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Where does it go?

I needed her this week.

It was a particularly difficult week—a rough few days at work, the stinging realization that I have been ghosted by a long-time friend, the escalating issues in Afghanistan and, of course, the fatigue that comes from brooding over the rise in COVID cases. Melancholy prevailed.

What I needed was my friend Erika, who would know exactly what to say to dismiss rude comments, to toughen me up and make me laugh at myself. In her distinctive way, she would dissect current events with her razor-sharp intellect and professional familiarity with international culture and politics. She would let me know—without ever uttering the words—that she loved me. Then we would talk about shoes and my disdain for cats.

Gone now for 13 years, Erika should have lived into her 50s, and when I think of that, I am surprised by the mist in my eyes, and I wonder, after all this time:

Where does the grief go?

One day recently a friend, mourning the loss of her dad, lamented that the grief suddenly enveloped her at the most inopportune times—as she picked Big Boys off her tomato vine or heard “Chicago” on the radio.

“When does it go away?” she asked rhetorically, expecting no answer.

As far as I know, although often a silent companion, grief never evaporates. This week, my sister-in-law MaryJane snapped a photo of Mt. Moriah’s Wake on the New Fiction shelf at our favorite local branch library. Instantly I was transported to Wednesday nights when my mom and I ate dinner, ran errands at Walgreen’s, and then ended up at that library to check out Mom’s books for the week. Our first stop was always the New Fiction shelves, and MaryJane’s photo stopped me in my tracks. All I could think about was how much my novel’s placement there would delight Mom. This afternoon, I had to see for myself. The novel was checked out—a good problem to have!—so I dawdled down the aisles of large print editions, trilling my hands over the books that undoubtedly Mom’s bony hands once cradled. It’s as if no time had passed and I could almost hear the footsteps of her walker behind me; tears welled in my eyes, and I wondered:

Where does the grief go?

A week ago I finished a book, Season of Darkness (which I highly recommend), about the Marcia Trimble and other murders that dominated our local media back in the 1970s. In 1975, I was turning 12 when Marcia, two years younger, disappeared while delivering Girl Scout cookies. My school was walking distance from her house, and suddenly we were all Marcias. On Easter Sunday, Marcia’s body was found, and our city was never the same. Innocence had been shattered, for us kids and our parents. As the years went on, Marcia’s parents both passed away and only her brother (a few years her senior) is left in possession of the memories and the pain.

So where does the grief go?

According to Elisabeth Kubler Ross, grief has five stages. This theory is taught to psychology students everywhere. I think enumerating the stages does grief a disservice, for it assumes that once you move through the five stages, you’re home free. But that’s just not true. I believe grief is a chronic condition: It resides right at the base of our emotions, threatening to bubble up at any time. Whether it’s grief over the death of a loved one, anguish over lost income, or the painful loss of a friendship… whatever the grief: it is with us always.

And maybe this is not all bad. Perhaps accepting the fact that grief is a freckle we wear on our emotional skin enables us to lean into it when necessary. Grief enables our eyes to be refreshed by cleansing tears; it causes the beauty of the natural world to seem that much more stunning. It means the kindnesses of others are that much more meaningful, embraces that much more redeeming. Like a rain shower soaking a flower bed, melancholy can have rejuvenating properties.

In some way that I can’t explain, grief got me through a long week. Harsh words of a friend were softened because I could hear Erika’s voice—the tenor of a true friend—in the precious part of my mind where she lives. The sharp knife of betrayal was allayed by the unconditional love of my parents—a birthright I was lucky enough to claim.   

So where does grief go?

I believe it goes where we need it to: confined, closeted to enable us to feel unfettered joy. Or rearing its head to inspire us to wallow for a minute and let the tears flow. Grief’s presence in our lives is perhaps what makes us most human and for that, in some strange way, grief can be an uninvited blessing.

Yesterday’s rains watered my grief, and I indulged my melancholy, but today the bright sun warrants that I push my grief—all forms of it—back into the genie’s bottle where it resides in my heart. Grief has done its job for the time being: reminding me that I have loved. That I am loved.

And so, onward.

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