On Grief By Association


We all know life is unfair—filled with unexpected pitfalls, sudden setbacks that can throw us off course. But this doesn’t make the reality of those moments any less painful or easier to share a bed with. I am continually stunned by them myself, and was reminded of this yesterday when someone very close to me lost someone abruptly who was close to them. Grief by association is less of a black hole than grief itself, but there’s still something deeply sad and unsettling about knowing that someone you care about is suffering on such a different level than they were just a few days ago. Why must that happen? You start to wonder, wagging a proverbial finger at the sky as if it’s actually listening, taking notes. And why does it always seem to happen to the best people? Like a twisted punishment for how righteously they’ve been living their lives.

These are situations in which words repeatedly fail, and in trying to send my friend (who’s really more like a mentor) a letter yesterday, I was faced with how trite and useless everything sounded. “I’m sorry” isn’t good enough, nor is “I’m thinking of you.” But we say these things anyway because we are at a loss for what else to do. And, really, there isn’t much else we can do to ease people’s pain when they’ve lost someone they love. We can be available and at the ready for whatever material things they need, we can provide a constant ear for their thoughts—but it won’t feel like we’re doing enough, and it won’t be enough to make it all go away.

We can reevaluate our own lives in these moments, the things we fret over and how silly they inevitably seem in comparison. We can do our best to let it teach us a lesson—something about making the most of this brief life, and not getting bogged down in all of the more fleeting baggage that it comes with. But death is not something easily justified with simple notions of cause and effect, it’s not one of those life lessons that comes wrapped in a pretty bow for you to carry around and say “if it weren’t for this, I wouldn’t be this this and this.” Maybe in the end, it will make you stronger, but generally we’d prefer to just be back at square one with whoever is now gone.

The normal narratives we concoct for ourselves in daily life, and especially amidst shitty situations, just don’t work here. When someone you love is plucked suddenly from your reality, you don’t tell yourself tales of how you’ll arise from this with a greater appreciation for life—you simply feel weak, stunned, unable to make any sense of the nonsensical. It’s not a moment that you turn into something; it’s a moment that you wade through, slowly, until it hurts a little less.

But I can’t pretend to understand the depth of those feelings, though I’m sure, knowing life, I one day will. All I know is how uncomfortable and disheartening it is to watch the people you love—people who have been your rock—get thrown into a very unstable, unsure place. I know that it sucks that there’s virtually nothing to say, no way for me to use words (as I like to do) to mediate the problem. You can’t dress death up with symbols as if it’s a piece of literature for your hands to craft—no, the experience doesn’t become another medium for you to work with, for you to mold. It simply is—it exists and remains one of the few things that humans can’t fully touch, which is to saycontrol.

And people get through it all the time, but time itself is what it takes. We can’t fast forward or press pause, and we definitely can’t rewind—though we’ll want to, and very often, too. No, this is a situation that we’re forced to absorb, and to watch others surrender to. It’s one of the few real facts of life, but its fidelity isn’t sweet, like a recurring rash with no known cure.

I know my friend will survive it—that she’ll tackle her grief and make it livable, eventually. But I don’t know when, or exactly how that will happen, and she certainly doesn’t either. And it is for this reason that life is truly unfair, not all the other things that we harp on about from day-to-day. I can’t give her anything but my acknowledgement of that, and the hope that I will work to make the most of what’s been taken far too soon, for too many.

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