The gossip on grief: Six months later
“People ask me how you’re doing,” my dad said on a walk one morning. “I tell them you’re doing surprisingly well.” As I nodded in agreement, my dad asked if it was a choice I’d made – to handle Ramón’s death well. I wasn’t really sure how to answer that question because I didn’t consciously decide, “Boy, this sucks, but I plan to handle it well.” Instead, my life has been a revolving door of grief, and, though it never gets easier, it becomes more familiar and less permanent, even in times of deep despair.
My grief experience began at a young age when I started living with the anguish that cystic fibrosis would cut my life short. When I was a junior in high school, my first good friend with CF died. The day I moved into my college dorm freshman year, another friend died. Less than a year later, it happened again. On the subsequent go-round (Are you losing count?), I got to go say goodbye at the hospital. The next time was another hospital experience, though we didn’t arrive in time. For reference, these friends were between the ages of 15 and 21. Though I knew in my head and heart that, realistically speaking, we would all ultimately succumb to the disease, some deaths seemed sudden due to lack of communication, and others announced themselves but approached slowly.
In 2018, I experienced the deaths of two remarkably close friends, neither of whom had CF. Both were very sudden and felt almost like my first encounters with death all over again. However, with my lingering knowledge that the grief eventually hurts less, I moved forward with the intention to heal. I don’t say that as though healing is as simple as picking an item off a menu, but I was able to use my past intimate experiences with death to recognize that things do improve. It’s still never as fast as we’d like, but it does happen.
Today marks six months since Ramón’s death. The day he died, a friend (who was widowed a few months prior) brought over a book authored by Tom Zuba, Permission to Mourn. Tom lost his 18-month-old daughter to a sudden illness, his wife many years later due to an undiagnosed blood disorder, and his 13-year-old son several years later to brain cancer.
In one of Tom’s books, he explained that his first loss (the loss of his daughter) completely shattered him for many years, unsure whether there was a light at the end of the grief tunnel. When Tom’s wife died, he was understandably heartbroken, but he knew from experience that the light would eventually come. Then, six years later, when his son died, he saw it from an entirely different perspective: “And I realized that not only was there light at tunnel’s end, but this time the tunnel itself was lit. This time I was able to observe and participate fully in my healing journey.”
The analysis above answers my dad's question about whether I made the choice to handle Ramón's death well. Being quite acquainted with grief, my years of experience placed me at the start of a dimly lit tunnel after Ramón died. This was undoubtedly the most difficult loss of all, but I knew that, beyond the tunnel, there was a vastly beautiful landscape to explore – and I would arrive at my destination with time.
Grief is powerful. In fact, it’s so mighty that it has rendered our society largely incapable of discussing it. I’ve learned to understand that a somber, guilty-sounding “Hey” on the phone – like the person is returning my call after having listened to a three-day-old desperate voicemail I left them from jail – is how some people try to show respect for the situation. Other people say, “You look good!,” which is often code for “I don’t want to ask how you are, but I'm relieved you look relatively unharmed.” I say none of these things from a critical place; I know that each gesture is rooted in love.
I hope that, with time, we all become more comfortable discussing death and grief. For me, leaning into these difficult topics over the years has unlocked the key to life itself. How can we really start living if we don’t first acknowledge and strive to understand its opposite? The absence of life becomes clear when someone dies, but it can happen even while we’re alive. (Though that sounded ominous, it was intended to be inspirational.)
The past six months have been wild. Sometimes I find myself chuckling at random memories, like how embarrassed I was when Ramón got the police car grocery cart just for fun, and other times I am unreasonably sad that Ramón can’t experience the joy of the new vacuum I ordered. As I’ve said before, I spend most of my time grateful – for the signs that remind me he’s here to stay, for the people who have engulfed me in kindness, and for the ways in which my life is forever better because Ramón was a part of it.
P.S. When I went to clean out Ramón’s office in August, I saw that he’d written the key takeaways from The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz on his white marker board:
1. Be impeccable with your word.
2. Don't take anything personally.
3. Don't make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially the first one, because LAWDAMERCY have some of you folks been saying some hateful things online. The first agreement suggests you “Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” So, yeah. Jot that down somewhere; you’ll be happy you did. Or, at a minimum, I'll be happy you did. :)