There are so many metaphors for grief: a thing with feathers; a landscape; a winding journey; a run through the thistles and weeds into (one hopes, eventually) a clearing. All of these, in many ways, are an attempt to frame an experience that lacks a frame, or at the very least, actively resists one.
After my son died, I was angrier than I’d ever been. I hated, or at the very least resented, every healthy, breathing person, including myself. Which is one way of saying: I hated the world. Every person in an active grief state is familiar with this feeling – indescribable and almost unbearable, and yet as palpable as an anvil on one’s back– of the world going on without the beloved in it.
It was odd to me, in those initial days after Ronan’s diagnosis, and again, most acutely in the months after his death, that everyone wasn’t miserable. I couldn’t see much beyond my misery. There was respite, of course: I was in love; I was trying to write and read and work, and there was relief in that effort, as there often is; I had coffee dates and nights at the bar with my girlfriends. “You must feel like a shell of a person,” someone said to me during this time. Not a super helpful description, and also incorrect; I wasn’t a shell. I was a sponge.
Weirdly, this is one of grief’s weird but unmistakable gifts.
When you’re in an active state of mourning, everything has meaning: a beam of light falling in a particular way; a snippet of conversation exchanged between joggers that you overhear while walking on a path; a song that happens to be on the radio at the time when you most needed to hear it. The world becomes saturated with meaning, and with a kind of odd purpose that is impossible to detect but is still there, just beyond your mind’s grasp. You know it without seeing it, without proof.
So in some sense, grieving is a kind of faith: mysterious, terrible and awesome in its grip and grasp; a state that resists all categories. I don't want to live in that state, but I am grateful for it. Why? Because it reinvigorated my belief in mystery. Not in the bogus idea that “things happen for a reason,” because they don’t, they simply happen, but in the idea that we don’t know what’s going to happen, and so leaning into the likelihood of chaos is the only choice we have.
Uncomplicated. Singular. Necessary and functional.
It’s like reaching into a spice drawer and only finding one option – the only one you can use. For the bereaved, in a world full of signs and meanings, having that single choice registers as great relief.