‘How are you?’ my friend asked me, cutting me off mid-sentence. Her eyes were open, unblinking, and fixed on mine. ‘Really,’ she said, ‘how are you?’
It was November of 2016, and she and I’d arrived to the restaurant maybe five minutes before. Amidst the bustle of a conference, we’d met in the hotel lobby, setting aside time and space to catch up with one another. When she arrived to the lobby, she found me sitting nearby on a couch, steeped in conversation with the man who’d handed back my heart, in pieces, a few months earlier. I wrapped up the conversation, hugged him goodbye, and walked with her to the restaurant in near-silence. Sitting across from me, in that moment, she wasn’t interested in hearing how ‘fine’ I was.
Whatever I said, it was in stammered speech. I’d rehearsed a hundred ways to prove I was doing all right –– better, in fact, there are so many lessons we glean from the days of breaking, and I’ve got magical things happening at work, and and and. I hadn’t rehearsed for somebody who knows to cut right through that, the layers of performance, and ask to see my heart. With an exhale, I stopped holding it together. ‘I’m devastated,’ I told her, voice breaking, ‘I know I should be better by now, but I’m not.’
Her eyes didn’t pull away from mine, and her lips didn’t start unveiling all the ‘get-well-soon’ maxims people offer in difficult days –– no ‘time heals all things,’ no ‘focus on the positive.’ Instead, she let out a shaky sigh, and she told me grief is a circle. When she lost her mother, a grief that forever divided her life into a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ she traveled that emotional circle at whiplash speeds. ‘Now, years later,’ she told me, ‘I have weeks, sometimes months, of mostly joy. And then, out of nowhere, I am right back in that pain.’
Gently, she tapped the tabletop, pulling my focus back to her eyes. She leaned in, ensuring I heard her: ‘You lost something you loved, Michael,’ she said, ‘nobody else gets to tell you how to carry that grief.’
As a writer, I run the occasional risk of revisiting my pain a bit too often. In search of something to say, a poignant pearl to unearth and reveal, the readiest wellspring is the part of me that continues to ache. More recently, however, I’ve discovered that wounds don’t heal if we keep picking away the scar tissue. At some point, we figure out that part of what makes grief heavy is our unwillingness to let some of it go.
So much of what has gotten me through my rockiest chapters is born out of a willingness to acknowledge my pain. I don’t deny my own heartbreak, don’t try to drown my internal elegies in alcohol or adrenaline, don’t run from the ache beneath my sternum. I sit, untangle those knots with the gentle pulling of threads. And yet, like it or not, I have still found myself trying to rush the process. ‘What is the lesson?’ I ask myself, two days after flames consumed the world as I knew it before. ‘I’m ready to start running again, aren’t I?’ But, my friends, heartbreak has never taken interest in my timelines.
I can tell you this: Nothing transforms us quite like grief. So much of what we believed about ourselves, the world we constructed around us, falls away like ash. What’s left, marred with smoke and shaking in the open air, is absolute, vital, integral. In our ages of falling apart, we discover what of us will withstand. And, the next time we discover someone else looking at the remains of their life with hollow eyes, our palms cannot help but go gentle.
In the wake of my first relationship, I traveled a calendar year setting up gravesites. The night I called him, voice shaking, and listened to my words splinter his spirit. Christmas and New Year’s, starkly alone and in constant company. His birthday, our old anniversaries, photographs together in Facebook memories. I drove past restaurants where we’d shared meals, walked around places on campus where we’d held hands, changed the radio station before our old songs really got going. Everywhere I traveled was a reminder to feel his absence, every calendar date a shard of glass threatening careless fingertips.
At some point, I began the dismantling. I returned to our old shared spaces and paved new memories there, reclaimed his old songs and made them my own again, pulling apart gravesites, brick by brick. My heart, its muscles healing, relished in the flexing. I began again, believed radically in the rebuilding.
Sad songs have always found their way into my playlists. Even in my seasons of bounty, in the years that it seems every strand of my outpoured love decided to bear fruit, I have found some joy in sorrowful lyrics, painful chords. On long runs, my footsteps pound pavement to raw reflections on loss and pain just as often as they do to uptempo anthems. I listen, and my spirit glows golden, connected, alive.
There’s something funny about grief: In the places we feel most broken, fundamentally scarred and changed, we are often the most beautiful to others. When we are willing to tell the truth about what we’re carrying, we never know who just learned she is not alone in her pain, or who is falling in love with that kind of bold sincerity.
In the beginning, for many of us, life feels a lot like constant acquisition. We watch our homes collect new furniture, learn from our parents we will get new brothers and sisters, collect presents at holidays and grow into new responsibilities. Before we know it, we are teenagers taking a car for a spin, figuring out pathways toward our futures, venturing breathlessly into the world of love.
But, as we all learn eventually, not everything we love can stay. Our first relationships rise and fall, the worlds we built crumbling apart at our feet. We lose grandparents, before they or we were ready, and we discover a first holiday without their cooking, their hugs at the door. Our best friends, the people we imagined would never not be ready to jump into our passenger seat and drive, grow apart from us. Family pets, once young and clumsy on kitchen tiles, die without ever learning what death is. Our first brushes with grief settle over us like a cold veil; the world is not as we imagined it.
Through our grieving, through the rising and trying again, we discover there is new light ahead. Not only are we more certain about ourselves, the parts of us essential enough to outlast the roaring flames, but we see the world through clearer eyes. We become, at once, more gentle and more resilient. Our fingers begin to unfurl, letting go of that which has become heavy, and yet we hold onto some. Reborn runners, we learn again to breathe through the pain, our limbs growing accustomed to the new carrying.
Into the horizon, grieving and growing, we begin again.