“Were you two close?”
I’ve asked this when friends have experienced a loss, but I never realized it was a loaded gun until now. If you answer, “yes,” well okay, you’re allowed to grieve. People encourage it even. When the answer is “not really,” this well-meaning inquiry becomes a quick way of dismissing someone’s grief. But you can’t gauge a person’s grief by their answer to this question without short-changing them and their experience.
When you have young kids the pressure to dismiss your own grief feels like it’s hitting you from every direction. Small children don’t understand death in a meaningful way, and that coupled with their innate selfishness means that you can’t just flop down on your bed and cry when you get that heart-shattering phone call. Your three-year-old may want to know why you’re crying, but he also really wants a snack. You could tell him that your twenty-five-year-old cousin was just hit by a car, and exhaust yourself trying to explain death to a three-year-old while simultaneously grappling with horror and shock…. or you can just hand him a snack and get back to crying.
One definition of grief is ‘heartsick.’ But moms don’t get the luxury of resting when they are sick — heartsick or otherwise. Your kindergartener doesn’t say, “go rest. I’ll put the kettle on.” (Partly because he’s not British, but mostly because he is five.) Your preschooler isn’t offering to pick up the house when it starts to look like a landfill. Kids still need dinner and the babies still need diaper changes no matter how heavy your heart is. When you’re heartsick the symptoms come and go. You feel fine until someone suggests swimming and your heart gets sick remembering every summer of your childhood spent in your aunt’s pool which seemed so massive when you were little. There were barbecues and games of manhunt with all of your cousins. All. But then you’re okay again. Until you see your brother. He’s the same exact age as Will was, and your heart gets sick to imagine losing him in the same way. You’re not sure how people can process that kind of grief… and then your heart gets sicker because you know that’s exactly what your other cousins are trying to do every. single. day. And you can’t even imagine what your aunt is going through right now. But then someone asks you for a snack. Always with the snacks. My gosh, why do kids require so many snacks?
It hasn’t been that long since my cousin Will was taken from us, yet I feel like I should be over it. I’m not his sister, his mom, or even his best friend. When people ask, “were you two close?” I’m not sure how to answer. Growing up we spent almost every holiday together. But I didn’t have his phone number. So… no? I guess not? Does that matter? A blogger named Jamie Anderson wrote a now internet famous quote a few years ago, “Grief, I’ve learned, is really love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot…All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes and in that part of your chest that gets empty and hollow feeling…Grief is just love with no place to go.” This quote rings true for many of us. The way we grieve is not a measure of our ‘closeness.’ It’s a measure of our love. Just all of our love…that has no place to go….
In loving memory of Will Brady 1993-2018