The first time I grieved was for comedian Freddie Prinze. It was around the time of the ‘77 blizzard and outside my suburban Ohio home, the yards were brittle, frozen, white like empty expanses of winter on the Great Plains. Sidewalks and streets were buried and all I could think about was why Freddie put a gun to his head. I cried and lit a candle. I was 16 and hormonal.
No one told me what it would be like when someone I actually knew died. My grieving for Freddie was a head cold compared to the sharp asthmatic pain I felt when my mother died.
I knew she was dying. I had said my goodbyes while she pointed to the ceiling with her one good arm, telling me without talking that she was leaving now. Still. I wasn’t ready. No one could tell me it would consume me for months. No one said I would drive along the 670 innerbelt, sobbing, on and off ramps, circling downtown because I could not bring myself to pick a road that would lead to her empty apartment. No one told me that we might find ourselves, my siblings and I, arriving in Albany, NY, with miles to drive in a snow storm. Too cold to bury her, I would have to return in the spring.
Grieving, I’ve learned, is a functional madness. I understand how a man carrying a gallon of paint and a thick brush could navigate across three lanes of freeway to reach a concrete barrier emblazoned with dark scorch marks. I get it. Numb desperation guided him, ambivalent to fear, between cars zipping by at 65 mph.
Half the city drove by this barrier every day, seeing the exact spot where his wife and young son in the red Honda Civic were sideswiped and then compressed by an 18-wheeler, skidding along the barrier, leaving evidence of having lived and died in this long, undignified engraving of soot and steel.
The man with his bucket of paint stood in the middle of the freeway among the barriers that divided northbound and southbound traffic. He smothered the brush in white paint—the same paint he probably kept in the garage, left over from the last project, the baby’s room, maybe— and covered all he could of the death mark. He was nearly finished when the police arrived and gently, patiently, cautiously led him back to his car along the far shoulder of the southbound lanes.
Painting the barrier wouldn’t bring back his wife and child. But maybe, for him, it kept the gawking drivers in his head from sharing the most intimate, most wrenching of experiences. I drove by the barrier every day on my way home from work. I saw it after the crash and then after it was painted. I thought of this stranger’s grief every day.
My father died three years after my mother. I didn’t get to say goodbye. At the funeral home, his body was swollen, looking like an inflatable cartoon character. My stepmother said, “You won’t remember him like this.” But I did.
I cried for weeks, mostly in my car but also in bed, which took all of my energy to leave. The world became smaller, darker. Something grabbed my throat, squelched words, forced me to swallow them. I could not imagine that sunshine and lilies and the ocean and stars existed without my father in the world. Alone, I cried out for him, “Dad. Poppa. Daddy.” I was 31 years old and I functioned like a toddler for the first six months, waiting for someone to tell me to eat. I wanted to break things. I wanted to shatter glass. It was winter when he died, like the others. It would take more than a year for me to breathe.
The older we get, the more we have to grieve. Friends, pets, loved ones start to fall around us as we age. We have more to lose in this world.
My sister’s death came at the end of winter, when she was 52 and I was 48. My sister-in-law had called me at work to tell me. I had to sit. My legs buckled. I was given three days off to grieve, to make my way to Cincinnati and pay for my share of the funeral, to see her one last time in that badass black leather jacket and the black slip dress and the pierced nose.
I listened to Sigur Rós over and over again, allowing myself to sink mournfully into Icelandic cooing, a language I didn’t understand, amid the dead volcanoes and angry sea in my head. Hers was the hardest death. I shared her features – the same small hands, blue eyes, stocky legs. When I looked at my own hands, I saw hers and startled myself. I shared her humor. Her laughter echoed, her exaggerated expressions had long imprinted themselves in my memory. She was at the tip of my tongue but I could not speak. So I let her talk to me when I drove to work, when I hiked in the woods, when I stared out the window. She told me I would be okay.
I am still grieving, eight years later.
I frequently drive by a three-year-old makeshift memorial on a nearby street. Two handmade crosses, some plastic flowers, souvenirs surround a circle no more than two feet wide off the side of the road. This place is sacred to someone, honoring the death of two teens. The other day, I saw a woman sitting there, cross-legged, her head in her hands. She must be the caretaker, mourning these last three years, tidying the ground with devotion.
No one tells us how to do this. It never gets easier and it is never the same. Sometimes we paint barriers. Sometimes we march. Sometimes we break glass. Mostly, we live with the dead by our sides and whisper that we miss them.