When Grief is Too Big


I received a kind e-mail yesterday from a woman who knows what it is to be human. A woman I have never met, and yet her words were like that of a friend—strange how we grieve alone, and yet we are not alone in our grief. She said that she has been struggling to write about her grief, and that it seemed just too big for words.

Her email reminded me of my recent visit with my sister in Ohio. One night, after my nephew had been tucked in bed, we started talking about our pasts. When I was 19, my sister—three years older—became pregnant with her first child. She was around 22 weeks when she suddenly went into labor. It was her 23rd birthday. She knew her son was too young to enter the world, and yet she was being told that he was coming and that she would have to give birth to him. I stood beside her, holding her hand as she struggled to let go of the need to fight the labor. I gasped for breath trying to hold in my sobs. She looked up and saw the tears that ran freely down my cheeks. Her eyes were wide with fear as she said, “I’m glad you can cry. I need you to cry for me because right now I can’t. I have to do this first.”

When life happens, sometimes we needs a place outside of us to keep our feelings safe.

As my sister and I sat at her table we talked about how different life is from what we had expected. She told me about Shan, her first son, and how after his death her grief was too big. She tried for a long time to hold it inside her, but at some point she just couldn’t anymore. So she took out the pendant she had gotten as a remembrance, and she gave her grief to it. In that moment she gave herself permission to be free of the burden. She also gave herself permission to revisit the memories when she needed to.

It is a treasure box that she keeps just for herself.

If she had told me this story of the pendant as a way of advising me what to do after my son, Vasu, died, I don’t know that it would have made any sense. It may even have made me angry to hear. How could something so big as his death and my suffering, just be given away?

I had my own ideas about how to find something beyond grief. I bicycled the Pacific Coast Bike Route after Vasu died. But just as it had been for my sister, grief was too big for me too. Every day I gave my grief to the ocean, until it was small enough to put in my own treasure box.

And although I too cannot put the entirety of my grief into words, I have tried very hard to find words that fit. To my surprise, the more I share my words with others the more I meet people with treasure boxes of their own. We are everywhere.


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