The grief room

It’s Wednesday after Thanksgiving – my first day back to work after “vacation”. A colleague sits in my dark office. We’ve spoken little since Matthew died.

I rapidly scan my directory for the file that’ll answer his question. I’m nervous. My mind wanders. I make some errant clicks. I’m in the wrong folder.

Damn it. What am I looking for?

As I refocus, I notice it’s uncharacteristically quiet (we used to be chatty).

“Did you have a good Thanksgiving?” I ask hesitantly, to fill the silence.

“Yes!” he answers, “We went to Colorado. We’re teaching our two-year-old to ski…” he explains.

I feel a familiar pang in my gut, or maybe my heart. I can’t tell. I can’t even describe it. It hurts though. Mark dreamed of teaching Matthew to ski. Just as soon as he could walk. But it’ll never…

“How was your Thanksgiving?” he asks, interrupting my thoughts.

“It was… Okay…” I explain, “We went to New York City. It was good for us – a distraction…”

“What’d you do there?!”

“You know… We stayed in Times Square, went to a Broadway musical and Central Park, ate good food, walked a ton, spent a day at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum…”

“Ohhhhh, is that depressing?” he stops me.

I pause. I hadn’t thought of it that way. But I’m in a grief fog. And he isn’t. How do I answer? And how do I sum up the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in just one word?

“Well, kind of…” I stumble, “But it kind of felt right to be there…”

As I continue hunting for the file, out of the corner of my eye, I see him nod.

“It IS depressing,” I reiterate, “But I’d recommend visiting. It’s powerful. And I think they did a beautiful job with it. And there’s uplifting things too – like displays of heroism and teamwork and stories of rescue and survival,” I add some positivity, “And we walked the High Line through Chelsea and the Meat Packing District, which was cool,” I seamlessly (or not) change the subject.

“Oh, that’s good!” he exclaims, obviously satisfied with my answer.

“I found the file,” I say, shutting down any possibility of further conversation.

**********

I don’t want to imply I think anything about 9/11 isn’t depressing. That day epitomizes depressing. And tragic. And horrifying. And cruel. And heinous. And evil. 9/11 illustrates the worst humanity has to offer. Nearly 3,000 innocent people senselessly murdered is as awful as it gets, and, sadly, too many examples of mass murder exist in world history.

Though, 9/11 also illustrates the best humanity has to offer. First responders and others risked their lives or died saving others. Thousands miraculously survived in the most improbable ways. That day, as many explain, all New Yorkers became friends. And all Americans, and even others, became New Yorkers.

But, while there’s plenty of stories of heroism, bravery, courage, and miraculous survival, the overriding theme, I believe, is still depressing, tragic, horrifying, cruel, heinous, and evil. How could it not be?

But, on Monday after Thanksgiving, about five months from losing Matthew, it felt right to be there. Because I’m still grieving, I’m frequently in a dark space (my new normal). So it’s not like something “depressing” will change my mood from happy to sad. Some part of me is always in that dark space. Some part of me might always be.

I think about those gone too soon. And I think about their loved ones. It feels right to think about them. Because, at the same time, I think about Matthew.

My new reality, in a warped way, possesses similarities to my parallel universe – the one where Matthew’s alive, mainly in the sense that, although Matthew’s gone, much of my world revolves around him.

Had Matthew lived, I’d be awakened in the night by his cry. Instead, I’m awakened by my own cry. Had Matthew lived, I’d walk my neighborhood, pushing his stroller. Instead, I walk alone, noting things in nature that remind me of him. Had Matthew lived, I’d devote much time to caring for him. Instead, I devote much time to sharing his memory.

Had Matthew lived, I’d know kids at daycare and said kids’ parents. Instead, I know a global community of loss parents whose kids I think about daily. Those who died most recently, I consider to be Matthew’s peers. I hope to watch them grow up with Matthew – not in the traditional sense, but in watching their legacies manifest in their parents and their current or future siblings.

Because of these parallels, I feel like Matthew’s mom and like I’m parenting him (as long as I stay away from big groups of “normal” parents). For those thinking, “Yay!”, I’ll emphasize it’s no consolation. It’s twisted and, often, miserable. And I have yet to fully accept my reality. The thought only provides a shred of comfort for which I’m grateful.

Because Matthew was our first, I probably know more children in heaven than on Earth. So, again, I think about them a lot.

Losing a child changes you. And the changes in me will continue to reveal themselves over my lifetime.

At last month’s support group meeting, a loss mom five years from losing her daughter described one way her experience changed her, “I’ve developed the ability to sit with others in their grief. Not everyone can do it. But I can sit with the grieving and comfort them. It’s no consolation, but it’s a gift I can give them, because of my daughter.”

I notice I’m also developing this quality. Never again will I be one who runs from others’ grief (not that I ever was). But, now, for certain, I’ll sit with the grief-stricken, comfortably even. And my recent experience at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum illustrated this for me.

**********

I struggle to find the words to describe the 9/11 Memorial & Museum or its impact on me. Our tour guide did an excellent job providing us information while conveying what seemed to be an appropriate level of emotion. I suppose that’s why she’s a tour guide, and I’m not. Suffice it to say, I don’t expect my description of my experience to carry any unique sense of brilliance…

Though, I find it interesting – the museum’s impact on me seemed significantly colored by my recent experiences. I guess its impact on anyone would be colored by his or her experiences. But I’m usually conscious of how Matthew might be changing me…

The memorial consists of the spaces where the Twin Towers once stood. Two massive water features represent the foundation footprints of the fallen buildings. Trees outlining the perimeters show the exterior edges of the buildings. Names of the victims are etched in stone surrounding the perimeters.

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One World Trade Center, a beautiful display of modern architecture, is nearly complete. Its construction shows a country’s ability to rebuild in the wake of tragedy. We dined in the restaurant atop this building for Mark’s birthday (views = amazing). The building’s having difficulty leasing up, which is understandable, though, extra precautions were taken to ensure the building is one of the strongest around.DSC_0406.jpg

The museum’s underground, surrounding the pool perimeters. Remains of the original foundations are visible under these pools. The museum also features some twisted steel hit by the airplanes, which helps explain the buildings’ collapse, as well as the steel that withstood the collapse

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I love the art below. Each square is a unique shade of blue, representing each of the nearly 3,000 innocent individuals killed that day. As someone grieving a loss, I think the quote is beautiful. Though, my mom googled it and pointed out some don’t like it. It could be true, but I’m simply taking it at face value (not a philosopher).

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Again, there’s so much to the museum… Go visit.

**********

After our tour, I entered a room dedicated to remembering those lost. Our tour guide mentioned the room, and, as soon as she did, I knew I’d visit. Since Matthew died, all tragedies feel different. Yes, they were always sad. And I always sympathized with the families affected, though, usually I’d move on, I think, more quickly than I do now.

But now, I wonder about these people. I wonder about who died. I wonder about the husband who lost his wife. About the mother who lost her child. And I wonder how they are now.

In this room were walls covered in pictures of those who perished. And, in this room, was another room. A pitch black room with two screens. A quiet room visited by just a few, despite it being in a crowded museum.

I sat down.

A victim’s name appeared on the screens. A voice read the name. A paragraph appeared, summarizing his/her life. For some, an audio recording of a loved one’s voice played over the speakers describing his/her impact – how much he/she is missed.

After all that, a new name appeared. The process repeated.

I imagine one could stay a long time. And I did stay. For a long time. And it wasn’t long enough. Because I wanted to know and remember those gone too soon. And sit with their loved ones in their grief.

These victims had so much life ahead. I calculated their ages. They were young – 20-60 years old. Some were engaged, newly married, had young kids, had just become grandparents. They were hardworking – doing great things. And it all ended, in an instant, in the worst way possible. And no one could have seen it coming.

I cried as one widow described her husband. He coached his five-year-old daughter’s soccer team. When the girls fell down, he encouraged them to get up, so they always won, because they were a feisty team.

And, somehow, 15 years is gone. So fast. Without these people. The five-year-old soccer player is 20. What would her life have looked like with her dad in it? What does it look like without him? What would life have looked like for him? So many people are gone, or irrevocably changed.

And, though tearful, I could sit there in it. In this room of grief and love and memories. Because my life is irrevocably changed, via circumstances that cannot, in any way, be compared. But, because I understand heartbreak, I’m, more than ever, heartbroken for them.

And not everyone could sit there. I’d venture to guess three fourths of the people who walked into this room left quickly. Maybe they were in a hurry. Or maybe it was too much.

I sat next to one man like me. He also stayed a long time. I noticed him when I arrived. And, one hour later, his wife dragged him out, just as Mark dragged me out (we had a dinner reservation).

I still wonder about that man. Why did he sit so long in that room of grief? Did he lose someone on 9/11? Or does he just feel comfortable sitting with others in their grief, listening to their stories, remembering them?

I’ll never know. But I wonder so much. I wonder about people more now. Why they’re sitting in the grief room for so long. If they’re gone, who they might be today. If they lost someone dear, how they’re holding up.

Like that other loss mom, I can sit with the grief-stricken or in the grief room. Matthew gave me that. While I’d do anything to have him here, and while I’m confident his death will, in many ways, change me for the worse, it’s comforting to know, in other ways, maybe I’ll change for the better.

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11 thoughts on “The grief room

  1. I found that my grief tolerance waxed and waned over the first few years… Although I can sit in it now, and I get impatient with people who would avoid books or museums or cemeteries for being “too depressing,” there are also times when I had to shut out some of the suffering. I couldn’t watch certain news coverage, or I had to stop with the incessant blog reading because it was mentally and emotionally so overwhelming. Building up a tolerance for grief isn’t the same as being desensitized to it. Anyway, just know that it’s okay if you need to step back sometimes, too. xoxo

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is a very good point. And I guess I failed to mention I have stepped back from it too (in some ways)… Though that day it felt right, I don’t want to imply I’m always comfortable in a place of awful sadness. I still read lots of blogs, but I also don’t do that as incessantly as I did in the first couple of months. It became too much. And I think that’s okay. I expect my grief tolerance to wax and wane just as yours did. But I do hope I’ll become a more empathetic person (not that I wasn’t empathetic). And I think I have. Though it’s not why Matthew died (to further my abilities to empathize even more), and it’s no consolation.

      But yes, I do, even more so now, have a low tolerance for people saying certain things are “too depressing”. I’m like, yeah, but think of the people directly affected…

      Are you feeling better at all? I hope so. Thought of you a lot yesterday.

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  2. This is a wonderful post. Very moving. I am so sorry for your loss. I agree that it is part of the human experience to sit with and embrace dying, death, grief and bereavement. A lot of people tend to avoid it. I think it’s helpful to have a place and space for your grief to be. I would be interested to visit the museum and I too would sit in the room and feel quite comfortable to shed some tears.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. You are very sweet to want to support others in their grief. I’m shocked at how many are uncomfortable with grief. It’s sad, but also part of the human experience. Over a lifetime, everyone will lose someone, yet most run the other way. It’s weird to me…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s a girl in G’s class who lost a brother from a missed miscarriage. She’s been very vocal about it despite the fact it’s been a couple of years since it happened.
    I am going to have speak to her mom about it the next time I see her. I need to acknowledge his life and their loss. Validate their anguish and comiserate that it didn’t end differently. How does one begin this conversation? Catching them off guard in an effort to support and give love. I hope I figure that out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww, I’m sorry to hear about that family. Yes, I’d imagine if the girl speaks about it a lot then they probably talk about it a lot at home. I’m sure she’d welcome your support – I’m sure not many validate her anguish. I am still not great at beginning these conversations either and hope you figure it out too. Maybe, at some point, you’ll see an opportunity where it just seems right and not super awkward. xoxo, Christine

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  4. I love this blog entry. I visited ground zero in 2006 when there was still a huge gaping hole in the middle of a massive city. What stands there now looks amazing-hatred and ugliness have transformed into something beautiful. I agree with what you said about being able to sit with someone who is grieving-when you go through a horrific loss like ours, it’s all you can do. We have the ability (and not many do), to travel through the depths of grief with someone and not find it uncomfortable or scary.

    Liked by 1 person

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