Grief: The Best I Can Do

My Daddy Joe was killed by a train when I was three years old. My older sister was four, and my mother was newly pregnant with my little sister. After the baby was born, my mother had what we would now call postpartum depression, complicated, of course, by the death. She thought to herself, Well, I’ve had this baby. The two older girls can take care of themselves. I’m not needed here anymore.

That’s traumatic grief manifesting into physical thought.

It’s impossible to put my finger on who among us Daddy Joe’s death affected the most. Me, who was at the age when a daughter carries the strongest attachment to her father. My older sister, who had fourteen months greater understanding of the event than I. My younger sister, who lived for almost ten years without even the briefest experience of a father, until my amazing stepdad arrived. Or maybe it was my grandmother, who buried her child then sealed off her grief so completely she mentioned her son no more than a handful of times until the day she died. Or my mom, who sometimes emails me on December 19 in remembrance of an event that happened over fifty years ago. Each of us, in our own way, felt the pressing hand of loss shaping, molding, forming us.

My life experiences—watching my stepdad pass over to the other side; communing with those who have left this world before me; reading about others’ death experiences—have convinced me the dead are fine. We can pray for the dead, but we needn’t worry about them. They are fine. We are the ones riveted by loss.

Left behind, we grapple with a pain that physically wounds us. Holes riddle our hearts, digging deep wells in our souls that neither time can heal nor grieving remove. No matter the good things that rush in—my stepdad whom I loved so much—those places of emptiness stay with us. I question why life is set up this way. What is the point of bonds that tie so closely but can be severed so quickly? Why is life devised to cause us so much pain from loss? So many, many of us walk around with wisps of loss at the edge of our consciousness constantly asking, where is daddy? What happened to mommy? Why did God take my child from me? The loss ripples out until it seems the whole world shudders.

Nor must the loss be traumatic. We grieve, inconsolable, for our aged parents who have lived long, good, full lives. We miss them terribly. We pause and hang our heads when a memory strikes us full force, not wanting the world to see how grief can still slay us. We love and we love and we love and we lose.

Who thought this was a good idea?

And yet it is.

So, what to do with it? My cousin, what he did was to lead the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the actions that took his teenage son from him. Let me repeat that—a grieving parent led the funeral congregation in a prayer of forgiveness for the loss of his son.

My mother, she decided “things” were unimportant, only people mattered. She has spent the rest of her life throwing away, de-cluttering, and smiling at everyone she meets.

Me, I write. In many of my novels and short stories, the dad is dead. The daughter or son who is left behind wrestles with the loss, trying to find a place to step that doesn’t turn into quicksand. As I write, I try to see through the loss, to claim back from death everything it would try to take from us.

I did this with the tiny pearl necklace I wore this Christmas Eve. After Daddy Joe died, a man came to Mother and said her husband had ordered the delicate necklace for his daughter. That made no sense to Mother—why would Joe buy one necklace when he had two daughters? But she paid the man for the necklace and tucked it away with the handful of things she kept from that time. Last year, going through her stuff, she came across the necklace and offered it to us girls, scam though it probably was. I took the necklace and this year, because my dress needed a second necklace, I wore it to Christmas Eve dinner.

Even as I closed the cheap gold clasp around my neck, I wondered anew, why? Why had I accepted something that surely had no connection to Daddy Joe? Did I pitifully act on the slim chance he had, in fact, bought it for me? Or was it something else?

I held the tiny pearl in my fingertips and felt the answer: the “probably a scam” necklace graced my neck because nothing is sacred. Not the wallet that was Daddy Joe’s, not the Ole Miss memorabilia strewn across my house—none of it. The joke is on the man who sold the necklace to Mother. He thought a memento grasped in a sweaty palm could contain and assuage grief. But the only thing that can do that is love, a force so strong it can redeem even the sacrilege of death. Love makes anything, and everything, sacred, even a scam necklace.

When the grief of death strikes anew—as it did this Christmas Eve when I was wearing the tiny pearl necklace and my nephew suddenly, traumatically died—I can only look for the moments when that love manifests itself.

The memory of my Daddy Joe’s arms enveloping and comforting me.

The image of my nephew’s smiling face lighting up whenever he greeted me.

These rays of love that were once in this world left their imprint, and they stay in this world for all time, waiting only for us to reach out and touch the memory of them.

So, basically, I come around to saying those who die are still here. That’s not letting go. It’s not accepting death as a part of life. It’s not reconciling myself to this configuration that includes repeated, painful loss. I hate death. I always will. But I love love.

And that’s the best I can do.

grief, grief and love, losing a loved one at Christmas, surviving grief, when a loved one dies

Comments (32)

  • Thank you, Ellen, for writing this during this season. I’m feeling the void of family and friends who have died and your words help me process the old grief as well as the recent one.

    • I thought, Susanne, that is something else about grief that goes unsaid in the post but is inherent in its existence: new grief resurrects old grief. I really don’t like this system—guess I made that pretty clear—but I’m doing the best I can with it. Thanks for your support.

  • Hi Ellen, I connected with you on FB some time ago – I went to White Station with Tom. I have
    read alot of your posts and other writings. Your talent as a writer is so profound and thought-provoking, each one triggering my own personal thoughts, journeys that I perhaps stored back in a memory library. This post was particularly poignant given what your family is dealing with this Christmas, and I am so very sorry for everyone’s loss.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Yes, Tom has told me of the connection. I’m so glad that my writings have resonated with you, and I much appreciating your letting me know—sometimes I simply don’t know how a piece will be received. It’s been a hard Christmas, and the thought and prayers of those who love the Carrick and Prewitt families helps so much. Thank you.

  • This is some of your best writing. So genuine. I had no idea you had experienced so much loss. I agree that writing about it now is most helpful

  • You made me cry with your words that are for all of us, for your many losses, new and old that are always new. My friend lost her 22 year old daughter 2 days before Christmas in a car accident, and yesterday was my father’s birthday, so this was very timely for me. Thank you for writing it. Your writing shines with clarity.

    • Oh, goodness. I am so sorry for your friend, Luanne. I know you are thinking about your dad, born on Boxing Day—he was a little lagniappe present baby. The sharing of memories has really helped the family, lessening the impact of the trauma just a bit. Thank you for your kindness, and I hope your New Year opens with bright times.

  • I read something recently about the tradition of telling ghost stories at the holidays helps us keep that connection to those who have died. I do know that at the holiday season, more than any other time, I miss my sister. Time may heal the wounds, but never completely. Her death was over 40 years ago, but it still haunts my parents who had already lost another child as an infant. There are others who are no longer living here physically but who continue to touch my life at unexpected moments.

    Your story of the necklace brings back the times I wear the pearl necklace my grandmother gave me. I have so many memories of my grandmother and how she encouraged me to find my way in life even if it wasn’t always conventional.

    Thanks for this beautiful post!

    • Thank you, Deborah, for your memories. We just came home from a gathering where all we did was tell stories about my nephew. That talking the dead back into being seems so important to me. I’m so sorry about the loss of your sister, and I do understand the continuing haunting. But what a gift from your grandmother—unconventionality! So glad you had her as a guide.

    • Thanks, Joanne. When we went to church today I thought I wasn’t too happy with God right now, but Jesus’s forgiving those who were killing him even as they killed him—that’s a story of radical love I can get behind. Hope you are heading into the New Year well.

  • It’s good when we experience what we need at church – or anytime. We are having nice family time and celebrations to close out the year. I wish you and yours blessings for the new year, although I realize that times are difficult.

  • Beautifully written, Ellen. “Traumatic grief manifests into physical thought…” is a profound and true way to say it. My own experience of deep grief was that it felt like fear, and went straight to the gut…..within a year of loss I developed a tumor, right there in the gut. Especially if the loss is of a very long and intimate relationship, the process of re-imagining the universe never ends. Thank you for this piece. I wish you peace of heart and mind in the new year.

    • Thank you. I hesitated when I wrote about the real holes drilled in the heart by grief, imagining the more practical scoffing. But your experience with the tumor proves it true. My nephew’s family is only just beginning “re-imagining” their lives. Thanks for your thoughts and I, too, wish you peace in the new year.

  • This is such a beautiful and graceful post, Ellen. I’m so sorry for your losses and how they have threaded through your life. We are all changed by the irreversible endings and the holes left by those who’ve died. Losses are unavoidable and mysterious and painful. Somehow we manage to go on and seek life. The world is full of love and that’s how we find ourselves again.

    • Thank you. My mother was telling me a story about her early experience of death, and I asked her what she had learned from it. She said, its finality. The “irreversible ending,” as you say. But, in another way, it isn’t as easy as that. The thread continues, always, usually through the love, again as you say. Thanks for being a part of this post and its discussion. Hope your New Year is a good one.

      • I used to provide grief counseling and worked for a time with hospice. Death is a profound experience for the dying and those left behind. I think mortality is a major factor in shaping the human experience. I can certainly say it’s changed me. <3 Thanks again for the beautiful post.

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