Thoughts on Death & Grief

There are certain times of the year that are hard for me and this is one of those times. This week marks the 9th anniversary of my father’s death.

Death is not an easy subject for most of us. We don’t like to talk or think about it. When we have to speak of it, we use “soft” words and phrases, like the person passed. And we certainly don’t like to be reminded of it. We tend to shrug it off as if death, and the resulting grief, are something we can just do and move on.

Death and grief are inevitable in this life. The one experience that we will all share.

It’s rather ironic when you think about it. We don’t mind death . . . when fictionalized. Novels have explored our relationship with death (The Book Thief, Big Fish, The Graveyard Book). Popular television shows use death in storytelling (NCIS, Dexter, The Walking Dead). Death has even been personified throughout history and mythology.

We try to make sense of it. We study it. We research it. We try to find ways to prevent it. Whether the need to make sense of a life lost, fear of the unknown, curiosity about an afterlife, existentialism, or other reasons, we try to conquer death.

And yet, death will still come.

Sometimes death strikes when least expected. Sometimes it comes after a long prelude. Sometimes death is tragic, violent. Sometimes it’s a quiet last breath. Whatever the way death comes, those of us left behind end up with a hole in our hearts, grieving for the person that died.

Grief is a strange beast.

We’re taught that grief has stages. This makes it sound like once you’ve progressed through each of the stages, then life goes merrily on—go through the stages, come out the other side, & move along.

To me, grief is a more like a beast stalking its prey. Sometimes the beast lurks in the shadows, watching, waiting. And you only get the sense that something’s not right. Other times, the beast pounces, clawing at your heart. And you can’t breathe for the pain.

And anyone who’s ever lost someone knows that grief does not have a linear or predictable path. Sure, you may go through the so-called “stages.” But maybe not all of them. Maybe not in the (allegedly) correct order.

In my experience, I definitely hit denial, anger, and depression. But my experience was circular, not linear. I’d be in denial, then get angry. I’d be depressed, then get angry. I’d be in denial, then get depressed. And that circle often became a spiral.

No two people will have the same experience grieving.

There’s also no time frame of how long grief will last. I say that when someone you love dies, you never stop grieving. You will miss that person until the end of your days.

I won’t say it gets easier, but the grief mostly eases. It won’t sit like a boulder on your heart, reminding you every second that it’s there crushing you. It becomes more like a small stone you always carry along in a pocket of your heart.

from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

I still think about my dad nearly every day. Some days I wish I could pick up the phone and call him to tell him about some small thing. Some days I think how he’d get a kick out of something I saw or did. And then other days I still collapse with the weight of the grief.

Even after nearly a decade, it isn’t easy for me to talk about my dad without tears pooling.

But it’s important to have these conversations. It’s important to let people know that it hurts. That it will always hurt. And that the best thing they can do is simply be there. Because this is one experience that we will all face, no matter how individual the grief process is.

So always smile at strangers, rude people, people who look a bit lost. Because you never know whether that person might be in the midst of grief.

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