The Clouds of Grief

Dear Zach,

This is not as much for you as for anyone else reading today finding themselves struggling with grief, but this is something I desperately wish I was mulling over and discussing with you! While flying home from Canada today, I found myself even more mesmerized with the clouds than I usually am. There was nothing particularly enchanting about them, nothing exceptionally beautiful about these dreary grey clouds, but my eyes were glued to the window. Really the whole idea of flying and how it compares to grief was on my mind, but especially the clouds.

I realized that flying through the clouds is much like grief. I despise, DESPISE, the five stages of grief concept that people preach about (something those who know me well know I have wanted to write about since day one) because there is no linear track through grief like a subway where you can get on at one stop and take a straight shot to the last stop (something I have already written about). All that to say….. the clouds spoke to me about grief today in a way I had never thought about.

Bear with me as I may seem longwinded, but there has been a lot pondered during this hour layover and it has become heavy on my heart to share. But I do apologize for what is apparently my longest post ever!!!

I know there are so many people out there who think they are grieving wrong because they are doing it differently than how other people are. Society has a much different view of grief and I know I thought I had gone stark raving mad…. that no one had ever felt this way and that I was so wrong to feel this way. So this is me trying to use my own grief to appeal to all the people out there who think what they are feeling is wrong. Spoiler alert – it is not wrong. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you what it is or how you should grieve. images (2) When we get on the airplane, we have a destination in mind. We know where we need to go, but we surrender all control to higher powers – – – the pilot, the weather, good luck, God… what have you. No one can control the timeframe so you have to sit back and let it happen. You will get there when you get there.

GRIEF: once forced upon a journey of grief, you are forced to surrender control. We who grieve know where we should be or need to be (a healthy, functioning, not devastated place), but it may not be our choice when we arrive there. I believe grief is a process experienced by everyone differently and some may heal faster than others, but everyone will grieve in their own way. We have to feel what we are meant to feel and no one can impose a time schedule. The whole “one year to grieve” misconception makes me so frustrated because those are the people who do not understand loss and that maybe you do not heal in a year. It isn’t their place to tell you how long you need to recover from your loss and to go through the grieving process. Go ahead… I give you permission. Grieve as long as you need to until you get to a place of healing. images (3) During takeoff you can feel yourself slide back in the seat slightly as you hurtle at high speeds towards things you cannot see. Still powerless, simply accepting the path. You can feel it coming as the pilot accelerates down the runway, but you never know exactly when he will takeoff and leave solid ground behind.

GRIEF: when I say a “wave of grief”, I am sure many of you know what I mean and have experienced this yourself. A wave of grief can often come out of nowhere and blindside you knocking you off your feet, but sometimes you can see it coming in distance. You know it is coming, you don’t know when and you don’t know what it will entail, but the emotions are building and all you can do is blindly prepare. You hold on. You pray it will not last forever and you accept the powerless feeling until it passes and you can regain control. You get your footing, balance yourself back out, and go back to putting one foot in front of the other. You know another one will come one day, but you go on because you have to. images (5) Then you find yourself lost in the clouds, surrounded by immense amounts of white; sometimes light and fluffy, other times thick and heavy with rain. There is no visual end in sight and the clouds can seem to go on forever. You don’t know what lies on the other side and you may have to cross your fingers or clutch the armrest with a death grip or say a prayer or take a breath to trust that catastrophe isn’t on the other side.

GRIEF: finding yourself lost in a thick cloud of grief can be extremely disorienting. You may find yourself surrounded by feelings and thoughts you have never had before causing you not to recognize who or what you are. Grief can cause you to question everything and it may scare you. It becomes easy to lose your bearings and to become lost in the vastness of your grief because there is no end in sight. You become blinded to everything else other than the crushing emotions surrounding you. A thick cloud of grief that is especially heavy upon you can cause you to doubt what lies beyond it and can make you feel like it will last forever. You have to trust that it will pass and that you will come out unscathed on the other side. You will still grieve for who you have lost, but nothing compared to being lost in a crushing blinding grief cloud. untitled (2) During your time in the clouds, turbulence may rock you, jolt you, maybe frighten you. For a less-seasoned traveler or for one who is afraid of flying, this can feel like the end of the world and make you fear the worst. It feels like the bottom is dropping out as your heart jumps into your throat and the panicked thought of, “This CAN’T be right! The plane is going down!’ may cross your mind. It shakes you around, but leaves you unharmed just as quickly as it came.

GRIEF: going through grief is not an easy process and there will be days that completely rock you and shake you up. It can feel like the end, that the worst has happened, and that there is nothing else for you to do. Grief can cause you to question how so much wrong could have happened and how unfair it is. It can make you feel like the bottom is dropping out and you are freefalling through life, flailing to grasp onto anything that can bring you back to reality. The turbulent effect of grief can make an average day feel like you have gone to battle or ran a marathon because you are left feeling battered and broken. It can make you feel like giving up. But the turbulence in those thick clouds won’t last forever, you will come through it, and you will be left shaken, but ready to face another day. images (4) Eventually the airplane makes its way through and the clouds begin to dissipate and the vast whiteness gives way to glorious light. Regardless of the weather below on the surface, you can find yourself staring at an incredible landscape of gorgeous blue skies and glittering sunshine; you may feel like you are in another world. You may feel a sense of awe at this place and cause you to feel pity for the people thousands and thousands of feet below. It is a place only you are seeing and you are seeing it differently than everyone else on the plane with you.

GRIEF: perhaps grief is nothing like coming through the clouds to a beautiful place so that wasn’t a great explanation to start it off with, but grief will take you to place that you have never been and it is something unrecognizable that you may have never seen or experienced before. Living a life of grief is living a life in a totally foreign place. The house may be the same, you may still work at the same place, and your family may still celebrate things they did before; everything may be the exact same. The truth is that loss has changed your life and grief has tainted it. Things that were once comforting and usual to you may become unrecognizable, stressful, uncomfortable. You are now looking at a life that you did not have before and one that you were not expecting. Grieving is such an individual thing that no two people will experience it in the same way even if they have experienced the same loss. What you are looking at and experiencing may make you question why people aren’t feeling what you are or to ask why they aren’t feeling the impact of grief as much as you. Same as sitting on an airplane with a couple hundred people…. everyone will look out their window and see something different. Your grief is personal to you and no one can tell you that you are doing it wrong. imagesST16XUDK Then come the clouds again. Without warning, you are lost back in the whiteness. Blind to where you are going and searching your way through it, either back to the blue skies or down to the earth below. Giving up the idea of being able to see where you are going is something unnatural to humans, but lost in the clouds you have no choice. You can panic and not trust the process or you can sit back and accept what is happening.

GRIEF: days, months, or even years may pass, but one day grief may sneak up on you again because grief lives with you and becomes part of who you are. Most people learn to live with it and to live their lives as they did before, but I think they will always grieve for the person they lost even if not as deeply as during a time of fresh grief. There will always be part of you that misses them or thinks of them or mourns their loss, but the sense of overwhelming grief has passed. This is a concept that I have not reached yet with my grief for Zach and honestly it feels like an unattainable goal for me right now so I am probably not the best to write about this, but I do grieve for my father who passed away from cancer 18 years ago in this way. I still grieve for my dad. Most days I am fine. Months will go by and I go on day to day, but then there is that one day that sneaks up on me and a wave of grief will wash over me. I mourn for him still and grieve his loss and what he is missing, but that is just what will live with me and for anyone else who has lost someone that they love. I just have to accept it, even when I am unexpectedly plunged back into a feeling of grief, and not try to fight it. images3T0W74EO Finally you break through the clouds one last time and you eventually see land. Just a few more minutes and it will all be over so you can put your feet back on solid ground and regain some of your control. The ground gets closer, you may brace for impact, suck in another deep breath, but in the end you have left the clouds behind and are back to reality.

GRIEF: they tell me that one day this heavy weight of grief will pass and that the burden of Zach’s death will not weigh so heavily on me. I don’t know how it will happen, but just like an airplane making its last decent through the clouds and finishing its journey, I am told that one day it will end and this is my hope for all of us. They tell me that eventually it is supposed to pass and I will regain my footing in life so that day to day living does not feel like a desperate fight to survive. They tell me that eventually I will break through those thick clouds of grief and a less painful day will be in sight. They tell me that one day the darkness will pass, my sadness will lift, and my devastation will ease. Our realties will forever be changed because of what we have lost, but I am told that one day we will more so return to the people used to be. I don’t know when that day will be, but maybe there is hope for all who are grieving.

The Traditions We Try to Keep Up

Tradition is the illusion of permanence ~~ Woody Allen


When grieving for someone you love deeply, while mourning their loss, and as you attempt to adjust to life without them you have no choice but to go on.  You can fight it as much as you want, you can bury your head under the pillows and shut out the world, or you can even surrender to the depression that is consistently on the verge of swallowing you whole.  But life is there whether or not you choose to ignore it.  It is hard as hell and I wish I could stop it, but whether I like it or not life is going to continue on.  Inevitably that means as time comes and goes I am forced to stare anniversaries, holidays, and birthdays dead in the face.  And each one of them hurts, each one a more painful slap in the face than the last one.  But it isn’t just those significant days that are terrible.  It’s the traditions; the silly ones, the family ones, the romantic ones, the celebratory ones.  So what now?  What do I do with those traditions we shared?  This week several of those traditions have shown their ugly faces and its been hard.

This past weekend I went away with your parents, Thursday to Monday, to keep up with the Jones’ yearly tradition of a July vacation.  Zach, we had as good a time as we could but I think we were all bombarded with countless memories of previous trips.  Especially your family.  This has been a longer tradition for them than for me.  I took the time off work when I probably couldn’t afford to and I took a day off school when its a bad idea to miss a lecture and potential testing material.  But it was important for me and for them to do it together.  It was a decision we made together to go and do it but it was hard.  Will it ever get easier?  Will it ever not suck to have to do these things alone?  Every day, and several times a day, one of us would pause and say, “Zach would love this.”  And its true.  You would have.  Beach, sun, surf, playing in the waves, eating crab legs, people watching, and ice-cold Coronas.  Everything reminded us of you and everything was bittersweet because of it.  Everything has been tainted because of the loss of you.  But is it better to go and do it anyways, hurt, and miss you more than normal or is it better to forego those traditions and pretend they ever happened?

Today I finished another semester.  Another brutal semester of pretending I have the focus and motivation to stay in school without you in my corner.  A terrible summer of being in school full-time and doing what needs to be done.  It’s over and its behind me, but there is no joy in it.  There is no sense of completion.  No feeling of victory for making it through.  It just is.  All day I dreaded coming home even more than normal.  I dreaded coming home so badly that I probably bombed my final because I couldn’t concentrate.  I dreaded it because of our tradition, mostly your tradition, of what we would do to celebrate finishing another semester.  The drinks, the meal you would cook, the ridiculousness that was us.  I miss it.  I miss you and it hurts.  It is beyond lonely and brutal, something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  So is it better to remember those traditions with a smile on my face or is it better to try and pretend they never happened to lessen the pain of it all?

On Saturday I am headed to Canada to spend a week or so with my family and friends between semesters.  Even this has lost its excitement and its joy which is sad because this is where I came from and where I should want to be.  But now even trips, vacations, and visits to Canada have been tarnished with your loss.  It has become a tradition in its own way and now I can’t bear the thought of doing it alone.  Of course I’m looking forward to seeing everyone but it just isn’t the same.  I know my family is suffering too because even they have become accustomed to you being there.  Everyone has grown used to it.  It just isn’t home without you regardless of what country it is.  I know my friends are suffering because they grew to love your visits almost as much as I did.  They are grieving too and it is just isn’t the same.  Zach, now all I have are the memories of sharing Canada with you, watching your first impressions, experiencing my home country for the first time all over again as I shared it with you.  You made Canada an entirely different experience for me and now I don’t know how to do it alone.  This is just another thing I am going to have to learn to do alone and I mostly want to stamp my foot on the ground a-la-five-year-old styles and refuse to do it.  I want to cross my arms, stick out my bottom lip, and just firmly state that I’m not doing it.  Obviously I can’t but I really wish I could.  So I have to wonder if it is better to remember what we shared and what you brought to the Canadian experience or to try to forget in order to make it easier for myself?

Everything I read about traditions and grief says that everyone has to make that decision for themselves.  There are no rules with grieving.  There is no right or wrong way.  I just don’t know what is right for me, for my family, for your family.  These questions keep repeating themselves but it doesn’t mean it is making an answer become any more clear.  I guess you have to decide what is less painful for yourself and for your family, but if it’s all painful then what do you do?  Do you continue the traditions or do you let them go?  Do you forget them so that when these moments come up it isn’t as excruciating or do you try to incorporate them into this new and painful life?  I just don’t know.  But I find myself questioning if traditions are just another way to delude ourselves into thinking life has the slightest chance of staying the way it was.  If we continue to honor or celebrate traditions the way we did together then that is giving myself a false sense of permanence that does not exist.  That is all gone.  It was stolen from me and I will never get it back.  So is keeping up with these kinds of traditions a delusional way to maintain that sense of permanency in order to make this pain of grieving fractionally less?

I’m afraid when it comes to traditions there is no right or wrong answer.  I’m afraid when it comes to traditions that I will spend forever trying to figure out if it is more painful to do it or to forget it.