The Untended Garden: Grief in Real Time



Last Monday I was on a plane returning to New Orleans from a work trip to Philadelphia. In all my trips, there's a moment that happens as the plane starts to descend over the verdant marshes surrounding the city. Lush, green swampland glides beneath the plane, sunlight glinting off waves in Lake Pontchartrain, as relief and gratitude for my adopted city overwhelm me.

That didn't happen this time.

Instead, I squished myself closer that tiny portal window and cried, silently, so other passengers wouldn't notice. I didn't want to return home, but I didn't want to end up anywhere else either. I wanted simply to stop existing in this colorless limbo I've been inhabiting since I lost my family a few months ago.

This is my grief. It's quiet, it's gray, and it's fucking boring. Oh, and it feels endless.

Too Much Death

To recap, last November, my grandpa wasted away with an aggressive cancer that left him thrashing and moaning in his hospice bed until he took his last breath. Two months later, my mom and grandma were killed in a car accident in which my beloved baby brother was the driver and the cause. My family feels fractured in an irreparable way, like an Old-World curse we must have carried with us from Croatia when my grandpa's father followed his mother as a boy to America.

A new life. One that re-enacted older legacies of alcoholism, abuse, and despair.

In one fell swoop, the entire family who raised a young me were wiped off this earth. The astounding absurdity of this still baffles me. How much is one person supposed to suffer until a break comes? I'm not sure, but I'll keep you posted.

 Left: my grandma at age 15 drinking in a cemetery. Unknown photographer. Right: me and my mom on a carnival ride. 

Left: my grandma at age 15 drinking in a cemetery. Unknown photographer. Right: me and my mom on a carnival ride. 

I'll be honest, the beginning of grief is a lot fucking easier than this middle period. Even in the horrible shock of those first hours when I called hospitals and police stations searching for my mom, there were tasks that must be completed. Forward motion that compels us to pick up the phone. Drive to the accident. Take care of my mom's belongings.

In the beginning period, I had a clear purpose and a clearer path. Take care of myself. Grieve. Sit with the unbearable sadness of this loss.

It's been four months, but already I'm tired of showing up nearly every place I go and beginning with the words, "I am not okay." Or worse, attending to the daily pleasantries of a workplace or grocery store line, where it's inappropriate to tell the cashier I'm on fire with my losses, and instead respond with the lie: "I'm fine."

Because the world must go on - and I know, I understand, it's not the world's job to mourn my mom and grandparents - I feel trapped behind cellophane, my fingers poking the plastic but not able to break through. I have this irrational impulse to blurt out the deaths in wrong places: in work meetings that feel too inconsequential to continue; to children who knock into me at the mall; at cashiers annoyed by long hours on their feet.

It's as if I'm compelled  to meet every minor irritation with the scream, "Don't you know my mother's dead? My grandparents, too?" It's the shock on their faces I'm looking for. The apologies that come from random strangers because there is no one to apologize for cancer and car accidents.

That Mess of a Garden

The result is that everything in my life feels neglected. Friends in need, the crepe myrtle I planted in my back yard when my seventeen-year-old cat died. My poor, sweet Ru the Werepig who begs every night for a walk I can't give her. The finite energy that runs this fleshy machine is being diverted to care for all this grief, whether I'm consciously doing it or not. It takes everything I have to go to work, feed myself, respond to my husband with kind words when he does nothing but deserve those kindnesses.

Even the things that once sustained me, like the tender friendships I've made in private Facebook groups with other sober women, feel like a burden I can't manage. And I feel guilt for this. Like I should tend to the women who have tended to me. But, also, I can't. Like, really. I can't.

This is such a new experience for me. I'm used to confronting every crisis in my life, (whether it belongs to me or not) like a soldier ready to battle. A wise woman said to me this week that maybe I'm not a crisis intervention specialist. That maybe, just maybe, people would appreciate my not showing up in the hardest moments of their lives with my own 10-ton elephant of grief to crowd out their own feelings.

Still, I feel like the gardener who has turned her back on the land and let it infest with weeds and pests while I smoke cigarettes on my porch and wonder when the color comes back into the world.

 Vietnamese Catholic church nearby that once moved me with its beauty. 

Vietnamese Catholic church nearby that once moved me with its beauty. 

This is not fun. And it doesn't feel particularly sharable. Grief is not an Instagram moment.

I spent yesterday in a pool with a dear friend also having a hard time, and we held space for each other with our attention. It was such a healing experience. A salve for all this diluted life I'm living. Behind us beautiful women thrust their busts out and ducked-billed their lips, sharing the photos of our poolside paradise.

What would the equivalent be? A huge, gleaming crow died in my neighbor's front yard last week. It was beautiful, on its back, slick and black as if it had been dipped in ink. Every morning I got in my car and wanted to take a picture of the beautiful, wasting bird to share on my neglected Instagram.

"This is grief," the caption would read. But even that takes energy. Energy I don't have.

I never anticipated that four months in I'd feel like a woman with a mysterious illness, plagued by fatigue. I knew I would miss them. I knew I would feel sad. I didn't know I'd feel so tired. So disinclined to do much more than watch movies or lie in bed. 

The real feeling underneath this is one that frightens me. What's the point?  I keep thinking. Therapy, 12 steps, loving this little dog with my whole heart. What's the point of all this furniture in my home? Working so hard at my job, being good at it? What's the point of not smoking or eating vegetables or worrying about my blood sugar because my doctor says I'm headed for diabetes just like the rest of my family?

What's the point when this kind of pain is not just possible but inevitable? We will lose the people we love. We will despair with those losses.

I know, this is not uplifting stuff. But this is grief.

And in its wake is a life I had so much zest and joy for untended and waiting for me to return. I know I will. I know this shifts. I know this because I have women healing from these kinds of traumas around me, and they are reaching out and carrying me when I can't carry myself. But I have no idea when the shift will come, and in the meantime, this whole middle period feels like the Universe is taking a massive shit on my face.

That's all I have, friends. And it ain't pretty.