I only learned the meaning of the word “hospice” once I was in the Hospice of Cincinnati’s lobby, sitting in a chair too big for my 12-year-old body as I read a Wikipedia article only one hallway away from my dying, cancer-ridden dad.
I learned about the five stages of grief in a tiny, windowless conference room attached to the principal’s office from a counselor who pulled me out of various seventh and eighth grade classes, lunches, and recesses to check in on me.
And I learned how to tie a tie from a YouTube video as I wrapped, looped, and tightened a tie I borrowed from his closet but don’t really remember him ever wearing.
In all honesty, I first encountered the tremendous pain every moment of the day can somehow hold at way too young an age. Often, this pain goes unnoticed until the smallest provocation somehow makes it all flow out — a reminder it had always been present. This provocation can be a stray grape from another kid’s weird antics hitting one’s shoulder on the school playground that sets off an explosion of sadness and rancor that has built up in the months right after a death. It can be a good cry, years later, in the car while driving home the morning after senior prom from a friend’s house where his whole family — dad included — had helped make breakfast for everyone present.
Recently, it’s been the slow drip over a span of months of a single or a couple of tears every time I think or read about all those who have died during this horrible pandemic. Every time this happens, every time I feel my eyes begin to swell up or my throat tighten a bit as I learn how many more thousands have died in this country alone, I wonder just how many people are setting out on this tragic journey I began about eight years ago.
Every few days, I seem to learn of someone else in my life — a classmate, a professor, a neighbor, a family friend — who has lost someone important to them, and I wonder how they handled the news of their loss. I wonder if they too yelled and cried, if they too ran to lay down where their loved one once slept as if to maybe feel their embrace, their warmth, one last time. But then I remember that far too many people this past year have had to grieve mostly on their own with few or no other people to surround them or support them with what I’ve found to be one of life’s greatest burdens.
And this is all before the full, terrifying magnitude of this past year’s loss has even had a chance to set in. I don’t know how anyone could ever comprehend that much loss, much less those who have felt death closest and most often this past year.
For months now, and even more so with the arrival of the coronavirus vaccines, I’ve heard about a hoped-for return to normal, but since March — since I left campus — I’ve known somewhere hidden, deep inside there will never be such a return, no matter how much I want to believe differently. Sure, classrooms will likely one day reopen as will stadiums, theaters, and borders, and crowds even will likely become normal again.
But I know too well that any “normal life” from before a close loss is forever gone afterwards. There’s no rewinding and replaying, no preserving lives now gone. Time stubbornly and frustratingly, and even tragically, insists on continuing forward. No matter how much one wishes it was still years, months, or at the very least days or hours before that loved one’s death, that tragic day slowly becomes yesterday. And then weeks, months, and years since that day pass unfailingly, if painfully.
As those years passed by for me, I learned an awful lot about grief while also growing up terribly fast. I even managed to find some peace amidst everything despite every painful emotion. However, none of this ever left me truly prepared for the realization I had as I began my college years.
After sharing this part of my life with someone, I’m often asked if I ever wish my dad were still around. I somewhat recently began to notice my answer shifting uncomfortably away from an immediate “yes.” Of course, I wish he had never even gotten sick in the first place, but I also now can no longer imagine my life and all these years any differently — with him still around.
It’s a very uncomfortable and perplexing response, and it’s one that might even give the impression that I’m suggesting death and loss is a temporary sorrow that eventually, somehow magically, passes. It’s not. If anything, I’ve found that it’s something one learns slowly and excruciatingly to live with as it slowly melds into yet another part of one’s life. As the daily reminders of death, of the person now gone, diminish in number and intensity, I’ve found they instead show up within, as a sort of invisible repository of the whole experience — every tear shed, every emotion felt, every day ruined by grief — that will forever be there, waiting to be returned to on the worst days.
I write all this while waiting for the imminent return to campus almost a year after first writing about this pandemic the morning of March 11, 2020. All those months ago, I still hoped most changes would be momentary — that this new normal truly would be nothing more than temporary. Maybe I had even been counting on this long-gone possibility, on a quick return to a campus just as it was, for my own sake. But now I write all this awaiting a campus almost certain to be filled with excitement to be back, yet one also likely to be underscored with just as much grief.
No words I write could ever sufficiently soothe those currently carrying such grief; still, I feel for you, those who have lost a loved one to this despicable pandemic. If there’s anything else I can share, it’s that I haven’t carried my grief alone. And while I can’t promise any unfailing peace or constant happiness, I can at least assure that you too won’t have to carry your grief alone. I, and surely many others, are ready to help.