Grief is Hard Work (Happy Labor Day!)


Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Galway Kinnell

There are lots of books about grief; Podcasts about grief; Whole conferences about it, too. There are any number of ways to engage with the subject of grief and most of them are readily available — including this blog (thanks for coming! Also: sorry in advance!). So I’m left wondering why, with so many resources and potential sources of grief information around me, and considering the fact I’m trying to wrestle with grief earnestly and directly, I so frequently get jerked by the grief collar and wind up sobbing uncontrollably in the bathroom to avoid frightening the children?

I don’t cry easily and that’s likely part of the problem. It’s definitely why I’m worried about frightening the children. I don’t know if it’s because of the whole guys don’t cry thing (Rosie Grier song-messages aside), or maybe it’s just constitutional: some guys may cry much more readily than me and some women may cry even less? All I know is, there have been times since Nina died when I desperately felt like I needed to cry and physically couldn’t. It got to the point where I had to go looking for ways to access the tears. Because it turns out Rosie Grier was right, crying does get at least some of the mad/sad/frustrated/despondent out.

I started writing about grief, loss, and survivorship mostly so I’d have an “outlet.” Or at least that’s what I told myself and others when the question “why are you writing publicly in a very confessional mode about painful personal things?” would come up. It wasn’t really planned. Before I started the blog, I would just periodically send out effusions of thoughts about grief, or Nina, our family, etc. And I would fire off social media posts about it — my ad hoc outlet of choice. It was a good way for me to connect when so many of my normal connections had been severed or damaged. And it did have a kind of buildup and release to it.

But now I think maybe that characterization is wrong. I don’t think this is an “outlet,” at least not in the sense that there’s just grief stuff packed inside me ready to come flowing out. I’m not a pressure-packed keg of grief IPA. Or, to the extent I am, the stuff that came out would not be drinkable or look much like a blog post. And writing isn’t cathartic, it’s not like crying. I feel good when I write about my grief and loss, but I don’t heave, spasm, and snot like a distraught toddler when I’m done writing. And writing doesn’t feel like a visceral requirement of the grieving process, the way crying sometimes does.

I’m writing because I want to grieve actively – to shape and control the flow, to the extent that’s possible, and also examine it more deliberately. Writing forces me to channel whatever psychic cud I’m masticating into something with form or shape. But even more importantly, having the prompt of writing pushes me to mine for things in places that I might otherwise not explore. A writing project is important to me not because I’m necessarily overflowing with grief or things to say about grief all the time, but because sometimes I’m not even in close touch with grief, or at least the parts that are beneath the surface.

Even when grief is really obvious – when your partner dies, for example – it can hide in plain sight. Most of the time grief doesn’t look like much of anything at all. Without context, you might miss it altogether.

Yet grief is always there. At first it’s easy to identify. As long as I get up afterwards, I can always see the truck that just ran me over or the cartoon anvil that keeps falling on my head. It gets harder to see later on, though. For me it became a kind of verdigris on the surface of my life. Maybe my normal lassitude at the sight of a sink full of dirty dishes is a little heavier than normal, my frustration at the internet provider a little more testy, or my rebuke to the kids for not closing the door is a little sharper than it would be otherwise. But it’s not clearly separable from what any of those things would be normally. Grief is life, life is grief, it all blends and mixes together.

I can’t just write myself into clarity on grief. I don’t have access to it. Maybe real writers do? Or maybe that’s why so many of my favorite writers had problems with addiction or mental illness? Regardless, it’s not enough for me to want to delve. My grief isn’t an archive. I have trouble raising the immediacy of grief to the surface. Like my grief’s tears, its truths are hard for me to access.

So what I do is, I crack myself open. I have some practiced methods to help obviate my own defenses. Sometimes I do this by reading Nina’s book – an obvious and tremendously effective solution. Nina already wrote about all the stuff up to her death and did it better than I will ever do. But she didn’t write much about what happens next. And grief is like chemotherapy, you can’t tap the same vein over and over again without diminishing returns.

So other times I read old text messages. There are so many! It’s a goldmine of grief spasm inducing material. Some of it is actually Nina and I discussing death and disease and trauma. And some of it is us arguing about who should pick up groceries. As a partner, lover, and self-flagellator, I love it all.

Typical text exchange between NER and me, including the mortal and mundane. We never got to watch The Americans because Nina died a couple weeks later. But we DID make it to Turks & Caicos, portable oxygen condenser in tow.   

And then there’s pictures. Worth a thousand words? Ha. I think easily 2500 apiece, but I won’t try to prove that point here. I can’t explain the role pictures of Nina have played for me since she died. They provide both much more than other sources (actual images, clarity that memory can’t retain or recall) and much less (insufficient context: a single moment frozen in time, like one cell of an organism trapped on a slide, can never tell you what that whole creature was like in life).

I haven’t got enough words to describe everything this photo of Nina on the beach at Tartane in Martinique in the Spring of 2003 evokes for me.  And this one doesn’t even show her face. 

But maybe my favorite and most effective way in to the parts of grief I can’t even name, let alone map out, is poetry. One of the first things I did after Nina died was buy a terrific anthology of poems about death and grief, and I still read it periodically on a regular basis. Maybe it’s because Nina was a poet, or because poetry uses meter, image, metaphor, line, and form—so many tools at its disposal to cut to the marrow, the densest, meatiest, least accessible parts of us.

Poetry not only cracks me open and leaves me invariably sobbing, it reveals grief feelings I didn’t even know I had. And I want to have all those feelings, to experience it as completely as I can.

Here are some of my recent faves. May they leave your eyes as puffy and your nose as sniffly as mine. Just don’t scare the children.

Grief, by Matthew Hickman

It Was Like This: You Were Happy, by Jane Hirshfield

The Comfort of Darkness, by Galway Kinnell

Practice, by Ellen Bryant Voigt

The Trees, by Philip Larkin

Enigma, by Leonora Speyer

The End, by Amy Lowell

The End, by D. H. Lawrence

Insomnolence, by Charles Rafferty

An Arundel Tomb, by Philip Larkin

The Mower, by Philip Larkin

The Dead, by Billy Collins

The Truth the Dead Know, by Anne Sexton

A Song, by Joseph Brodsky

3 thoughts on “Grief is Hard Work (Happy Labor Day!)

  1. Well now I’m a blubbering mess. Good thing I read this after my son is asleep, no need to see me cry further. In your writing, I see so much of the flip side of my current life. I feel like I am frantically trying to organize, prepare, stave off grief. I’m a squirrel packing away a multitude of nuts for the winter, but in a much crazier, more millennial way. I have obsessively packed and repacked emergency bug-out bags for my family. They’re obscene, packed for the most far-fetched scenarios imaginable (although what isn’t imaginable these days). My husband often makes fun of them, but if upstate New York ever experiences a nuclear winter, god knows even our cats will be safe, for a while.


  2. I heard you speak last week at the library. I was in front row, next to my friend, “cell phone lady.” 🙂 After sobbing an ugly cry, in the bathroom, over the recent and tragic death of my father, I saw your blog. It was exactly what I needed to read, exactly. Thank you for posting it. You are courageous and honest. Continued thoughts and prayers of healing for you, your boys, and Pete.


  3. Thank you again- when my 3 family members died I read lots about death, grief memoirs such as Joan Didions…it struck me that even though I’d experienced grief as a child, this was the first time I was able to process and identify it as an adult. An entirely different thing. And for the first time I stopped being scared of my emotions. I say let’s talk about grief- give it the expression it deserves because that is where our deepest humanity exists ��✨


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