Good Grief, Bad Grief, And Dealing With Death


It all happened very quickly, five months from initial symptom and diagnosis to death. She was 49 when she died, the mother of three. She was relatively young, vital, luminous with a smile so big and sincere and radiant, it would stop you in your tracks.

She was my sister so, well, I’d known her my entire life. When we were young, she, my brother, and I shared a room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In all of my memories of that time, I slept in her bed, eating dried soy nuts and farting as the three of us whispered in the dark.

The entire event of her dying remains surreal. She was transformed right before my eyes, withering so swiftly, mercilessly, horribly.  It’s been over four months since she died and every day, at various junctures, I see her in this or that state. I am haunted by her death, by her dying, this spectral presence of pain, all too palpable, infiltrating my body until I am hysterical, devastated, eviscerated. 

The event of her dying was, needless to say, overwhelming. But it was a more or less discrete event. Of course there was a funeral, a big affair with friends of hers from all parts of her life flocking in from all corners of the country. I had condolences, sincere and touching beyond belief, coming out the yin yang. Friends of mine from my childhood, people I hadn’t seen in decades, people I didn’t even know knew of her sickness, showed up and showed me a love I simply don’t know in my day to day life. Some of my present friends, meanwhile, disappeared in the face of the misery, it all too much and too inconvenient. Death has a way of redistributing patterns and expectations of intimacy.

And then the funeral was over, everyone went home, and a new and much more awful reality settled in: the absence of my beautiful, brilliant, radiant sister. Loss is an event; it happens. People show up, call, send emails and letters. As she was becoming sicker and sicker, we all wished her to die — for her own good, for everyone’s so-called good. The dying was so unbearable that we wished for the event of death. And then it comes like the apogee in the narrative and, for a moment, we assume it to be a relief, a finale, a resolve.

But then I’m home and trying to live my life and she’s not there. With some frequency, I go to call her. And part of me thinks, Well, I can’t call her now as she’s not there. So I’ll call later before I remember, before I feel in my toes, in my very cells, that she’ll never be there. At which point, I begin to scream into the abyss.

This is not loss; this is absence. This is something more terrible in its infinitude. It’s not an event that begins and ends; it just keeps going. It’s what we’re told hell is: suffering without end, without remedy, without recourse, suffering unto infinity. Not only can’t I see her, speak with her, laugh with her. I can never, ever see her, speak with her, laugh with her. And — and! — it’s not just that she’s gone; it’s that she suffered horribly and, with her passing, there was no reprieve or reckoning. She suffered then vanished. Just bad and more bad, infinitely and without remedy.

And then someone said something to me that shifted this perspective. Ok, it wasn’t just someone: it was my shrink. I told him I was having trouble sleeping and, lying in bed, I kept seeing my sister on her deathbed, little and weak and sad and confused. He told me that I should neither indulge these images with weeping nor avoid them with diversion. Rather, I should lean into them with love. I should feel the fullness of my love for her and her love for me. Being present to her life is a gift, he told me, just as being present for her death was a gift. Not everyone gets to experience it. In his eyes, it was an honor that I could be there, talk to her, help her, know her through this movement from vitality to death.

Now, every time I feel the abject horror of her absence, when I come face to face with the sublimity of infinite loss, I stop and turn into the fullness that, seemingly just out of reach, is in fact always there. Rather than absence, I feel the abundance of her and all that she was and remains. Rather than loss, I summon the gift of having known her, loved her, of having been loved by her, of having had the privilege of helping her die.

I’ll be honest and say it’s hard not to feel a gaping hole in my life where she once was. It’s hard not to freak out, scream, pull my few remaining hairs out in the insane hope that she’ll come back. But the fact is she is still here, albeit in a different form, filling me with love and memory and her very distinct way of going in this life. She lives on in a very real way, even if intangible.

It’s all too easy to feel her now, to experience her now, as absent. But, with work, I can transform that experience into her abundant presence in my life.

Both of these feelings are grief. Grief is not univocal. It is not just sadness; it is not just the pain of loss. Grieving is a process, as perpetual as it is in flux. There’s no way of making sense of death, no way someone’s disappearance from the planet can be understood. You don’t move past it, ever. No, you reckon that loss, that absence, until your own death. Which is to say, you grieve until you die. Grieving is an active, ongoing process of negotiating this sublime torrent of feeling.

The question is how you turn into, turn with, this infinite, sublime strangeness. Bad grief lives through infinite loss, lives with absence, as you walk around with a gaping hole of darkness. Good grief transforms the sublime horror of absence into radiant presence as you lean into the invisible yet palpable love of your lost love and live through, live with, its abundance.

featured image – Flickr / Nika Composer