Grief is the Thing That Sinks

Grief is a curious creature, alien to those who have never encountered it, intimately familiar to those of us who have. I say it is the thing that sinks because at first it skims the surface, gently settling over you like a whisper, and then it slowly sinks into your skin, saturates all of your tissues, inhabits you. It is not that you become grief, or it becomes you, but that it rides along with you, integrated, always there, waiting. Sometimes it stirs within you, twisting your organs unexpectedly, shakes you at the roots.

There are so many narratives about grief, and so many expectations about those in mourning. We are supposed to be neat and tidy, to display a seemly amount of emotion and then return to normal. We are supposed to dive to the bottom of the ocean and back to the surface in a single day, pop up with smiles on our faces as we bob on the waves, and return to swimming like everyone else. Grief is the thing that sinks, though, which means that once you hit bottom, it is hard to kick off and head for the surface again.

And there is nothing wrong with that. There is a myth, a belief, that grief is something you ‘get over.’ That once you’ve had your allotted mourning period, you become ‘normal again,’ and everything goes back to the way it was. How can it, though, when you are carrying something new inside of you? How can it when an element of your life has been stripped away? Grief is not something that goes away, it is something that changes shape, that has a sense memory.

When it creeps inside of you, it does something more than pulling, dragging, tearing. It conforms to the shape of your body, and your new existence, and no one knows what form it will take, and how long it will take to get there. For some of us, maybe it’s only a few days or weeks for it to settle into a stable form, for us to learn to navigate the world again with this new thing. For others, it may take years to settle. The process of taking it into yourself can be difficult, can be frustrating, can be unpredictable. You don’t know when it might try to sneak back out again, when an emotional outburst will occur, when you will suddenly feel trapped in a room you were perfectly comfortable in three minutes before.

There are also myths about who and what we are supposed to mourn, when and why we are expected to grieve. Some deaths are supposed to be tragedies, and people find it highly offensive when you don’t feel that way about a death. Others are supposed to be small, recoverable, easily and tidily managed, and people are chastised and censured for not experiencing them that way. For not being able to casually bounce back like nothing has happened, to ‘just get another one,’ as though living things, personalities, the people around us, can be so easily replaced, like buying a new mug to replace the one that chipped in the sink when you were washing the dishes.

Grief is the thing that sinks, but it sinks differently for all of us, and this frightens people, particularly those on the outside, who do not carry grief of their own. They do not understand how it cannot be consistent, why some people float back to the surface quickly and others do not. They find it naked and terrifying, to see people caught in grief, twisted in grief, pulled in it, just as they find it alienating and strange when people are not consumed with grief for people they have no reason to mourn, even if society says they are supposed to.

There is a shape-changing where you learn to live with grief, to carve out an agreement about what is and is not allowed, with yourself, and the grief, and everyone must negotiate their own boundaries, their own place in the world, at their own pace. It is sometimes untidy and messy, wet and sloppy, because this is the way of grief, and also of the world. Things are not clean and sanitary when you want them to be. Oddly, shaming people for not performing grief in the way that is expected doesn’t actually help people process it, deal with it, come to terms with it.

Grief strikes you at funny times, unexpectedly. It is there when you grab a container of something from the kitchen shelf and abruptly remember who was the last to touch it, when you find a hair that doesn’t match any of yours in a sweater you’ve just taken out of storage, when you are struck with a vivid image of who sat in that armchair, once. Sometimes it knocks your legs out from under you and you have to collapse onto the floor and stare at it, for a few moments, before you can move on with what you were doing.

Emotions are not controllable things, and grief is larger than a single emotion; it is rage and sadness and confusion and happiness, sometimes, all tangled up in a snarled mess that you cannot pick apart. You cannot neatly examine it, straighten it out, and put it away on a high shelf to examine at your leisure in the future. It just is, and slowly, over time, it changes shape and you change shape and you accommodate each other in an uneasy truce, agreeing, just between you, on how things are going to go, and where you are going to go from here.

This is not a thing one gets over, or shucks off, or rises above, or pushes through, or moves beyond. It’s just a thing, that is there, a part of you, your experiences, your sense of self. People who cannot see that, who do not understand it; well, they have never known the thing that sinks, now have they?