When Grief Makes You an Island

I don’t write about anything but sadness these days but I’m not sure how to stop. In every other part of my life, people expect me to move on, to be okay, to laugh and smile and not mention death. The other day I told some friends that when I looked at my savings account, the first thing that came to mind was how much money I would need to pay for my own funeral.

I made them uncomfortable.

I tried to laugh it off.

We changed the subject.

Writing is where I can say all the things I think about without making anyone squirm in their chair uncomfortably. Writing is where I can say that the other night I cried in my car for ten miles because I couldn’t picture the shape of her hands. The headlights in front of me fractured and lost their shape, becoming as blurred as my memories. I was panicked more by my inability to remember them perfectly than I was by the fact that I couldn’t see very clearly while I was driving. I can’t say those things to friends over dinner but I can write them.

I thought my family would be the safest place to talk about death and loss, my cousins and parents and I like soldiers who forge a brotherhood-bond because of the trauma shared together. In some ways, this has been true, but death has done funny things to my family. Apart from the sadness, the grief that never leaves and the pain that sticks to our ribs, we don’t know how we fit together anymore. All of our roles are mixed up like a box of puzzle pieces from a thrift store. The picture on the front of the box doesn’t match our pieces anymore; so much is missing and so much has changed. We couldn’t put those pieces back together if we tried. But we try anyway.

As it turns out, there are layers to this loss. My family didn’t lose my Aunt Shell and my Uncle Lee; my mother lost her sister and her dear friend, my grandmother lost her daughter and her son-in-law, my cousins lost their mom and dad. We each lost the same two people but it is a different kind of loss for each of us, and those differences are incommunicable. The poet was right when he said, “no man is an island,” but grief has made me feel as though I am living on an island all my own.

The other day I found myself listening to my cousin tell a story about them and we shared a full-bellied laugh, not the shallow and choked laughter I have grown used to whenever they are mentioned. This was a laughter of joy, mingled with sadness to be sure, but full and deep and rich. In that moment, it was as if we were reaching out and touching each other, our fingertips brushing with a shared memory, a moment of rich laughter, a moment of shared loss. It was only a moment, a glimpse of healing, but one to which I have held tightly. No man is an island, and perhaps these bridges will be strong enough to walk on, find each other, and hold one another close. “There you are,” we will say, “I’m happy we found each other again.”