I lived a pretty charmed life until I was about 16. I may be exaggerating, but until age 16 I hadn’t yet experienced the heart-wrenching numbness of losing a loved one. That changed when I lost my grandmother, who was also my best friend. I can’t express how much I adored that woman and how unimaginable it was to me at the time that my heart could break any more.
But as we all know…it can.
The four years following my grandmother’s death were dark for me. I lost my dog next, whom I had had as a constant companion for 15 of my 17 years. Then at age 19, a close friend was killed in an accident while on vacation with her family. On the first anniversary of her passing, one of our mutual friends committed suicide. The grief of losing these friends was quite different from losing my grandmother had been. As horrible as it is, there is a natural order about losing a grandparent. But losing your 20-year-old friends? And the grief of losing a loved one to suicide is even less imaginable because it’s coupled with the guilt of believing you might have done something to change the outcome…the “what ifs” can be debilitating.
This week marked the 14th and 15th anniversaries of my friends’ deaths; it also was the first time this season that I made fried green tomatoes. Fried green tomatoes are an annual tradition in this Hoosiers’ family. We may even consume more green tomatoes than ripe ones! As I pulled down the flour to batter the sliced tomatoes, I realized that I hadn’t touched the flour in about a year… the last time I used flour was to make liver and onions for my mom. It may have been her last meal request. I didn’t know how to make it, so my mom sat in a chair in the kitchen and instructed me. Mine didn’t turn out as good as hers, but she ate what she could.
A week or two later, she was very weak and not eating much. But there were green tomatoes on the vine, ready for frying! So I picked a few, sliced them, and fried them. And by the way, my mom always called them “green fried tomatoes.” She might have eaten a slice or two…and I hadn’t made them since. Until this week.
I have found that when I grieve I tend to measure each thing I do by whether or not my mom was still here the last time I did that thing. And I mourn a little each time I reach one of these “first time since” moments. Because it makes me realize that her physical presence here with me is a bit further removed than it was before. Now that I’ve made this seasons’ fried green tomatoes, I can no longer say “the last time, I made these for my mom.” And man, does that hurt! I’ve hung on to some things, like her red jacket hanging by the door. The last time that jacket was hung on the hook, it was hung there by her. It’s been there, probably for 16 months now, and I can’t bring myself to put it away. Or give it away.
There’s really no point to this story, other than to share a bit about how my grief functions. And this reminds me of a poem that the friend I lost to suicide first shared with me (and yes, hindsight is a doozie):
I Measure Every Grief I Meet
by Emily Dickinson
I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.
I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.
I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.
I wonder if when years have piled–
Some thousands–on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause;
Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love