It’s been seven months since Rob died, so I thought about sarcastically calling this story “Seventh Heaven.” Curious about the etymology of that phrase, I googled it and found out that it’s the highest heaven (in Islam), where God and the most exalted angels dwell. I don’t believe in God and also don’t believe that Rob would be hanging out with those stuck up, goody two shoes, but “highest heaven” certainly sounds like his kind of place. Which is all a circuitous way of saying that it’s time for me to check-in with myself.
Me: That was quite the intro, dude.
Lar: I wanted to lighten up a bit. Last time we did this monthly grief report or whatever the hell this is, I just went off the rails and didn’t let you get a word in edgewise.
Me: I was totally okay with it. You needed to say what you said. How are you feeling today?
Lar: I’m feeling a little better. Maybe even a little lighter. That’s not to say that some days still don’t suck—they do—and when they do, they still sting like Muhammad Ali’s bees. But there are less of them–bees and days. I’m beginning to finally accept the clichéd notion that “time heals all wounds.” Other than in a few therapy sessions and in my grief group, I haven’t cried all month. Maybe confining my tears to designated areas is a type of progress, but I wouldn’t exactly call it that.
Me: You don’t need to call it anything. You feel what you feel when you feel it.
Lar: I wonder what that would look like in emojis. My first thought was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
Me: There must be a more hopeful one. Speaking of which, you said something interesting in our last therapy session with Katarina.
Lar: Although it doesn’t sound particularly encouraging, I compared my grief to 9/11. Talking in metaphors always seems to be easier than the real thing. When the phone rang with the horrible Rob news, it was like the moment the first plane crashed into the North Tower. Both just came out of the blue and changed our lives forever.
For the first few months, I was in the worst pain I’ve ever been in my life. I keep writing words like “heartbroken,” “shattered,” “devastated,” “gutted” and then I delete them all because none convey the living hell of losing Rob. I felt an unrelenting sadness that previously I would’ve associated with a thousand deaths. I was an open wound, and nothing could stop the bleeding. I don’t know how I got out of bed every morning.
Me: You had no other choice. Your survival instinct kicked in. It was self-preservation but also selfless. You did it for Zach, Caryn and Maura.
Lar: That’s right. And after those first few months, a different type of pain and anguish took hold of me, an unbearable emptiness like I’ve never experienced before. I felt the immense void of Rob not being here. I felt like the desolate space where the Twin Towers used to stand. His absence eclipsed my presence. I became the hole and crawled into myself.
Me: Missing Rob is far more difficult than anything we had to deal with when he was alive.
Lar: And you know that’s saying a lot. But lately, really just last week, I’ve been feeling something different. After the dust settled at Ground Zero, after the space in my heart had been bulldozed and cleared, I finally saw the possibility of restoration in the distance. It’s not quite the urban renewal marvel of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center, but that took ten years to complete. For me, it’s more like the first blade of grass that breaks through the topsoil in our garden.
Me: I don’t think our reclamation project will take ten years, but I know it will keep changing. Just the way it already has. Grief changes and evolves and so do you. You’re not the same person that you were seven months ago, and you won’t be the same person seven months from now. Grief will continue to reshape you.
Lar: Eating ice cream every night pretty much does the same thing. You know, this whole change of perspective came out of my grief group. This lovely couple recently “celebrated” the one-year anniversary of their son’s death, and they talked about how they’re going to dedicate this next year to re-engaging with the world and how they’re going to try to take better care of themselves and really get back to enjoying their lives. They kept insisting that that’s what their son would want them to do. I was just so moved by their words. It gave me hope for the first time that maybe I could also do the same.
Me: Hope is the light at the end of the grief tunnel.
Lar: It’s just a flicker right now, but it attracted my attention and really made me think that things could change for the better. The fact that they made this decision–to live their lives–on the one-year anniversary of their son’s death also resonated with me. They felt that they had endured so much sadness and torment in the past 12 months and owed it to themselves to try something new. That seems to be a common line of demarcation. Like I’ve said all along, I plan to write about Rob for one year and stop on February 6, 2020.
Me: One year of intense grief and mourning seems about right, but everyone is different, and everyone has their own timeline and version of what’s right for them. As I’ve said before, grief lasts until the day we die. The question becomes—what do we want to do with it until then? How do we want to live our lives knowing that we’ve lost a vital piece of who we are?
Lar: Katarina mentioned that in Croatia, which is where she’s from, people mourning the loss of a child or a spouse generally wear black for one year, and in some cases, forever.
Me: That sounds a little too hipster-ish for me.
Lar: For me too, but the biggest epiphany I’ve had is that I have a choice. There’s nothing that can bring Rob back, but I can choose how to deal with his loss. I know that sounds ridiculously obvious, but I was so broken and in so much agony for such a long time that I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t see what was right in front of me because my tears got in the way. I’m still knee-deep in the “grief is a process” bullshit of it all, but I finally saw that little light of mine—it’s Rob smiling and laughing and telling me to get the hell on with my life. I’ve learned that you have to come to this realization in your own time and by yourself.
Me: That sounds like another epiphany.
Lar: It was. Not only is grief different for everyone, but we all must do it alone. And even though we occasionally share it with others–the people we love, our shrinks and in grief groups–and even though we sometimes find some real comfort there, we’re ultimately all by ourselves with whatever we choose to deal with or not deal with. It’s a solitary act, like I imagine praying to be, the ultimate free solo.
Me: That’s kind of heavy, man, and I also loved that movie. So are you leading into another Joan Didion quote here? Or are we done trying to sound smarter than we really are?
Lar: Yeah, let’s change it up and maybe not be as pretentious. This whole conversation reminds me of one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and heard. It’s from the New York Times and it’s called “An Illustrated Talk With Maurice Sendak.” It was created by my favorite illustrator, Christoph Niemann, and features a 2011 conversation with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. You can see it here.
I’ve watched it dozens of times and it absolutely destroys me on every viewing. Sometimes I’ll cry just thinking about it. The interview took place about a year before Sendak died and these are just two of many quotes that go straight to my heart:
“I have nothing but praise now, really, for my life. I’m not unhappy…I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die, and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.”
And then at the end, Terry wishes Maurice “all good things” and he says, “I wish you all good things. Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”
Me: I wish you all good things.