E-mail from The Grief Train

Grief Train

            Dear Russ,

                        In our writing workshop just now, you commented on our friend Jamie’s essay, in which she explores her pain at the loss of her young daughter. “Get off the fucking grief train!” you said. “You keep invigorating your emotional wounds instead of letting them heal. Why? You’re not the only one I know. What about Darlene, waking up with a dead husband lying at her side? Jesus, give us all a fucking break.” You explained how you’d grieved for your beloved dogs, more than for any human, commemorating them for years at Christmas  in the woods, tying ribbons to trees, singing “Silent Night.” A heartfelt annual ritual; so easy—and moving—to imagine your solitary walk, your sad, loving serenade. You stopped the annual sojourns awhile ago, though the memories of those dear companions remains. 

            The story of yearly rite—I never knew you’d done that, Russ!—the harshness to Jamie, reveal how much you really know about love, loss, pain. Hard to grapple with that knowledge, hard to face the truth of mourning.  Is it possible to let go?

            You are right. Grief is a “train,” oh, yes, a feeling as though it had barreled at you, struck you, knocked you down, then returned to flatten you. Every day.

            Then it’s a slow local with many stops, each of them different—the stop where you touch your loved one’s belongings, caress them, hold them to your face to breathe the in, put them reverently away, memories refreshed, loss renewed—because this is as close as you’ll ever get to a beloved, now absent body for which you ache. Or the stop, farther down the line, where you save one or two possessions and box the others for a trip to Goodwill, maybe, maybe by now relieved, even to part with them. But there’s no telling how far down the line that stop will come. You’ll always keep something—the scratchy woolen plaid shirt, a faint scent of Old Spice clinging to it, even the hairbrush, its bristles still holding a few coppery strands.

            And there is no “end of the line.” The train is where you live now, not because you refuse perversely to disembark, but because the griefs keep coming—your father, your mother, your wife, your husband, your child, your friends. Each loss is reminiscent of the earlier losses, each loss compounds those you’ve had over the years.  You’ve ridden this track before, but that doesn’t make it easier. not at all. You know now just how slowly the train moves, that likely there are new stops you’ll encounter for the first time. There is no disembarking.

Every stone is different—yours, mine, hers—but there’s no dross.

            There’s another way to answer the rebuke to Jamie, made in friendship—and perhaps in self protection—to get over it, get through it, declare it done, get a grip. Grief is that stone, that complex amalgam with veins of regret and joy and blame and memory running through it, heavy because of the twinning of love and loss, an alloy no one can purify. Every stone is different—yours, mine, hers—but there’s no dross. At first the weight is almost insupportable, an inner presence that fills you, leaving no room for anything else. Day by day it shrinks a bit, aching still, until it lodges in an internal corner where it resides always. A commemoration, a stone made precious by love and memory, by feeling to your core that the depth of love is measured by the pain of loss. 

            I know you know that too. 

                                                                                    In sympathy and love, Russ, 

                                                                                    Your long-time friend

Carmela Pinto McIntire moved to Michigan after a fulfilling teaching career at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Now her activities include reading, long walks, writing (essays, memoir), involvement in her new community, Grand Rapids, and, someday, resuming visits to loved ones and to favorite places in the United States.

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4 thoughts on “E-mail from The Grief Train”

  1. Carmela – I was remiss yesterday in posting my own story in response to yours without letting you know how powerfully your writing moved me. Your thoughts on the subject of grief and your way of expressing them – magnificent & appreciated!

  2. Dad died 12 years ago today. I’ve gotten over it. Except for holding onto all his camera equipment that does nothing for me. It was so precious to him, so of course I cannot part with any of it. I’m over his having died. Except when I look at the picture I took of him at Friendly Farms Restaurant out by the barn that he smiled broadly at, saying how great a picture it would make. No more grief in me, except when I remember holding his hand as he took his last breaths – and then stopped. And, when the others left the hospital room, I looked at what used to be my strong, vital, opinionated, sweet father – and saw the shell that remained. Where was he? He was here a few seconds ago. Now what remained in the bed may just as well be the blue vase next to it. Where did Dad just go? That was 12 years ago. I’m over it. That knot in my throat I had then – that made it so hard to breathe, to speak, to say Kaddish – it physically hurt so much, that knot. Ah – there it is again. That old terrible pain in my throat. I seem to be over the grief until I allow myself to think. Ok. Back to my semi-comatose state now. Yes, I’m over it.

  3. This is a wonderful piece of writing. It literally pulled me up and now I can’t stop thinking about it. That train… how one never really gets off it except for brief intervals. And… I learned the meaning of “dross” when I stopped to look it up!

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