One moment, grief is a far-off line on the beach and then the next it surrounds you. Engulfing you. That first smack in the face with cold, salty water takes the breath out of your lungs. It makes your limbs numb, your chest hurt, you neck stiff. You panic. You gasp for every breath as long as you can fill your lungs with air that never tasted so sweet. And eventually, when it is over your head, and you can no longer hold your breath anymore, you relent and take in that first big gulp.
To be clear, this is not a post about losing someone to death. According to research in Emotionally Focused Therapy (see, Hold Me Tight, by Dr. Sue Johnson), there isn’t a lot of difference between the grief of losing someone to death, and the end of a close relationship. Your brain registers both as loss in the emotional part, known as the amygdala. I suppose going back far enough up the timeline, our ancestors might wave goodbye to their loved ones as they went on a hunting trip and there was a good chance they would never see them again. That separation registers the same in that part of our minds which still loves the chill of the wind on our skin and looks up at the moon with amazement and wonder. I can attest that loss is loss.
You mourn the possibilities. The fresh memories. The conversations. The chance for more perfect moments. When someone is gone there is no more of that. In some ways, loss of relationship is worse because closure doesn’t happen the same way as it does with death. It is gradual. And there is the hope that they will come back. Even a mourner who pays a psychic medium to contact their dead relatives knows they aren’t coming back. But you know there will come a day when you bump into the person you lost and it will all come flooding back again. There stands before you a stranger who still carries a part of you with them.
Take a deep breath. The tide is coming in. Now, hold it as the water crashes against your face. You’re going to be okay.
I have had three major losses in the last three years. The first was my eldest son, who finally succumbed to parental alienation tactics from his mom and I haven’t spoken with him since April 4, 2016. It was to be the last time I saw him as himself. The last time he slept in his bed at my house. He stopped coming over. Refused to talk to me. Or even look at me. Three years of this now. On September 17, 2018, his sister followed in his footsteps. That is a whole other story to drown in. She had been my favorite. I know parents aren’t supposed to have those, but fathers of daughters know differently.
They both go by their mother’s name now. They remind me of this whenever they can. I have one kid left, and already his mom is working on him as the next to leave.
On January 10th, things ended with the woman I had been dating. It had been a roller-coaster ride of three years–thrilling, captivating, dangerous, and sometimes nerve-wracking. Sometimes we were great at supporting each other, and other times, we were good at pulling at our fraying loose ends. She left with no answers for me as to why she had to leave, but this time, I suspected, was different. It would not be like the other times when she would come back later and we would patch things up and start it all over again. Something had changed. Something that I still can’t put my finger on.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I felt everything begin to fall apart. A moment when all the color was washed out of the forests and the sky over the mountains was no longer as blue as it had once been.
“I don’t need to be lectured by you.”
The rest was just a matter of waiting. Five months of time and space. Desperation. Maintaining. She had important matters to take care of that eclipsed my understanding. But every day, I felt her drift further away. And then…nothing.
It is the pain of an old wound sometimes that brings the tide in close. For me a year ago I shared a perfect day with her. I was Hylas and she was a water nymph. It was a new beginning. A few days ago (Saturday) I took a road trip by myself to Glenwood Springs and was reminded of another perfect day with her. A hike up to Doc Holliday’s grave. Singing with Whitesnake and Damn Yankees on the road to Ouray.
The drive home on Saturday night was snowy, just like the evening of one of our perfect reunions. But this time there was no phone call on the road as the snow fell. It was just me. At some point you realize they aren’t coming back.
All those times before when a reconciliation meant the chance for a new happy ending. The music swells. The couple kisses. The father and son embrace. The little girl buries her teary face into her daddy’s shoulder. Roll credits.
That is only the movies.
Just like a death, you are left with empty rooms and boxes of memories. All this space. What do you do with all of this space? Do you fill it up with something else or do you just close the doors on it leaving it cold and dark. No prayers, pleas, deals, or invocation of dark forces will bring them back. You are left with a hole inside of yourself.
Sometimes anger fills that void. Regret. Foolishness. You try to fill it with God. Exercise. Alcohol. Attention. But these are all just distractions. There is a voice in your ear telling you to open your eyes and look. Open your heart and feel the pain rushing in and out of you with every breath. The good and bad coursing through your veins.
You can’t run away from it. Not for long at least.
For the Woman: Every time you see a car that looks like theirs (I counted seventeen on the way to Glenwood and back). The places you had been. A turn of phrase someone used. Perfect posture and silent belly laughs. Any one of a hundred songs on your playlists that were your song. The flashes of memory you get out of nowhere, that just about knock you over. Brown eyes staring back into yours.
For the Daughter: A shock of floofy blonde hair and round sunglasses. Owls. Converse sneakers. Rowdy teenagers laughing at inappropriate things. Internet memes. Olives. The Outsiders, and “An illustrator’s work is never done.”
The Son: YouTube videos playing in the background at all times, interesting facts, books that took ALL of his attention. Video games. Awkward hugs. The Man Who Sold the World and the Starman waiting in the sky. Memories of him are darker now, like the image in an old mirror.
But there are the things you don’t miss and it all comes together, swirling like a maelstrom. Like wondering where they are at 2am on New Years Eve and why they aren’t with you. Fighting for their time. Processing. The chase. The coldness. Dry toothbrushes in the bathroom. The secrets. Wondering why out of all the people in their life, you were the only one who didn’t make the cut. Trying harder. The endless whining about teenagery things. The Red Flags. The coldness. Driving across town to appointment after appointment. The letters to end our association, signed, sealed and then torn up and thrown away. Social justice politics and being told the ways of the world by a fifteen year old. The lies. The messy rooms that smell like bologna. The goodbyes and final farewell kisses. Always having to try harder and never getting it right. The coldness.
You want to pretend you are better off without all that.
This is also my story to tell. My curse as a writer is to take the thoughts in my brain and commit them to print. Some people draw pictures. Others run. But this is the only way I know that works to put things in boxes so they can be shut away in cold, dark rooms of my heart. It is the way of grief. You never really get rid of it. You just stop going into those rooms as often.
I have no one to bear witness to my life, except the empty page, eager to take it all in. It says, “Let’s begin now.” And with that, the waters recede just a little more.