I stumbled across an article about how employers can support their employees when they’re grieving. I suppose the fancy algorithms of the interwebs have picked up on the fact that, in my own grief, I’ve searched for every book, support group and therapist I could find to make sense of my loss and everything that has happened since.
In the article, the author explained that “grief experts recommend 20 days of bereavement leave for close family members.” She went on to write, “Four days is the average bereavement leave allotted for the death of a spouse or child.”
I tried to think back to how I was feeling four days after I lost the love of my life on Dec. 2, 2020. I don’t know exactly what I did on the fourth day, because I didn’t muster the strength to write anything until more than a week later. But I imagine day four was much like days one, two and three, when the only thing I could manage to eat without my stomach curling was broth and smoothies; when I cried so much I neared dehydration; when I could barely speak, so I just sat in a room in silent anger as if waiting to be woken up from a bad dream; when I couldn’t bear sleeping in bed alone, so both of our kids, my mother and brother piled into my (formerly our) bedroom and comforted me when I woke at 4 a.m. in tears and anguish. My dreams were still mundane. Nothing of note occurred in them. But when I’d awake it was back to life ... back to reality.
I’d immediately feel the weight of my love’s absence. I’d remember why he wasn’t there. We’d been together for over five years and I could count the number of nights we hadn’t slept in our bed together.
I’d remember he wasn’t there ― not because he was in his art studio painting or over at his mother’s house for one of her epic parties that I’d tapped out of early or out to the store buying our favorite late-night snacks. He wasn’t there because he was gone.
Then I’d remember why the house was so quiet. Or why our car wasn’t sitting out front in its usual place.
Because four days prior, I had watched helplessly as my love died in our car. I’d recall every second of the traumatic way it all happened. How two weeks prior, we’d thought he had a lingering stomach bug of some kind. How his mother had taken him to the emergency room one week before, on Thanksgiving, and he was sent home with nausea pills, a nondescript diagnosis of “abdominal pain, unknown cause.” How I’d tried again to take him to the hospital when he said his stomach pain had come back and worsened but we’d only made it two blocks from our house before he went into convulsions. How I’d jumped out of our still-moving car, nearly forgetting to put the gear in park, trying to get to his side and how in a foggy sequence of events I’d called 911, yelled for people at a nearby bus stop ― pleading for anyone who knew CPR to help ― before trying to do it myself to no avail. How our 3-year-old son was in the back seat while the whole scene unfolded, crying and watching, though unaware as the ambulance arrived and placed his father, my love, on the ground and made attempts at reviving him. And all I could do was sit and watch and scream and cry.
On day four, after all of that? I probably had eaten some solid food for the first time. I may have even held a few coherent conversations, but my mind and my entire body very much felt like it was still sitting on the curb in the cold, wailing and waiting for a miracle that never came.
The mere thought of being asked to return to my work, as a professor and a journalist, four days after that experience still makes me feel faint. Of course, I am considered one of the lucky ones. Being that this happened in December, I was at the end of a semester, which granted me an automatic six-week break before I’d have to return to teaching in the spring. That time, of course, was supposed to be spent preparing materials for the forthcoming semester, so not quite a break, but a chance at least to grieve outside of the classroom and the curious gaze of 100-plus students. For that, I was grateful.
Two months after his death, when I started writing this piece, I still couldn’t fathom waking up and having the composure to call up sources and conduct thoughtful interviews to produce stories with actual coherent meaning. It’s now been more than 100 days and the only thing I can manage to write about these days is grief: my own, that of others, how they differ, and how in so many ways they are the same.
In any other circumstance, my writing job would have been all but lost. But I had the unfortunate fortune of having an editor who is also a recent widow and who, knowing from experience what I was going through, granted me as much time as I needed to return.
Two months after his death, when I started writing this piece, I still couldn’t fathom waking up and having the composure to call up sources and conduct thoughtful interviews to produce stories with actual coherent meaning. It’s now been more than 100 days and the only thing I can manage to write about these days is grief: my own, that of others, how they differ, and how in so many ways they are the same. If I remember to shower, brush my teeth and eat food all in one day, it is a very good day. Like many others who are grieving, those days do not come often.
When I informed my daughter’s sixth grade teachers that her stepfather had died, they suggested she use the month of December to catch up on work at her leisure ... so long as it would all be completed by Jan. 2, or else she’d receive all zeros. Thirty days was the amount of time they assumed she’d need to get over the fact that he is gone from her life forever. And that over the course of 30 days, in which a memorial service, Christmas and New Year’s Day (which is also her birthday) would occur, she should carve out enough time to care about reading Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” writing algebraic expressions, completing a science project on the skeletal system, and 50 other assignments that had piled up in her Google classroom during her absence.
I doubt they realized when they offered this “accommodation” that, with students attending school at home because of the pandemic, they were also leaving these assignments to me. They were expecting me to be well enough to not only manage my own affairs, our toddler, and all the painstaking details of “handling the business of death,” but also to be really good at math.
In another article I’d read when stumbling through Google’s suggestions of what I’d most like to see, a reporter noted that “in the U.S., there is no law granting workers the right to paid time off to attend a loved one’s funeral or process the trauma of losing a family member. Bereavement leave is up to the discretion of employers.”
In a country that claims to be the greatest on Earth, we still have not found funding or compassion to support people through the most devastating experience they will have in life, which is death. The message is simple: Move on. And we’ve been told to accept the lie that this is in fact the best solution. We sweep grief under the rug, hide it in the deepest corners of our hearts, or worse, pretend the pain isn’t there at all. We hide it under our work suits and school uniforms, or behind virtual screens. We encourage others to do the same because, as they say, “The show must go on.”
I’m grateful for the “discretion of my employers.” I’m even thankful for the grace my daughter’s teachers have given her, but all of it seems to fall short of what is actually needed. I still don’t know how long it might take for me and my family to get back to any semblance of our “normal selves.” I presume the answer is never. Just that after much crying and therapy and many sleepless nights, we’ll find a way to live on.
If I’m to believe any of the books and counselors I’ve consulted, the ultimate remedy for grief is time.
There are many things I’ve hoped for since I lost my love. I’ve hoped for answers, as after two autopsies, I still do not know what caused him to die. I’ve wished for the pandemic to come to an end, so my daughter can go to school and feel the support of her closest friends. More than anything, I’ve hoped for time; more than five years to spend with my love and more than four days to get over the fact that he’s gone.
Queen Muse is a freelance writer with an M.A. in strategic communication from La Salle University, where she is a visiting assistant professor of communication. She is also the founder of Queen Muse LLC. For more info, visit www.thequeenmuse.com.