On Loss, Grief, and Puzzles that Don't Fit

Accepting loss is an invitation for grief. The dark, confusing, waves of uncontrollable emotion kind of grief.

I had a friend who battled a brain tumor for over seven years. We were roommates in college and very good friends after we graduated. I was lucky that she lived in the next town over from me after college. I visited her when she fell into a coma after participating in one particularly challenging clinical trial to study brain tumors (she had been hoping that the trial would cure her). I had not visited with someone in a coma before, and I was unprepared for my visit. My friend was present in fullness without the ability to speak with me or squeeze my hand. She was warm and I knew she could hear me. It is difficult to explain but you just... know. I told her I loved her, I would always be there for her, and I would take her to our favorite pizza place when she woke up. I really believed she would wake up and we'd both be the same again. My friend started to cry, and her mom, who was sitting at my friend's bedside next to me, said that had not happened before. Maybe my friend knew. Maybe she had one foot in eternal bliss already.

A week later, my friend died. There has been a big empty hole in my heart since losing her.

My grandmother, with gentle love and good intentions, called me after my friend had passed away to comfort me and talk. In my grandmother's optimism, she told me that everything happens for a reason. I told her that I did not believe that, although I knew her saying it as a source of comfort was well-meaning. I suppose that some of the data in the clinical trials my friend participated in at Duke or Rush or Northwestern may have helped someone else. Maybe her participation may one day lead to a cure for brain tumors or another disease. I don't know. However, I know that my friend's life's purpose was not to serve as a data point for researchers.

The big, empty loss lives in my brain alongside happy memories, big dreams, and love hot-spots. It is a strange cognitive dissonance of joy, love, loss, and grief. My brain wants to fix it, end the conflict, return my mind to some unattainable peaceful existence.

Healing with grief doesn't fix the loss. Healing with grief is the process of adjusting to the new normal with a big, empty hole that cannot be filled. I cried every day for a long, long time. Months. Every July, even when my mind is rushing with summer's chores and delights, my body remembers and I am smacked back down in the twisted discomfort of grief. Oh, this. Loss. Grief. It has been 10 years since my friend died, and I get a shakedown of grief every year, right on schedule.

My mind wants to solve for the pain of loss and grief by acting like it is a puzzle to be completed.  My mind searches for a piece to fit but nothing ever does. My brain and I play this game of rationalization. She died peacefully in her sleep? Yes, but she is still gone. Next. She didn't suffer? She did, she cried, we miss one another still. There is no rhyme or reason that I lost my friend. There is no higher purpose for this loss. It just... is. Always and forever it is. Every July, I have to accept this loss again and invite the grief.

When my friend's casket was lowered into the ground after her funeral Mass, I could not bear the thought of her being cold in the ground and worse, alone. This is when I fall apart. The puzzle doesn't fit.