Grief is a funny thing. It comes out of nowhere, after a typical Friday evening spent doing mundane things with your partner like making dinner and watching a movie and not worrying about anything really important. And then a knock on the door starts a chain reaction that you can’t see the end of.
You pause the movie, take the person inside, try to calm her down; reassure her that she is probably overreacting. But the rational part of you, the part that suspects because you know that life is a shit show and terrible things happen to good people, is awakened and you feel the adrenaline flood your body as you try to reassure both her and yourself that this is a false alarm, nothing to worry about, there’s a simple explanation.
Your partner takes a spare key and they walk down the street together to check the house; you stay behind but look up hospital phone numbers just in case because you are running scenarios in your mind. It doesn’t take long, and then the front door opens again and you know for sure as she stumbles inside, her face paper white and her hands ice cold. Your partner did not return with her.
For a few seconds your mind struggles to comprehend. She doesn’t say a single word, she cannot as she sinks to the floor and begins to shake, but you don’t need words – everything you need to know is right there on her face so you run down the street, just four houses away, no tears yet but your brain is trying to tell you something. You can’t listen to that voice, not yet.
And then you see your partner sitting on the porch with his head in his hands and every scrap of hopeful doubt that you were hanging on to is gone. Shock washes over you and you begin to tremble; it squeezes your body in such a way that you can’t hear, can’t think, can’t put together a sentence. In seconds, as comprehension sets in, grief crushes you, taking your breath away and your feet out from under you. You sit beside your partner and both of you gasp for air, holding on to each other but unable to stay afloat in this new reality that has just crashed down upon you.
You can’t follow what the medics are saying, you ask them to repeat it again. And again. What happened? Who are we waiting for? Nothing makes sense. You can’t go into the house, please wait outside. The police ask for identification, establish who is what relation to the lost one, who lives in the house, and what we were all doing before calling 911.
The police say words you don’t understand. You call his parents and his sister, because your partner is unable to; and cry even more as they arrive and fall under the weight of the grief that hangs over everything. You all wait in the cold while a parade of first responders and police tromp thru the house. Respectful, polite, somber. They offer their condolences and blankets and water bottles but don’t tell you anything, really. You call your children because they grew up with the lost one and they will be devastated but need to know. The police still won’t let you into the house. They hand you business cards, take photos, ask questions. Say the same words that make no sense. Neighbors come out to see what is going on, following the flashing lights. The police ask the same questions again. And again. No, we say. No.
There’s nothing to do so the police release everyone to stumble back to your house to get warm and wait. Hours go by and your mind is awash in memories and questions of your own. Every thought is of the one you just lost, almost-forgotten memories spark and demand attention. You think of the last time you saw them, your last interaction, and you wonder if you should have done something different. If you should have, could have, known. So many questions and so few answers.
Real-life investigations take much longer than you have been led to believe from TV shows. Statements are taken, referrals to grief counseling are handed out, more condolences. Numbness settles over you as you begin to wonder what to do. It’s far too late to do anything really, so you putter, wiping the counter and offering tea. You can’t sit still for long. The policeman gives you just enough answers to raise a million more questions: what if, why. Finally, everyone goes home and you try to sleep. It’s not possible, of course, and you can’t focus on anything except the grief and the questions. It is the early hours of the morning, the weekend; not much is going to happen until Monday.
Grief steals your sleep, steals your appetite. You stumble thru the weekend, crying, making more phone calls, gathering with family, sharing the sadness, sharing memories. You force yourself to eat some carrots and celery from a platter, and drink too much coffee. You wonder what the hell to do now. The lost one was your brother, too; his life twined with your own from the day he was born and raised alongside your children – a brother to them as well, just a couple years apart – he is in three decades’ worth of memories.
Monday comes and you have to do something. Have to protect the parents because while losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent there are things a parent should not have to see. You and your partner gather supplies – gloves, garbage bags, cleaners – and trudge down the street. You clean the kitchen first because it is easier, just normal cleaning of a dirty kitchen. Not fun, but not as heart-wrenching as what he is tackling in the other room. You steel yourself, bar your heart and barricade your mind as you focus on the cleaning. You sweep up garbage, gather mail, pick up dirty clothes from the living room, throw out rotten potatoes. Finally you go join him in the other room because it’s too much for one person and he should not bear this alone; you try not to think as you kneel beside your partner and help scrub and rinse and throw towels away, tears running down your face.
The day moves on and anger settles in like a storm cloud. You yell at the lost one in your mind and cry all over again as plans and arrangements are made. The anger wars with the grief, each alternately taking control of your thoughts until regret sneaks in and even as you reassure others that it isn’t their fault you wonder what if. Why.
Tuesday comes and you can’t quite face the world but you can’t sit in the house any more so you put a coat on and walk and walk and walk. A bus takes you somewhere you can be anonymous and you choke down some food because you know you should. But the world is small and you run into a relative; it catches you by surprise and you do your best to not break down in public. You stumble home and reach out to your children, check on them, feel angry again that they must deal with this loss.
Later that night you catch your breath a little bit – you find yourself chuckling at a stupid game show on TV. You get a few hours sleep, take a shower, and go to work because you need something else to think about.
Wednesday. You eat half an apple and some peanut butter, still no appetite for a real meal. And then a friend says they are thinking of you and suddenly you are drowning again, hiding in the bathroom as ugly sobs wrack your body, the pain knifing through your heart. Your control is on thin ice, your mind will not stay out of the memory trenches and it only takes one kind word, one awkward hug, one sympathy card left on your desk and you are lost again.