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We are left with the impulse. You reach for a glass that isn't there, and your hand swishes through empty air. You step down and the stair is missing and you stumble into space. Grief is the frozen moment when you pat your pocket for your keys, the pocket where you always put your keys, and your keys aren't there. The intensely familiar is gone not just a person, but a habit. Gone.

When I do this, that happens. When I say this, you answer. When I reach for you, there you are. And then I am reaching, and nothing, nothing is there. The true has become false.

Grief is disruption. The sound of a footstep on the porch evokes the old world, the other life, and it is only the mail carrier and the new life rushes back. My mother has been gone from my life for more than thirty years, but I hear her voice sometimes when I talk, and I see her in the mirror now and then sidelong, unexpected glances. There she is. And I think, I should call Mom and tell her about that. Grief recurs and spins, a Möbius strip of memory going on and on in a loop. You aren't in denial about the death. You just keep remembering that it happened.

Thad spoken to Carol on Christmas Eve. Two days later I had to go to work. A heavy snowfall, the same storm that had kept me from visting Carol before the holiday; had closed the clinic.

Tony the doctor, and were doing ho fronts in his pickup. My cell phone rang as we were parking in front of a patient's home.

I saw Carol's name on the screen and picked up quickly and said hello.

"We lost her" David said. And this didn't make sense for a moment: She's right there. What are you talking about? He started to explain the difficulty, the trip through the snow, the emergency room. I stepped out of the truck and fell down in the snow.

Until that day, until I felt the violence of this pain, the way it seemed to shred my skin, I didn't quite know that one really does collapse. I hadn't felt it with my mother; she'd been unconscious for days and I'd anticipated her death for a long time and so the collapse was a slow one. I had time to reach back and find a chair, as it were. I think of our long line of ancestors, name after name into an almost infinite past. I imagine them gurgling and loosening their hold on the furs in the candlelight, or dropping like a stone while chopping wood. I imagine the collapse, the shock, the sorrowful people preparing them for the soil and the fire.

Sometimes I feel the naked commonness of our species. I knelt in the snow, holding the phone, and saying, "What? What?" Tony looking at me.

You flinch. You know it will hurt and you know it will hurt for a long time. You touch it like an abscessed tooth and skid away.

Grief lives in the body. MRI studies show that a grieving brain has a pattern unlike other emotions. Most of the time, an emotion lights up parts of the brain, but grief is distributed everywhere, into areas associated with memory, metabolism, visual imagery, and more. Grief can make you sick; it can be brutal, even deadly.

One is coming to grips with what forever means. And we don't do that all at once and we don't do it one day at a time but for one minute and then another minute and then another. Don't ever say:

Get over it, move on. She's in a better place now.

Grief is full of surprises. Anything is possible. You may feel unreal, drugged. Numbness is one of the most common sensa-tions. You may be calm or excited or enraged. You may be so re-lieved, relieved that it's over, the illness, the injury, the weeks and months that turned into a waiting room in which no one's number as ever called. Then you are overwhelmed with guilt for feeling relieved. It's all very confusing: hard, difficult work. Work! No one tells you that grief is like a long march in bad weather. You're forgetful and find it hard to make decisions and have no interest in the decisions you are being asked to make. You lose track of time, because time changes, too, shifting and slowing, speeding up, stopping altogether. An hour becomes an elastic, outrageously delicate thing, disappearing or stretching beyond comprehension.

One is deranged, in the truest sense of the word: everything arranged has come apart.

In grief, I have baked a cake in the middle of the afternoon and left out the sugar and not been able to figure out why it tasted so bad. I have watched a lot of television and stayed up very late and had many strange dreams that evaporated in the morning light.

I have awoken each morning to the shock renewed, to think, He died. She died. Decades of Buddhist practice and many hours at the bedsides of the dying, and all that these have given me in my weeks of acute grief is not acceptance but awareness of not accepting. I can see my disbelief for what it is. I think, He died, and then take a deep breath and reset my compass to this new world.

This new world in which a person who had immense influence on my life does not exist. This vacuum. I am dead, too; the me that lived in the other world, the world, where she was, died. The me who knew instinctively where he was, and suffered a little when he was far away died. Who am I now? All the possibilities of the life of that former me, the me-with-her, are extinguished. Grieving, one is thrust into a new life - an unwelcome life. it takes time for that life to become familiar, to feel like the life you are actually living. You can be happy again, but you can never be happy, and the same again.

A friend of mine called the numbness that falls over you immediately after a death "like swimming in thick gelatin mixed with cotton candy and filled with webs and you're trying to push it aside and you can't push it aside." You may not remember much of the days after a death. I remember little about my mother's funeral, though I did a lot of the organizing. I remember the fight my brother and sister had afterward, the casseroles on the dining table. But I don't remember how we got the church ready or if there were flowers or what my father did that day or what I wore.

I remember sitting in the back yard late that night, drinking bourbon with her friend Hutch, the music teacher who had been my bandleader in middle school. We were drinking and watching the stars, and I was so tired. Nothing will be the same, I thought, leaning back in the chaise longue as though into a pool, sinking into the warm dark night. I remember that.

You have trouble remembering details while the rest of the world forgets the big event. People are almost surprised that you haven't forgotten, too. What we miss is often the most mundane thing. How she folded a towel. The sound of his foot on the porch.

Her handwriting. I keep a recipe card from my mother's collection on my bulletin board because she had beautiful handwriting and she tried to instill that in me, with little luck. You miss the snore that used to annoy you so. The scent of soap. The pat on the bottom. Small, ordinary things that no one else misses. You can't say to a grieving person who is suddenly frantic about not being able to do the laundry together that doing the laundry isn't important.

Only the grieving person knows why it is so important, why not being able to do the laundry together is an immeasurable loss.

The loss may be accepted in time, but this isn't the same as "getting over it." There are so many things not to say now: At least your mother and father are together again. He's in a better place. You'll marry again someday. (People say such stupid things. I just heard about a person who was told her daughter's death was just the result of her karma. Consider asking a neutral friend to stay with you during the funeral as a stupidity monitor. Let them be the gentle bouncer: to say that you need to be alone, need to step out, can't do any more hugging, don't want to hold any more hands.)

We are trained about crying from a very young age. In the West, we often judge open grief as unseemly, "hysterical"— yet a stoic person is judged as unfeeling. Men and women receive wildly different messages about tears. How and when we cry is conditioned by our entire experience and has nothing to do with whether our hearts are broken. Some people cry, some don't. Some cry a lot, others a little. Some cry for a long time, others briefly. The tears of grief are structurally different from the tears of laughter and happiness; they are literally of a different shape. There is no prescription for tears. What not to say: Don't cry; it will make you feel worse. Don't say: Why aren't you crying? It will make you feel better.

Crying is neither necessary nor sufficient. The grief counseling partners John W. James and Russell Friedman write, "During our grief recovery seminars, when someone starts crying, we gently urge them to 'talk while you cry?'

“The emotions are contained in the words the griever speaks, not in the tears they cry. What is fascinating to observe, is that as the thoughts and feelings are spoken, the tears usually disappear, and the depth of feeling communicated seems much more powerful than mere tears… Tears [can] become a distraction from the real pain.”

Pps. 187-192. Excerpted from "Advice for Future Corpses: A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying"  by Sallie Tisdale. Published by Touchstone. Copyright 2018. 

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