Why Grief Goes Hand in Hand With Love
About a month ago, I was driving in a part of town where I don’t normally go. As I was waiting for the light to turn green, a memory came over me, and my reaction was so intense it felt like someone was wringing my heart violently. Because I remembered the first time I was ever at this intersection. It was eight years ago and I had just moved to Las Vegas from New York City to take care of my mother, who had cancer. She had exhausted all treatments available to her—radiation, chemotherapy, surgery to remove the aggressive tumor that had latched onto her spine—and the only thing left to do was to ease her suffering by giving her palliative care. This particular street was where I took her to be evaluated for hospice care. I never realized the true meaning of the word “terminal” until that blindingly bright winter morning when I drove her to the hospice facility to determine if she would like to live out her remaining days there or come home and be cared for by her family.
It was the beginning of a new relationship with my mother. The woman who introduced me to the concept of unconditional love was about to introduce me to its symbiotic twin, unconditional grief. Since her passing, eight years ago now, this double helix of emotion has kept its hold on me — sometimes gently, like a caress on a windless day, sometimes fiercely, like at this moment in traffic, where the light can’t change fast enough. Grief is like that, a maddeningly unpredictable force that appears out of nowhere, capable of ripping you to shreds. But, love is like that, too. It seizes you in moments you least expect, rendering you full and whole. Both fundamentally change you in their wake, leaving their imprint in beautiful and grotesque ways.
"Grief is like that, a maddeningly unpredictable force that appears out of nowhere, capable of ripping you to shreds. But, love is like that, too. It seizes you in moments you least expect, rendering you full and whole. Both fundamentally change you in their wake, leaving their imprint in beautiful and grotesque ways."
In the early days of my mother’s death, I wanted to understand the nature of grief, to map out the battleground so I could be prepared for its onslaught. Yet despite its heaviness, I did not want to share it with anyone. Even though I had a sister who also lost a mother and many cousins who were closer to my mother than to their own mothers, my grief felt singular, primal, wholly my own. I guarded it closely, never betraying its presence through outward manifestations like uncontrollable crying or lachrymose social media posts. I shrugged off people’s sympathies, embarrassed by the attention. I was polite but aloof, ending every encounter with “Thank you. I’m fine.”
And so it went like that for years. Grief became ambient noise in my life, a hum that’s sometimes amplified in the most mundane ways, such as when I’m at the market buying grapes, remembering how my mother loved them. I read books on the subject—Joan Didion’s devastating The Year of Magical Thinking, Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, about her own journey of losing her mother, in which she writes, “Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.” I consoled myself with poetry, finding solace in Emily Dickinson’s words: “I measure every Grief I meet / With narrow, probing, Eyes — / I wonder if It weighs like Mine — / Or has an Easier size. / I wonder if They bore it long — /Or did it just begin — / I could not tell the Date of Mine — / It feels so old a pain.”
Given the last year and a half, grief has not been far from our collective consciousness. The losses have been unfathomable, a ticker tape of numbers that’s hard to comprehend. I’ve lost friends and family, some to COVID, some not, each one now a part of that ever-growing tapestry that encompasses a life. I remain a private griever, but I understand others’ need to cry and keen in the most public of ways. After all, no two losses are alike. Grief, just like love, is rendered anew with each encounter. We break so we can begin again, over and over, until we, too, come to our own end. We grieve because we love, and it’s a price worth paying for every time.