A week ago I woke up from one of those dreams that felt so real the transition back to waking life was disorienting for several minutes. In the dream, I was walking down a sunlit street. A parade was going on. Marching bands, floats, crowds of people on the sidewalks cheering and smiling. I wasn’t walking in the parade but I was walking with it—a strange distinction, I know, but dreams are strange.
As I walked with, not in, the parade, I glanced over and saw my sister was now beside me. She was walking with me and she was healthy and smiling. All I could do at first was stare. Then, bewildered, I said, “Kelly, you’re here. How are you here?”
“Why wouldn’t I be here?” she asked.
The second the question left her lips, my memories scattered. I knew she shouldn’t be there but I didn’t know why.
“I don’t know. For some reason, I thought you wouldn’t be here,” I said, perplexed.
She laughed and I threw my arm around her shoulder. We walked on like that for a while—laughing, in the sun, with the parade…but not in it.
Then, I woke up. For maybe a tenth of a second, I forgot that she was gone. That tenth of a second passed and my heart fell to pieces all over again.
The worst part was not remembering my sister was dead, which was like re-opening a barely healed wound. The worst part was when I looked over at my husband, who was also slowly waking, and realized that I could share this experience but to him it would be nothing more than a sad dream. He would, (if it seemed I needed it), hug me, kiss me, tell me everything was okay, but he would not understand because he is not part of the club.
Fred lost his father when he was very young, but he wasn’t there when it happened, did not sit by his hospital bed for that long goodbye. I know he loved his dad but there was also a distance between them that did not exist between me and my dad and my sister. In no way would I diminish his grief, but his experience with the emotion is so much different than mine that we may as well be speaking two different languages when talk of it.
Fred sometimes does not like what I write about him in these Chronicles and I’m guessing he won’t like the previous paragraph. Ordinarily, I make a concerted effort to leave out details about our life that I think he would be upset to have shared with the world at large. I’m going to make an exception here because since Kelly’s death I have felt compelled to write honestly about my grief. And, to be fair, he has not done anything wrong. When it comes to grief, the old saying “You had to be there” has never been more accurate.
I have written that there are no right or wrong words to say to a person who is grieving. It only matters that they know you are there, that you care, that they are loved. I stand by this. At the same time, however, there is a level of empathy needed at times that can only be found among those who have joined “the club”.
Membership to this club has one simple requirement: someone you love dearly must die. It is that simple and that horrible.
The strangest part of this club is that you can recognize fellow members almost instantly. Membership in the club seems to alter your DNA, to endow you with some odd ability to recognize others in the throes of grief. There is no Masonic ring, no code word, no secret handshake; it’s in the eyes.
Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, describes it better than I ever could.
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.”
Once you are in the club, there is instant shorthand when it comes to communication. If I were to tell a fellow club member about my dream, the parade, Kelly, that moment of waking and that fraction of a second of forgetting, I would not have to explain how it felt. A club member would know. In the knowing, there would be unspoken permission. “This is normal. You are allowed to feel this way. You have permission to wake up three months later and feel it all as if it happened minutes ago.” In a society divorced from mourning, that is what matters most of all: the permission to grieve as long and as deeply as you need.
As for thinking myself invisible, this is often the case. Not in any terrible way, not as if I lack for attention. The invisibility is part of the club. Part of walking through a world that does not exist on the same plane as you for this piece of time. This sensation, on its own, is not unpleasant. It’s only when I look at my husband, on that other plane, that it feels lonely. Two halves of me war. I desperately want him to be with me where I am, to share that shorthand, to empathize but, equally, I do not want him to pay the cost of membership to this club. Most of all, I need him to understand that the void created by loss does not lessen the fullness of love between the living. Paradoxically, in grief, your world can at once be empty and full.
Each day gets easier. There are hiccups—a dream, birthdays, holidays, random memories that blindside—but time continues to do its job. I’m walking with the parade, but I am not in it. But the sun is shining and most days that’s enough.