PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by DOUG DOBEY
By Alane Cameron Ford
Grief is underrated, misunderstood, pervasive and sneaky. I spend much of my time working with people who are angry, not at the ways of life and death but at grief itself. “Why do I feel this way?’ “I thought this would feel different.” “Why does grief keep sneaking up on me?” “What is wrong with me?”
These are all common questions for grieving people, particularly those who are just now aging into the generations where death is more common. The roar of these questions often becomes loudest around the three-month anniversary after a loss, or at the time of the first vacation. What these two timeframes have in common is that they are when we have a chance to slow down and rest. Grief sees the resting season as an opportunity to remind us of our feelings that had been lurking beneath the surface.
My family and I just had the luxury of a five-day vacation. My husband, the two teenagers and I piled in the car for a multi-state road trip which included stops for us to do some research for my radio show, “Death Club Radio.” Each day was packed with a combination of exercise, history, and overeating. We had been looking forward to this for several months and had something fun planned for each of us.
Imagine then my surprise when I became tearful upon discovering a picturesque view. Or walking through historic cemeteries. Or over a lobster roll. I knew better than to question why this emotional upheaval was there. Somewhere between the swim trunks and driving snacks we had packed grief in the car.
My darling, mouthy Aunt Eleesa died December 27, 2018. We hit the road for vacation on March 29, 2019. Of course, grief had hitched a ride with us.
Many people feel frustration and shame at the bubbling up of grief when they do not expect it. There are few cultures within this country that welcome tears in public, but grief doesn’t care about cultural norms, lack of tissues, or who is watching. When the time comes to face your losses, there is no rescheduling.
In my case, tears threatened at the sight of vulnerable and fleeting, lovely family moments—my kids laughing at each other’s jokes, me holding my husband’s hand, watching a beautiful sunset. Each delight would put a little tadpole in my throat, and my lip would tremble. The floodgates finally opened at, of all places, the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.
We were at the museum to see an exhibit on the failed Franklin expedition of 1845. The ships Terror and Erebus and their crew of 129 men were lost during an attempt to navigate a Northwest passage. Until 2014, when the first ship was found, historians puzzled over what had happened for generations. It is a tragic story, but one that I have known for years.
My tears, although triggered by the exhibit, were far more personal. Our family expedition took us to new places, but reminded me of recent losses. The weight of grief made me feel “old”—that word we use to describe everything from the health of our connective tissues, to how others see us, to a sense of weariness about life and death.
The museum lobby sob-fest was uncomfortable, but as far as grief is concerned, all of this is completely normal and right on time. The deaths of our loves make us take stock of who we are and where we seek our happiness. Grief makes us reassess our priorities and pay attention to our memories. Sentimental longing is to be expected. Ruminations on one’s own age and life expectancy are predictable.
“Yeah, yeah,” my heart grumbled. “This still stinks.”
Indeed, the grieving process does stink at times. Losing the generation who came before you is a rapid trip in a time machine that insists on taking you to a future including your own ultimate demise. But grief isn’t all bad. Tears often dry in the naming of the pain and in recognition of all the good a life can bring. I loved childhood trips with my Aunt Eleesa. She had abundant energy, wry humor and relished new experiences. She possessed a laugh that could get us kicked out of every library in the nation. And that fine woman knew good food. Perhaps it was the company, but I don’t recall ever sharing a bad meal with her. She was and will always be a treasure in my life. When I remember her I sigh, but I also smile.
Perhaps it would be helpful if we begin to think about the grief process as being like a family vacation. We can’t plan for everything, and there will always be some discomfort on the journey. There will be difficult days when carefully laid plans are torn asunder. We may be exhausted at the end of it, but just like vacations, there is an end. Grief is a necessary and often inconvenient moment, but life will interrupt and move us along when it is time. And even if we cry at a museum, we can get up and head out into the sunshine ready to accept the next adventure.
Alane Cameron Ford is a hospice chaplain, grief counselor, writer, and the host of Death Club Radio on WRIR 97.3. She and her husband have three children and live in Northside where they encourage revelry.