The night she died, my friend Lucy left a message on my answering machine, to thank me for being such a good friend and to tell me how much she loved me. The message made me furious. She was stoned again, I could tell from her voice—less than three weeks out of detox—and I couldn’t take it anymore, the ongoing crisis, the ongoing need to remain undone, self-destructive, bleak, ironic, too intelligent for her own good. Not wanting to explode at Lucy, I waited to call her back in the morning—we’d talk when we were in our right minds. I erased the message, not knowing that this was the last time I would hear her voice, the last chance I’d have to say goodbye.
The truth about grief is that it never ends. Even when the worst has passed, the residue of loss remains, a shadow of love over memory, a splinter of love that stays caught in the heart. I’ve always had a tough time trusting people who seem to let go too quickly, with too much ease, who are too cavalier or transcendental to give themselves over to grief in loss. It’s hard not to wonder if they’ve loved at all. Detachment’s not indifference. I knew a saint who lost a friend and couldn’t control her flood of tears. When I asked her why, she pointed to her heart and said Schmerz, pain. It seems that even masters grieve.
Shakespeare speaks of the proofs of love being more important than showy words, and I wonder if grief and the mourning that follows aren’t the most precious proofs of all. Ask yourself in a quiet moment, who will be there when you die? Who will stand by your grave and sob? We stood by Lucy’s as dozens of friends spoke beautifully about her life—she was lucky in intimates, if not with men. As I sat there among her friends, the love she’d left was palpable, proved by the wound it left behind. None of us was immune to this pain; we were pissed off and grief-stricken over this waste, racked with questions, even afraid. If someone as courageous as Lucy, a role model for thousands of readers as a survivor of childhood cancer, could give up and fall, then how far were we ourselves from the edge?
Death has never seemed closer at hand than that day at Lucy’s funeral, perhaps because it had been volunteered for by someone so outstandingly strong. We were mourning for Lucy as well as for ourselves, born in this frightening, dangerous world, where so much amazement is possible. We need temples for grieving, a friend used to say who works a lot with death and dying. Particular places to fall apart, where ugly feelings can have a home, people can wail, fall down, fall apart, instead of carrying all this inside them. Mourning would be a part of our lives then, exhalation, the normal release of what is cherished and always lost. Beginning, of course, with time.
A week before she took her life, Lucy met me down the street for a cup of coffee before the class she taught at The New School. We talked about sex—she wanted some—and laughed at how crazy people are, how obsessive men are about controlling women, and why—next to dental work—dating is easily the cruelest and most horrible thing civilized people actually pay for. Lucy liked her bitter banter. She seemed okay to me that afternoon, better than she’d been for a while. Her blue eyes were beautifully clear. Did she know what was coming, already, I wonder? Every time I pass that café and see our empty table . . . there are ghosts in the corner of my eye. Or did she decide on the spur of the moment? We’ll never know the answer to that, but the question will surely remain with me always, tattooed in me, with her broken face—a pain that will not go away. Would you call that mourning? I ask myself now. Or would you call it life?
For Lucy Grealy, 1963-2003
Lucy Grealy wrote the best-selling memoir Autobiography of a Face, which recounts her lifelong struggle with physical disfigurement caused by childhood cancer. She also published a collection of essays, As Seen on TV: Provocations.
Grief may be the greatest healing experience of a lifetime. It’s certainly one of the hottest fires we will encounter. It penetrates the hard layers of our self-protection, plunges us into the sadness, fear, and despair we have tried so hard to avoid. Grief is unpredictable, uncontrollable. There are no shortcuts around grief. The only way is right through the middle. Some say time heals, but that’s a half-truth. Time alone doesn’t heal. Time and attention heal.
In grief we access parts of ourselves that were somehow unavailable to us in the past. With awareness, the journey through grief becomes a path to wholeness. Grief can lead us to a profound understanding that reaches beyond our individual loss. It opens us to the most essential truth of our lives: the truth of impermanence, the causes of suffering, and the illusion of separateness. When we meet these experiences with mercy and awareness, we begin to appreciate that we are more than the grief. We are what the grief is moving through. In the end, we may still fear death, but we don’t fear living nearly as much. In surrendering to our grief, we have learned to give ourselves more fully to life.
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