What Would I Do Bad?
Updated: Mar 8, 2022
When my sister was a toddler, my mother would take her to the grocery store and she would sit in the little seat in the metal cart as my mom wheeled her through the aisles.
One day, on the car ride home, my mother said, “You were so good in the grocery store, Gracie!”
After a long silence, my sister said, “What would I do bad?”
This is how I felt after my dad died. People kept telling me I was handling it so well, and I wanted to stop and ask, “What would I do bad?”
The truth was I did not handle it well. I did not handle it well because I did not really handle it at all. I graduated from college just three months after my dad died. He had just been diagnosed the summer before, and I soldiered through that year, flying back and forth and finishing my school
work in between visits. Over Christmas break, he told me he’d be there watch me graduate in May. The doctors would not have agreed, but somehow I believed it was true. He never did make it to my graduation, at least not in the flesh.
There is something about watching someone die young that makes life feel more urgent. My dad died before he was able to do many of the things that he always thought, always assumed, he would get to do – one day. My adult life began just as his ended. In the place of grief, I felt pressure to live life to its fullest.
After graduation, I threw myself into my friendships and my new job. I spent late nights out at bars and weekends rehashing with friends. I stopped writing, and told myself it was because I didn’t have the time. I was so scared to miss out on anything that I missed out on the one thing I most needed right then: time and space to process my loss, to sit with my pain and let it run through me and out of me, leaving me forever changed but also free.
When my marriage ended, I did not handle it well. I was raw and angry. I could not sleep. Tears came all times of day and night, with no warning at all. Sometimes, the pain would tingle through me, like my whole body had pins and needles. No one even pretended I was handling it “well.”
week after we separated, our house was getting painted. One day, I looked up from where I was crying on my bed in the middle of the day, and I saw a man staring into my second-story window, eyes wide as he watched me sob. I was like a ripe tomato just removed from a pot of boiling water. My skin seemed to fall away, leaving my soft tender insides exposed. I could barely speak to anyone. I knew no one was trying to hurt me, and yet it seemed like everything anyone said hurt. And I was so raw I couldn’t hide my reactions. One day, I said to one of my best friends, “I know I’m the one who is “too sensitive,” but sometimes I feel like everyone else is an asshole.” “That’s because they are.” She said. And that’s why we’re best friends. But also I was writing again. Words and memories flowed out of me. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to get out of bed to write something down, has if unearthing the pain had also unearthed a great reservoir of creativity that had been frozen inside of me.
I like to think that maybe there is a third way, and that when I experience a life-changing loss again, I will find it. I like to think that I now know how to grieve fully and deeply and also gracefully, without the fear or pain of judgment.
But I also know enough to know that I can't say for sure how I will react to an imaginary situation in a different time and place. I do know that when someone I love finds themselves in one those moments in life where everything they know seems to be slipping away, I will do my best to sit with whatever discomfort it brings up for me. I will do my best to leave space for them to be messy.
Because heartbreak is a messy thing. Most of us understand that, but when it happens to the people we love, we want so badly for it not to be true. It’s one of the hardest things, watching someone you care about in great pain and knowing you are powerless to fix it.
What if, instead of congratulating people for handling things “well,” we let them know it is safe to show us their pain? What if we reassured them that we aren’t going anywhere, even if things do get ugly for a while? What if we remind them–and ourselves–that it is not their job to keep us comfortable in the midst of suffering?
Because if grief is an island we all wash up on sometimes, I've learned it’s a good idea not leave the island without breaking down whatever sunken ship left you stranded there in the first place. If you don't, all of that debris will still be there, waiting for you the next time you roll up onto shore.