When Grief is Never Quite Done: Community and the Needs of Others

It’s been a particularly foggy couple of days here in Oxford. Last night, I went to see a movie with a couple of friends and took a thirty minute walk home by myself, at nearly midnight, through a light mist and a veil of fog. I did a lot of walking yesterday. In the morning, I walked to campus, which is about a 20-minute walk, and then I walked around city centre for at least half an hour. And then I walked around for an hour before the movie, just wandering the backstreets and alley ways of the Jericho neighborhood, enjoying the fog and the noise of the streets, feeling at once happy and sad.

Tomorrow – November 3rd – is the anniversary of when my mother went into the hospital for the first time, beginning a long journey of slow decline, punctuated by brief moments of happiness. None of us knew what was ahead of us when Mom ended up in the emergency room that Sunday with the symptoms of a heart attack. Looking back, it seems naïve that we would think our problems would be over with a couple of stents and some new medications.

Grief isn’t a linear progression – it’s a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey corkscrew of better days and bad days and days when you manage to be genuinely, truly happy. And I am, for the most part, very happy. I live in my favorite city and I’m doing a degree here. I have wonderful, caring friends who have already become my “squad” after just a month. I never want for people to reach out to – it’s the actual act of reaching out that’s hard.

I uncomfortably reject the reputation of “the girl with the dead mom,” though I’m sure I’m not the only one here. But grief is as much a communal process as it is a private one – it is the development of understanding how to live your life with a hole that never gets smaller. That person you would call and talk to in the middle of the day isn’t there anymore, and that’s worth grieving. And grief doesn’t have a timeline. Things have significantly altered in my life, for good and for bad.

Now that my life here has settled into a routine – now that I know where my classes and lectures are and am able to do the work I need to do and pump out the essays for my tutorials as well as get (most of) the reading done week by week – it’s hard not to spend a few moments wondering what Mom would make of all this. I imagine her excitedly telling her hairdresser about my adventures being back in Oxford, that big, genuine smile stretching across her face. She would also worry about me, as parents are prone to do – worry that I’m eating enough, that my anxiety’s under control, that I’m making friends and developing the support system I need. And I feel like she’d be able to explain these low points, this grief, which is an irony.

It is possible to be in the best of circumstances and still feel sad – because grief isn’t something you just experience once and get over and done with. It’s something that will jump back into my life without warning – an errant thought, an image that I wish I could share, a story I wish I could tell. The trick to it all is the only way is through – I cannot reject or hold it back, because it will always be there, knocking quietly.

Things soften with time. The moments of grief are somewhat dulled with the passage of time. We learn to move on. We learn to continue our lives, despite these gaps and missing people. Allowing grief to change us, allowing it to be a part of our life and our understandings of ourselves and our communities is part of how it is to exist in a world where death still reigns. Extolling the defeat of death and the eschatological promises of the Lord are all well and good but they do nothing for the grief that exists in the moment. Instead, they communicate a desire to live grief quietly, to do things in an orderly fashion, to understand and conform to a theology that should be questioned in these very moments.

And this, I’m finding, over and over again, as I move toward my thirties, as I live life as an adult, as I make choices to move myself along in spite of everything that makes me want to just sit and wallow, is the essence of community: allowing room for questions, allowing room for learning and for fuck-ups and for pain. This is the Church universal, but it is also the simplicity of what makes us human – the ability to act within our plurality and become people who both can be leaned on and people who recognize when they need a shoulder.

Community demands a lot of us – but it also gives back tenfold what we put in. This is our give and take. This is how we live. And this is how we learn.