I live 500 feet above sea level. It’s not much, but it’s enough that, when it snows, I’m trapped, even if the rest of the city is not. While others may be free to come and go from their homes without fear of careening down a driveway-turned-bobsled-track, I also know, whatever the weather is doing, I’m witnessing the worst of it. This leaves me in a curious position of both disadvantage and advantage. I believe the same can be said of grief.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming of my father. In every dream, I know he’s dead (this has been the case ever since he passed, with the exception of a few instances right after his death), and in every dream, he’s fixing something or giving me advice on some practical matter—doing the things he did in real life. But now, when he appears, I’ve begun to relax, and I tell myself, “It’s okay. He’ll come back for the important things.” Exactly that phrase, every time: He’ll come back for the important things.
A friend once told me, following a break-up, “Grief is not a linear process.” I’ve said that to myself and many others countless times since. Grief is an Etch A Sketch in the hands of a toddler. Its lines run helter-skelter in every direction, making it impossible to locate the epicenter of pain. Am I upset because my father died thirty-two months ago? Or because I just said goodbye to someone I love? Or because, five years after the fact, I’ve finally deleted the emails I’d held onto from my last relationship?
People leave our lives for a thousand different reasons, and I am not convinced one way is easier to bear than another. Whether by death, by choice, by necessity, or by slow and neglectful fade, losing someone still amounts to coping with loss. It still means facing the hole he’s left in your days, turning each morning to a heart-spot he alone filled and feeling it pulse with emptiness. To me, it means returning to these lines from Deborah A. Miranda’s “Advice from La Llorana”: “Lean into the pain. / You can’t outrun it.”
My father is not coming back for the important things, and yet, I kept his number in my phone for over a year after his death. Holding onto emails from a relationship long-departed has done me no good, except that taking so long to get rid of them made me realize something: I have learned to be gentle with grief. When I dragged those emails into the trash, there was no internal chastisement, no I can’t believe you’ve kept these for half a decade. There was only acceptance that, until now, it had not felt okay to let them go.
It’s late winter and snowing for the first time this season. Two weeks ago, I was running in leggings, and now I’m stuck in the house, doing interval workouts around a small rectangle of carpet. I gave up believing the forecast after last year’s sudden storm, when the predicted four inches of powder morphed into a foot and a half. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor, but I’m going to use it anyway: we never know what’s coming. We can be going along fine one day, and the next, we’re hit by a shock of cold we thought had already passed.
I’ve lived in this part of Portland for four years now. I know the drill: when the snow falls, you turn up the heat and burrow under a blanket, and you wait, knowing it will eventually subside. I have learned to treat grief much the same. So when my heart breaks again, I turn down the lights and crawl into bed. I get quiet, and I cry, and I listen to the same handful of songs on a loop. I let my mind cast about in all the directions it needs to. I let it ask the questions I know will have no answers, then I take it by the hand and say, “Enough now,” and I sleep, and tomorrow, I begin again.
In “The Latest Winter,” Maggie Nelson writes, “Suddenly I get it / You can suffer happiness too, for what it’s worth / You can handle yourself gently.” The magnificent and maddening thing about humans is we’re veritable kaleidoscopes of emotions. Gordi’s cover of “Avant Gardener” may have me flat out on the floor in one moment, but that ridiculous guide to dog breeds on Bored Panda will still be funny when I take the bait and click it. Grief is not a linear process, but nor does it always hold an emotional monopoly. I have learned that this, too, is okay.
Grief is the house in the hills. Things look worse up here, but that’s why it’s important to remember there is life down below—why it’s important to occasionally climb down, be that for a phone call with a friend or a silly article on the internet. It’s important to be honest, and in the times you’re one big heart bruise, to treat yourself accordingly. But it’s equally important to remember that the God of Psalm 107 is also the God of the swells in your soul: “He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.” He walks with us even in our deepest aches, and He will mend us, by and by.