Today would have been your birthday.
I have carried grief in my bones for so many years that I do not notice its weight unless it becomes acute. I do not hear its noise unless it shouts at me.
When loss first came into my life, I could not imagine that a symbiotic relationship with grief would be possible: grief, the invisible parasite, edged somewhere between my bones and my gut, occasionally sapping me of energy, occasionally making me sick, but mostly sitting quietly within me, accompanying me on my days. If I could imagine such a day, it was a site of fear — a sign that I would have forgotten, that the pain would have lifted, that the smell of cigarettes on your hands that held mine for so many years would have faded.
In the years and losses I have survived since that first one, grief has become an invisible language. You did not know that you would be signing me up for a club back then. My friend K has a name for it: Dead Dad Club. Those of us who are fluent in grief have an odd but comforting sense of humor. We are not exclusive: members of the club have lost mothers, dignity, children, partners, fetuses, keys, homes, breasts, beliefs in love, dignity. We take ‘loss’ to carry wide meaning, and we somehow find each other. We are aware that we share a language, even before we have explicitly spoken it together. We know. We see each other’s grief elves.
“Always you the ship, and I the light on the right,” wrote Greek poet Odysseas Elytis. We take turn being the ships and the light. We become embodiments of survival, flashing comfortingly like a lighthouse to those who are newer to loss. Quietly, we want to caution that any light we beam is not as steady as it appears, that survival is fraught, that there is brokenness to both the ship and the lighthouse. There is no linearity or teleology to grief, hard as others try to impose one. Messiness and circularity make humans uncomfortable. Messy, circular grief is the only type I have known.
Having lost you at a young age, I became a reluctant trail blazer for my friends as they navigated loss. “How did you survive?,” is a question that often greets me when someone else is swimming in sorrow. I am still surviving. Survival is not a settled matter. Grief makes you circle the drain a few times over. Your survival depends on making your peace with its recurrence, not with tidily filing it away in the attic of your life like a box that was checked.
Yet, when I think about survival, I think of the bench. I think of the fact that, with every round of grief, there comes a day when the numbness lifts, just a little. When you start to see colors again, and taste food, and feel breeze on your face. There was a bench in front of the White Tower in Thessaloniki, where couples kiss, and where the fog from the bay lingers every morning. That bench has held the return of the senses for me. There is a bench on the Charles River at which I sat, enveloped in a black coat two sizes too big for me, lost in it and in grief alike. And there is a bench near it, where on a breezy day in the spring, you can sit and be showered with falling blossoms. Survival–or recovery, or simply, time–feels like the return of saturation: a return to the senses.
The days on benches accumulate, joy returns, and I chase away guilt because I know you never would have wanted me to feel guilty for joy. Grief fades into the background, first like a dull, chronic ache, then like intermittent pain, then like near silence.
And then there are the elves.
The days when I wake up and missing you consumes my whole body. I cannot identify what hurts because this is not a severable pain. It is not discrete or subtle. It hijacks me. The more I try to put grief away–not right now, it’s not a good time, I thought we had this conversation–the louder it gets. So I pack it along. It becomes the invisible elf that comes with me on my day, a shadow accompaniment. It sits alongside me while I try to do my work, perches itself on the next bar stool at the end of the day. It falls asleep next to me, squarely on top of me, or in the middle of the bed, hogging the blankets. Sometimes, it brings other elves: envy, nostalgia, homesickness, memory. Sometimes, it comes back the next day, and the day after that.
The grief elf is not a spiritual invention (or a sign of a tumor, or having finally lost my mind). It is my way of making peace with loss, and the ways in which absence takes up space much the same way presence does.
I feel squeezed out of my own life in many ways these days, caregiving and caretaking, pouring out my energy in directions that are different than the paths on which I would choose to walk, constrained by circumstances in ways that shrink my heart. I think of what you would say, I repeat your words to my loved ones here. You are an absent presence in their lives too. “Keep your head down and do your own good work.” I am doing my best — and sometimes, the elves just have to come along too.