A Note From The Inside Of Grief

Have you ever noticed that people don’t write about depression from inside of depression. I mean, a friend or a blogger just disappears for a while, and then they come back and they say, “Sorry I was gone. I was fighting depression.”

Makes sense, of course. It’s hard to write when your brain says everything you do is crap and it’s all pointless anyway.

But have you ever wondered what really goes on inside a person’s head during that time, that dark time when what’s inside doesn’t want to come outside?

When Grandma died in November (it’s getting easier to write that sentence, even though I don’t want it to), I didn’t go into a deep depression and stop writing–in fact, I wrote quite a lot from my grief. I shared quite a lot of it too… but not all of it. Some of it felt too dark and raw. It wasn’t writing so much as feeling that spilled out onto the screen.

Well, here’s some of it. A note from the inside of grief.

December 19, 2013

Yesterday while I was writing about my grandma, I closed my eyes and imagined her voice, so I could get the words down on the screen just so. I wrote them out and then listened to them in my head and suddenly, unpredictably, it hit me that someday I will forget what her voice sounded like. I’ll hear those words in my head and won’t be sure if I’m hearing them quite correctly. I won’t remember the gentle gravelly sound, I’ll think “gentle gravelly” and everything I think of will be only an approximation, it will sound like what you are imagining right now for “gentle gravelly” instead of what she actually sounded like.

I spent the rest of the evening looking for old videos I took of her talking about her childhood. I became more and more frantic as I realized I’ve done a crappy job of maintaining files and that I probably am never going to find those precious, precious videos. That I will probably never, ever hear her voice again.

I finally went to bed, thinking maybe I’d find it still on my camcorder in the morning, after the battery had a chance to charge overnight. Halfway through the night, I dreamed that Dad and Grandpa and Aunt Elea and I were sitting around Grandma in her blue chair (“Am I in mah blue chair? Oh good, I’m so glad I’m in mah blue chair,” gawd I miss her sweet voice) and that she was about to blink out of existence, just like that, to just simply be gone. None of us wanted her to go, and she didn’t want to go either. She never liked goodbyes. And then she was gone, just like that, in a split second, just gone.

And in that instant I woke up and immediately knew it was true, that she was really really gone.

Also, the video is not on the camcorder or, if it is, it’s among the dozens of corrupted files from years past that never got downloaded and are lost forever.

And so even as I’m journeying through my grief (my ridiculously overblown grief, says my critical self; no, no, be gentle with yourself, says my kinder self; it’s okay, just be, says my wiser self) there is this watcher in my brain (my writer self) who is cataloging it all for future use.

The waves of regret (why didn’t I go out more often, take the kids to see Grandma every year, listen to more of her stories, ask her more questions, WHY don’t I have any video?)

The waves of horror (we all die someday and what happens to us then? Where do we go? Is she really still there or is it over for her and, someday, for me?)

The waves of pure sorrow (oh, Jesus, I miss her. So. Much.)

I’ve read so many works where people who have suffered a loss worry about not remembering what a loved one looked like, sounded like, smelled like. When Grandpa died, I took home an old suitcase full of his plaid shirts. I planned to make a quilt out of them, but I never did. I did, however, periodically go downstairs and sniff the suitcase, immerse my face in it. It smelled like Grandpa. One day, I decided it was enough. I was ready to let go. And I dumped the shirts and filled the suitcase with other things.

Yes, I’ve now forgotten what Grandpa smelled like.

And someday I’ll forget what Grandma sounded like.

Dear gawd, I’m not ready to admit that.


P.S. Wow. That’s a downer. I still miss her so much it hurts. I haven’t forgotten her voice yet, not yet, but I have to try harder to remember it.

Grandma Grandma and me

Let’s Do It For Life

Last November, I developed an irrational fear that I would choke on my food and die. I barely ate for several weeks. When I did eat, I felt constantly like the food was on the brink of lodging itself in my throat permanently. A smoothie seemed dangerously chunky.

My grandmother was very ill and dying in California, and I flew quite a lot during this time. I found I had suddenly developed an intense fear of flying as well. I spent interminable hours locked in a sardine can with sweating palms and a racing heart. I would get off the plane, shaking with pent-up panic-induced adrenalin, and cry wet tears of relief that it was over.

I was afraid of other things too–driving, crossing the street, headaches, my boobs. Fear became my constant companion.

It seems obvious in retrospect, but I didn’t initially connect what was happening to me with what was happening to Grandma. One day, I was writing about Grandma, trying to capture what she meant to me, trying to understand why my grief was so intense, when it struck me, loud and clear: The world is not a safe place without her.

Without Grandma, the world had become the sort of place where you might choke on a smoothie.

About the same time that my grandma died, the mother of a little girl we knew also died, very suddenly. A couple weeks after that, the little girl–we’ll call her N–came over for a visit. She was cheerful and chatty. I’m not sure how she was holding it together, because at the age of 40 I was a hot mess of grief still over the loss of my grandma, and this tough little ten-year-old whose mother had just died carried on as if nothing bad had ever happened to her.

I couldn’t even hold it together for the duration of N’s visit. I went back to the bedroom to cry. And to look for Grandma in my hope chest. I mean, pictures of Grandma.

A short while later, N joined me. She sat down on the bed and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was looking for pictures I maybe had forgotten I had. I showed her some tea towels that Grandma had given me. I was crying the whole time. I knew it was ridiculous, to be showing the intensity of my grief to the girl whose own cause for grief was so much greater. But there it was.

N listened to me, and then she said, “I wish I had pictures of my mom.”

And there it was.

We cried and held each other for an hour.


When I was pregnant with Monty, I read a book called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Liedloff describes a Stone Age tribe she lived with for several months called the Yequana. When she first arrived there, the villagers asked her who her family is. She said she didn’t have one: Her mother and father had died.

The tribes people were aghast. To their way of thinking, being without a family is a massively unsustainable condition. Being without parents, even as an adult, was simply untenable. Fortunately, they had a built-in system to remedy the problem: Leidloff was officially adopted into one of the tribe families, and became their daughter for life.


This seems an incredibly good idea to me. Imagine if we never had to be cut adrift, never had to navigate this dangerous world and its chunky smoothies alone. What if someone always had your back, no matter what? What if, even after your mom and dad are gone from this world, you still had parents.

I’m lucky. I still have my mom and my dad. During Grandma’s illness and after her death, we gathered in California to take care of each other. We tried hard to be kind to one another, and we mostly succeeded. We hugged a lot more than is normal for the stoic Mann family. We cried a lot more too, and gave each other a lot of leeway for that.

N is lucky too, in a way. She still has her dad, and he is a good one.

But what if we never had to worry about it, what if we always knew that we would have family, for life, no matter what? Sure, we would still dissolve in a hot mess of grief when it’s time to say goodbye. But it wouldn’t be so scary, because we’d know that we weren’t alone, that we were not going to be set adrift. Maybe we wouldn’t spend so much time choking on smoothies.

So I want to make a proposal. I want to suggest that we adopt each another. Maybe formally, maybe not, but let’s do it for life. Let’s make it a policy to be each others’s safety net, to never give up on being there for each other. Let’s be each others’s family.

Who’s in?