Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The wardrobe of grief

My column, from Saturday's Briefing:

Living with loss creates an extensive wardrobe.
Grief is a heavy woolen cloak in the middle of summer. It weighs you down, slows you down. It can’t be hidden. It covers everything. It gets in the way.
Grief is a cozy sweater in the depths of winter. It begs to be worn. It protects you, comforts you. It’s a little frayed around the edges. It feels like an old friend.
Grief is a button that’s fallen off a coat. You slide it around in your pocket, fidgeting with it subconsciously. You don’t want to lose it, yet you never take the time to stitch it back to its proper home.
You wear the cloak for a while, then trade it out for a week with the sweater, then back to the cloak. You fidget with that button for months, then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you’re wrapped up in that sweater again.
The grief wardrobe in the Damm house is well-worn. We’ve been trying on and trading garments for six years — the number of years that Cooper, Katie and I have lived without our Steve.
In the early days, way back in autumn 2009, all three of us wore cumbersome cloaks. We still lived our lives, but we were weighed down, constantly thinking of the dear husband and daddy we’d lost to brain cancer.
I would pray to wake up to days during which only one of us would be cloaked in heavy grief. I felt equipped to handle one child breaking down, but two? Oh, two leaden hearts taxed every ounce of my strength, already zapped by the weight of my own cloak.
I remember telling a friend, “I can’t imagine a day when I don’t carry this sadness.”
Without fanfare or formality, those cloaks mostly disappeared. We traded them for comfortable sweaters.
When wearing our grief sweaters, we were especially cautious of introducing even more tragedy to our lives. I would research books and movies in advance, culling media with dying parents or ill children or other unnecessary sadness. We would revel in Steve stories, careful to edit out the most recent memories — of hospital visits, frequent falls and hospice.
We’d wrap those sweaters tightly, hug ourselves in those sweaters, not exactly realizing that we were building layers of resilience.
Because one day, on a day none of us can pinpoint, we shed those sweaters and traded them for buttons.
Most of the time most of the people don’t even know we carry our buttons of grief. Indeed, some people don’t even want to know that those buttons exist.
We share these precious buttons with those who know us and love us, with people who wore their own cloaks for Steve, with people who helped wrap us in those cozy sweaters.
I am thankful for the button days, which now totally outnumber the cloak days.
I’m certain there will still be occasional moments, out of the blue, when the cloak envelops me. I know that I can reach for the sweater whenever I need. I expect that I’ll clasp that button all the rest of my days.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email tyradamm@gmail.com.