I might have looked normal if you gazed in and watched as I sipped my morning coffee and worked on a tiny watercolor of a marigold yesterday morning. I might have looked normal when I went outside in my bare feet to cut some green branches and gather some dry sticks to make arrangements for my living room. I might have looked normal if you saw me in the grocery store later that afternoon, or sat at my dinner table as we laughed and told stories. I might have looked normal if you listened to me sit and talk about life and creativity with my kids or watched as I played on the floor with my granddaughter.
I might look normal.
I am not.
Grief is most often invisible and deeply internal.
Grief lives in the heart.
I write to shine light on what is invisible so that no one grieving feels alone, and so that those who walk nearby a grieving soul know how to see what is invisible if you choose to look.
I often wished during the first weeks, even months, of loss that I could just wear a t-shirt that said, “My son died. Be kind.” I suppose that wish to be known and protected is common to humanity, reflected in the practice of wearing black that has gradually faded from tradition. I even thought once when I saw a sign in the back of a car that said, Student Driver, “Hey, I need one of those that says Grieving Mother.” I’m sure I’ve been the source of road rage many times this past year. The other driver yelling outside of my hearing, “What the hell are you thinking, woman?” And my quiet, (and sometimes not so quite) unheard response, “My son. He died. I’m sorry I messed up your day.”
There is a cry deep in the heart to be understood.
As I walk through Target, part of me wants to say things like, “Being in public is hard. Do you have any idea that it is taking everything inside of me to keep breathing, focus on this list, and get the groceries in my cart. Please be kind. I just want to get out of here.”
You know how filmmakers have the ability to shift the perspective of the story to show things from a character’s point of view, information we wouldn’t have unless we were that individual? The music shifts, the images change, the sounds are unique to what is being heard by that character. We hear their thoughts. We are allowed to see inside someone’s head and heart for a moment.
If you saw me yesterday what you didn’t see was the constant dialogue that took place in my head to keep me connected to life and family and happiness. It’s not natural. It’s not easy. It doesn’t just happen. I have to choose it. I have to talk myself into connection sometimes. And it is plain hard work.
We drove home yesterday after running some last minute errands for dinner, we were on a time constraint and I felt a little off. I’d been doing well all day, but something was shifting. Stepping into this new place of finding happiness and choosing to live in the midst of carrying deep grief is a big shift for me.
I suddenly felt panic coming on, a swirl of anxiety was swooshing around me. If you were watching my movie, the noises around me were all magnified. From Aiden’s little boy noises, to the girls chattering in the back seat, the music on the radio, the sound of the tires on the highway, the rumble of the van engine- it was all magnified in my head. And I was trapped. I started to focus on breathing. I started trying to talk myself down or at least through.
Anxiety creeps in often, and if I’m home, I just go find a quiet place for a few minutes. I can normally work through it and diffuse it, or even have a quiet cry and sit in the feelings for awhile.
But I was in a van. I couldn’t get out. I plugged my ears and tried to silence the noise. Strangely enough if you plug your ears in a van on the highway, the only things silenced are the white noise of the engine and the sound of the tires on the road. Who knew? The other noises, when I plugged my ears, were all amplified. Not exactly what I was trying to accomplish. My brain felt like it was made up of frayed wires.
We turned into our neighborhood and my internal dialogue continued, “You’re almost home. You can do it. Breathe.”
We unloaded groceries and I passed them off to Amy who was already planning to make dinner, thank God. I offered to help, and whispered a quiet, “Thank you,” when she said she had it under control.
And then I ran. I ran to my quiet place.
It was too late for breathing through it. I dropped on the bathroom floor and sobbed my eyes out. Deep crushing sobs, the weight as heavy and real as the day my son died. Snotty mess, choking on tears, heart pain. And John found me there a few minutes later. He wrapped his arms around me, gathered me up with kind words, put me in my bed, covered me with the quilt made of my son’s clothing, and nestled the green monkey dressed in Mattie’s jammies under my chin.
I won’t tell you the thoughts and images, the collage of pain that swirled through my movie. You would have wanted to change the channel if you were watching.
When invisible grief decides it must be seen, it’s messy and ugly.
John laid next to me for a while, then checked on the rest of the family, at my request. Aiden came in and stroked my foot. Isabelle and Millie tip-toed in and kissed my forehead.
And then, I had to choose. I could have checked out for the evening. Everyone would have understood. No one would have judged me. As a matter of fact, they would have all done everything that needed to be done, so that I could have rested.
But I chose to rise and be part of the life around me, even when it was hard. Hard as hell, let me tell you.
Sometimes grief looks like having a good ugly cry, picking myself up off the floor, washing my face, throwing on some makeup, and standing tall.
And when the evening was over, I had loved well and been loved well. And I collapsed from the hard work of grief and love.