The Gift of Grief
by Liz Flaherty
It’s Sunday afternoon when I write this, and the sun is almost out. How nice it is after two weeks of unremitting gloom. As it grows lighter outside, I grow lighter inside as well. Which is odd when you consider what I’ve been thinking about.
We all see a lot of it in our lifetimes. When we’re young and if we’re lucky, we see it from afar. We see old people die and it’s too bad, but ... you know, they’re old. Then, of course, comes the time when it’s not from afar and the person who passes on isn’t old. This is when we really find out about grief.
My grandmother died when I was seven, and even though it felt strange that she wouldn’t sit at the table and drink from her cracked cup anymore, she was eighty-four. So I didn’t grieve. Not really, though to this day, I think of Grandma Shafer when I see a cracked coffee cup. Then when I was eleven, a 10-year-old schoolmate died. Forty-some years later, I still feel profound sorrow when I think of her. She was smart and funny and had so much to give here on earth that even now I have difficulty coming to terms with her death. But I couldn’t identify the feelings I had about her passing, couldn’t explain the tears that came to my eyes for years whenever I thought about Cindy being buried with her red cowboy boots.
When I was thirteen, I lost the only grandfather I’d ever known, and the hurt came in waves, like the throbbing from a bee sting. He died in June, and by the time school started, I’d gotten over the worst of it, but junior high was different than it might have been. Because grief wasn’t far away anymore.
I’ve thought about it, off and on over the years. When my parents and father-in-law died, it hurt, but the grief part of it was far-flung, long lasting, and unexpected. Life was so busy — we came home from
after my father-in-law’s viewing to go to my son’s football game, then went back the next day for the funeral — that it just went on. I would see things, of course, that made me think of the parents we’d lost, and I kept Christmas-shopping for my mother long after she was gone. She was always hard to buy for, and I’d see things she’d like. And then, in the middle of J. C. Penney or Kmart, I would mourn, because I couldn’t give them to her. Louisville
We often drive by the cemetery where my parents are buried. Sometimes we are past before I even think about it and occasionally I wave —“Hi, Mom” — and sometimes those bee sting waves of hurt strike again. They’ve been gone for more than 20 years, how can this be?
Sometimes we grieve for things — items irreplaceable but gone, or times — youth, when everything worked right and gravity was our friend, or even places — remember the Roxy and the railroad hospital and those spooky mansions on North Broadway? Now and then it is a state of mind we miss, or a conversation we wish could have gone on longer, or a friendship we wish we could go back and fix because we blew it big time.
I write a lot about gifts because, being the Pollyanna sort of person that I am, I think nearly everything is a gift. While I realize that this can be annoying to people who get tired of trying to be happy when they’re just not, I find it much nicer than being unhappy when I don’t have to. (Don’t even try and straighten that sentence out; you can’t do it.) But even I’ve never considered grief a gift. Until now.
Because until you love somebody or something, you can’t grieve losing them. I wouldn’t still miss my mother if she hadn’t had such a positive and profound effect of my life. I wouldn’t remember Cindy’s red cowboy boots if I didn’t recall their owner with affection. I wouldn’t smile at cracked coffee cups if not for the grandmother who died when I was seven.
The buildings and the times and the friendships that are gone all leave remembrances and, in many cases, laughter, behind them. So, even though the Roxy is gone, I remember watching
there and singing along, “...one, two, three, what are we fighting for...” And although the high school now climbs the Broadway hill, I remember walking quickly past the railroad hospital because it was scary looking. It is fun to remember that. Woodstock
I remember boys who went to
. None of them were still boys when they came home, and some didn’t come home at all. A part of me — and of everyone else who remembers the Vietnam era — mourns them still. But another part remembers how tall they walked and all that they gave. There was one who seemed stronger and better than the others and though I’m still sorry he had to go there and I regret the 14 months of his life he can never get back, I’m happy he came home safe. And married me. Vietnam
So there you have grief. It tangles up with memories and joy and good things. It is, when all is said and done, a gift.
Married for thirty-some years to Duane, her own personal hero, and mother of three and grandmother of six, Liz Flaherty has written a column from her Window Over the Sink off and on for over ten years. She hopes you enjoy her essays. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org