Giving Grief a Voice
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
Life has a way of returning to its origins. Even though we see life in a straight line, with an ending far, far from the beginning, it’s only an illusion. And believing in that illusion makes our loss even more devastating. Because grief bends our dreams of that straight path and guides us in a truer, but entirely different direction. And so it can feel that life is coming off the rails. It can feel like a deviation, even a punishment.
But if you pay attention, you see that life goes in a circle. We think when we’ve reached the end that it is so far away from where we began—until we realize that we have actually returned. You are born curled up. You die curled up. You are born with chaotic, meaningless sensations and you lose them again just before you die. We spend a lifetime loving and building relationships only to have them replaced with loss and grief. It is the honest brutality of balance. It doesn’t make us losers. It simply makes the circle complete.
And once this realization sinks in, you can see how the future can reach all the way around to touch your past, leaving you in awe of the present, now unfolding. You begin to understand a fraction of all the beauty that there is in the human experience.
But only if you acknowledge that love eventually comes around to grief. And if you can accept that, you can find the courage to love boldly. To lose boldly. And to pick up your grief and keep walking.
Because if your decision is to stop moving forward, it doesn’t mean that you stay in one place. Life will continue to drag you miserably forward. You just choose to live in denial of the changes that are already happening around you. Because Life is dynamic. You can try to slow its changes, but you can never, ever live in stasis.
The events of this past year of my life have made this circle all the more clear to me. It took an expected source to draw me closer to the certainty of grief.
It took the birth of my daughter.
A few weeks after my daughter’s birth, I knew that I had fallen in love with her—but it was quite different than when I fell in love with my husband. When I looked at my husband in those first months of dating, I saw life. He was young and strong. I saw my future life with him. The certainty of death was a distant event—something that would happen to us after a lifetime of stories.
But when I saw my daughter’s tiny body, curled up on me for warmth, I saw vulnerability. I imagined how devastating a respiratory virus could be for her in her tender state. When I saw her, I had to acknowledge the frailty of life.
And so becoming a mother drew me closer to the certainty of grief someday. And in this way, it prepared me for what happened just months later.
This past June, my father passed away.
His brothers spread his ashes over their favorite fishing spot in Pebble Lake, Minnesota.
That lake is where the family cabin once stood. It was small. You couldn’t really call what it had “rooms” because the walls didn’t go to the ceiling. It had tall partitions dividing the cabin into a kitchen/living area and two tiny sleeping areas. No bathroom—but there was an outhouse. The kitchen had a large farm sink, like a trough, and an old-fashioned pump that you wailed away on to bring well water to the surface.
Obviously, there was no television.
But, God, we loved that place as kids. Our excitement built as our station wagon crawled over the winding road, sending gravel popping here and there. We snaked through the forest and down a steep hill until we were at the shore. When we got there, all five of us abandoned our parents to the task of unloading the car. Then, we threw on our bathing suits and trunks and raced to jump from the dock into the lake. When we swam, our legs brushed against seaweed and the occasional surprised fish.
And we fished. A lot. Dad would take my brothers out on an aluminum row boat and teach them how to cast. When they returned with a bucket of fish, we would watch Mom clean the fish, chopping heads off their flopping bodies, scaling them, and then removing their organs—all done without hesitation. (Growing up on a farm sharpens the clarity of the food chain.) We squealed to see her peel the spine of a fish from its flesh in one straight line.
And that is where part of my father’s ashes rest. In that simple, quiet place where there was only family and nature.
On the day after Easter, my father fell and broke his neck. Parkinson’s had gradually weakened his stability. And then there was the depression, aggravated by the loss of his lifelong career as a bakery specialist. So when it finally happened, the first emotion that I felt was relief. He was free from it all. Pain. Confusion. Depression.
And then I thought how terrible it was for me to feel relief first. What was wrong with me? Didn’t I love my father? If I truly loved him, shouldn’t my first reaction have been a piercing scream?
But it wasn’t.
My mother, on the other hand, was in shock. Numb. The way she said the words to me over the phone, the nurses called and let me know that Dad has passed away, delivered like it was an annoyance, The store’s out of mesquite turkey again.
Now that—that’s grief.
So I lowered my mental threshold of what I believed I was allowed to feel. I had only lost my father. I hadn’t lost a husband, a partner of 38 years. I wasn’t the one who was going to have to talk to the funeral home, the church, the newspaper, and all the relatives. I was just his child. Not even an only child—just one of five. And not even the firstborn—I was the middle child.
So I found my ranking in the hierarchy of grief and tried to express it appropriately.
This only worked for a few days.
As we drove from Ohio to Minnesota for the funeral, I started to write my father’s eulogy.
And I cracked.
I utterly cracked.
My husband was driving while I sat in the backseat next to our napping 10-month-old daughter. I was typing on my laptop, writing about what kind of man my dad was. I was fine. I was delivering facts, sharing stories. But then, I started writing to my dad. I started talking to him. I called him by name, Dad…
And I knew I’d never again hear him answer when I called his name.
But I wished. I threw out my pleas to God to send my voice across the planes between us. I needed my father to hear me one last time. My grief was real. Even if my mother’s grief was profound, it did not negate my own.
My grief isn’t made of an empty space in bed or life insurance policies or coffins too small. It has its own shape, its own texture. But it is still real. It tells its own story. It carves its own wounds, leaving behind scars that could serve as fingerprints.
My grief can tell you what I’ve been through, my own journey of loss. It can tell you what I’ve survived. And it can tell you who I am becoming now.
And so I gave my grief a voice. I let it speak. And this is what came out:
I know how confusing it is to watch the person you love deteriorate from unknown causes.
And when the causes become known, I know how confusion can turn into guilt for having blamed him for not trying harder.
And I know how that guilt can morph into hopelessness when the truth sets in. That there’s no way to stop him from sliding down into death.
I know how it feels to wave good-bye to your parents as they move away to be closer to family—knowing that “family” doesn’t mean you.
I know the pain of realizing that your father’s smile has disappeared. And the pain of seeing the light go out of his eyes.
I know the awkwardness of navigating new conversations, where a silent nod replaces an animated laugh. Where you joke and kid the way you used to, thinking that it will help.
I know how it feels to serve a verbal volley only to have it dropped, ignored, or refused. Time after time.
I know the futility of trying to revive the past, knowing that it has ended long ago. But doing it anyway because you’re not ready to accept the changes.
I know how it feels to shut the door and burst into tears because you can’t deny what’s happening anymore.
I know how it feels to lose someone piece by piece until you begin to question what it means to live.
I know how it feels to love someone so much that you can’t stand to see him alive anymore. Even though it means a lifetime of heartache and homesickness for you.
I know that you can love someone so much that you have to let go and start walking away.
And I know how heavy a box of ashes can feel—only to be sickened moments later by its lightness.
But words sometimes aren’t enough.
So here’s another way of expressing my grief.
It took a lot of tears to make this video. More tears than I thought I had left in me, even months after the funeral. Optimistic people tell you that it gets better with time. That getting back to your routine helps. The honest ones give you a more realistic prognosis—grief doesn’t ever go away. It lives on alongside every other emotion you feel and every moment you live. You just learn how to carry it so you can press on. Sometimes, it can recede so far into the background that you forget it’s there. But then, a photograph deceives your eyes, only to have your hands ache in the wake of the truth—you still can’t touch him.
But what people don’t tell you is that grief can’t die because its source is love. It couldn’t exist without having loved. And if you love, you will one day grieve.
And so grief has helped me to see all the way around love. It has helped me to see that grief and love are connected. It has shown me that grief is not punishment or a sign of life gone awry. It is the price of loving. And I know now that I would pay that price every time. Every single time.
I know that someday there will be a new grief that needs to find its voice. I will take on its weight. But I hope that by that time, I will have even more strength to carry it. I’ll need to learn new maneuvers to manage it, but I know that grief means that I have loved.
And really, what else is there?
I ask you, if you’re grieving, what would your grief say?
Give it a voice.
Let it speak.
It can be incoherent and messy. Contradictory or nonsensical. It can be trite. Spiteful. Angry or furious. The point is that you let it say what it needs to say, in whatever form it takes. The point is to acknowledge that it’s there, that it’s real, and that it’s valid. The point is that you acknowledge that the pain that you are experiencing can transform you. It can make you stronger. It can help winnow out the filler in life so you can focus on what truly matters. It can make you that person of grit and fortitude that inspires others to believe in the resilience of humanity.
And know that life comes around. There will be more love. Not the same love, but more love nonetheless.
A month ago, my husband and I went to an open house for a house that was on the market near our apartment. Since my mother was visiting for my daughter’s birthday, she came too. We loved the location. The house was next to a park and just a block away from what would be our daughter’s future elementary school. We weren’t sure that we really wanted to move this year, but we went to the open house anyway. Just to see it… We told ourselves.
I stepped into that house and I felt… at home. The interior needed a lot of updating, for sure, but there was just something familiar about that house. I felt like I had been there before, a real déjà vu setting in, almost to the point where I felt like I knew in which exact kitchen drawer I could find a rubber band.
I held my daughter on my hip as we walked through the dining room. In the glass china cabinet, there was a framed wedding invitation with a wedding picture. The couple looked to be in their 50s. A second marriage?
We came around to the rec room, where my mom was sitting. She had a huge smile on her face.
“This is a nice house,” she said.
We left, thinking about the price. It was at the upper end of our price range. And the number of modifications…. So we looked at other houses. Newer, more updated houses. In more expensive neighborhoods. With granite countertops and jetted bathtubs.
But both of us just kept thinking about that house.
“Do you like that house?” Doug asked.
“Well… yeah,” I admitted, “But I’m afraid that if I like it too much, someone else is going to snatch it up. So I’m trying not to care too much about it.”
Doug secured a realtor associated with a local credit union. I asked him how the first meeting had gone.
“Good…” he looked away.
He shook his head. “He looks a lot like your dad.”
“The realtor? Really?”
“Yeah. Like a lot like your dad. He even talks like him. It’s weird. Like… it might be hard for you to see him.”
A few days later, I met the realtor when he accompanied us to a private showing of the house.
He wasn’t kidding. The realtor looked just like my father in his prime. Same build, similar voice. Same way of talking to customers. Even his story about how he began his career in real estate was similar to how my father had entered the bakery business.
“Yeah, my partner—who passed away a few years back—he said that I should try real estate. He thought I’d be great at it. And he was right! Been doing this for 34 years and I’ve loved every minute of it. Now, you have to understand that I know all of these neighborhoods. We specialized in this area… All this area west of Far Hills, through Kettering, Oakwood, and then down through here. We’ve sold just about every house on this street at one time or another.”
I could almost hear my dad saying, “I’ve opened all of the Cubs Foods’ bakeries in the tri-state region. All the way over to Chilicothe and down through Louisville.”
Wow. Just wow.
Later that afternoon, Doug went back with the realtor to continue their investigation of the house. While he was there, the owner came home and introduced himself to my husband. He explained that he and his wife had bought the house in 1977 and raised their kids there. A year ago, his wife passed away.
He put his house on the market.
He met a new woman.
They got married.
And now? What were his plans?
He and his new wife were moving to Minnesota. They were building a cabin on a lake.
And what will be our moving day into that house?
My dad’s birthday.
Life comes around.
It always comes around.