The grief that keeps on giving

shutterstock_149468669I had a wee breakdown in a big-box store yesterday.

This was not the heaving sobs of a year and a half ago, when I felt so bereft after my mother’s death it sometimes manifested as a sharp physical pain whenever something reminded me of her.

Which was all the time.

No, this grief was quieter but more surprising. It was all so mundane. When I was placing an order at Lowe’s, the clerk found me in the computer from the last time I had placed an order at Lowe’s – which was when our family was fixing up Mom’s house to put it on the market.

So there on the screen was the contact information that Lowe’s had on file for me, which was all my mother’s. Mom’s street address. Mom’s phone number. Mom Mom Mom.

I had to turn away so that the clerk wouldn’t be alarmed that his formerly normal-seeming customer suddenly looked ready to weep buckets.

These episodes don’t happen very often anymore, more than a year and a half after losing Mom. I can have whole conversations about her now without visibly losing it. But the grief is always there, gently submerged, biding its time. Sometimes it lashes out unexpectedly, a sudden onslaught of memories making it difficult to breathe.

I’ve learned to just accept these times, and to actually cherish the triggers that prompt them. It sometimes happens over things I’d like to share with Mom, like how beautiful my teenager looked on Homecoming night, or how terrific the new Marilynne Robinson novel is so far, or how she needs to watch this funny new Weird Al grammar video.

“Grief is the gift that keeps on giving.” Those wise words were uttered by a friend at some point last year. At that stage, though, grief did not feel like a gift at all, but a burden I could barely carry. Now I think I understand a little better.

Grief gifts me again and again with reminders of how much I loved my mother and she loved me. These weepy moments of remembering reinforce the truth of that bond and also remind me that all the old clichés are true: Life is short, and precious. We have to be grateful for our family and friends for the times we’re blessed to have them in our lives.

But another reason that grief is the gift that keeps on giving is that it’s empowered me to become THAT friend with THAT shoulder to cry on. In the last few months two close girlfriends have lost their mothers to cancer just about as quickly as I lost mine. It’s been a privilege to help them walk through this journey. I never was so honored as when one of them told me she knew, when her mother was dying, that I would understand what she was going through.

I don’t know if I would have thought to be so involved (intrusively so, if I’m being honest) with their pain before I had to say good-bye to my own mother. Grief has kept my heart softer, more open.

So I remind my friends, as I remind myself, what the journey of grief has daily taught me: It’s not just that “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” as we’re assured in Psalm 30:5. It’s that we will cycle through that spiral of grief and joy many, many times, even in the same day.

Our only task is to listen and to love.


  1. I know. Unpredictable, those triggers. Tidal, that wave. Thank you for this, and the surprising truth that grief can be gift, as are the friendships that grow through that strange bond.

  2. Going through camping gear and finding some of my dad’s fishing tackle. It’s been a little over a year.

  3. My mom died fourteen years ago. I can so relate to missing her most when I wanted to share something about one of the kids.. I still have her check register in a little box under my bed. I don’t really know why. Maybe because it feels…real.

  4. Wow, beautifully written. When it comes to trying to explain grief, it seems that the best way is the direct way: sharing what happens without hyperbole or languid metaphor, which is what you’ve done here. After four days of not coming home, we just found out that our cat was hit by a car and died. I know, I know: a cat does not equal a mother but the moments of sadness that sieze me suddenly are akin to what you describe. Like tonight, when sweeping the kitchen, a flash memory of her made my stomach wrench tightly and the broom stopped as I cried once again. Your post is helping me through a smaller scale of sadness.

  5. As I have aged and lost a brother, father, and some friends, I do realize that the pain and grief do subside over time – but never fully goes away.

    Around the 4th of July about 2 years after my dad passed we were in church and singing, “My Country Tis of Thee”. We got to the line, “Land where my fathers died” and WHAM. That was it for the rest of the song and really for the rest of the day.

    I wish I could give you a good hug. Hugs help me almost more than anything.

  6. We went to a funeral yesterday for a 28-year-old young man, a Boy Scout in my husband’s troop as a teen, who had battled leukemia and its aftermath for five years. At the pre-funeral viewing, his parents threw their arms around us and said, “Thank you for coming. Having lost a child, you know how we feel.”
    We didn’t know, of course, because every death and relationship is different. But losing our daughter did put us in a place where we could understand just a little of the grief and pain they were suffering. For 20 years, it has been, as you say, an honor and privilege to mourn with those that mourn, using our experience as a connector. Not to tell others how to manage their grief, just to be present with them on the journey. Thanks for sharing, Jana.

  7. that was lovely Jana. sending good vibes from the Kimball home.

  8. My younger brother was killed about 15 years ago, and your thoughts are cathartic to read, and a welcome prompt to think about him.

    (Plus, I heard Miranda Lambert’s “Over You” song shortly after reading your post, and when I first watched that video a couple years ago it somehow evoked very strong nostalgia for my brother….)

  9. Author

    Thanks, everyone, for these beautiful stories. And Peggy, thanks in particular for this note.

    It’s funny, the things that trigger grief. On my Facebook page a woman commented that she had just rediscovered an old scarf of her mother’s and realized that it still held her scent. I found that very powerful, somehow.

  10. Yes, grief keeps on giving and more often in the beginning we get a gift wrapped box of rocks. With the passage of time, the gifts can be sweeter and more satisfying than a box of chocolates.

    Those uninitiated into the vicissitudes of profound grief, often mistakenly believe that one should be over it in a few weeks, months or years. Not having experienced having their world rocked to it’s very foundations, they are merely ignorantly inexperienced in how grief visits us from these memory triggers out of the blue.

    With some ‘seasoning’, we can help lift up and love people through their own loses and initiation into grief. When newly grieved, one can find hope and solace in just knowing and even better, talking with other similarly situated people, be they friends, relatives, coworkers or often in my experience, strangers. I have talked to hundreds of grieving parents and have had a few claim that I tipped the scales in preventing their suicide.

    When my firstborn left our world for the next, 36 years ago, I was told by a wise old friend who was experienced in the matter, that time heals all wounds. With the benefit of time, I would also conclude that even with the best healed wounds, we often will carry scars for the rest of our lives. However, in the long run, we can still be relatively pain free in the matter. I know this sounds crazy as hell to most who are only a few steps or even years down the road of their grief, but I promise that it is true.

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