The Hard, Messy, Beautiful Work of Grief

Good-byes can be toughAnd messy. Especially if the good-bye is saying farewell to a loved one who has died.

When my mom suffered a massive stroke last February, I had to change directions very quickly—literally. I was on a layover at LAX, waiting for a flight to San Francisco, when the call from my sister Mary came. Her words still ring in my memory: “Major cerebral bleeding…DNR order…not expected to make it through the night.” I went from one moment sitting in the waiting area, languidly perusing Facebook, to standing at the ticket counter, urgently telling the ticket agent that I had to get back to Texas RIGHT NOW. I went from what was to be a long-anticipated weekend of training and celebration to planning a funeral and writing a eulogy.

And we pulled it off. It was lovely—like a big family hug. Loved ones flying in from all over, music, ritual, personal reflections, tears and laughter. Even, in some ways, the sense of having dodged a bullet. Mom passed while she was still a relatively vigorous 87 years old, living independently, and we were spared the sadness and difficult decisions that accompanied my father’s extended decline. The Friday night after the funeral before everyone departed, we went to one of Mom’s favorite Mexican restaurants. The margaritas, fond remembrances, and laughter flowed. It felt so good—picture- and heart-perfect.


And an hour later, I found myself parked in my car outside the ER where Mom had died, sobbing uncontrollably—aware that at that time, a week earlier, she had been inside, confused and about to close her eyes on this life for the last time. I was worried that she had been scared, with none of us family around, and it broke my heart.

And that’s how it went for me. For about a month after that, whenever Friday evening rolled around, I would find myself in the same state, watching the clock, aware of when we believed the stroke had started, looking incredulously at the people around me in their happy Friday night moods (“Don’t you know what’s going on?!?”), and the tears would start. I would sit and cry, telling Mom it was okay, and that I would stay with her as long as she was awake. It was totally inconsistent and irrational. I knew she was beyond pain. I had seen her peaceful body in repose, I had held the vessel with her ashes. I had played piano and spoken lovingly at her funeral. And yet.

It continued this way for a while, this flip-flopping between a sense of peaceful closure and profound grief. It wasn’t until a Friday night when I found myself at the appointed hour in an airplane, looking out over the beautiful Pacific Ocean at sunset, that I was finally able to let it go. She loved the ocean so much.

I felt clean inside—washed clean by my tears. It turns out that in that “irrational inconsistency” important work was being done. And I don’t think I would have gotten through to the other side if I hadn’t given myself so much permission to be with my pain—to be messy and inconsistent. To give in to it, without judgment.

What exactly was that work? I think there’s something about the profound all-at-onceness of a deep loss that calls out this physical response. Tears are linked to the discharge of stress toxins—in this case, the stress of so many loose ends that are suddenly left dangling, so much new information to be assimilated, so many core beliefs and memories that get triggered. Our normal cognitive channels are overloaded. As a consequence, our response, our grief, becomes overwhelming and ineffable—incapable of being expressed through words alone.

Friday before last, I had the profound honor of facilitating a memorial service and celebration for a friend and coworker who had died, taken from us in his prime suddenly and swiftly by a particularly unforgiving form of brain cancer. The gathering was a lovely experience; it felt true to his spirit, and true to our feelings about him and each other. It was a fitting tribute, like a beautiful bow that we tied on the hard experience of losing him.

And yet, I expect that bow to unravel periodically, and for some of us to find ourselves in deep pain and confusion, as we struggle to reorganize our experience around this unfamiliar hole in our lives.  I hope that when that happens that his family and friends will cut themselves some slack. The laughter and the tears are both important for our healing, and they’re on their own timetable.

Earlier today, I was sitting in my meditation chair when “To Where You Are” by Josh Groban came up on the playlist and wafted out of the nearby speaker.

I wish upon tonight
To see you smile
If only for awhile
To know you’re there
A breath away’s not far
To where you are

And just like that, I was lost in tears, thinking about Mom and Dad, and how much I missed them and wished I could hug them again. And it felt healing to reconnect with that.

Washed clean. But not too clean. A little mess can be a good thing.