A retrospective on grief
A classmate from med school messaged me recently that her father had been diagnosed with gastrointestinal tract cancer. This is the same girl I had envied for being able to go on jogs and trips with her mother, when mine had been sick for my whole life, and was now dead. Two weeks later another friend sent me a message about her own mother, diagnosed with metastatic, likely inoperable, breast cancer. I had no advice to give that was of any help, except for things they knew already: Cherish each day, say all that you need to say.
It’s not like I’m an expert on grief or its anticipation. There are no clinical practice guidelines. It’s almost two years since my mother died in the hospital. My grief was explosive and unnervingly public. I’d had no experience with grief and to my own surprise found solace in sharing online, whether because writing about her was a creative outlet or because the comments I received as a result assured me that I wasn’t alone in mourning her. Now the grief is past its sell-by date, and has faded into the background of work and life, forgotten by all but me.
It’s entirely possible to be emotional and ritualistic about all the wrong things. I always thought that I would be romantically rigid and faithful in grief, like the people who visit their beloved’s grave every day. It turns out I don’t have that discipline, nor did grief equip me with it. I couldn’t even manage to visit her grave monthly, and it wasn’t the distance only but a laziness, a preference for comfort, plus a lack of feeling when standing at the site; it bore her name but she wasn’t there, just the bones of someone that had loved me for three decades. But she used to have a flash drive specifically for watching movies, and she had a standard set that she watched on rotation. I haven’t been able to watch a single one of those movies since she left, afraid that I would break down in the middle of “You’ve Got Mail” and “The Cutting Edge.” I haven’t been able to throw away the bowl of instant ramyun she made on the night before her stroke. I hoard, and am unable to throw away, the empty bottles of the last toiletries she bought—the last conditioner, the last bottle of Cetaphil cleanser, the last contact lens solution. Everything about my dealing with her grief has been selfish, maneuvered around the avoidance of pain. Nothing about it is romantic or honorable.
Most importantly, I wasn’t prepared for how the experience of grief was so unwaveringly solitary. Many had loved her, too, but the memories that mattered the most were private, known only to me and to someone who is no longer alive. Maybe as a millennial I wasn’t prepared to experience something so alone. I can take an Instagram of every meal and share unpopular opinions as tweets, but there’s no good way to share that I have thought about death as the bridge I have to cross to meet her again, and would there be any way of making the journey quicker. You can only talk about death so much.
I thought that death would make me stronger and harder—that, having faced the worst, I could now endure daily anxieties and fears with equanimity. I was wrong, and if anything I am weaker and more spineless now than I was before, more prone to anger and bouts of moody distance. The one thing I may say I have learned from grief is that it is survivable, but just barely. The temptation to follow is ever present, reined in by the weight of responsibilities and by a hair’s breadth of self-control.
Grief makes you prone to navel-gazing, but also makes you more able to understand the loss of other people. You are not necessarily kinder or more sympathetic, but loss makes you part of an odd club into which no one wants entrance, like the people who can see Thestrals. The girl I had envied for her parents’ health now faces a longer battle than mine. Everyone who hasn’t known loss will soon know it, and in that there’s a grim kind of solidarity with the rest of humanity. And maybe therein lies my one piece of advice: To those who haven’t known it, to cherish; and to those who have, not to envy.
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