It was late February 2015, about two weeks after I got home from my mom’s funeral. The nights were still brutally cold, and I sat downstairs curled up in a chair under a blanket. At about nine o’clock in the evening, two hours after he’d gone to bed, Brandon started wailing. I took the steps two at a time getting up to him, held him close, comforted him as best I could. When he could talk, I asked him what was wrong and he said, “I forget what she sounds like.”
He held me close, comforted me as best he could, and I tried to reciprocate. After five minutes or so of this, we were capable of speech again, and he explained that, yes, indeed, he couldn’t remember the sound of his grandmother’s voice. I assured him that it was okay, it was probably temporary because when we get worried that we can’t remember something our stupid brains actually shut down our ability to remember things.
He asked how he could make sure that he never forgot her completely and I said, honestly, that he really couldn’t make sure of it. Time passes, things change and while you can always try, sometimes people fade in your memory, and that’s okay. It’s natural, and normal, just part of being a person, but he could.
He asked if there was anything he could do to help remember her and I asked him if he knew why, every once in awhile, I put my hand on the middle of my chest. He didn’t, so I told him - that’s where I keep my memories of the people I’ve lost. When something happens that makes me remember them, I put my hand there because our bodies are connected to our brains and so motions like this help us remember.
“Is that what grief is?” he asked. I didn’t answer. How could I? I’ve had my losses, sure, but I can’t really define grief for someone else. Not really.
I’ve lost a couple of friends. I lost my last grandparent just or so ago. And, yeah, my mom, the biggest hole in my heart, but I couldn’t find a way to define grief for him, not in a way that made sense. I have a policy with my boys, that if I don’t know the answer to their question, I’ll tell them so.
“I don’t know,” I said, finally. “I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe grief is something that means something different for each person who feels it.”
We talked on for a bit about whether grief and sadness are the same thing, about whether or not you can ever get to a point where you don’t feel grief anymore, that sort of thing. All told, I was with him for about an hour.
One night just recently, I picked Brandon up from a school event to bring him to church for AWANA. It’d been a busy day for him, so I wasn’t surprised to see that he was a little tired, but as we walked out to the car he let out a deep sigh that seemed to come from somewhere other than fatigue.
“You all right, buddy?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m all right.” He then asked me a question about tigers and so we occupied ourselves until we got to church. The entire time, though, he never really looked up from the ground.
We got to the gym just in time to line up for the start of club, and so he went to his group and I went to the group I lead. I looked across at him, still standing there, eyes a bit downcast, looking at his feet.
He put his hand over his heart and said something - “I love you,” or “I miss you.” I couldn’t tell, honestly.
I didn’t talk to him about it that night, or since. I hugged him extra hard and told him I loved him more often, and made some plans to hang out together that weekend, and that seemed to cheer him up, though.
That, I think, is grief. It’s not a definition, I know, but I think maybe that is, in the end, the lesson that I needed to learn here. Maybe grief is something that can’t really be defined because it’s a bit different for each person, for each moment of grief. Even when it’s shared.