Over a three month period in 1981, when I was seventeen, I attended three funerals on my mother’s side of the family. This was my introduction to grief.
We didn’t talk about grief. There were tears at the funerals, but not many before them and none that I can remember after. Communal tears, that is. One of the funerals was for my beloved grandpa, and I cried for months over that loss, but always privately.
Maybe it was my family’s ways, or maybe it was the time; Kubler-Ross’s Death and Dying had been published only 12 years earlier, and I think we didn’t have the same understanding then that we do now about grief. More and more, I understand that seminal events in my life happened a significant amount of time ago–long enough to be part of an earlier era, an time qualitatively different from the one we’re all now in. Living with a young adult will do that to you.
On the morning my daughter leaves for her new life on a different continent, I see a garbage bag on the floor of her room, next to items that look like they could be trash. “Oh,” I say, “is that stuff to throw out?”
“No,” she says. “Those are my protest supplies.” And then I really see the items: gloves, safety goggles, duct tape, a water bottle. When I was 22, I didn’t know what to do in the event of getting tear-gassed, but she does. I attended my first protest at 25, and it felt more like a parade than a meaningful political action; I wondered what the point was. Times have changed.
I also didn’t really know how to grieve, despite my three funerals at seventeen. Maybe that is why, this past year, I have been grieving all the losses from that year until now. Deaths, but also other kinds of loss, too. Loss of geography, loss of dreams, loss of beauty and agility, loss of relationships and hopes and beliefs and faith. Loss of ways of living. Living through late middle age in the midst of myriad forms of breakdown will do that to you.
I have been crying for weeks, tears coming over everything and nothing, beyond my ability to control. As a child, I could always control my tears, and I almost never let anyone see me cry. I didn’t cry often, and I took some pride in that. I remember being both mystified and somewhat scornful at my mother’s softness, so near the surface that she cried at such things as the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I remember looking over at her when the fictional news team huddled together and sobbed, only to see tears rolling down her face. I poked fun at her for that. “But it’s so sad!” she said.
Yesterday, after writing the previous paragraph, I watched that episode again, and, like my mother before me, I cried. At twelve, I’d had no context for the loss landing on Mary, Lou, and Murray. Now, I do.
Even at seventeen, I didn’t really understand what I was losing, what had been lost, though I sensed something of it. The day after the fourth funeral, I sat in my English class and listened to my teacher talk about asteroids that could hit the earth and end all of life as we know it.
“If that’s the case,” I said, “what does anything that we do matter?” I felt so weary, so numb. Even my resilient family had struggled to get through a third funeral, and I couldn’t stop seeing the faces of my cousins who had lost their 40something dad to a heart attack.
The teacher made a comment about me being a fatalist and shifted the discussion. I don’t remember how or what he talked about next because I started to shake, and then I couldn’t stop, and then tears started, and I was mortified and frozen and didn’t know what to do or how to get out of the unthinkable situation I was in.
“Can you take her somewhere?” I heard him ask my best friend, and she led me to the hallway and we sat there for the rest of class, until my body slowly calmed, until the bell rang and I could return and get my books without having to have everyone stare at me. I wiped my eyes before retrieving them, and then I went to my next class. None of us–my friend, my teacher, any of my classmates, or me–ever talked about what happened.
On my daughter’s last morning at home, we talk about what love is, what it means to love someone. It’s a topic we’ve visited more than once since she came back to me in May. I have tried to explain, and to understand myself, why I love the people I do, and what love means to me, and why I want them in my life, close to me–even if we have differences, even if they have at times hurt me. Not so long ago, confronting my history with romantic love, I wondered in a therapist’s office if I might be incapable of love, if I even know what love is.
“Are there people in your life that you will always care for, no matter what they do?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I answered, without hesitation, a list of those people filling my head. “Then you know how to love,” he said. “You know what it is.”
From the moment I picked my daughter up at the airport in May, I knew that whatever we were going to have in our time together would be impermanent. The plan was never for her to stay. In my social media feeds I see friends with young adult children who have not moved away. They live nearby, and their parents regularly post photos with their children and grandchildren doing all the kinds of mundane things I long to do with my children in the day-to-day of life: Attending games and performances, picking out pumpkins, eating dinners, celebrating birthdays. I am so envious of these friends, who have what I, because of my own choices, haven’t had with my parents, and what I am now not likely to get with my daughter, because of hers.
I know all about the relationship between suffering and attachment. Maybe in my next life I will learn how to love without attachment, but I don’t know if I can in this one. I don’t know if I really want to.
There were so many gifts in these months we got, this unexpected time. Perhaps the biggest one was an opportunity to learn again, more deeply, that everything is impermanent. When I cried at the thought of her impending departure–which I did, frequently, almost from the time she arrived–I wasn’t mourning just the loss of the alternate life I dream of in which we live closer together, but also of all the lives we’ve already had and no longer do. I have grieved over not just an anticipated loss of the young woman she is, but also the earlier passing of all the girls she once was: the baby who laughed with delight when she discovered her feet, the toddler who worked and worked at learning how to dribble a ball, the child whose favorite color was rainbow, the teenager who mapped her future in color-coded spreadsheets. They are all gone, along with the lives we lived when they were here. To the list of Graces now gone I can add another: the young adult who worked remotely from the back bedroom during the pandemic, and sipped cocktails with me on warm summer nights, and woke up early for long zoom dates with her boyfriend in a time zone 9 hours different from ours, and argued with me about communism and policing and relationships, and cradled her old, dying dog with a tenderness I hope she might someday extend to me, if a time comes when I have difficulty finding my feet or knowing where I am. She is gone now, or going, and I will never have her–the person she’s been these past months–back.
After the summer of 1981, my family was never quite the same again. How could we have been? That pow-pow-pow of grief changed all of us. I didn’t understand that then, the way I do now. I thought I was only missing the people who no longer sat at our holiday tables. I didn’t know that I was also losing an earlier version of all who remained, and of the family we’d once been. Many of my tears this summer have been for that earlier family, which exists now only in memory. I miss us so much.
I’ve been learning that grieving can be a long time coming. Or maybe that it’s a thing that’s never really done.
I have a recurring dream in which I’ve lost a season. It’s usually a spring dream, and–somehow, impossibly–it’s the end of summer. But, wait, I’ll think in the dream. It can’t be time to go back to school. Where did the summer go? I’ll think of all the things I wanted and didn’t get to do, and I feel panicky and cheated. Then I’ll realize I’m dreaming, and that I have not, in fact, lost the summer, and relief washes over me. One day in Grace’s last week here, I got disoriented about where I was in time, the way I do in the dream. For a moment, I lost what season we are in. Something made me feel like it was still summer, and I had to tell myself: No, it’s October. It’s not summer any more. But then it felt like it couldn’t be October, because I hadn’t really had summer, just like in the dream.
I understand my confusion. The whole summer felt like a bubble in which we were all suspended in some time out of time. Having my daughter back in the ways I did, after having earlier let her go, while we both prepared ourselves for what’s coming next, felt like simultaneously living in the past, present, and future. Where were we in time? Who were we? Everywhere and nowhere. Everyone we’ve ever been and no one we’ve ever been and everyone we’ll someday be.
The day she left was unseasonably warm. After returning from the airport, I pulled spent tomato plants from their box and filled the compost bin with cedar branches Cane had trimmed from the tree that overhangs my shed, sweating in the sun. That evening, I sat on a front porch with friends and we talked how we might continue to safely meet when the nights turn cold. It felt like a summer night.
But, the next morning I woke to rain and dark skies. The patio furniture was soaked when I put the dogs out to pee, and they stepped gingerly on the wet pavement. The power flickered off and then on again, while I worked on these words, and just like that, the season had undeniably changed.
I hated to let it go. I knew I had no choice.