My purse was stolen during my father’s funeral.
His death was sudden. Unexpected. I got a late-night call that an ambulance was taking dad to the hospital, and he was brain-dead when I got there. Dad was 60. I was 27.
The purse was $250.
I’d left it in the room where our family gathered to pray before the funeral. It was unlike me to leave it unattended, but I was already carrying so much grief, I didn’t want to pile on. After the service, we searched the church for an hour. We then headed home, empty handed and fatherless. When I called to check my voicemail, the woman who stole my purse answered and hurled obscenities at me. I don’t remember much of that conversation, other than screaming, “My father just died! My father just died!”
She hung up. We drove to dad’s hometown to bury him.
That phone call marked a turning point. A hardening. Where I’d spent the funeral service feeling connected to everything and everyone – I felt an overwhelming sense of being watched over – I spent my father’s burial stone-faced. Detached. There is no one watching out for us, I decided.
There’s not a lot that I remember from those first two years after he died. So much of that time was spent in a numb haze, losing months – not just days – of my memory. This is what I recall:
- Bursting into tears every morning when I woke up.
- Crying in my car on the drive to and from work. Every day.
- Going to movies by myself most week nights so I could step into someone else’s reality for a few hours.
- After joining friends for dinner, returning home and spending New Year’s Eve alone – asleep before midnight – because I didn’t want to celebrate a year that my dad would never know.
My coworkers pitched in to replace my purse, and they presented it to me when I returned to work. It was the most beautiful gesture, yet still I sobbed in my office, wishing I could just have my dad back instead. That purse personified my grief as I learned the following:
Grief is a thief.
Grief robs you of joy, time, and sanity. You might lose a few months of memory. Consider that a self-preservation blessing.
Many of the items in my purse were replaceable: keys, credit cards, cell phone. But some weren’t: a Spamalot playbill from a father-daughter outing, an Easter card from dad and the pictures I’d taken of the flowers at his visitation.
I began to cling to everything and everyone, not trusting their safety when they were out of my sight.
Grief weighs you down.
Grief hurts. It physically hurts. Headaches, panic attacks, chest pain, aches and fatigue. They can all be unwelcome visitors during the healing process.
But it’s also a twisted comfort. Grief is isolating, but it never leaves you alone. In the moments we wake up crying, the car rides with tears streaming, grief is our companion. When everyone moves on, forgetting our loss, grief remembers.
I was surprised by how much I fell in love with my grief. I nurtured it, gave it room to grow. I rarely fought it. To excuse my grief, to send it on its way, felt like a betrayal. It was all I had left, so I let it consume me.
As the strap dug into my shoulder, the weight of my loss felt heavier. My purse now carried my rage, my bitterness, my apathy. And my unspeakable grief. But I rarely set it down, and I never left it unattended.
Grief transcends every season.
Sometimes celebrations during your grieving seasons are a beautiful reminder of how life goes on. Sometimes they hurt more than you thought possible. Both reactions are OK. Sometimes the days leading up to a holiday or anniversary are more painful than the actual day. Everyone – men and women, family members – grieves differently. There’s no right or wrong way.
For two years, that heavy black purse accompanied me everywhere, regardless of the outfit, occasion or season. The sheer darkness of it suited my mood, and that was good enough.
The physical responses to grief lessen over time. The tears become more manageable. The regrets are replaced with memories. But just like with anything, this doesn’t happen overnight. With significant losses come significant months and years of pain.
Through the years, the purse began to fray. Eventually, the strap snapped, succumbing to the weight it was carrying. I emptied it and tucked it away in my closet.
Grief is always with you, but you won’t always physically carry it.
“Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” — Anonymous
For a few years, my grief made me bitter, fearful and lonely. Where I was once an optimist, I now found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the other “purse to be stolen,” if you will. Any late-night phone call would send me into a panic that someone else had been snatched away. The physical responses were overwhelming and exhausting.
Nine years later, my grief has made me more compassionate, empathetic and loving. I remember how friends, coworkers and church family rallied around our grieving family in thoughtful and creative ways. So many of the strongest supporters were other members of that grieving club I never wanted to join. They modeled what it means to be there for someone, unconditionally, bringing light during one of their darkest times. Or just sitting with them in their darkness.
I ran across the purse one day while cleaning my closet. The classic Coach C’s created a makeshift infinity pattern. I traced it and felt the frayed threads against the groove of the leather. I knew it was time to let go, and I parted with my purse that afternoon. My grief would always live with me, but the bitterness didn’t have to.
To those who are grieving:
With time, you’ll adjust to a new “normal.” You’ll start to feel like a new version of your old self. Your personality might change. It might not. Often, simply not crying in public is a win.
It can take two years to process a significant loss. The intensity weakens, but the longing remains. Some of your biggest support will come from the most unexpected people. Some friends and family won’t know how to help and will disappear for a while. Love them anyway because they love you. They’ll come back. And one day you’ll be there to welcome them to the club.
This post was first published on The Mighty and The Huffington Post.