Editor’s note: We thank Stephen for sharing this moving piece about loss and the grieving process. Our hearts are with him at this time.
I’ve had three sisters my whole life. Now, I have two. As I write this, my oldest sister died just under a month ago. I am deep in the grieving process, on top of dealing with the pandemic that has engulfed the world.
I’m… okay, I guess? I’m somewhat functional. I took time off work. Then I went back. Then I took more time off.
It’s not like we didn’t know her time was limited. Five years ago, she had been given only two years to live. In those years, she endured treatments and surgeries at 70 that would intimidate a much younger person. We all knew that the clock was ticking. And then, in January, the years became months, and then the months became weeks, and then days. And at the beginning of August, it was over.
As if that wasn’t enough, one of my dearest friends and writing mentors lost her own battle with cancer in January.
I found myself grieving her, and then grieving the world and habits I had known as the pandemic took hold. And now, I grieve my sister.
My own doctor told me in no uncertain terms that travelling was a bad idea, and I would be putting my sister’s life at further risk if I went home. So, I holed up in my apartment, and the texts I shared with my sister were our last times together.
I remember the afternoon, I heard. I was “at” work. Sitting in the same chair where I do my job, watch TV, read books. I cried. The kind of gut wrenching, chest heaving tears that leave you spent. Being forewarned had proved to be no defense.
I find that, when I grieve, that initial paroxysm of anguish doesn’t last long. My body and mind just don’t have it to give. Maybe I’m too pragmatic. The initial storm comes like thunder, shaking the trees and tearing the tiles from the roof. And then, just as suddenly, it’s gone. And, I think, that’s when the real grieving starts.
Because, as impossible as it seems in that moment, the world goes on. Whatever condition exists outside your window, in your room, in your head, it’s all still there. And that seems so monumentally, cosmically, unfair. If you’re lucky, like I was, your job gives you time off to process, to experience and adjust to this new state of being.
But still, the pandemic ground on. I still stayed in my apartment almost all the time, going out only for groceries or the occasional errand or walk to take photos. I couldn’t go out for meals with friends, or for drinks. I couldn’t just get a hug from a friend, resting my head on their shoulder until I felt safe, even for just a moment.
I’ve always sidestepped the awkward philosophical questions of what happens when we die by thinking they are just “Somewhere Else.” Maybe it came from the fact that I was never physically in the same place at the time they died. My brain told me that they had just gone somewhere inaccessible to me. I didn’t know where, just that they were now “Somewhere Else.”
But that’s only with time, and letting the grief take its time to happen. It’s no comfort in that initial moment, that first, white hot anguish of the moment when you learn the one you loved is gone from your world now, is inaccessible to you for the rest of your own life. That instant is hellish, feeling like a kick to the gut that leaves you reeling.
But that’s just the first blow. Grief can encompass many contradicting emotions: rage that the person has left you, bone deep sadness that can keep you from the basis of living your life, or regret for the things you didn’t say or do and no longer can. It might be an overwhelming sense of relief that their ordeal has ended. It can be just a drifting sort of melancholy that follows you around, sitting quietly by your side. It can even be all the good memories you have of the times you spent with the person.
And the hardest part is that it can be some degree of all of these things at the same time. Melancholy at a nine, aching heart at seven, regret at a four, and rage at a quiet two. And those sliding emotional ratings can vary and switch up at a moment’s notice.
But they are absolutely necessary to the process. The process of grieving is like your immune system fighting off infection, your tissues sealing together after a wound. It’s a necessary part of the process of life, of your relationship to the one you have lost changing. But this is no paper cut that heals without a trace. This is a massive infection that requires antibiotics. It is the wound that heals but leaves a scar. And that scar will pull unexpectedly, when you move in a certain way. It will never fail to remind you that it’s there. Often when you least expect it.
But your heart has to heal. It has to learn how to carry this new weight, this new aspect of your life. You have to learn to balance this new facet of your world, against all the rest, find a new equilibrium.
At one point, as I waited here in my apartment for the ending I knew was coming I had a dream that I was there the moment she died. She turned to me and said, “It’s just one moment becoming another.” I have no idea where in my subconscious or the universe those words came from, but they where there when I woke up and they’ve stayed with me.
For what else is life, really? It’s all just one moment becoming another, whether the moment is joy or sorrow or rage or love. Each moment, in time becomes another, sometimes a moment in complete contrast to the one before it. And I do what I have to. I post something online, a picture of myself crying over something that has brought me a surge of joy. I tell my friends that I hurt, that I struggle, and they reach out to me in the ways of this new world, letting me know they’re with me. That they love me.
And that moment, that moment when I suddenly feel I can’t do it, that I can’t continue to go on in a world where she no longer exists. That moment when I rage or cry or simply sit in the encompassing sadness…
That moment becomes another.
Born on the prairies, Stephen Graham King has since traded the big sky for the big city and now lives in Toronto. His first book, Just Breathe, tells the blunt, funny, and uncompromising story of his three-year battle with metastatic synovial sarcoma. Since then, his short fiction has appeared in the anthologies North of Infinity II (Pas de Deux), Desolate Places (Nor Winter’s Cold) and Ruins Metropolis (Burning Stone). His first space opera novel, Chasing Cold, was released in 2012, and the first book in the Maverick Heart series, Soul’s Blood, came out in 2016. The second, Gatecrasher, was released in 2017. Now the third book in the series, A Congress of Ships, is available from Renaissance!