The path is rocky, offering no way under, over or around; the only option is through. Some days, there is only retreat, a regathering, a promise to try again tomorrow.
I have never been a patient person. I am a powering through kind of person. A feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway kind of person. Someone who relies on action as distraction. But with grief born of devastating loss, there is only pausing and perseverance.
Even though their lives continue on as they did before, our friends and family need steadfastness to see us through this gorge of grief. We disappear for days, failing to respond to calls, texts, emails. We decline invitation and after invitation, only to say ‘yes’ then leave early, show up late or not at all. We cry constantly or sit dry-eyed in a strange state of frozen relief. We offer no road map on how to reach us, no guidebook on what to say, no translation tool to interpret our bizarre behavior and cryptic comments.
While we demand perpetual patience from those who love us, we have little to offer in return. Expectations high, rules unclear, we often don’t know what we want until someone does something else. Check in too often, and we resent the intrusion. Call infrequently, and we feel abandoned. Ask how we are, and we’re liable to snap back with “How do you think?” all the while muttering “How the f*ck do you think I am? My kid is dead ..” under our breath.
The people who stick with us are willing to wait. Brave enough to keep trying. Despite their missteps, our well-meaning angels have an uncanny ability to mind read. To know what food we’re craving, what help to offer, when to text and what to say. They send warm fuzzy blankets, gardenia soap, chocolate and handwritten notes. They tell stories, share memories, send photos wearing their JIMMYSTRONG shirts. And they say Jimmy’s name over and and over and over.
These special souls understand that endurance is sustainable, and survival is possible. They have crashed into their own brick walls, outlasted their own grief. They trust that the fog will clear, the pain will ease and the dawn will come. They stand willingly on the raw edge of grief with us, unafraid of tending our wounds. They know that love and light are seductive and sprinkle both like breadcrumbs at the entrance of the deep caves we retreat into. When they walk into the darkness to find us and extend their hands, we grab on, trusting them to lead us slowly back into the wild, untamed world.
Margo Fowkes is the founder and president of OnTarget Consultinginc., a firm specializing in helping organizations and individuals act strategically, improve their performance and achieve their business goals. After the death of her son Jimmy in 2014, Margo created Salt Water, an online community providing a safe harbor for those who are grieving the death of someone dear to them.