Take one look at my room and it’s not hard to guess my favorite flower. Hydrangeas dominate my decor — they’re painted across the cover of my planner, stuck onto the back of my laptop case and wrapped around my bedpost. Hydrangeas were also my grandmother’s favorite flowers. They’re the one reminder of her I allow myself to keep close at hand; everything else is too painful, too fast to reopen wounds just barely scabbed over.
When I miss her so much it almost overwhelms me; I have more personal items to remember her by. I left behind her bottle of “Passion” by Elizabeth Arden perfume in Williamsburg — I was too scared of breaking it during the move-in process. I have a few of the chiffon scarves she liked to tie around her neck, looking every inch the chic Southern belle she was at heart, even when the cancer treatment had taken her hair but not her spirit. Of course I have photos, though most feature me as a chubby-cheeked elementary schooler, dutifully dressed up in the Justice outfits she loved to see me wear, and are best saved for my family’s eyes only. For the worst days, I have the letters she dictated to my mother for my major life events — one for her own passing, my high school graduation and someday, my wedding — when she knew she had fought the best she could and barely had the strength to even sign her name at the bottom. I only read them when nothing else will soothe me, because I know it’ll take me the better part of an hour to compose myself afterwards.
I have these things, but I would trade them all in a heartbeat just for one last conversation with her or another one of her hugs, the most comforting ones I ever knew. Grammie’s scarf can’t capture the sound of her saying “I love you”; the scent of her perfume can’t replace our conversations around the kitchen table or the phone calls of encouragement before a big test. Sometimes, items only serve as a reminder of the hollow space our loved ones once filled.
I lost my grandmother almost five years ago, yet there are times where the grief feels just as fresh as it was that awful September night. That’s what so many people fail to understand; mourning is not a simple five-step process, and for many of us, it doesn’t get less painful. The loss won’t hurt less — but it will stop taking up every thought in your brain. Your heart slowly makes room for something other than the sheer anguish you experience at first. The reminder that my grandmother is no longer with me was no less painful the 500th time than it was the first; it’s simply that it’s a fact I’ve lived with for so long that I know to expect the ache in my chest when I think of her. It’s the same ache I felt when I looked out into the crowd at graduation and didn’t see her there, or when I published my first piece at the CT and my mom told me how proud she would’ve been.
Knowing how complex grief is, and that it never truly leaves, we shouldn’t judge the way those who have lost someone choose to handle it. Granted, some ways are healthier than others, but the majority of us aren’t licensed therapists, and it isn’t up to us to decide that someone isn’t grieving appropriately. Grief is different for each person experiencing it and it varies depending on the connection we have to the person we have lost and how deeply they were integrated into our lives.
My parents and grandfather view visiting my grandmother’s grave as a comfort, but it took me three and a half years to work up the strength to do so — even then, I thought it hurt more than it helped. I found out about her passing on a Sunday night and was up at 5:30 a.m. for high school the next morning, convinced that she would’ve wanted me to be as academically successful as possible, even in the face of loss — that year, my freshman year, I threw myself into my work. My mother, on the other hand, took a step back, spending many days at my grandparents’ home in North Carolina to help my grandfather sell the house and go through my grandmother’s belongings. My parents openly talked about her absence, encouraging me to do the same whenever I felt comfortable. But I didn’t, fearing that if I opened my mouth, all the pain would spill out and be too much to process all at once.
Looking back, there are things I could have done better. I wish I’d let my mom comfort me more, though goodness knows there were plenty of nights we spent crying on the bonus room couch. I wish I had admitted to myself that it was okay to feel weak, and that I didn’t have to be strong for everyone around me. But I also know that there were things I did right — going to school was a welcome alternative to wallowing around the house all day to return to piles of missed work. I thought I didn’t want to be surrounded by pity, but my friends turned out to be an excellent source of support when I felt a flood of tears coming on in the middle of class or just needed a minute to breathe.
The way I processed my grief is only for me — and, I suppose, my hypothetical therapist — to judge. Humor is healing for some, but others like to cry it out. Some people find comfort in mindless distraction and would much rather binge-watch the latest Netflix hit, while plenty might prefer to surround themselves with work. Some want to talk about it; others would rather express their emotions — as I did and still do — in writing. There’s so many ways to sort through the complicated feelings that come with loss, and there is no “right” way to do so — only what works best for you.
The next time you’re feeling inclined to judge the way someone is working through those feelings, stop and consider offering words of support instead. Ask them what they need — to talk, to be left alone, to be distracted by an outing. You never know if what you do could be the balm that helps someone start to hurt a little less.