The following quote was taken from an Instagram post Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat Pray Love, wrote just last week about the loss of her partner and wife, Rayya.
Six months ago this week, Rayya died.
People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I’m not always sure how to answer that. It depends on the day. It depends on the minute. Right this moment, I’m OK. Yesterday, not so good. Tomorrow, we’ll see.
Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.
I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.
The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.
When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.
The conversation of Grief, then, is one of prayer-and-response.
Grief says to me: “You will never love anyone the way you loved Rayya.” And I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “She’s gone, and she’s never coming back.” I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “You will never hear that laugh again.” I say: “I am willing.” Grief says, “You will never smell her skin again.” I get down on the floor on my fucking knees, and — and through my sheets of tears — I say, “I AM WILLING.” This is the job of the living — to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you.
I don’t know where Rayya is now. It’s not mine to know. I only know that I will love her forever. And that I am willing.
When I first read this statement I was moved by her description of the uncanny, untimely, capricious nature of grief. The doubled-over, weak-kneed, sick-to-your-stomach, rocking, gasping, gritting-teeth agony of it. I was grateful to hear my experience reflected in someone else's words for a change. There is solidarity in numbers. It is why support groups exist. To know someone else has tasted, is drinking, a pain so very like my own is a bittersweet comfort. But I have to say, that is where the similarity of our grieving experiences ends.
Let me be perfectly clear ... I AM NOT WILLING.
The graciousness with which Gilbert addresses grief is not an attitude that I share anymore. The "prayer-and-response" conversation she details is entirely one-sided in my case. When my stepfather died of cirrhosis and I was a senior in high school, I was willing. When my mother died of breast cancer nine years later, I was gracious. When my stepmother passed from lung disease nearly five years ago, I accepted. And when my father-in-law died two years later from a massive heart attack, I looked death in the eye with the familiarity of a friend. Yes, I said. And so it is. I submit.
But when death came for my eighteen-year-old daughter who had just graduated high school and received a large undergrad scholarship to the university of her dreams, who was poised on the precipice of the life she was dreaming for herself, full of laughter and love, big-hearted, open-minded, and ready to create beautiful change in the world ...
When I had to read death in the changing colors of her face and the bend of her arm, the paleness of her lips and the coldness of her eyes ...
When I had to watch strangers carry her body away and ask permission to look on her one last time ...
When I had to strip the sheets from her bed only hours after she breathed her last because her bladder had relaxed and released after her spirit fled, crying into them all the while, feeling betrayal in my decision to place them in the garbage can ...
When I have to carry the images of her lifelessness in my heart for the remainder of my days because, let's face it, there's nowhere else for those images to go, and I wouldn't trade a glimpse of her no matter how painful ...
When I have to collect the pieces of her brother and sister's shattered hearts, pulling us back together again and again, knowing we have years of PTSD and anxiety and depression to look forward to ...
When I have to surrender my healthy, beautiful, baby girl who was supposed to put me in the ground someday and live a full and vibrant life of her own ...
When I have to breathe in and out wondering if at the end of this shit-stained, godforsaken existence I will get to embrace her again, facing each day with a baseless hope and no guarantee in a way that most people can't even fathom ...
Then, no ... I AM NOT WILLING.
Why should I be? Why should I be gracious? Why should I accept? Why should I surrender? What the fuck is the point? It's not like there are brownie points being counted up somewhere for those who humbly and meekly give up their loved ones to death. It's not like death asked me for my permission to take her. Death does not need my permission. That has been made abundantly clear. Death takes. Sometimes we get the memo in advance; we brace ourselves for impact. Other times ... well, other times we are casually, happily, ignorantly looking the other way and death sneaks up behind the turn of our backs and rips what is most precious to us from the world. Did you need that heart to keep beating and loving? Did you need those lungs to keep breathing and being? Did you need the oxygen and the sunlight and the clear drink of water that is the basis of life? Too bad. Tough shit. Do without.
Death is larger than me, of that I am aware. I acknowledge it fully. But I don't have to bow down to it. And fuck all if I ever will again.
Maybe that is the difference between losing a child and losing someone else. Maybe. Maybe it is what happens when death keeps showing up and asking for a little bit more and a little bit more after you have already given so much. Maybe I am just an irreverent heretic and a bad seed. I don't know. But I do know that I am tired of standing graciously by while everything that gives this place meaning is slowly stripped away. I do know that I am mad as hell and have every goddamned right to be. I do know that this shit is unfair to the nth degree and there's no point in pretending otherwise. And I do know that none of my indignation matters because you cannot hang your hat on fair. The universe does not operate according to fair. Fair does not kill sleeping children in their beds for their parents to find in the morning.
So why bother with grace? What will it gain me? What would any of it matter now? You already tore my heart out, wiped your ass on it, stomped it into the dust and then shoved it back into my lifeless chest to keep beating.
Fuck you, Death. You win. End of conversation.