It happened the other day. I was at a community event making holiday cards for U.S. troops deployed overseas. There were more than 30 of us, ranging from children as young as 2, to high school seniors, to grandparents, gathered around a long card table strewn with colorful markers, stickers, and construction paper. As I was scrawling “Thank you for your service” in red marker, I looked up, and a girl ran in front of my chair, carrying a fun-sized bag of Sour Skittles.
And I felt an overwhelming urge to cry. Right there, construction paper in my lap, sitting in the middle of strangers.
My brother John, who died 10 years ago, was a huge fan of sour candy, and Sour Skittles were his jam.
This doesn’t always happen. I rarely get so overwhelmed with an unforeseen emotion while doing an unrelated task. In fact, I probably passed by Sour Skittles just the other day, while standing in the checkout line at Wawa, and I don’t even remember it.
But grief is funny like that. There are times when I can predict it coming, like on the anniversary of John’s death, or on his birthday, and I prepare for it. And then there are times when it appears suddenly, when the emotion hits me before the thought, and I have to backtrack and try to figure out what caused it.
In these 10 years, I’ve had days exactly like the other day, where something in the course of my everyday life reminds me of John, and emotions stop the world in front of me for a moment. I’ve also had days where there are milestones in my life, like a birthday or a new job, and as I’m talking to each of the important people in my life, I have that split-second thought to call him. Those days make me miss him the most. And then there are days when the nonstop schedule of life leaves me not thinking of him at all.
But the thought of John not being here, the knowledge of his death, is always there. And the emotions and feelings I feel from that absence, from that loss, that’s grief.
Grief is overwhelming, unpredictable, and can even be sneaky. But it’s taught me a few things about life and loss.
Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from grief:
1. On anniversaries, spend time with others who knew the person.
Anniversaries are hard. The day that we lost John will always be an emotional day. On this day, I follow my normal routine, finding comfort in mundane tasks like going for a run and flat-ironing my hair. I leave work a little early, and travel to my sister’s house, or to a restaurant, where my family gathers. My Mom and Dad, my sister and her family, and my husband and I enjoy a simple meal, something like pizza or sandwiches. We catch up, we laugh, we cry, and sometimes, we share memories of John. Sometimes, we don’t even mention him. But we know why we are there. And we know that someone else at that table is feeling the exact same kind of pain. On a really crappy and difficult day, it is helpful to be together.
2. Share your loss, and give it a name.
I have a friend who lost her son, Sean. Shortly after his death, she shared that when people said his name, it brought her comfort. Even today, I feel the same way when someone says John’s name. Hearing John’s name means that there is a part of him that is still here. It means that even though his life ended at age 19, the person he was, what he said and what he did, the jokes he made, the movies he watched, the candy he enjoyed, lives on.
Simply sharing that I lost John is comforting, too, albeit in a different way. If I’m having a conversation and it would make sense to include him, my initial reaction is to skip over it for fear that it’ll make the other person uncomfortable. But in the end, I’ve learned that it requires more energy to find a way to remove him than it does to just put the loss out there.
3. Write about it.
Shortly after John’s death, I couldn’t make sense of how I was feeling. It was a jumble of emotions that often left me exhausted. When I couldn’t think of how to say it out loud, I would write about it. The majority of my writing ended up being about what I did that day, rather than how I was feeling. But when I was having a particularly hard day, I could look back at my writing from earlier days, and I had a reminder that not every day was this hard.
4. Celebrate the good memories of your loss.
Sometimes, in the checkout line at Wawa, I buy a bag of Sour Patch Kids. I sit in my car and I eat them, and I think of John. I think of when we were kids, and it was the summer, and we would buy the 25 cent bags of Sour Patch Kids from Eckerd Pharmacy. We would use $1.00 from our weekly allowance to buy 4 bags, and then we’d sit in the back of our parents’ Plymouth Voyager, the air conditioning blasting, while our Mom waited for a prescription, eating blue raspberry and watermelon Sour Patch Kids. Remembering moments like this are comforting, because even though John is no longer here, and that’s different, the memories of the experiences we had as children will always be there, and those won’t change.
5. Accept that your life, and you, will never be the same.
For years, I kept thinking that it was as if I’d lived two different lives: one before John died, and one after John died. I left his name out of conversations, stopped writing about him, sometimes even stopped talking about him to family, in an effort to create this “new” version of myself. I kept thinking that I had to create this version of myself that existed without John, so that it would be my new normal. What I didn’t realize was that I didn’t have to change anything. Enough had changed on its own. I just had to accept that this change was my new normal.
And sometimes, that means that seeing someone with Sour Skittles will make me want to cry.
And that’s OK.
Thank you for sharing. This has helped me to help my Sister with our Mom’s passing.
Sharon, I am so glad that this post helped you and your sister. I am so sorry for your loss. Thinking of you all, especially your Mom.
Sarah, Thank you for sharing your feelings and grief. You embrace the difficult moments with such eloquence and grace.
Jane, thank you so much!
Sarah your post is so helpful and well done. Great advice. It’s all coming from a very kind place and helping so many people. Lots of gratitude for you.
Robin, thank you so much for reading, and for these kind words!
Sarah, I have been teaching personal writing since the early 1980s. It has been my preference, even when assigned to teach a course on academic writing. There is always room for a personal essay. Many students have written on the death of a family member, or a friend, or in a few instances a neighbor. If the student comes in for help before completing his or her piece, I encourage them to include a story of the good times, of a time when that person was still alive. I say, it is more important to remember how a person lived than how they died, so write about both. It means more work, but students usually understand. And I receive better writing. You have written effectively about sadness here, yet skittles spill all over the piece with the joy of life. – Jan
Thank you so much for reading this post, and for your nice comments. Personal essays are my preference, as well 🙂