The other day, I was sitting in our living room, scrunched next to my two-year-old, Grace, as we scrolled through her baby pictures on my phone - the digital-age equivalent of flipping through a photo album. As she relived her babyhood one sweet-potato-smeared photo at a time, she stopped at a picture of my youngest brother, Paul.
"Who's that?" she asked.
And everything, all of the progress I felt like I'd been making (read: the comfortable, convenient denial I'd been fostering), and all of the days I'd felt fine and normal, came to a screeching halt. Grief crept in, heavy and all consuming.
"That's your Uncle Paul," I replied. I was done looking at pictures.
Paul died suddenly, accidentally, when Grace was 14 months old. Up until that point, they'd shared tender moments and sweet memories. Splitting ice cream at my mom's parish carnival, dancing, watching cartoons together. In one of my favorite pictures of Paul, he's standing peacefully with a fat, drooling Grace sleeping deeply on his chest. In one of my most vivid and final memories of him, he's calling to her to come give him a hug. "Gracie," all drawn out and loving.
It was a beautiful, burgeoning friendship between an uncle and niece that was supposed to keep growing. But it stopped, abruptly. And now, to Grace, it is nothing. Paul is a stranger in pictures that I have to identify for her. I cannot think of a more painful reflection of reality than that.
To know that Paul - the living Paul - doesn't exist for her.
If I'm to look on this and come away with some positive conclusion, it's that I need to do a better job of keeping Paul's memory alive for my daughters. I should. I will.
I will talk about him when it's painful. Pull up his picture. Tell stories. Fight through my own emotional limitations in order to ensure they know that Paul was their uncle. Is their uncle, still.
But also, I am reminded that this is what grief is.
You can make it through the wake like a robot, asking visitors about their children and sipping a Diet Coke while part of your heart lies motionless, 10 feet away. You can make it through the funeral with glossy eyes and slumped shoulders, tired and overwhelmed but not yet consumed.
Because that is not grief. Not really. It's something else, the manifestation of the in between, when you know you are devastated, but how much so has yet to be revealed. It is the waiting for what's coming, when adrenaline gets you through and some sort of physiological cocktail protects you.
This summer, I revisited Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," having read it for the first time in the winter of 2008, shortly after my dad passed away.
After a second reading, the final takeaways were similar, but this time the journey was different. This time, a particular passage stood out.
In the vision of grief we imagine, the model will be "healing." A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
That unending absence. Grief is experiencing it over and over in new ways. Some routine - the Groundhog Day effect of waking up and reaccepting what you cannot accept, every single morning. Some jarring - the questions of my children. "Where? "How?" "Who's that?"
If you are on the inside, grief gets familiar, but not necessarily easier. It seems there is a surprise around every corner, disguised as a new day. Hidden in innocuous moments.
And if you are on the outside, it's something to remember: those sitting stoic in the front row at the funeral are, months or years later, devastated on an insignificant Tuesday. Those who smiled and discussed the weather at the wake are shells of themselves at the grocery store. Distant in a meeting. Awake at 3 a.m. and anxious for the sun to rise.
If you are on the inside, you get up, remember who they were, remember who you are, steel yourself for the next unexpected re-immersion. Remind yourself that this - this is grief. And there is meaning in these moments.