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Metaphor(s) for grief


May 17, 2016

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    In spring of 2014, we buried my grandmother, a formidable matriarch of an equally formidable tribe of Southern women. That summer, halfway across the country, my friend Heather committed suicide after a long and fruitless battle with chronic Lyme disease. A few months after that, we got word of my father’s terminal COPD, and on May 9, 2015, I lost him, too.
    Although I’d lost people before, this swift trifecta of loss was something entirely new for me. The shock of Heather’s suicide was so much all at once that I was physically ill. With the loss of my grandmother came a calmer sadness: She’d been suffering for so long that she wished over her final birthday cake that she not wake the next morning. But my father’s death was a new beast — one that was both swift and agonizingly drawn out. One I watched and smelled and lifted and fed by hand, by straw. One I held after the cold set in.
    Over the past year, I have considered a lot of extended metaphors for grief. Depending on the day, it might be a veil, a lens, an escape room, or a Jell-O mold rife with floating canned fruit. Sometimes it is a stuck elevator, a wet coat, a cement shoe. It’s a miserable summer road trip with no air conditioning, and I always have to pee. Grief is a hunter in shadow, or is a shadow itself. Most commonly, though, I go back to Lake Marion.
    As a girl, I went to summer camp, where we practiced archery and fired rifles and climbed fake rock walls. We had co-ed dances and talent shows for which we prepared by gathering around communal bathroom mirrors with cans of Aquanet and wands of Bonne Belle.
    Nothing was better, though, than swim time, when we peeled off our ratty camp shorts and charged into the murky, opaque waters of Lake Marion in order to escape the midday heat.  
    The first few feet of earth beneath us were gritty sand, like any beach, but after wading in up to our shoulders, the lake floor dropped suddenly into a blind chasm, from which something slimy and mobile slipped between our toes, back and forth against our calves. We fought hard not to put our feet down.
     Our fears of the lake and its underbelly were rooted primarily in the menace of the unseen. We couldn’t fathom what shape that sensation — feathery against our legs — would take were we to lay eyes upon it.
    Similarly, I have found that grief is always present, though not always visible, and there is never any telling what shape it will take. It is the living lake, lying in wait, dogged and factual. It is not as bad as you think, and it is infinitely worse. Grief is an exhaustion borne of constant vigilance, and of the effort to stay afloat.
    In the year since he passed away, I have dreamed of my father three times. The third dream was just last night, and in it, he was diminished, nearly green in the flesh, out of his mind and past the want of food or water. He had hours to live, then minutes. And just as it transpired last May, my sister put her hand on my foot to wake me from sleep in the early blue morning hours, and said, “It’s time.”
    In the dream, as in life, the worst wasn’t his death but its aftermath. No one warned me that giving it voice would cause me to relive it, over and over again: My father died; Jeffrey passed away this morning; My father/your friend is dead.
    Naturally, the frequency of these mourning episodes has begun to diminish, and I expect that trend to continue. There are long stretches of time where my grief does not occur to me, but each time I say that my father, my grandmother, my dear Heather, is gone, I realize it anew, myself.
    Suddenly I’m a child again, floating in water so thick with silt I can’t see the bottom. I am shy about my bathing suit and am covered in freckles. Here, it never rains, and the water is like tepid soup.
    I hover one step past the steep drop of the lake floor, in the liminal space between what I can and cannot comprehend, and at the moment I believe myself buoyant, I sink into unseen weeds.
    Grief is the water, or shock, or my body, or the weeds below me.
    More honestly, though, grief is none of these. Metaphors are imprecise, none quite right.
    Two years ago, we gathered in Atlanta to bury my grandmother. A little over a year ago, Heather stepped in front of a train. And one year ago this week, my father took five breaths a minute, then four, then none. The coroner folded a brilliant white sheet over his face like a fan, and he was gone. Then, we began the work of grieving.
    Grief is a wordless place, and I keep trying to write my way through it anyway. It is inexplicable, and yet here I am, trying to explain.

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