This Is What No One Tells You About Grieving After Someone You Love Dies

Over the course of five years, I lost two grandmothers, two aunts, a cousin and both of my parents and nothing could have prepared me for the parameters of loss.

In the summer of 2015, I threw an empty water bottle at a young woman on an airplane. It was about 10 o’clock in the morning, and the woman was amusing herself by shrieking obnoxiously. She seemed pretty drunk. I’d already caught my fellow passengers rolling their eyes, and I know I should have spoken to the flight attendant first, but instead I told her to “shut up,” at which point she grew louder and more obnoxious. So I threw the bottle at her. 

When I tell this story, it’s usually about airline shenanigans or losing my cool. I forget the context, how less than an hour before, I heard that a cousin of mine had died. A week before, she’d been diagnosed with cancer. She was 34.

It was my mother, crying, who called to let me know. Less than six months later, I was holding her hand while a nurse unplugged all of her machines. She was 65.

There was no preparation ― few signs ― for either of these deaths, except that I’d lost a lot of people already. Over the course of five years, I lost two grandmothers, two aunts, a cousin and both of my parents. Some of them had been sick for a while. Many went suddenly, but, either way, nothing would have prepared me for the parameters of loss.

After my mom died, I found that I could go to work. I could plan a memorial service, but I couldn’t handle it when people broke social rules. I took out my aggressions on fellow audience members who spoke through performances I attended. I chided subway riders who wore backpacks and bumped other passengers. I became much more rigid and much more selfish. I read books about grief and mourning, but nothing I encountered provided much solace. Through these books I felt like I had permission to think and feel anything (which isn’t nothing, by the way), but there was no road map, no clarity, and that’s what I wanted: a time stamp to see where I was in the process, some forecast for how I would feel in six months or a year.

Dan Kellum's mom putting on makeup in his first New York apartment in 2000.
Dan Kellum's mom putting on makeup in his first New York apartment in 2000.

“You will survive this,” my uncle said to me early on. “No matter what, you will survive.” Those words mattered, as did the rich, meaningful tone in which they were said. I knew that my mom would want to be missed, but I also knew that she wouldn’t want me to suffer, but I did suffer, at times quite a lot. For a long while, my mom was alive in my dreams, and it was painful waking up and realizing that she was gone. Then the dreams dried up. She came less often, and that was almost worse.

“If one more person says that she will live on in me, I’m going to punch them in the face,” a cousin said about losing her mom, and that resonated with me too.  I didn’t want my mom to live on in me. I wanted to talk to her! And when I turned to books on grief, I found myself mostly taking solace in how much worse other people had it. What if I’d lost my mom at an even younger age? What if she had died because of something I’d done? What if I’d lost her along with my stepfather and my sister and my sister’s son in a particularly bad car accident they had in 2011? “It was close,” my mom said at the time.

Perspectives. Comparisons. I was always trying to turn the kaleidoscope and make my mother’s death make sense, less painful. I did find that for a long while, when I read obituaries or heard of people dying, I measured their ages against my mother’s. I felt a certain comfort if someone died younger than my mother had. I knew that this was selfish and I knew it didn’t mean anything, but I knew I had no control over it, so I just noticed it and let it go. In times of trouble, my mind veers toward math.

I don’t consider myself to be particularly celebrity obsessed, but when celebrities died about the time my mother did, they took on a special resonance, like they were all somehow in it together. David Bowie died a few days before my mom. He too had a liver to blame. Natalie Cole died a few weeks earlier. She was my mother’s age — almost exactly. When Prince died later that spring, I found out about his passing while I was sitting in the parking lot of the probate court, and for a little while, his songs made me think of my mom. She wasn’t a fan, but that didn’t matter. His songs became tinged with mourning, and so they brought back my mourning. In the parking lot of the probate court though, I noted, with cheap satisfaction, his age. Prince was only 57 when he died, eight years younger than my mother had been. At least there was that.

No one told me that my face would change. ... There are reasons why some cultures make a point of covering mirrors after a death. You won’t know yourself. And that dissonance feels even more alienating.

For a while, I felt like I was disappearing, sometimes literally. It seemed like I was always being bumped into in stores, on the street. Someone would turn around and seemed surprised that I was standing there, that I’d been standing there the whole time. One afternoon on the subway, a woman sat on my lap. “I didn’t see you!” she said, then ran away.

No one told me that my face would change, though I’d seen it happen to my mom after her sister died. In photographs of that time, my mom looks beleaguered, older than she ever got to be. After she died, I saw the same grief in my own face. There are reasons why some cultures make a point of covering mirrors after a death. You won’t know yourself. And that dissonance feels even more alienating.

For me, it was a period of isolation, sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes inadvertent. What are you supposed to say at a party when someone asks what you’ve been up to? Nobody wants to hear about loss. It’s a party! And nobody wants to hear about life insurance or how hard it is to turn the water back on when you’re delinquent on a bill, when the only person that’s authorized to pay said bill is the one whose affairs you’re trying to put in order, but I digress. A lot of people avoid asking about your loss or will seem embarrassed if you bring it up, even though bringing it up, bringing it out into the open, is such a relief.

There really aren’t any guideposts in the grief process, but I did find that I felt more visible, more capable when I wasn’t trying to deny what had happened. Reading about the stages of grief might not give anyone a perfect road map, but sitting with a book about grief in your hands at least acknowledges your situation. You are going through something, and you aren’t in it alone.

A photo taken from the back porch of Kellum's mom and stepdad's house in 2016.
A photo taken from the back porch of Kellum's mom and stepdad's house in 2016.

Strange as it may seem, packing up my mom’s house was another form of relief. I live several states away from where she lived, so this wasn’t a task I could approach piecemeal. I had two weeks to sort through a life — to decide what to keep and what to abandon. The piano I played throughout high school — that had to go. A gold pocket watch that I didn’t even know existed — that could stay.

Before I flew down, I was nervous about staying in that house, filled with so many reminders. That first afternoon I walked in circles wondering how to even get started, but then I did, in the kitchen, with my mom’s wedding china. We’d left the windows open after the memorial to keep the house cool, and the house smelled strongly of flowers and old wooden furniture, the way it had when I was in high school. I’d expected to feel lonely, but instead I found the clarity I wanted. I had a task, and I had two weeks to complete it.

One morning, an alarm clock went off in my sister’s old bedroom. It didn’t go off at any other time, and I wondered if some force was trying to communicate with me. One afternoon, I sat on the porch and felt surrounded by what I can only describe as a warm glow. They’re taking care of me, I thought, some spiritual forces, my mom and her parents, some lineage of unnamed forebears ― at least that’s how it felt. My mom wasn’t alone, and neither was I.

A week later, my sister and her children came down and helped and that was wonderful too, and then my husband arrived, and we packed up a U-Haul. “Say goodbye,” he said, which was when I burst into tears. I didn’t want to say goodbye.

Dan Kellum is a writer who teaches at New York University.

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