Today is the anniversary of my mother’s passing. It’s been 27 years since an overcorrection on a desolate highway in southern Wyoming left me alone, upside-down in a 1981 Honda Prelude, still too young to grasp the irony that life could come to an end in a car named after beginnings.
Everybody is mourning somebody. Everyone has to process grief. When it comes to my mother, I was old enough to remember what happened, but too young to comprehend it. My grieving has come in short bursts over the course of my adolescence and adult life, as if to make up for a process I wasn’t ready to emotionally participate in as a child.
I’ve always wondered why I even need to grieve. I didn’t know her well. Of course I wish I had gotten the chance to grow up in her care, but dwelling on that fact seems to draw forth self-pity and regret rather than grief. True grief comes and goes as it pleases. Sometimes it comes at a logically appropriate moment, like on an anniversary or when empathizing with another’s loss, and sometimes grief visits when you pull letters out of a Scrabble bag that match the initials of the departed. You never know.
In November of 2012 I read an interview comedian Stephen Colbert did with Eric Spitznagel of Playboy (Online, not in the magazine. You can click the link and read it without seeing naked ladies, I promise). Stephen Colbert lost his father and two of his older brothers in a plane crash when he was very young. When asked about how and when he grieves, Colbert gave an answer that brought the whole idea and role of grief into a sharp focus for me.
Playboy: It’s been almost four decades since it happened. Does the grief dissipate?
Colbert: No. It’s not as keen. Well, it’s not as present, how about that? It’s just as keen but not as present. But it will always accept the invitation. Grief will always accept the invitation to appear. It’s got plenty of time for you.
Playboy: “I’ll be here.”
Colbert: That’s right. “I’ll be here when you need me.” The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase He was visited by grief, because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.
Grief is a visitor.
It comes and goes as it pleases, but always accepts an invitation.
Last night just after my wife had gone off to bed, and as I was getting ready to turn in as well, I noticed the clock change from 11:59pm to 12:00am. June 14th. She’s been gone 27 years.
Grief was at the door. I answered.
I sat on the living room floor for a couple of hours, doing all the strange, illogical things that it felt like grief demanded. I thumbed through old photographs, stopping to carefully study a picture of the car we spent our last moments together in- like I might be able to discover some deformity or defect that might explain what happened. I read a letter that a priest at the University of Wyoming’s Catholic Newman Center had sent to console my grandparents. I wrote back. I threw that letter in the trash when I realized how strange that was. I looked up her gravesite on Google Earth. I read a poem she used to fold up and carry around called “Could You Just Listen?” I laughed when I got to the part that said “Irrational feelings make sense when we understand what’s behind them.” It shed some light on why I had just attempted to reply to a letter that was 27 years old. When I finally laid my head on my pillow, grief was still camped out in my living room.
As I drifted into an uncomfortable sleep, I thought about how frequent the visits have been lately. I lost a cousin last year. Add that to the ever growing list of Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, friends, and family of friends that we all acquire as we get older. Each requires its own process. I thought about how my dad lost his father at a young age, and wondered if he goes through the same thing. I thought about my friends who have lost someone near to them and wondered if they have the same strange triggers that cause grief to show up unannounced. Then, I slept.
When I woke up this morning, I was ready to deal with grief and however it chose to present itself, but to my surprise (and relief), it was gone.
Until next time, whether it be tomorrow, a month from now, or as I edit what I have just written, I will stay ready for grief to appear and be dealt with, just as I will stay ready for it to leave me alone to experience all of the joy and peace this life has offered me in grief’s absence.