The bad news, when it comes for us, seems to come at night. The voicemail that relays no actual news but leaves, along with the words “call me,” the low undertones of despair in the speaker’s subdued delivery. Or the rush, the burst of fear, anxiety, terror, blasting from the mouth of our loved one through the ether to our ear like hot coals, the phone a prophet of doom.
The news comes in the velvet darkness, when we’ve shed our sunlit shells of invincibility and control, tossed our cares into the firmament to twinkle until dawn, when the world ordered to our will has spun one hundred and eighty degrees and the forces beyond our control slip from the shadows to haunt our hearths and homes.
The bad news comes and the body responds. Voices crack, tears spring from cornered lids, pulses quicken, rooms spin, the floor drops from beneath feet. Every cliché rings true when pain and grief and trouble come knocking. We don’t have to fling the door wide, or even open it a crack, just a fleeting glimpse through the peephole and the image of ruin singes a scar in memory, one we will finger again and again each time we find ourselves doing what we were doing when the disastrous news cleaved time and perception.
When tragedy befalls, when the unthinkable has not only been thought, but has taken place, some of us reach into our store of platitudes casting about for protective incantations. Others dig into our pockets and purses for talismans to keep disaster at bay. Others, rendered unable to speak, stare into space, or close our eyes searching for a metaphorical folding chair where we might sit and attempt to understand what we’ve just heard.
Bad news comes for us, and bad news comes for the ones we love. And though we have all suffered in unique and terrible ways, we have nothing on hand to staunch our beloved’s wound, no first aid kit for grief, no cure or easy solace. We wrap our arms to our chests and delve deep into the moment to find something tangible to grasp, an anchor in storm tossed seas.
Maybe the lyric of a song: “You can do this hard thing” (Carrie Newcomer); a bit of poetry: “I half expect to see you / fill the autumn air / like breath—” (Kevin Young); or the remembrance of the Psalmist walking through the valley of the shadow of death; or words uttered once to us in such a state reminding us of our inner strength, maybe something like this surfaces when faced with our beloved’s distress, a floatation device simple and honest enough to withstand the tidal wave of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that pummel and pound as we gasp and flail.
And maybe these tiny gifts are enough to provide momentary equilibrium for those whose hearts have been shattered, those whose lives have been ripped to shreds. Maybe our meager offerings are expansive enough that our beloved might remember to breathe and inhale deeply once, or blessedly twice, and in that breathing may our beloved remember their inherent belovedness. May they be blessed to find solid ground in the moment of inhale, and the world, in the moment of exhale, kind.
Cathy Warner, MFA, has lead writing workshops for almost 20 years. Author of the poetry volume Burnt Offerings, Cathy has received the Steinbeck and SuRaa fiction awards, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. She is literary editor of Image journal’s “Good Letters,” and her fiction, short memoir, and essays have appeared in dozens of print and online journals and several anthologies. In addition to teaching, writing and editing, Cathy is a home renovator, realtor, and enjoys nature photography. Find her at cathywarner.com.
Onward to The Shape of Grief.
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