Grief: A Case Study

Day 1: After I get off the phone, two parts of me diverge in some way. One part sees clearly, even identifies the things it predicts will cause me regret and anguish, remembers to pack an extra skirt in black in case my little sister doesn’t have one, starts planning for how best to take care of my family. The path seems laid out before me: “These are the steps to grief,” this version of me says. “They will be hard but once you take them you will be okay.” I buy tickets to Austin, and make a to-do list: Email your rotation coordinator. Arrange for someone to take care of the cats. Pack the shirt Dad gave you for Christmas, the last time you saw him (will ever see him).

But the other part of me slips herself in, always unexpectedly, at least every half an hour, and cries until my eyes are sore. (Samuel Beckett's words enter my thoughts: I can’t go on, I’ll go on.)

Day 2: On the way to picking up my little brother at the airport I talk to my husband about platitudes in grief. I had always wondered whether my metaphysical agnosticism would collapse in the face of irrevocable loss, but here it is staunch, and chafing at statements that plaster meaning over tragedy, that try to say that this thing that happened wasn’t entirely, completely, wholly wrong. Anger prickles at the back of my throat.

Every time I sob it launches me into a coughing fit. Lumberjack starts to store cough drops in his pocket.

Day 3: The rage is overwhelming, and I don’t know where it’s coming from, shifting in and out from hour to hour. I’m mad at everyone. I’m worried they won’t honor him well enough. I become possessive of my grief, thinking there must be some right way to do it so that I can rectify the anguish I feel for not telling my Dad a million times more often how much I loved him while he was still here to hear it.

I snap at my sister, then Lumberjack, and then I hide away, hating myself. In my Dad’s office I scan in dozens of pictures of him, and tears slip out of my eyes for hours straight. I’m careful not to let them touch the pictures. I suck on cough drops for dinner.

Day 4: In the morning in my Dad’s office I experience a meta-mourning, because the path I thought I saw forward is obliterated, and it hurts that I’ve lost the grief I thought I’d have. I tell Lumberjack I expected to be good at this. I apologize over and over that my grief makes me ugly and mean. He holds me but I can’t see a way out anymore. It hurts to breathe. (I can’t go on.)

Day 5: (I’ll go on.) At the visitation my mother sobs while she says, “It’s not really him. He’s not here anymore.” When I see him the same tears I’ve cried all this week come, but I’m mad at the edema that made his hands not his, at the funeral home that made his face not his, at my medical education that reminds me his ribs and sternum are broken, his heart beaten: not his. It truly isn’t him. I thought seeing him would help me believe he was gone, so that I’d be spared over and over the stab of re-remembering.

I stand in front of everyone and say imperfect words about my father that are wrenching. When I’m almost through I let myself look up and see that everyone is crying. I feel some of the anger leak away. And I let myself hope that my dad really is somewhere where he can hear how much I miss him, how I feel the space of his magnitude.

Day 6: I watch my brothers, my father’s sons, carry his casket. I had dreamt that he was here, for us to tell him all the plans for the service. In the waking life I re-remember again. My brothers all cry. Lumberjack hands me a cough drop. There’s a twinge at my side as I watch two sailors fold a flag meticulously.

All of my father’s beautiful, huge family together makes me feel he’d be proud, but in the evening it starts to peel off again, into cars and planes. The twinge deepens.

Day 7: I step on a scale and realize I’ve lost ten pounds. “Consolation prize,” I think to myself before I realize I’m wasting away with nothing else to think about besides grief. I slip into a familiar place where sadness doesn’t show in my face, and eat enough pizza for dinner.

Day 8: I wake up at 6am to the pain in my side stabbing now, localized and tender to palpation. My medical knowledge says I’ve coughed so hard I fractured a rib. Still I wonder if it’s my grief transmuted.

But I rate the pain at a 7 or 8 out of 10 and I know that’s certainly not enough.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.