The Secret Life of Grief

My mom and I would play rallying partners in a long game of optimism. Don't worry about me, I said to her, month after month, curled on the bed as her weight dropped, below 100 pounds, below 90, below 80. I'm strongYou seem strong. I'm doing better. You look better. But here I am, still clinging to a lifetime of distractions, and mom has missed a birthday. Not just the things I'll miss. The things you'll miss.

* * *

Like life and hell, grief is other people.

"Hey, you look gross," I told my sister, in the afternoon of the day before my mom died. Kira stood in the hall, hands on hips, sucking air, glowing and sweaty. At the moment, I sat, slumped in a chair, feet on the glass table, with a large plastic 1997 MLB All Star Game cup with a splash of Johnnie Walker Gold dangling off the edge. Feeling normal: being a jerk.

"Actually, I just ran 10 miles," she replied: being a jerk. "What are you doing?"

"Your uncle and I are on our second scotch. So, this is how I've chosen to spend my day."

"Hmm. I think my day is healthier." 

"You think that, Keek, but we're a team in this, and if you add you and me together, we're both exercising and drinking responsibly." We laughed, and she promised to take a sip, and I agreed to take a run, both of us lying politely.

Mourning, even for the resilient, is a study in extremes, and, for the family and friends filling out our house, the crescendos were violent. We would scream at each other, and then laugh over wine, and then scream some more, and back to the wine. Grief is not a steady process, Bonanno said, but rather an "oscillation," like everything inside of us. Muscles tighten and relax, our bodies warm and cool, and so do our tempers. In that house, in those last days, we might have thought of ourselves as individual antibodies, pinging around the home, attaching ourselves to tasks to invent a small sense of utility. But we were also one house, one body, mourning to and fro.

My mom always attracted friends with unteachable charisma, but in the last days, the gravity of her dying star pulled harder than ever. The house overflowed with people asking to ease the pain, mostly through our stomachs, cooking enough food to feed a moderately sized petting zoo. There was a theatricality to it, our trying to be heroes in a play where heroism is in vain, when the most poignant acts of generosity toward my mom were the smallest—a pillow fluff, a drop of Vaseline for her cracked knuckles, a half-spoonful of Jell-O so she could steal a taste after she knew her cancer would prevent her from eating again.

They were hectic final moments, when the simplest requests about her condition would inspire a scene from Beckett.

"What time is the doctor's appointment?"


"You don't know."

"I do know. It's 11."

"On Friday?"


"On Thursday."


"I see it's scheduled for 3 on Friday."

"Wait, you said Thursday."

"Dad. Let her talk."

"I am letting her talk. She's talking right now. Aren't you talking?"

"I wasn't. She was."

"If I could finish my—"

"There are two appointments. One at—"




"And Friday."

"No, 1 on Thursday."


"That's what I said, on Thursday."

"And Friday?"


"That's Thursday."

"STOP! There are two appointments. Thursday at 11. And Friday at 3."

"Thursday 11. Friday 3."

"Got it."


We got it. Everybody got it. And then, shattering the fragile calm, sat up my beloved grandmother, as if introduced by sitcom writers, chiming in, with perfect cadence—

"But what time on Thursday?!"

This scene is verbatim. I wrote it down minutes after the exchange, convinced that deaths in Jewish families invented the genre of absurdism. But it wasn't fighting or theater, at all. It was the opposite. The deconstructive wave interference of too much love in a room.

* * *

George Bonanno's book ends with a note from Karen Everly, whose daughter, working in the upper floors of the South Tower, died on September 11. Karen was devastated by the loss, but returned to work in a week, surrounded herself with the business of life, and seemed "poised" from her first meeting with Bonanno. Years later, she summed up her grief in a note:

"There is always a little flicker there. It is a bit like the small glowing embers you see after a fire dies down. I carry that around me, a little ember, and if I need to, if I want to have Claire next to me, I blow on it, ever so gently, and it glows bright again."

There are too many memories. Many of them are slipping from me. Others are so faint that only the rarest combination of triggers—vanilla, morning, a kitchen with an island table—bring the embers back to life. But a few are as close to me as breathing.

We are eating at home, my mom, my dad, and me, organized around the sunroom table for dinner. It's a late-spring night, and the family band is keenly in sync, working our way through the memory catalog, grooving on the old hits, passing the melodies between us.

"You always knew how to finish my sentences," my dad says. 

“Yeah," mom answers, "but if I could, I would end them with duct tape."

He booms with laughter so hard that he has to dry his eyes. As I bus the dishes to the kitchen sink, I hear him over my shoulder, catching his breath.

"Baby, you have to admit, it hasn't been easy, but it has been a laugh a minute."

A pause. A last scratch of forks and knives. Enough time for the right answer.

“Yes,” she says. “It has been. It has been a laugh a minute."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.


The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Health

Just In