A man who looked just like my grandfather walked into the bakery where I was grabbing a treat for my son. When I saw him, my heart sank and I had a difficult time catching my breath. I wanted to run up to him, give him a hug, and grab an apple strudel to share so that we could sit and chat. Like we use to. I wanted to tell him all the things that have happened since he left me. I wanted to introduce him to my son.
I wanted to introduce him to my son.
But the man who walked into the bakery was nearly three inches too short to be my Papa. He wasn’t whistling, and his hands were neatly tucked in his pockets.
I’m not sure what had me the closest to tears…the fact that he could have been my grandfather—we were in the neighborhood where he last lived—or the fact that he wasn’t.
A week earlier, I had taken my son to a book signing. He was in his glory. He sat in the front row, directly in front of the author. He raised his hand and quite eloquently in front of hundreds of people asked the author questions and assured him that he was a fan of his work. The book, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, by Shaka Senghor, is not currently appropriate for my son to read, he’s eight. But it was important to me that he witness the story of the author’s redemption. So it was fitting that during the recitation and Q&A, my son sat only a few chairs away from my father’s college roommate. You see, my father’s life was also a story of redemption.
I sat there between my son and a man my father considered to be a model of the community. I remembered sitting in a campaign van alongside my father eliciting votes for the man who sat only seats from my son.
After the recitation was done, my son was putting on his coat and my father’s former roommate approached him to say, “Young man, where is your mother? I owe her a compliment. You are a very well-mannered and articulate fellow. I’m impressed.”
I was standing directly behind him and said loud enough to make him turn around, “That’s Glenn Williams’ grandson you’re talking to.”
The man my father knew looked to me, and I could see the little girl I used to be transform in his eyes. He looked back at my son, extended his hand and said, “Your grandfather was my friend. So you’ve just earned a true-to-life guardian angel.”
I watched my son shake the hand of the man who knew my father, and I nearly lost my shit.
Daddy will never shake his grandson’s hand. He’ll never tell his grandson an inappropriate joke. Daddy won’t get a chance to buy something for his grandson and have me fuss because of its colossal ridiculousness. Trust me, it would have been colossally ridiculous…think motor bike for a three-year-old…think 1,000-piece Millennial Falcon Lego Set. My son only knows about Grandpa Glenn through the stories we tell.
Both those moments…the stranger at the bakery, the encounter with my father’s friend…were active grief rising moments for me. I’d thought my feelings of loss for my father and his father were now inactive. You know, dormant and resting. I still miss them, but the pain of it doesn’t make me stop in the midst of my day, filling me with loss.
I thought I was past fighting back tears. I thought I was all over nearly losing my shit in public. Then, out of nowhere, a complete stranger walks into a bakery and I happen to be sitting next to someone who knew my daddy, and I’m right back there in full-blown grief.
In America, we don’t have a lot of patience. You get three days bereavement if the person who died was close to you. Please bring in a copy of the death certificate or obituary. Oh, and you don’t get to call in sad. Not even if the sadness is a debilitating sense of loss that has your eyes closed from puffiness because you’ve been crying all weekend long.
Nope. Get out your Visine, pinch your cheeks, and haul ass to work. No one wants to see that. No one wants to witness your pain. No one wants to be reminded that death is a reality we all must negotiate…sooner or later.
To me, grief is a tangible. Most people actively navigating grief exist in a bubble. When you are near them, you can even sense the cocoon of their suffering. They are enshrouded in it. When you hug them, it’s as though you are moving through a force field to get to the person. We don’t handle it well.
“Get over it.” We tell them.
“It’s time to move on.” We say.
“How long are you going to be sad?” We ask.
“They wouldn’t want you to be this way.” We implore.
“Everything happens for a reason.” We assume.
At the funeral, people will tell you, “I’m here if you need me.” During service, the officiate will talk about how your loved one is better off. Afterword people will offer condolences and say, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
But when you’re standing in the doorway of a bakery more than a decade post-loss near tears with a kid tugging on you, folks just see it as weird. And no one wants to be weird, so you pinch your cheeks, give your kid a squeeze, and step through the door.
Even though society wants you to believe that grief is but a fleeting moment that passes. It’s not. The truth is, the feeling of loss doesn’t really go away. You just learn to manage it so that the people around you can be comfortable being around you.
If you’re not being true to the love, your grief management can take on destructive tones exacerbated by anger, anxiety, and despair. These very powerful emotions can become a second shield covering the grief. Many of us then add a third layer by using drugs, sex, food, gambling, or shopping to numb the impact of carrying both grief and the emotional shields we pick up.
But when you honor the love, your management of your grief can blossom into something more like working on a cure for cancer, taking actual steps to be healthier, or writing. Honoring the love you had for someone who has passed instead of focusing on the loss.
This requires a paradigm shift. And sometimes to make that shift happen you need help, like a grief group. But once made, you open yourself up and the love you felt for the person you lost begins to project out of you and into the world.
Even if sometimes you still feel like crying in a bakery.
[Photo credit to Wanda Olugbala]
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