“Grief Baby turns 20,” my friend Jumana texted me last month.
“Oh so she's in college,” I replied.
“Yep, sophomore or junior year, hanging out, probably getting into a lot of trouble because she's definitely a moody little thing."
Jumana and I talk from time to time about our ‘grief babies.’ I can’t remember where we got that term, but we’re referring to the length of time since our respective parents died, acknowledging their absence as a presence.
Jumana lost her mom twenty years ago so her grief baby is 20; mine turns 7 today on the seventh anniversary of my dad’s death.
Seven: a 2nd grader, a blossoming individual, someone who can read to themselves, someone who still likes to be tucked in at night.
I still vividly remember my grief's newborn stage, when I was sleep-deprived and had no idea what I was doing. Something was screaming at me most hours of the day, and I was completely ill-equipped to understand its wants and needs. After all, I’d never done this before.
When a year passed, I felt a significant internal shift that I misinterpreted as the end of grief. “All done,” I thought. Only to find that the next morning, I woke up with a one-year-old who still needed my attention.
Nora McInerny has a fantastic TED Talk about the illogical pressure to get over a death, when in reality grief follows no stages and seeks no end point.
We don't look at the people around us experiencing life's joys and wonders and tell them to "move on," do we? We don't send a card that's like, "Congratulations on your beautiful baby," and then, five years later, think like, "Another birthday party? Get over it.” Yeah, we get it, he's five.
If we rethink of grief as a living, growing thing with a heart and mind of its own, then we can more wholly accept its whims, its mood swings, its occasional vacations away, and its inevitable returns—often when we least expect it.
‘Grief: You’re doing it wrong’ is how I felt so many times during those first confusing years when I hadn’t a clue how to settle this mysterious toddler’s tantrums. Just like dealing with a two-year-old, nothing about the grief baby’s temperament followed any logic.
I could watch a sad death scene on TV and feel nothing; Father’s Day passed by without any grand emotional fanfare. But once when I was at a dinner party and the host showed us her ultrasound photos and passed them around the table, I had a panic attack and had to leave.
That reminds me of this part in an interview with Sufjan Stevens:
They always talk about the science of bereavement, and how there is a measurable pattern and cycle of grief, but my experience was lacking in any kind of natural trajectory. It felt really sporadic and convoluted. I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public. It's weird.
I chuckled at the polka-dotted tights episode because I could totally relate. I was never triggered by anything that made sense, like my new doctor asking if I had any history of heart disease in my family. “My dad had a heart attack,” I reported. “Is he okay now?” The doctor asked, scribbling. “Oh, uh, no he’s dead,” I reported, and stoically carried about my business.
But the first blizzard of the year completely wrecked me. This is a difficult thing to explain when you start sobbing at a snowball fight. Why did soft snowfall trigger unbearable grief pangs? I have no idea.
Movies have done us a disservice in their portrayal of grief as something that can be avoided so long as you don’t ever bring up the dead person in conversation (e.g. an accidental slip of their name will ruin the bereaved’s week), and as something that always looks like dramatic sadness (e.g. sobbing on the edge of a cliff during a storm).
From my experience, grief can look like: overwhelming gratitude for a stranger who gives you free coffee, extreme irritability at the grocery store, major sensitivity toward a commercial for cereal, numbness while listening to a sad song, even bright joy while laughing with friends in a crowded bar booth.
Particularly in the newborn stage, Grief Club members are treated as supremely fragile eggs who can and should be protected from their feelings—especially by non-Grief Club members. It's often those who have never experienced loss who seem to believe that they are the keeper of the special shield that can keep the grieving from any pain: Whatever you do, don't watch this show [with a death scene]. I'm so sorry I accidentally said the word 'father'! etc. As though there is an elaborate system of rules to keep the grieving from emoting, which of course is the worst possible thing they could do.
It's so sweet, well-intentioned, and maybe even instinctual, but there's no rhyme or reason when it comes to raising a grief baby; it's going to do what it's going to do. No amount of censorship will guard the bereaved from their feelings, nor should it.
I've spent a lot of time in these past seven years wondering if I'm allowed to have a grief experience because my father and I were estranged when he died; sometimes I feel like an imposter of sorts when I talk to others who carry a more straightforward sadness. The usual comforts don't work for my story: I'm sure he'd be so proud of you or I know he's looking down on you and loves you or I know you must miss him so much.
When I attended a support group during the newborn grief stage, I would find myself making up emotions that I didn't really feel (we are species desperate to fit in, even within dead parent support groups!). I wasn't sure if I belonged in the meeting, and I didn't want anyone to decide that for me, so I rarely spoke up.
People in my life have expressed confusion that my father's death would be so profoundly difficult for me, since we hadn't spoken for years. All I can say to that is: I'm still making sense of this myself. I don't know why I feel what I feel. I don't even know what a lot of these feelings are. Admitting this is new for me.
Young kids can be rigid in their belief systems and unreasonable in their wants; for a few years my grief baby in its toddler stage was indefatigably demanding answers from me that I wasn't able to give. What do you feel and why do you feel it?! it would scream.
So, I appeased it by experimenting with tidy summaries: My dad was a complicated person who tried his best. My dad was sometimes a great father but his demons got in the way. I'm ready to move on. It's gotten easier. I don't think about it much anymore. Here's exactly how it affects me and why.
On one anniversary, I actually thought I must have won at grief because the day passed with hardly a thought about it, except for a brief wistful meditation on my dad's brawny creativity. "Hm, look at that!" I thought. "I must be finished."
But the grief baby has gotten a lot more complex through the years. Those tidy answers aren't going to work on a 7-year-old; a child that age starts questioning the Easter Bunny and demanding a few more whys after 'Because I told you so.'
I love kids that age because their imaginations are enormous and wild. A 7-year-old wants to know why the sky is blue, which numbers are mean and which are nice, why we can't have a sheep, and, in my case, whether or not my dad really cared about me. What worked for my preschool grief baby isn't working for this older one, who keeps digging: Why? How? But...but... Really?
I once received an email from my friend Amanda, a magnificent theologian, who was grappling with a sacred text she was studying. She and I had recently bonded over our love for Sufjan Stevens' new album, which honored the complexity of bereavement as he described in the interview. She wrote to say how his song 'The Only Thing' (you can listen to it, among some others, on my Dead Dad Day playlist) had been inspiring her as she struggled through her study:
"The Only Thing" has been close to my heart lately in my internal processing. The best I can make of that song's message is that signs and wonders and visions are the only thing that allowed Sufjan to stay alive and hope in his despair. Imagination, essentially, allowed survival. I like how he accepts the weirdness of Christian scripture and allows its imagery to uplift and challenge and inspire him to be more creative during grief. So I asked myself to "be like Sufjan"; to allow myself to believe and play with imagery a little bit more.
I thought about this email recently when I began letting imagination—rather than answers—take the lead when it came to thinking about my dad.
Six years ago, when my grief baby was turning one and I was overwhelmed with chaotic emotion as the anniversary approached, my friend Jess sent me a sweet text telling me of a Trinidadian belief (or maybe only a family belief—she wasn't sure) that our beloved dead visit us the month they died and leave signs. I drew this little Chagall-ish cartoon inspired by that text:
My mind wandered back to it a couple weeks ago when I was watching Parallel Mothers (loved!) in a mostly-empty movie theater on a wet afternoon and my dad's guitar solo came up in the middle of the film. I've heard his version of Summertime hundreds of times throughout my life, and in this instance, it delighted me. I felt so comforted to hear it, as much as I do when I eat Mie Goreng, his favorite Malaysian take-out food that we used to share at lunch on our Saturdays together.
I remembered the text from Jess: It is February. Was that a sign just for me?
I'm guessing...no, but, in the spirit of being accompanied by an imaginative 7-year-old, I'm letting myself believe and play. I'm guessing most of us don't think of the grief journey as 'playful,' but I've tried rigidity and it didn't work. To embrace the weirdness, marvels, and images of a wise but child-like grief strikes me as a more human approach.
This anniversary, I feel inspired by Amanda's resolve to get curious, I feel inspired by Jumana's humor around her grief-college-student, and I feel inspired by Jess to look around for 'signs and wonders' that don't make any sense.
I have so many questions and puzzles that have come up in my journey with loss. It's painful to acknowledge that they will never be answered or solved, painful to have them willfully solved by people who don't know either: Of course your dad loved you, for example.
This 7-year-old is skeptical: No one has any way of knowing any of that.
But this 7-year-old is also imaginative: If there are no answers here, then I can make this experience all my own.
I can traipse around New York alongside my dad's ghost and envision that we are having coffee (and a completely different relationship) at his old haunt in the West Village, I can get upset while waiting for the subway let the pain swoosh me around like a gust from the train, I can use this death anniversary to be sweet to myself or I can use it to listen to his music at full blast or I can use it to feel really really sad. I can live the questions of grief, as Rilke instructs, and children do naturally, rather than force a solution.
When I was seven, my dad and I loved making up songs together. One of our greatest hits was I'm So Miserable On the Floor, inspired by an afternoon when I was so frustrated with my math homework that I lay down on the kitchen hardwood floor, crying.
My dad, a prolific songwriter, taught me from a young age that art doesn't have to be positive to be valuable. You can write from exactly where you are in life, including face-down on the kitchen floor sobbing about multiplication, and that's actually a great place to begin.
We wrote songs about being bored, being homesick, wishing for Christmas in August, wishing I were allowed to eat more cookies, and loving our funny cat.
He was simply doing something that he did best, but little did he know he was mastering emotional attentiveness.
“The healthiest, most nurturing thing we can do for children is to join them in their feelings,” says early childhood educator Erika Christakis. Many other experts echo this sentiment. I'm sure they would applaud my dad for encouraging me to express my challenging emotions through playful songwriting. I don't remember him ever saying anything to the effect of "Cheer up" or "You're only bored if you're boring" or "You just have to be patient." Rather:
Bored? Okay, let's write about that.
Annoyed? That's a song.
You miss somebody? What does that sound like?
Happy and also sad? The lyrics practically write themselves!
Not sure? That's how a lot of people feel too—we can work with that.
As he showed me how to live the questions and transform tough emotion into play, now I show this 7-year-old grief baby of mine the same:
Your feelings are your own, and they make sense, and they matter. Maybe sometimes you miss him and sometimes you're upset and sometimes you feel love and sometimes you don't and a lot of time you're angry and other times you're thankful and most of the time you're not sure what you feel.
Whatever you feel, I'll join you there.