I didn’t really want to go walking with my grief today. I guess I never really want to hang out with my grief… who does? But I am here. Please picture me: exhausted, devastated, black spandex shorts stretched around my fat thighs, oversized pale purple Lavender Menace t-shirt clinging to my tits and tummy, greasy messy bun stuck on top of my head. I don’t look cute. I look like someone going through the worst year of her life. I look true.
Something that has astounded me this year and will probably continue to blow my mind in a terrible way until the day I myself die is how when things are already bad, they can somehow always get worse. Everything happens so much, my best friend is fond of saying, and unfortunately she’s never been wrong. It’s something I used to shy away from — the idea of rock bottom is so comforting, so cold and final, so promising that anything that happens after can only be on the same hideous plane or perhaps one or two centimeters above it — but no, I can no longer let myself pretend that is true. Rock bottom is a lie.
This week I’m writing to you from Southern Oregon. I like walking in Southern Oregon because if I am here it means I am staying with my chosen family on their dead end street in a town so small it doesn’t have a post office, so if I’m walking it means I’m sticking close to the edge of the road, means I’m surrounded by tall trees that were alive before I was born, means depending on the time of year and the level of the drought I can sometimes hear the creek, means I can always smell the marijuana plants, means just once I saw a mama bear and her three cubs cross the gravel path a few feet in front of me and I stood still and held my breath and waited a long time before I moved again at all. If I am walking in Southern Oregon it means I am alone because I chose to be alone, which is different than being lonely.
I never told my dad any of that. My dad loves me but he doesn’t really understand me, I used to say to my friends. Existing with my grief means accepting the role I played in the truth that my dad didn’t really always understand me. That’s a hard thing, about grief. All the guilt that comes with it. I can say in retrospect I think he tried very hard. I can say I think maybe he tried harder than I did.
When I decided to walk with my grief this week, as opposed to sitting and eating breakfast with my grief last week, I was curious to see how the different actual activities would trigger different responses. I wondered how the act of being in motion would shift the way it feels to be with grief, if emotion and feeling would shake loose in my body as I put one foot in front of the other. I’ve walked this country road so many times before. I first arrived in Southern Oregon by chance in 2014 and I thought that summer was the most heartbroken I would ever feel. I was so stupid. As I walk today, eight summers later, I remind myself, so much wiser now: I don’t know the most heartbroken I will ever feel. I could always get sadder! I’m kidding, that I’m so much wiser now, by the way. I don’t know anything.
The tears don’t come easily this week. I’m in my brain, trying to decide how much I should let myself be in my brain. I think about how I read somewhere recently — probably, embarrassingly, on an Instagram infographic to be honest — that the life cycle of a feeling is 90 seconds. The point of the little Instagram post, I think, was to encourage people to feel their feelings. It’s hard to sit with sadness or anger for a full 90 seconds, the post said, but if you do that and let it work through your body then you’ve dealt with it, you’ve experienced it, boom, good job, it’s gone. I think that’s part of why I committed to this column, why I am forcing myself to really engage with my grief even though I rarely want to. Something I fear about my grief is if I don’t make space for it in my life I will never be able to metabolize it, that it will gnaw away at my insides, that it will make it impossible for me to keep being open, keep loving. My dad taught me so much about unconditional love.
It is at this point on my walk, as I am having this thought, that the tears start. I cannot let my dad’s death fuck up my ability to love. I owe him that much.
Last week I struggled to sit and eat breakfast for even half an hour with my grief but today I find myself ready to walk for a long time. The feeling of movement does help; even as my brain overextends itself, even as I feel the anxiety and the distractions rising, I call my body back to itself, I call the grief toward my steps, just keep moving forward I whisper to myself, just put one foot in front of the other, and I let myself say these things out loud because no one is around. When I get to the railroad tracks at the end of the road I contemplate if I feel like really delving into this walk or if it’s time to turn back but my body says to keep moving. I keep moving. I focus on the smells that accompany being outside here: tar, trees, smoke, the tired scent of end of summer. I intentionally take in the scene around me: glittering stones, sticky decomposing wood tracks, neon green foliage shooting straight up and up and up and up. I look up.
There are big birds flying above me in the perfect blue September sky and I let myself accept my grief is not only pinpointed on my dad, my grief is enormous, my grief holds the pain of losing more than one person I love, my grief stops me in my tracks, my grief stops me on the side of these literal fucking train tracks, my grief makes me double over, my grief has me screaming as my pink fingernails claw at my chest, my grief makes my vision blurry and my body feel prickly and numb at the same time, my grief is too big for me, my grief is all of me, my grief has taken so much from me, my grief is trying to help me cope with all the things I have lost, my grief says I love you, my grief says it wouldn’t hurt if there wasn’t love, my grief says it’s supposed to hurt, my grief yells back at me, my grief says you can metabolize these feelings, my grief says you are strong enough even though you don’t feel strong enough, my grief says Dad would be proud of you, my grief says Dad would say Vaness why did you go on such a long walk with no hat, you’ve got to cover your head, you must take care of yourself in the sun Vaness, you must take care of yourself.
My grief says Vanessa, listen: you know how to take care of yourself.
I cry and cry and cry and cry and cry. Then I turn around and walk myself back home. Alone.
[Blank] With My Grief is a weekly mini-series by me, Vanessa, about intentionally sitting with grief. Next Saturday I’ll probably take a bath with my grief, even though I historically don’t really like baths. If you’re currently experiencing big grief, please feel free to share specific activities you do with yours in the comments. I’m really fucking sorry we’re all here together.
This series is what I think everyone needs, but I especially love it because I lost my dad too & even from 14 years “past that loss”, everything about this is still true. It’s always… everything. It’s too much no matter what. I love the line, “my grief says it wouldn’t hurt if there wasn’t love” & how beautiful & terribly true that line is. Thank you for sharing.
vanessa. you’re receiving. thank you for this.
Vanessa. First of all, I’m really sorry you’re going through this, and I’m sending you – well, I don’t even know you, so I guess I’m sending whatever you want. Think of it as a blank check for helpful sentiments from a well-meaning stranger. Second of all, this is an absolutely stunning piece of writing. Seriously, it’s – it’s sort of Mary-Oliver-esque, in the best possible way. Thank you for sharing it <3
Hey Vanessa, I know this may seem small but I just wanted to give you my condolences. It’s really incredible, how you have used your writing as a medium to try and mend some of your wounds and process what is difficult. Please remember that you are loved. I hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend.
My father died 15 years ago on September 4th. I didn’t have the same relationship with him that you did with your dad, but even still, so much of what you write hits home.
So did Dancing at the Pity Party, by Tyler Feder – if there are others reading this series who might also want more to read that speaks to the grief of losing a parent.
vanessa this one is just—
Last Sunday was Father’s Day here in Australia, also the day before my father’s funeral anniversary in 2016. My mum texted me telling me to text my stepdad, I was so angry at her. How could she be so insensitive? When I spoke to her the next day and more diplomatically expressed my feelings, she said she had forgotten about the funeral anniversary and that I should still be grateful for my stepdad because he’s responsible for all that’s good in my life, which made me even madder. My stepdad is a right winged bigot. The longer he’s in my life, the less I respect him. Thank you for creating this space for me to express my emotions.
Beautiful and true. Many thanks
My dad died 3 years ago last week. On his death-anniversary, I couldn’t cry. I was just numb, and then stuck in my brain trying to figure out why I was numb. I’ve been numb since then too – like my brain had unilaterally put up a firewall between me and my feelings.
Reading this, every sentence was like, this is so familiar, this is my relationship to grief and to my dad. I always thought my dad never understood me. I knew he loved me but I wasn’t sure if he liked me or approved of me, much less understood me. We were so similar in so many ways that I never realized until after he was gone.
I keep thinking that grief will lessen over time. That the burden and weight and pain will feel lighter. But it doesn’t. Or at least it hasn’t yet. It has changed, somewhat. Sometimes. Sometimes, it feels brand new all over again.
Grief is a really shitty companion to love, adding a tinge of grief-dark shadows to all my memories of my dad.
Thank you for creating a space for real reflection and talk about grief.
Ohh rock bottom. So comforting to hear that, strange as it sounds—that’s been my experience of this year too, one loss after the next growing and rolling into a giant ball of grief. Really appreciating this series, looking forward to the next!