Dealing with the loss of a loved one is difficult and everyone handles it differently. Some people internalize it, afraid, unwilling, or just unable to show any emotion. Others reach out to friends and family for support, wearing their grief like a banner for everyone to see.
Still others fall between these two extremes. They may reach out eventually, but not right away. They may hold their emotions in check for days, months, possibly even years, afraid to let go. Afraid that if they grieve or mourn, the memories of their loved one will start to fade, leaving behind nothing but the pain of their loss.
Yes, memories fade over time. It becomes harder to recall the sound of their voice greeting you, the peal of laughter after a story or joke, the warmth of a hug, distinctive footsteps walking through the door every night.
Still other memories stay with you, sometimes creating anniversaries that remind you every year that someone is missing. Or there are the habits that remind you, sometimes harshly, that someone is gone.
A close friend’s grandmother passed away recently. She was one of her grandmother’s main care providers and had developed routines and habits over the years. When a heat advisory was posted shortly after her grandmother’s death, her first thought was: “I need to go check on Grandma.” It took a moment for her to remember that she didn’t have that responsibility any more.
I had a similar experience earlier this month. While at my grandma’s house, I kept waiting for my little brother to walk through the door. He never did. He never will again. Last April, he was killed in a car accident.
He was only 28, and left behind four little girls. The youngest was only nine months old.
As my cousin, H, prepared a birthday cake for her mom, I couldn’t help but think how wrong it was that only one name would be on it this year, and every year from here on out. Her birthday is just three days after my brother’s, and in our family, we did monthly birthday cakes with everyone’s names on it. We had to, or we would be eating birthday cake all the time.
That cake, nothing more than flour, eggs, sugar, and butter, set off emotions in me that I thought had been resolved. Perhaps they were close to the surface, because I was about to leave my family to return to Iowa. Perhaps they were spurred on by the extra hormones pregnancy has flooded my body with. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was too much.
Everything from the past year came bubbling up to the surface, boiling over in an uncontrollable torrent of anger, frustration, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of how unfair life was.
As I stood there in my mother’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably, I was comforted by her calm strength. I had lost a sibling, but she had lost a child. I still don’t know how she has been so strong through this. How she copes, alone in her apartment, my brother’s ashes in a plastic box sitting on her bookshelf. Maybe she’s just a stronger person than I am. Maybe she already had this moment with her own mother months ago, getting it out of her system before it had a chance to boil over. It’s something that I will likely never fully understand.
I hope that I don’t have to.