Grief is a strange animal. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, and it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.
My grandmother passed away this spring, and I was in the room when it happened. I did not cry; I blamed exhaustion after sleeping at the hospital and being on death watch for the past three days. I went with my mom to make all the funeral arrangements, there were no tears then either. During the funeral, I still didn’t cry, and I was starting to worry. For some people, this might be normal, but I am a crier. I don’t hold back, I weep at movies, books, songs — you name it and I have cried over it.
My grandmother and I were very close as I was growing up. We shared a love of all things horror, and she had an amazing collection of everything Stephen King had ever touched (including, as I later discovered, clippings from newspapers and magazines, old Castle Rock newsletters, binders full of this stuff). I devoured his novels, borrowing from her library with constant admonitions to “be careful,” starting a lifelong habit of removing dust jackets the second I open a book.
When my grandmother died, I inherited that collection. I was describing it to someone today (as the weirdest thing I own), and all of a sudden I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I can’t explain why today, why now, why that trigger. I’ve talked about the books countless times, loaned them out, even read a few in the months since she died, and I’ve been totally fine.
I’m used to a much more tangible (and logical) kind of grief. My ex died while I was in Korea, and I had no problem crying then. I called my parents at 7am incoherent when I got the news, I cried in bars, I cried at work when my students asked me, “Steph teacher, why are you sad?” I cried when my sister’s tear-stained letter made it to me two months after the funeral. It felt good to cry. I don’t know what to do when the tears don’t come. Even now, when I go back to my hometown, I “visit” him and have no problem crying. I didn’t get to attend the funeral, so this is my closure.
I have a lot of trouble with the expectations associated with grief. It puzzles those close to me as to why I still get upset when I go to the cemetery. When another ex died while I was in high school (that’s two, for those of you keeping score), I didn’t want to be touched. No hugs, no supportive arm pats, none of it. This was especially hard for my mom, who was dealing with an hysterical teenage girl who flipped out when she tried to hug her (which then caused a fight). I still have to resist that impulse to withdraw when I’m upset and remind myself that people are just trying to help. That may be one of the reasons I am so awkward when I try to comfort people who are themselves grieving. I feel like I never know what to say or do. Do they want comfort, in the form of what sound like cliches the second they leave my mouth? Do they want me to hug them, or are they like me? If I can’t even figure out how to process my own emotions, how am I supposed to help someone else?
Grief is one of the largest shared experiences we have, yet it’s so personal many of us don’t even know how to handle it ourselves. The closest I’ve come to a solution is to just feel it when it happens, let the wave wash over me, and eventually return to what passes for normal in my life.