Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. We're all going through transitions, let's master them together. Every Monday and Thursday we explore family, health, work, and meaning, with the occasional dad joke and dose of inspiration. If you're new around here, read my introductory post, learn about me, or check out our archives.
Unlike first terms of American presidents, the number 100 has no particular significance in the world of grieving. But the confluence of his birthday and this milestone have hit me hard and reminded me how wrong I’ve been about what this experience would be like.
Before I share some thoughts, a caveat: I speak here of my own experience. My father’s death was not a tragedy. He lived a full life and, for the last few years, often said, “I don’t want to be mourned; I want to be celebrated.” We’ve done both, of course. But I’m struck by how different my experience of grieving must be from the many people I know who’ve lost loved ones to war or natural disaster; spouses or children in the prime of their lives; family members to addiction or suicide. If language were just, these varied experiences would not share the same word.
With that said, here are four things I learned about grief from mourning my father.
1. The Myth of Being Prepared
Had you asked me on the morning my dad died how prepared I was on a scale of 1 to 100, I would have said 92. My dad had been in decline for a decade; every time I said goodbye to him in person in recent years, I assumed it would be the last. Also, as I shared in my most recent book, Life Is in the Transitions, and this TED Talk, I spent the last eight years emailing my dad a question every Monday morning about his life. As a result, he completed a 65,000-word memoir just weeks before he died. (To learn how you can do something similar with your loved ones, visit here.)
Still, I was nowhere near that prepared.
I was not prepared for the thudding finality of losing him. I was not prepared for the forever reality that so many two-way conversations would now be only one-way.
I was not prepared for the cacophony of death.
The first time I visited the desert decades ago—the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt and Israel—I steeled myself for the silence. The desert would surely feel isolated and lonely. But that’s not what happened at all. Here’s how I described that experience in Walking the Bible:
That’s exactly the feeling I’ve had with grief. It’s noisy—snippets of sound, bits of conversation, trinkets of wisdom, the echo of a laugh—all ringing in your ears. It’s also visually busy—a psychedelic memory montage of old movies, trips taken, events attended, turkeys carved, ice cream dashers fought over.
Grief is the least quiet experience I’ve ever had.
2. The Myth of Linearity
Ms. Kubler-Ross, requesting a call.
Surely the worst thing ever said about grief is that it proceeds in linear stages. Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who invented the idea of the five stages of grief, never actually spoke to grievers. Her “stages,” as outlined in her landmark book On Death and Dying, grew out of her work with the terminally ill. They were meant to apply to those who were dying, not to those who survive them.
As Columbia University’s George Bonanno, a leading grief researcher, writes in his wonderful book, The Other Side of Sadness, the stage model is too tidy; it’s based more on wishful thinking than empirical data, and it puts too much pressure on people to meet someone else’s expectations. Bonanno goes so far as to call it “dangerous,” doing “more harm than good.”
And that’s the point. I can’t say I was surprised that grief is nonlinear. I wrote a whole book about the nonlinear way we experience life these days—even this newsletter is called The Nonlinear Life!
What I did find surprising is how stubborn the stages idea remains and how it stains almost every conversation about grief. It’s what I could call the should problem of life; people expect you to package your grief into existing boxes, and when you don’t, you’re the one who’s made to feel like you’re disappointing them. You’re doing it wrong.
But you’re not doing it wrong. Everybody gets to grieve in their own way.
3. The Myth of Sharing
That leads to the next way I was wrong: Grief turns out to have a lot more to do with timing than I expected—and everyone has their own clock.
I was speaking with a friend this week who lost both of his parents to COVID in the first month of the pandemic. It was an abrupt and shocking loss that brought with it a host of problems specific to that moment in time—he couldn’t say goodbye; he wondered if he could attend the funeral; even close relatives shunned his family as if they continued to carry a contagious plague.
“For a long time, I couldn’t grieve,” he said. “ I was too busy being orphaned and dealing with all the logistics.” He feels more of a void now, two years later, he says. “It’s not growing, but it’s not shrinking either; it’s stable.”
The problem with feeling more grief over time is that everyone expects you to feel less—that your grief will shrink over time. As Arthur Golden writes in Memoirs of a Geisha, grief “is like a window that will simply open of its own accord.
Maybe. But that’s not my experience. When I feel grief now—that ten minutes a day, every day, at different times a day—it’s immediate and as strong as ever. When I don’t feel it, it’s far away. This asynchronicity is what I mean by the problem of timing. When I feel sad, other people often aren’t, which makes me feel alone. When other people do ask me how I'm doing, if I’m not in the middle of feeling sad at that moment, the question lands flat.
Grieving, as I’ve experienced it, is the opposite of a shared experience. Helen Keller once said, “We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world.” And yet, this large company never seems to assemble at the same time.
4. The Myth of Invisibility
The final myth may be the biggest myth of all. If you had asked in advance, I would have said that most of the grief I would experience would be invisible: thoughts, feelings, emotions, sadness, nostalgia, homesickness. I have, indeed, experienced many of these.
But I’ve done all sorts of things that are tangible, physical, sometimes seemingly orthogonal acts that I later thought, Hmmm, that must be grief. I’ve read certain books, craved certain foods, worn certain articles of clothing. I’ve sat in places in my home that I don’t normally sit in; I’ve performed various acts at times a day when I don’t normally perform them. Even that friend I mentioned earlier was a long-dormant friendship that has been revived by the back-to-back confluence of losing our parents.
Grief is not just invisible. It leaves a visible impact on all of us. It’s as if the deceased, in leaving the earth in a physical way, leaves behind a physical void that all the other matter and energy around it rushes in to fill.
Happy Birthday, Dad! You can continue to teach me something every day, even in your absence.
You might enjoy reading these posts: