What They Don’t Tell You About Grief

There are certain things people never tell you about grief. About the way you’ll feel and act and think and live after you lose someone (someone, for me, was my mother).

They don’t tell you that the “Grief” section at your local Barnes & Noble is only half a shelf long, and located in the “Self-Help” section. This location will you make you angry, but you won’t know why.

They don’t tell you that one day you will break down and cry, not just cry, but really and truly red-face runny-nose sob in the middle of the Nordstrom shoe department because you saw someone her height, with her hair color, wearing her Hermes perfume and when you realized it wasn’t her, after having that flash of “oh there she is!,” it was just too much. Try to be nice and thank the salesman when he guides you into the storeroom and gives you a box of tissues.

They don’t tell you that no matter how many sheets of tissue paper and plastic baggies and boxes you use to wrap her clothes so you can keep her scent on them, so you can, at especially hard times, pull them out and cover your face and scream and cry and laugh into them, no matter how much wrapping you use and how carefully you try not to over-indulge, not to open the baggies and boxes and peel back the tissue too often for fear of her scent dispersing and leeching out into your room, no matter what you do, one day you will pull out her favorite sweater and all you will smell is your own scent, faintly, and stale plastic. (Later you will try to recreate her scent; that blend of fresh laundry and eye cream and makeup and perfume, and you will fail. That will be a hard day for you.)

They don’t tell you that you will sometimes think of her and just be so happy, just so incredibly, overwhelmingly happy that you, oddly enough, want to call her to tell her you feel so well, and things are getting better, and when you can’t you instead sit on your bed and imagine what you would tell her and end the conversation either laughing, or crying, or worrying that this behavior maybe does mean you should still be seeing that Hospice grief counselor.

They don’t tell you how to respond to the saleswoman at the dress shop when she asks you “What occasion is this dress for?” and glances down at the black clothes you have draped over your arm. Respond with a garbled ‘yes’ when she follows-up by asking if this dress is for a cocktail party or date. Decide not to explain why you turn around when she starts to lead you to dresses with, as she calls it, ‘a bit more color.’

They don’t tell you that you will experience a moment of sheer terror when your cat gets sick, and that you will only be able to think: ‘This is the last pet I’ll have that she met.’

They don’t tell you how to react when your father creates profiles on OkCupid and Match.com. More than just that, they don’t tell you how you should feel when the women he starts seeing are so different, so completely dissimilar to your mother-is this a good thing, a sign he’s not trying to replace her? Or does this mean there was always something ‘missing’ from your mother that he wanted? Don’t talk to your high-strung sister about this, it will only make her wildly anxious and nervous and you will spend twenty minutes using your ‘calming the skittish horse’ voice to try and talk her down.

They don’t tell you that when you go to the funeral parlor to see her, one last time, before she’s cremated, that upon first looking down at her you will immediately and fully understand the description of skin as ‘waxen.’

They don’t tell you that you will feel an urge to laugh when you see that her hair has been set on rollers and finished with a light application of hairspray. This look, on a woman who once told her stylist she wanted ‘David Bowie’s haircut from when he was on his Reality tour’, will seem so wrong and dated on her that you can’t help but want to laugh. This desire to laugh will quickly turn into a fierce, overwhelming anger and hatred that these people, these people who never knew her until now, had the gall to touch her body, to style her hair, to think that they had the right to see her so intimately. They don’t tell you that her mouth will be glued shut, and you will see a small dab of this glue near the left corner of her lips. (Later, you will learn that what they used isn’t superglue like you thought it was, but instead is something called ‘stay cream’.)

Go home and cry to your boyfriend and hate that the only way you could think to describe her appearance is mummy-like, like those rubbery pirate Halloween decorations that you see on people’s lawns. Know that this description is morbid, but accurate.

And all of these things, these experiences of grief, they don’t tell you about them. They don’t tell you that, at the end of the day, all you can think is that grief isn’t a wall that comes crashing down on you all at once like you expected. Instead, it’s a wall whose bricks fall (bit by bit, piece by piece) and bruise you and break you and beat you down, slowly. TC mark

image – Background Land


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  • http://www.facebook.com/brendan.s.walters Brendan Walters

    This is beautiful, and powerful.

    If you look within I think you’ll find that legacy and love are eternal, and ensure that you are never actually alone.

  • Xo

    Accurate, thank you.

  • Colleenkuschyk

    100% accurate. I had flashbacks of seeing my mom the last time. They made me sad yet happy. Grief may be different for everyone, but you hit my nail right on the head.

  • http://twitter.com/JoannaClark5 Joanna Clark

    No one can truly tell you about grief, because it’s different for everyone. But that last paragraph – that’s the closest and most accurate description anyone could ever offer.

    What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t make you stronger. It just makes you different than you were before.

  • http://twitter.com/iamthe0nly Jordana Bevan

    Katherine, my grandfather died this morning and I want to thank you so much for writing this (And thank you to the editors for being so unintentionally timely.). “Grief” in the self help section… Like there’s anything one can do to stop grieving except accept the grief? I don’t know…. I’m so sorry you lost your mother (physically, dunno about your spirituality). Thank you

  • Anonymous

    my BIGGEST fear is losing my mom and i started crying immediately while reading the second paragraph, and its well written and i think you are really strong, i would have been destroyed, those are all i can say since im also sobbing at the very moment

  • Meg

    this is accurate. i was expecting this to be stupid and inaccurate but it is so so accurate.

  • Goosey

    I’m so sorry for your loss :(

  • Jess

    This brought me to tears. I can remember all too well the year that followed the death of one of my best friends. It reminds me that the grief doesn’t ever go away; it just becomes more manageable as you become a stronger person. Stay strong.

  • Cat

    This is perfect. I lost my dad 8 years ago when I was only 12. He was much older than my mom, and 80 when he passed. I still tear up when I see an old man with a similar gait, or in an outfit like my dad always wore. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=760363095 Deviant Art

    I started crying, too. Grief is horrible . We have no idea how to get over shit, really. People study and write, study and write – everyone buys the books and thinks about what their doing, does a little CBT here and there to try and stop the feelings but it’s so hard. 

  • http://twitter.com/Grace_Neal Grace Neal

    I’m sorry about your Mum. Next month it will be 3 years since I lost mine. The oddest thing for me was that she kept appearing in my dreams every few months or so. She’s stopped appearing in dreams now, but nobody ever told me I’d experience that, and how disappointing and disorientating it is to wake up and have to work out that she didn’t come back to life. I wish you all the best. 

  • Taylor

    I sobbed through this entire thing. My aunt died recently, at the age of 45, and I’ve watched my cousins struggle through losing their mother. This article made me realize the the grief I’ve been feeling for my aunt is really a manifestation of my own terror at the (inevitable) prospect of losing my own mother one day. Thank you for sharing such personal experiences and for reaffirming that there is no “right” way to grieve. 

  • Anonymous

    This couldn’t have had better timing. I just lost my grandmother. Nobody seems to understand. I never met you and yet, you do. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Domino

    This is the only article in my life that has actually brought tears to my eyes. Big, powerful tears that reminded me that it’s been 2 months and no, I’m not over his death. I keep seeing him on the subway, on the streets, when I’m running, everywhere. I keep thinking of his huge, smiling blue eyes. And I’m always scared that maybe I’ll forget his face, or what the sound of his voice was like. 

    Grief is hard, and I don’t think anyone can actually be prepared for it. The only good thing about it is that it’s healthy and natural, and that, at least, is comforting enough.

  • Meow

    Thank you. This made big, hot tears stream down my face for the first time in weeks , as I’ve been running from my grief of losing my mom for a little while now. It’s left me feeling guilty and mad at myself; I feel like I should still be breaking down on a daily basis, as some homage or proof that I’m not some heartless bitch. It’s been a year and a half. The part I hate most is that I dream of her frequently, but when I do, she’s always sick. In the year she fought cancer, it slowly stole her body and then her mind, and in my dreams she’s always in that place. I haven’t told anyone this. It makes me nauseous. Other than that, evading the grief is easy..

  • cristinamichele925

    I was crying while still reading this and still am. I haven’t lost anyone close to me, but my dad has been having a lot of problems with his heart, and I worry everyday that I’ll get a phone call saying he’s gone. So I’d like to thank you for warning me what it just might be like to lose him (or my mom for that fact). I’m sorry for your loss, and even though I don’t personally know what you’re going through, I’m thinking of you and hope you have people around that can help you somehow get through this. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/imurti Indra Murti

    beautifully written. i don’t remember the last time i cried this hard. i’m so sorry for your loss 

  • Ale G.

    And the tears just keep coming.

  • Ainsley

    Omg full on sobbing I can hardly breathe. I drove my mom to the hospital for radiation today (her 3rd cancer diagnosis since I was 12.) The feeling of actually losing her this time is beyond words. You are not alone. Cancer is the fucking worst thing to ever exist.

  • Anonymous

    This was perfect timing. I was just sitting in my room thinking about how much I’m dreading mother’s day, and how I don’t have anyone to relate to, when I read this article. My mother died when I was 13.  I’m 20 now.  Here’s what I’ll tell you about grief.  It’s not going to go away.  With each new milestone of your life you’re going to feel that loss regurgitate inside you. You’re going to question if there’s something wrong with you. You’re going to feel like you should be past it already. The grief will become less about missing YOUR mother, and more about the fact that you don’t have A mother. Living without a mother will be an ever evolving, rocky, and frustrating adventure.    But I PROMISE you that one day you’ll realize you are the most strong, resilient, independent, and compassionate person you know, and that the loss has shaped you to become someone you love.  (I highly highly recommend you read the book “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelmen, when you are ready.  Reading that book was the most cathartic and validating experience I’ve ever had.)  

    • Jmac

      I agree 100% about your comment on “Motherless Daughters”, it was a life saver.

    • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

      “Hi! I’m [insert name here] My mom died when I was [inset age here], as though that sentence will explain everything anyone ever wanted to know about you”I wonder if this will change.Thanks for the book recommendation. I definitely need to read it. I still need help.

      • Anonymous

        It’s been 7 years for me and I’m only JUST beginning to find the courage to talk to someone about my loss and seek help.  Don’t get frustrated if it’s taking longer than you expected it would to “get over” the damage.  ACK! I just want to hug ALL of you and cry over a pot of tea together! 

    • Anonymous

      This post was absolutely therapeutic. I also lost my mother; I was 10. I’m 21 now and just lost a good friend yesterday evening. There’s no one I wish I could go to more than my mom, A mom. I just cannot believe how accurate this post is.

  • guest

    I can’t stop crying. I’m afraid.

  • Adam Walker

    I needed to read this. My Mom died 3 months ago and I am just DREADING Mother’s Day like you cannot even imagine. Every time I think back to the funeral and just staring at her cold, lifeless body in that casket.. and how hysterically I bawled… someone had to literally PRY me off the bloody thing I just couldn’t accept that this was the last time I was ever going to see her.. Watching them lower that casket into the ground and seal that vault was the single hardest thing I’ve ever done… It brings comfort to know I’m not the only one going through their Mom’s closets sniffing everything trying to get one last whiff.. And spraying her favorite perfume and just sitting their basking in the sheer magnificence of it.. Almost feels like she’s right there with me and its all a dream when I spray that perfume.. I try hard to only spray it once in a while as I don’t want the bottle to ever finish :( I can still hear her standing in the kitchen singing her favorite songs while she cooks.. I can still feel her soft hands holding mine walking into my first days of school… I still feel the softness of her cheek as I kissed her goodbye and told her I loved her every morning when she took me to school… Its so hard.. So hard to think of all the birthdays she’ll miss… Today’s my birthday actually.. And my first feeling when I got up this morning was emptiness.. Because usually on my birthday she’d be the first one busting into my room with a cake in her arms singing loudly… And I didn’t have that this year.. To think of all that she won’t be there to see… All the experiences you want your Mom at.. like your wedding.. and the birth of your first child… And being able to buy her nice things and take her to nice dinners and thank her for making you the person you are today… There is just so much I wish I could say… What I would give to have one more day, one more hour, one more minute to just see her face.. to just hear her laugh.. to just talk her… Sigh. I could go on for days.. but I will just say that there is some sense of comfort in knowing that the pain, while unique to each situation, is not uncommon. Seeing people like you and the commenters before me who have been through what I’m going through, continue to strive in spite of the difficulties, gives me hope that resilience will somehow pay off in the end. Beautiful piece Katherine. 

    • guest

      This broke my heart. I just lost my closest uncle two days ago and I cannot even imagine what it will feel like to lose my mom. I’ve never been drawn to comment on TC before, but I just want you to know that you are in my thoughts. 

  • Anonymous

    i lost my grandma 2 years ago and i’m starting to forget things about her, to be honest i don’t like getting used to her absence and there’s nothing i can do about it.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    I don’t let myself read things like this often, because I miss my mother more than I could have ever imagined as well and this is still raw.
    3 years make no difference since her death of cancer.
    There is still not a day that goes by where I am not reminded and have to try hard not to let myself breakdown like I used to.
    I too keep her scarf in my drawer but I know I must be ready to feel a crushing pain every time I smell it. It brings to mind the image of her waiting for us at the airport with a big smile on her face and my relief at hugging her and recognizing the scent as home.
    When it gets really bad I do talk to her and I imagine her holding my hand like she used to when I was a kid.
    I’m crying again now, but I’m glad to have read this.
    Sometimes it feels like I will forever be half empty but we have to keep going.
    If not for ourselves, for them.

    • Jmac

      My mother also died three years ago from cancer.  

      While I shouldn’t take solace in the grief of others, it is nice to feel understood. People in their twenties don’t generally lose their parents so soon and even though my friends were there through and through, they won’t ‘get it’ for what I hope is a very long time.

      • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

        I am 18 now so I understand what you mean.
        I almost don’t know how to even correct people when they ask me about her. 
        At first, I used to just change the subject and let them assume everything was normal.
        Even friends can make insensitive comments at times, not being able to understand the pain that is always lingering, but the only way they would know it would be to experience it and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
        There is an acceptance that has to take place and it really does help to be understood. 
        This is a form of therapeutic relief and I’m thankful for these comments to allow some of the pent up emotions we have to be released.

      • Anonymous

        The correcting thing! UGH!  When people ask me about my parents I never know how to respond.  If I tell them my mom died I get the most awkwardly sympathetic response, but when I leave it vague and talk about my parents as though they could both still be alive I feel like I’m being dishonest and betraying my mom? I don’t know.  I still haven’t figured out a good way to tell people that I don’t have a mom.   

      • EzE

         I lost my mother almost 3 years ago and I have the exact same problem trying to figure out how to react when she (or my parents in general) are brought up in conversation. It was especially hard because I was a sophomore in college when she passed and I had this weird disconnect from everybody around me because nobody had ever met her (she was not healthy enough to travel after my senior year in high school). To this day I don’t know exactly how to talk about it. I have the day she passed away tattooed on my arm, I answer honestly when people ask me what it means and so far it has proven to be the easiest way to approach the conversation. 
        It’s still hard, it will always be hard, but it’s incredible when writing like this can bring people together and remind you that you’re not alone. 

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