I burst into tears the other day at the nail salon. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” came on over the speakers, and though it was muffled by people’s chatter, the line, “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow,” cut through the scars of my heart like a hot knife. Tears poured out of me and into the pedicure basin.
I don’t apologize anymore, though.
It used to scare me that grief was non-linear. That it can creep up without warning and strike. I would rush to hide and chide myself to pull it together.
Now, I seek it. The moment when anguish is so raw it seems to fold the space-time continuum and the loss feels like it happened yesterday.
Grief is not something we need fear. It need not be escaped or avoided. Grief can transport us back to those who are gone.
Embracing grief was the only way I could learn this, but it was a journey to get there.
In a seven-year span, I lost my great-grandmother, great-aunt, great-uncle, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, dog (read, child), and brother. I was close with all of them, but the death that turned my world inside out—the death I feared I would never recover from—was my mother.
Death is not easier when expected. My mother was ill for three long years before she left this world. As dedicated A-types, we would lie in bed together planning her memorial service. She wanted her ashes scattered at sea so she could “swim with the dolphins forever.” We talked through every detail from my outfit to a playlist.
Though having things in order helps immensely when someone dies, nothing prepares you for the realization that you will never see them again. It does not matter how ready you try to be.
When they pass, it’s like your insides have been ripped out, leaving you hollow.
On the day we scattered her ashes, nothing went as envisioned. The boat was more bathtub than Titanic, and the captain regretfully told me that dolphins were unlikely. Most people were so bereaved, they were unable to finish their assigned passage, giving it to another family member to complete. I imagined my mother’s disappointment. This was not what we had planned.
But at the very moment her ashes hit the water, something extraordinary happened.
Two dolphins breached on the side of the boat.
Everyone, including the ceremony officiant, started sobbing. My grief felt out of control. It both surprised and overwhelmed me.
When unable to control the bereavement process, many of us attempt to run away from it altogether. Rather than learning how to ride my loss, I tried to get ahead of it, using busyness to avoid my mourning.
But there is no way to outrun a broken heart. It is inside of you.
When we can’t outrun our grief, many of us then try to wall it off. We cement our hearts shut hoping they will never shatter again. We ward off opportunities for love and connection—anything to avoid being trampled by that pain once more.
I convinced myself I wanted to stay single, that I did not want a family of my own. Yet in each pause, I would long for love. The idea of having a family frightened me, but it was not the family itself that scared me, it was losing them.
Our heart’s wounds still exist behind any walls we might erect. Those wild horses will continue to buck and bray, but instead of giving them the space to run, they end up trampling us from the inside out. Hoping to avoid a broken heart, many of us find ourselves disconnected and, paradoxically, even more heartbroken.
When I met someone who I wanted to ride through life with, I knew I needed to face the feral beast that I thought grief was.
I stopped running.
I broke down the remaining walls around my heart and stepped over the rubble, coming eye to eye with my loss.
For years, I had avoided watching old family videos for fear of the anticipated pain. But one day, wanting to share this part of my life with my beloved, I felt brave enough to put one on. As the camera panned to my mom making a joke, I simultaneously burst into tears and laughter. I was instantly transported to her, hearing her laugh, smelling her smell. It was miraculous.
That was when I got it. Grief is no monster. It is a misunderstood creature we can learn to befriend.
After that, I was hooked, hungry for more. I watched hours of videos that day. I sprayed an old sweater of hers with her perfume, so I could inhale her. These acts that had once terrified me for fear they would overtake me became my vehicles back to her.
At first grief is scary. It is uncontrollable and uncomfortable.
We try every tactic to not face the monster, only to discover that no monster exists.
The monster is our idea of what grief is. It is a construct of our fears.
Because one day, you will hear a song or sniff a familiar waft, and as tears flood from your eyes without warning, instead of doubling over in the ache of emptiness, you will realize you are smiling.
You will realize that grief is a wild horse you can ride back to those you love. That is precisely why it is so powerful.