World Suicide Prevention Day

The Art of Learning to Live with Grief

Photo by Julian Hanslmaier on Unsplash

There are things that won’t ever go away — no matter how much you want to drink it away, smoke it away, party it away and laugh away. They stay. No matter how much you want to get rid of them, forget them, make them disappear — they don’t go away, because somehow, somewhere in time and space they became an integral part of you, they are crusted on every fibre of your being, they seeped into your soul, they left an indelible mark on your heart.

You fight them, you throw a fit, you yell and scream and shout — you hurt yourself and you hurt others in the process. You lose yourself and you lose others too. But they can’t go away any more than you can make your breathing go away. You can tune them out, but you can’t silence them any more than you can silence your heartbeat.

You and your demons become one — there is no beginning and no end. There are just ups and downs and more downs than ups mean more hurt and more fighting. Until there is nothing to fight anymore.

Our lives are torn between two poles, the certainty of death and the uncertainty of everything else. And we are balancing somewhere in between, searching for ways to be happy, useful and a better person. It’s one endlessly lengthened lesson where you don’t get a final note, you just get hints whether you are doing fine. You learn as you go, with the certainty of losing everything you ever loved, everyone who ever mattered. Life is about making space for death. It’s all you ever have to do. You learn to make peace with goodbyes without goodbyes, you learn to accept the unacceptable, you learn to make space for loss, you learn to live with grief.

You make peace with the finiteness of life as we know it. You get to a point where you appreciate time — knowing how fleeting everything you have ever known is. Knowing how elastic time is, how it is expanding and contracting as we experience the terrible and beautiful differently. You want to make sense of it. You can’t. All you can see how amazing it is. How intangible. How temporary. How impossible. How uncertain until it is certain.

And you learn to cherish every single moment in between.

It wasn’t even 7 in the morning. A Tuesday. My mum showed up on the doorstep of my room. Her expression made me sit up and I started to shake before she could even begin to speak. She said: Your dad… and she couldn’t continue. She didn’t cry. She just had no life in her eyes or in her voice. I knew that it was bad, very bad. I yelled at her, tell me, talk to me, is he okay? She just shook her head, exactly as in the movies, when an almost invisible shake of the head means, sorry, he didn’t make it.

My world went black. I got up gingerly, blinded by pain and I barely made it to the bathroom where I started to throw up — until my empty stomach was hurting and all I could taste was bile.

The next hours, days and weeks were in a blur. I almost forgot that I was alive.

There were the practical things: administration, police, investigation, funeral, cemetery, some more administration, taking phone calls from relatives, taking condolences, some more administration, and questions, questions, questions.

There were no answers.

I clung to something certain. I had to go to work. I went to work. I think I worked. I can’t remember. I had to be away from home for a few hours. When I was at work, I pulled every task on myself, I worked until my eyes were bloodshot — until they literally kicked me out of the office. After 3 days my boss told me to stay at home, but I couldn’t.

And then there was the terrible tide of emotions. The one that drowns you with every next wave, make you die an excruciatingly painful death only to come back to life so that the next one could torture you to death again. The worst part was the afternoons and evenings at home. The strolls in the city with my mum. The endless night-drives. The sitting at the river bank. The chain-smoking. Without talking. What would have been there to talk about? There were no words.

My mum broke down.

I stopped eating. I was hungry, though. I remember how incredibly hungry I was, but whenever I ate anything it came back up in ten minutes, making my throat sore, making my voice husky. I couldn’t bear the bitter taste of this incomprehensible grief. I couldn’t process food, as I couldn’t process any of the events.

My brother wasn’t home. He went to study in New York. He had just started college there, a few weeks before. He didn’t even know.

I was the one flying to New York — to tell him in person that our dad died. I had lied to him. I had told him I got promoted and I got a bonus, so I am coming to visit him for two weeks. He was surprised but elated to see me — he used to be my best friend.

I hated it all. I hated New York. I hated that I had applied for a visa to visit the US before and they rejected it. And I hated that when I showed the death certificate of my dad it was immediately opening doors for me. Death does that. Pity does that. And I hated the looks I had to face. It made me sick and I was grateful for being unable to eat — at least I had nothing to throw up anymore.

I hated every second of the flight. When I was boarding and I couldn’t stop crying the stewardess wanted to call a doctor, so I had to tell her that it’s nothing medical only my father died, and I am flying to break the news to my brother. I hated that they gave me a better place on the plane, and they treated me like I was made of porcelain. I probably was by the way. I stopped crying when the plane took off, and I was trying to phrase how to tell my brother. During the nine-hour flight, I practised at least a hundred versions of it. It was proven to be a completely useless use of my idle time.

When I saw my brother, I threw myself in his arms and started to sob uncontrollably, I wanted to tell him in complete sentences, yet all I managed was blurred syllables and hysterical sounds. I have no idea what I told him. But he understood. He didn’t say a word. We held each other and I saw my baby brother grow up in a few seconds in front of my eyes. He lost a spark to his eyes, and that spark never came back. We used to be best friends but there I lost him forever, and I never got him back ever since. He didn’t come home for the funeral. We spent two weeks together — and apart from the first conversation we never spoke about it. It’s been 17 years.

There are still no words.

The night before my dad called me. He had nothing to say, really. He just called, we talked for a few minutes. I can’t remember what he said. I can’t remember his face anymore. I only remember as I see it on the few pictures of him. But I remember, he called me baby girl. I was already 24 and he always called me baby girl.

I still hear his voice echoing in my ear — if I let myself remember this is something that never goes away. There are smells that remind me of him, the smell of the Nivea hand cream he used for the cracked skin on his hands. There are songs that he loved that makes me think of him, bringing back memories in such a tsunami that I can to listen to them only in a controlled environment when I know that if I start to cry it will be okay, no one sees it. There are memories of him and me. I can flip through them like a photo album, made more realistic with motions burnt on my retinas, smells creeping back to my nostrils, sounds stirring me. This one, when I am four and he walks me to the kindergarten, little Zita running around in her boots kicking the fallen leaves, hearing the wood pigeons and smelling the smoke. Or this other one when I was a kid, him whistling in the kitchen peeling potatoes for Sunday lunch, cracking dad jokes and sharing wisdom at every turn. The next one is when I was a teenager, holding my head all the time, I thought he would embarrass me forever with his boring wisdom and outdated choice of music. The quiet shriek and shock of this one when I brought my first boyfriend home who stayed the night and he thought it would be fun to wake us up early with hot tea and an omelette for breakfast.

He made the best omelette ever. He had the best dad jokes ever. And I wish he would embarrass me again. And I wish he would make me listen to his outdated choice of music — which is brilliant by the way.

And I wish he called me baby girl again. Just one last time.

There are things that won’t ever go away — no matter how much you want to drink it away, smoke it away, party it away and laugh away, they stay. No matter how much you want to get rid of them, forget them, make them disappear — they don’t go away, because somehow, somewhere in time and space they became an integral part of you, they are crusted on every fibre of your being, they seeped into your soul, they left an indelible mark on your heart.

My dad had demons that became one with him so much he just couldn’t fight them anymore. And I lost him to them. There wasn’t a cry for help. There wasn’t an attempt. He gave up the fight and he made sure he succeeded.

I never got to say goodbye. I never even knew I should have helped. I didn’t know how difficult his fight was until he lost it.

I wish I could go back in time and help him, stand by him, support him — any way he needs it.

I wish I could tell him how much I love him and how I would do everything to make his demons go away.

I wish I could make him listen to me, and I wish I could hear his voice again.

Our lives are torn between two poles, the certainty of death and the uncertainty of everything else. And we are balancing somewhere in between, searching for ways to be happy, useful and a better person. It’s one endlessly lengthened lesson where you don’t get a final note, you just get hints whether you are doing fine. You learn as you go, with the certainty of losing everything you ever loved, everyone who ever mattered.

Life is about making space for death. It’s all you ever have to do. You learn to make peace with goodbyes without goodbyes, you learn to accept the unacceptable, you learn to make space for loss, you learn to live with grief.

And in time you learn not to blame yourself for not saving someone who didn’t want to be saved.

Writer. Dreamer. Hopeless romantic. Newsletter: zita.substack.com Email me: zitafontaine (at) gmail

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