We had just finished brunch. Abandoned plates of half-eaten waffles sat beside glasses sticky with the remnants of unsipped orange juice. I was putting on my jacket, bracing for the fall chill, when I overheard my newly-grieving sorority sister say, “I don’t know where to put my mother’s death.” Surreptitiously I wrote her a quick note to read during her flight home. As I folded the tiny slip of paper and slid it into her purse, I thought I was finished thinking about and responding to her pain. Fait accompli. Silly me! Her question haunted me for weeks. I woke up the next morning wondering where DO we put our grief and was that even her question? Did she mean, what should she do with the emotions that assault her in the middle of the night or how should she handle the fact that her mother is no longer alive? Are those questions the same and does it make a difference if they aren’t? Now I’ve twisted myself into a tizzy over here. Let me try to sort this thing out. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume her question concerned her emotions. (Since she wasn’t talking to me, I’m having to make all sorts of assumptions, but stay with me). So, here it is and I’m putting it to you: what should we do with all the bone-slicing hurt that overtakes us when we lose someone we love? Should we ignore it? Pretend it’s not there or, if it’s there, tell ourselves it’s not so bad? Should we be strong and stiff-lipped, only mentioning Aunt Sheila’s name when someone asks “How are you doing since she died last winter?” We know the stuff we often do when tears become our mascara: we try to drown the despair in Hennessy or weed, bad boyfriends, another trip to the mall, a fourth slice of pecan pie. We also know these things don’t work. They are called distractions for good reason: they DIS our real feelings and make us lose TRACTION on the things we should be doing to head toward healing. They busy us, in the meantime, but one look in the rearview mirror shows us that all we were doing was killing ourselves, softly. We chase our tails inevitably ending up where we started, blubbering and lost. Alone. So, here’s the question again: where do we put the emotions grief hands us? How do we cope when we suffer loss, when we find ourselves in the center of an empty football field suited up for the game that never starts. The score board empty. When my Mama died, (wow, it’s been 28 years! Let me sit in this a minute) I became a quivering shell. I was scared to leave the house. McDonalds was a landmine. I never knew when I might see a little girl eating fries with her mother and feel my head blowing up, my eyes detonating with tears. I tapdanced on eggshells, never knowing when a tiny trigger would set off a weeklong episode of bawling. I remember distinctly driving down Ashby Street one night and Chaka came on the radio. I don’t recall the song but whatever it was, I pulled over and cried for an hour while rain battered the windshield. Artists are lucky. They know what to do with grief. They drive over to Michaels, buy a cheap piece of canvas and paint and paint until reds and blues bring Daddy back to life. Musicians pluck and pound the keys til their fingertips bleed and grandma is revived. Sculptors (lucky dogs) chisel their sisters’ smell; comedians humor us (“The chemo made her so bald, I thought I was married to Steve Harvey”). Then they laugh until the next tear bludgeons. Then there’s us. Coming out of Safeway, carrying a bag of kale that suddenly turns into an armful of agony. Putting the car in reverse, looking in the side mirror then parking because Daddy’s favorite song just came on. It’s hard to drive when you can’t see straight. Watching a dumb movie on Netflix then becoming short of breath when the character says something that takes us THERE and leaves us bereft. May I make a suggestion? I’m no expert on this grieving thing, I still have millions of tears on layaway, but the wind seems not to mind when I sob against her silver coat. The sky is also gracious, buffeting my aching head with an azure carpet. ┬áSometimes I go outside, look up and find Mama’s face bobbing on a cloud. Trees are understanding. Last Wednesday, I told a tall pine that it’d been ages since I’d hugged Aunt Ruth and she answered, I miss my auntie too. The smooch of nature. The pleasure of knowing there’s always some grass somewhere. The lush touch of snow on my window soothes me when tears burn my cheeks like acid. Sunshine is medicine. Raindrops are little fingertips massaging my skin. I wish the answer were a magic button I could press each time I remember that Toya, Mama, Daddy, Donald, Aunt Ruth and Lorenda are gone. It’s not. Grief has raked the skin from my hands. Grief leaves me punchdrunk. That’s why I snuck a note to my sorority sister instead of letting my mouth fling her a few careless words. All I think I know is with each breath, I miss Mama more. Time ain’t done shit but made me aware of how long she’s been gone. Forever is forever. Still, rainbows are arms around my heart. Clouds are kleenex. In which purse have you hidden your grief?
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