You can go for days, weeks, months with no episodes. You are back to life as usual, feeling like you did the hard work to adjust to your new normal. Usually this new normal is a rearranged normal, a normal that for a time at least, is meant to cover a gaping hole in your life. A deceased mother or father. A failed marriage, perhaps.
And then, suddenly, usually in a very inconvenient and unexpected place, grief washes over you as a wave. Almost a literal wave, because you’re knocked off guard and it’s just there. Over you, under you, holding you down. You have to remind yourself to breathe.
It sounds a bit melodramatic, but I think if you’re a person who feels deeply (and even if you’re not), chances are grief strikes in similar fashion. It’s one of the great equalizers. CEOs and factory workers may live in different worlds but grief shows no socioeconomic bias. It’s a punch in the gut regardless.
For me, taking my son to physical therapy at a rehabilitation facility has opened up new chords of grief. From a well I thought had dried up.
I was in the bathroom, of all places, washing my hands, when it hit me. The first wave. It was déjà vu in the strongest sense of the word. The restroom was identical, really, to the one in the rehabilitation facility in which my father spent his last weeks. And it seemed I was back there, a little less than a year ago, washing my hands. I felt again the desperation of knowing it was our last Father’s Day together. The awful and yet comforting juxtaposition of the ordinary with my father’s impending journey into a realm I am not yet allowed to enter—the afterlife.
We had just finished dinner. My father, instead of dining in his room, agreed to eat in the dining room with the other patients. My sons and I were joining him. We sat with a man, Walter, who was eating solid food for the first time in over six months. We applauded his feat, being able to swallow again, and I made polite conversation. The woman at the table behind us kept yelling out random items, sharing with us that she was “breaking out of here” and we were to follow her. She also couldn’t see very well and seemed to think I was a little girl. My dad and I giggled about it back in his room, able to hold our laughter in just long enough that she wouldn’t hear it.
My father ate like a champ, relishing every last bit and asking for a second dessert. I was so grateful because his appetite had failed him in recent days. But I was sad that this was now my father’s dinner table. And that I was usually hundreds of miles away from it, unable to help make it a little sunnier for him.
The next morning, we went to Mass in the chapel—my father, aunt, sister, two sons and I. I sat, tears streaming down my face, for most of the service. I knew I’d not be at Mass again with my dad. I knew how many masses we’d sat through together as I grew up—and this seemed an unfair end to the tradition. Afterward, more family members started to visit to give him his presents and spend time together. I, unfortunately, had to leave to get back home.
And that was it. I was back in the rehab facility where my son was healing a torn hamstring. The memory had taken only seconds, but I felt like I had relived a day in those seconds.
The next visit for my son’s physical therapy, we were about to get on the elevator when we passed a library and sitting area. And again, I was back in time. But this time, I was a young girl running through the halls of the hospital my mother helped to run. When she headed up the school of nursing, there were days I needed to be at work with her after school because she had some deadline to meet.
I usually drove her secretary crazy, spinning in her chair and playing with the intercom/buzzer between their offices. When my mother tired of me doing that, she’d tell me to go amuse myself quietly. The school had a sitting room/library of sorts. They used to hold teas and other functions there. I’d play in the room, pretending to be the grand dame of some country estate, sipping my tea and reading my book. It was very much like the library my sons and I had just passed on our way to the elevator.
And again, that was it. I was back in the present after only a few seconds—but felt like I had relived many afternoons.
The grief comes in the déjà vu. You literally feel you’re back in time. You smell the smells, hear the sounds, feel the feelings. And it taunts you. Because you can’t really go back. And you don’t think you’d really want to. But how did this flesh and blood being who loved you from the moment you were born escape solely into memory? To not hear the voice, smell their scent, feel their hand holding yours—it feels cruel. Harsh.
You realize the new normal will probably always include moments such as these. They are a blessing as well as a curse, I think. And yet, I think a worse fate would be to not be able to relive these moments. To forget so much that going back in time is not an option, even if an unintentional one.
A dear friend that passed away years ago said to me, “Kay, all along I thought my life would really begin when I found the right guy. When my screenplay got published. And now I look back and think, “Oh my God. That WAS my life.” She had terminal breast cancer and only a few months to live.
Yes, grief is a funny thing. A reminder that the memories we’ll want to look back and cherish are NOW. That ordinary family dinner. A Sunday service with your loved ones in the pews next to you. Your child in your office, driving you crazy. It’s now, folks. Make it count. Or don’t. But my takeaway is that it matters. Every moment matters. Even the dull and ugly.
These are the moments grief will bring back. And the alternative is to leave grief empty-handed. But that leaves you empty-handed. I’ll take grief any day.