The Secret Life of Grief

"What did you burn for your father?" I asked.

"Gold bullion," he said. "He was a working-class guy, didn't get much of an education, didn't like anything rococo. He was down to earth. I thought, with gold bullion, he could finally relax. 'Here's gold, Dad, do whatever you want with it!' It struck me as the right thing to do."

* * *

"Derek," my dad said toward the end dinner, "tell them about China!"

Food is my family's religion, and restaurants our sacred temples, so to celebrate what would have been my mom’s 64th birthday, our closest friends filled out the back room of a Spanish taperia in D.C. to toast her. This suggested story, however, was not an obvious way to celebrate her motherly qualities.

When I was 19, my mom, dad, and I went to China. Over the course of a few days in Beijing, the left side of my face stopped moving. I had contracted Bells Palsy, a temporary paralysis of the facial nerve. A hypochondriac, I was certain that I was dying. My mom, however, seemed to consider my broken face hysterical, lightly mocking my crooked smile in photographs in Shanghai, and laughing uproariously when wine dribbled from my slack mouth onto my pants in a five-star restaurant.

Weeks later, my face and dignity healed, I confronted her: Why had she taken such a cavalier approach to the sudden paralysis of her son’s face?

"I was worried," she replied, not sounding worried.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.

She answered with a look—defensive, bemused, adoring. "I couldn't fix your face," she said with a laugh. "Why would I tell you how worried I really was, when all that would do is make you more worried?"

For the 16 months after her diagnosis, I returned the favor. We never spoke of the food she couldn't eat, the thick hair she couldn't grow back, or the weight she couldn't keep. Instead, riding home from New York once a month and bounding onto her bed, I'd serve a feast of happy stories harvested from a life spent trying not to worry. I cried often, but privately, in the stairway at work, on the train behind a pair of sunglasses, and in my apartment, indulging a memory behind a locked door. But I only lost it twice in front of her, both times trying to say the same thing: What makes me saddest isn't imagining all the things I’ll miss, but imagining all the things you’ll miss. The wedding dances, the wine-fueled parties, her birthday cards, each emblazoned with ludicrously incorrect ages. For Mom, who drew kinetic energy from every drip of living, as if by photosynthesis, and braved the winter of life with spring in her heart, smiling like a sweet little maniac all the way to the end, cancer was such cosmic robbery.

Two weeks ago, transcribing Bonnano's interview in a coffee shop in New York, I was typing this passage:

"In the Asian cultures, the idea is that the person isn't really gone. You honor them. You appease them. You can still make them happy, elsewhere."

Tears burned in the gutters as I reread those words. "You can still make them happy." It would be so nice to think so. But for those of us who cannot believe in God and afterlives, this is just one of the things you lose forever when you lose a person: the ability to make them happy.

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.

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

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