“I measure every Grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if It weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.
I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine
It feels so old a pain.
I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.
I wonder if when years have piled —
Some thousands — on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause
I’ve loved Emily Dickinson’s poetry for a long time. I remember vividly reading many for the first time and her words resonate with me in so many ways. I often wonder how she is able to poignantly articulate emotions that echo through time despite her own circumstances. My literature classes in college were a constant delight and I miss that sometimes. Not enough to reenroll …
But that’s not what I sat down to write about today.
As the title and the poem reference, grief is on my mind. I’m grieving so much and it’s hard, many days, to know what to do with it. My grief ebbs and flows, peaking with astonishing intensity at some of the most inconvenient times. The terms “walking wounded” or, to appropriate a phrase from Dexter, “a dark passenger,” sometimes come close to a label, but most of the time, this wild eviscerating grief defies logic.
Grief paralyzes and galvanizes. Sometimes in equal measure. Sometimes at the same time. This tug of war wreaks havoc on my emotions on good days. On bad days, I can be crying one minute and sarcastically combative the next. More of the latter than the former, if I’m being honest.
Grief is now my ever present companion, set off by the strangest things. Mundane details … a sock with no mate, a broken toy, my kids inability to hear the word no, trying to cram all of the things I want to tell my boys into a short time period, cataloging my possessions and making sure that my family is prepared to handle the details of my death, celebrating a milestone.
I grieve for the parts of my boys’ lives I will miss. I grieve the same, in perhaps a slightly smaller measure, about my siblings, my nieces, my nephews, my parents, friends, extended family. We are all doing this cancer thing together in one form or another. I grieve the loss of time with my sweet husband and how much our marriage has been affected by my illness. He didn’t know I would be so sick after only 10 years of marriage and how could I be a partner in the same way now? I look back and I wonder, would it have been better to not have hitched my life to his?
I grieve the loss of function, the ease of movement, the loss of a future with possibilities, the loss of purpose and what I had worked towards for decades. I grieve the loss of energy, the impact of pain, the side effucks of medication, the constant appointments and wasted time in the doctor’s offices. I grieve having to advocate for myself to the point of swearing and tears, not the norm for me.
I grieve having to plead with doctors, insurance companies, drug companies, legislators, donors, administrators, random minimum wage employees … I am weary of having to justify my existence, of begging strangers to save my life, to treat me like a person, not a number or a paycheck or an inconvenience. I grieve that my life literally sometimes just boils down to dealing with cancer. I am so much more than this. I want to shake my fist at people sometimes, to proclaim at the top of my lungs … I AM A PERSON NOT A STATISTIC. It wouldn’t help. Tears are a better motivator and yet, sometimes I have no more tears to cry. I am wrung out, drained dry.
I grieve the loss of friendship and uncomplicated days. I grieve being able to focus on and talk about anything but cancer. I grieve the loss of innocence and feeling comfortable in my skin. I grieve the loss of the feelings of being attractive, confident, and whole, of trusting my body to function as it should. It is an oddly sharp feeling of betrayal, that this body I used to know so well has dealt me.
These losses are mostly internal, mostly inside my close circle, silent until I write or talk about them. These losses smack me in the face and I can’t breathe for a bit. I’ve gotten better about looking at this grief, embracing it, sometimes wallowing, and then picking up my head and carrying it forward.
Grief does not end. Time does not heal this wound. This grief, in all it complexities and layers, will be my burden to carry until I die.
I wonder, am I strong enough to carry all of this? That’s one of the most often repeated comments to me … “you are so strong.” I think it is meant well. I try to take it as it is meant. I know that I’ve done well in showing a brave face to the world, but that’s not the whole truth of my experience. I’m a product of my Midwest upbringing–my stoicism in the face of tragedy learned honestly. I am good at this, focusing on the logical details in public, never breaking down until I am alone.
The losses and the grief from the losses of friends living with the stage IV are somehow different from these personal losses. Heavier. Bone crushing, at times. I don’t feel equipped to carry it. I don’t want to carry it. I feel flattened emotionally with each new post that we’ve lost another friend. Knowing that hospice is near for a friend doesn’t help much but we’ve also had unexpected losses. I don’t know which is worse, having time to prepare or not.
Grieving for people, some of whom I’ve never met, who are more online friends than in real life is weird. There is a kinship unlike any other I’ve found, but usually we only know one part of the people we connect with. It may be even more weird, but I’ve started friending the husbands, wives or key family members of the women I meet online. At least that way I’ll have some connection to information after the friend is unable to post on her own and many people choose to close their pages when a family member has died. I go to look for them, to check on them, and there is no trace.
No trace. The stark reality of a person no longer living is highlighted in the removal of readily accessible information about that person.
I know, intellectually, that part of the reason it is so easy to bond with and so hard to lose friends who are metastatic is that I see myself in them. I see my own struggles as each one comes to terms with the reality of dying. In a way, as I grieve each person who has died, I am also grieving for myself, for my family and the people who know me. I will be one of the faces on the collages we share to remind everyone of who and what we’ve lost some day. It will be my social media profiles that will disappear some day. It will be my friends who will look for me and find no trace.
Until that time, I am carrying this grief. I am doing my best to enter into it, to get to know it, to talk about it. We don’t talk enough about death in this country. We don’t prepare for it well. Rather than avoiding it, I am doing battle with it, every day. Grief will never leave us because it is the consequence of love and vulnerability. To love, deeply and completely and unreservedly means to not protect ourselves, to withhold nothing of ourselves, to jump without a parachute into intimacy with another person.
And so, today, despite the fact that my heart is broken into so many pieces and I nearly cannot see a way through, I will do my best to continue to open my heart, to be vulnerable and to remember the laughter amidst the tears for those we’ve lost way too soon.