The Strangeness of Grief

A couple days ago SK and I attended the funeral of an acquaintance of mine. We were not close, but our paths crossed in more than one circle and many of my close friends are close to her husband, if not close to her. I’ve known her for…goodness, nearly 25 years now, and we only vaguely got along, mostly because we had a few interactions in our 20’s that didn’t go well. But she was a part of my community, if peripherally, and her family still is, so when she sent me a “help, I was diagnosed with cancer an hour ago, can you talk?” message two summers ago I didn’t hesitate to respond. Of course I would. Of course I could listen to her terror at the uncertainty of what was to come, the tests and treatments and, eventually, the news that nothing could be done.

She had a different, rarer, cancer than I had, but some of the experience was the same. The sickness of chemo, the fear of surgery and how would her loved ones look at her without hair, how would her spouse see her without breasts or with scars. How would she get through this for them. What sorts of hats can one wear that don’t irritate sensitive bald scalp, what lotions help chemo-skin. We chatted about how long it takes after treatment to get hair back, and how worried she was about how her son and daughter would react when she lost hers. I wonder if she chose to talk to me in the beginning because I’d recently been through it (and therefore was a source of hope and information), or because I was far enough outside her immediate circle of support that she didn’t have to worry about making someone upset with her questions. Or both. The thought makes me smile, because she had a fierce reputation for being honest to the point of brutal and never holding back. But I suspect she held back some of her fears and worries, because she also clearly loved fiercely and without holding back, which means she’d have wanted to keep from scaring her loved ones as much as possible.

I lost touch with her about a year ago, after the GoFundMe came out explaining that there was nothing more to be done and she really just wanted to go on a family vacation with her husband and her little ones to make memories for them all before she was gone. She stopped reaching out and I stopped after a few unanswered messages to respect her obvious wish to focus on her family. I suppose by that time she didn’t need a guide: she’d gone beyond my own experiences and there was no more reason to hold back fears or worries from those who truly loved her.

I was unsurprised when the news came this spring that she’d gone. I was surprised that I felt I needed to go to her visitation and funeral the other day. Listening to her closest friends speak frankly about her often-difficult penchant for speaking her mind and also about how supportive she was to her dance community, her friends and family, her children, made me wish I’d taken the time to know her better as an adult. Because whatever happened when we were in our 20’s was probably stupid, and we just never crossed paths long enough to develop anything beyond careful acquaintance.

Listening to her son keen, sobbing under the weight of unspeakable grief, was more than anyone could resist: even SK cried, and he’d never met her or her family. No one is that stoic. Not even me.

Grief is a weird thing, because so much of it is self-facing. So much of mourning is about the loss of someone’s presence in the grief-stricken person’s life, and I don’t have so much of that because we were not in each other’s lives. I grieve for those who loved her feeling such pain at her loss. But I also have some uncomfortable and complex feelings about it all.

But death forces comparison, and survivor’s guilt is real. Why did this woman who had two young children and a husband to live for die, when I had none of that while going through treatment and I lived? Of course logically we had two very different cancers, and I was the lucky one with the cancer 80% of women get, which is well researched and treated, and she got a rare form that ultimately couldn’t be cured. Of course logically this is all chance and who the hell knows why, and nature/life is unfair and cruel at times, and death comes for us all without us having any say in the matter. I know all that. And thinking about it isn’t an attempt to shift focus from her life, her loved ones, to my own. Like I said, complex and weird feelings, perhaps because this time it didn’t touch me directly so I’m not swamped in the sorrow of her absence from my life.

The whys that can never be answered come right along with death.

I grieve for the loved ones who feel her absence so acutely. I grieve for the missed opportunity to find out if adult us could’ve been friends, vs acquaintances. None of that is close to a drop in the bucket of loss I saw and felt from others at her funeral, which is a testament to how she touched so many lives and how loved she was while she was here. I remembered after the funeral service that we’d both been at a mutual friend’s wedding, years and years ago, and she’d stopped me during the reception dinner to tell me how she always read my blog and that she loved it. I remember being completely flabbergasted that anyone read it at all, much less that someone would seek me out to say she liked it, and even more so that the person was Cat. But I knew, with absolute certainty, that she was being honest and not just making small talk. I will always remember her for that, because it was a kindness she didn’t have to say. But Cat said what was on her mind, purposefully including the good things when so many only speak “truth” when it’s painful, and I am grateful.

I hope you’re at peace, Cat.

One thought on “The Strangeness of Grief

  1. Well thought of regarding her and well said. I’m sorry for everybody’s loss. You’re still here for, among other reasons, because you have a husband and children, who need you in their lives, as well as the rest of us. Have no guilt. You were here because it wasn’t your time yet and you have things to do yet on this earth. Take care, Kelly.


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