I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the Jason Isbell song Elephant. It was late at night. I was driving in my car, before I knew about Shazam, trying to remember a couple of lines of lyrics so that I could search for the song when I got home.
I buried her a thousand times
Giving up my place in line
But I don’t give a damn about that now
There’s one thing that’s real clear to me
No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow+
– Jason Isbell, Elephant
People ask me often what I wish other people knew about grief. This is something I wish people knew, and yet it is rarely something I mention. It feels too big, too complicated.
How would we, as grievers, begin to explain it?
When you look at me, you see someone who said one goodbye, someone grieving that single, devastating death.
But death was just the final burial, the last goodbye.
When I look at me, I see someone who was busy grieving a life before I got busy grieving a death.
We who grieve have often lived through a thousand burials that came before the final burial that everyone else saw.
The list is different for all of us.
The burial when they didn’t recognize me for the first time.
The burial when they decided to stop treatment.
The burial when someone first whispered the word ‘hospice’.
The burial when someone first called them an ‘addict’.
The burial when I called the school counselor and forced the words ‘suicide attempt’ out of my throat.
The burial when she called her job to tell them she would never be well enough to come back.
The burial the first time I wished the hospice could give them more meds, so we could all be relieved of this suffering.
The burial when they stole from me for the first time, then looked straight into my eyes and denied it.
The burial when they recognized me for the very last time.
The burial when I realized they really weren’t going to show up for the first big family event.
The burial when I first allowed my brain to consider that they really might die from this disease.
The burial the first time I hoped they were in jail because it felt safer than the street.
Yes, there are many sudden and unexpected deaths. There are deaths where the first goodbye is the last goodbye. But for so many of us, we’re standing on a burial mound of a thousand goodbyes that came first. Often these are burials that no one else saw. A thousand goodbyes that we ourselves only barely had time to process as we tried to keep one foot in front of the other.
People tell us to remember the good times and to focus on all the amazing life we shared. What they don’t know is that Memory Lane weaves through every corner of town, not just the most pristine neighborhoods.
In the early days, a walk down Memory Lane often doesn’t land you in a lovely garden. You’re likely to find yourself wandering down a dark alley, desperately trying to find your way back to the right side of the tracks, where your most treasured memories live. But it turns out that Memory Lane can be a bit of a labyrinth, winding through the burial ground of those many painful, slow goodbyes that so few other people know exist.
Don’t worry, these detours – painful as they are – are not for nothing.
They are how we learn to navigate the ugly, confusing boroughs that we’ve desperately tried to avoid.
If we don’t learn the topography of this side of town, we risk getting trapped there, wandering in circles, relieving these burials again and again. Or we live in constant fear of stumbling into these uncharted enclaves. So rather than risking even a single step down Memory Lane, we plop ourselves down in front of a screen, or on a barstool, or in an endless work project, lest we allow our minds to inadvertently get lost in these disorienting districts.
But as it happens, these terrifying detours are where you become the cartographer of your memories. Here you can wander back through the countless burials that paved the way to the final goodbye, sketching the path, drafting an atlas. You can investigate the twists and turns, surveying the dark corners and dead ends. Here you can prove to yourself that – though painful – you can navigate these memories.
Once you’ve charted the sprawling landscape of these burials and mini-goodbyes, you can pass through now and again without the same fear of getting lost. They become a short stopover on your way to the parks and gardens. Yes, they remain deep woods and dark alleys and dead ends.
But they’re familiar now. You know what’s there. You know you can traverse them. Eventually, you’ll probably even learn some shortcuts, bypassing the darkest bits and skipping the dead ends.
Some of us manage this mapping on our own. But some of us find these edges of Memory Lane too dark and deep to traverse alone. If you find yourself frozen on that barstool, or adrift in dark memories, wandering in circles and unable to find your way to the gardens and parks, don’t panic. You’re not alone.
This is what grief and trauma therapists are there for. They exist to walk with you back through those winding woods and dark alleys of Memory Lane, helping you to learn your way. Perhaps in another universe, they’re known as topographers of the past. They are companions to help you plot your course and build the confidence to eventually make the journey on your own.
So what exactly is it that I wish people understood about grief? It still feels pretty hard to put to words. Let’s just say that in grief, Memory Lane isn’t always an easy place to navigate. Be gentle, we might still be working on the map.
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