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The Strange Relief that Comes With Grief

Last month my father-in-law passed away. He was 84 years old. In some respects, we should have seen it coming. He had been diagnosed with skin cancer a few months earlier and was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. But his health was fine, his spirits were good, and the doctors gave us reason to be positive. And yet, a few weeks of radiation treatment near his face left his throat dry and painful. He stopped eating. Then he struggled to breathe. Then he developed pneumonia. And then he was admitted to the hospital.

My husband Jim sat with his mother beside his father's hospital bed. Between visits from the medical personnel, Jim showed his father pictures of our children on his phone. My father-in-law would stare at an image of our girls for a long period of time before handing the phone back to Jim to produce another. My father-in-law couldn't talk because he had a large oxygen mask over his face and his strength was diminishing. But he wanted to see his spunky granddaughters illuminated by the glow of a phone.

When Jim came home that night he was shaken. "My dad seems so frail. He was just over here last week and now he can barely talk."

The next morning Jim went straight to the hospital. I had a full day of meetings and classes--meetings and classes that could absolutely not be rearranged--but Jim had assured me the doctors were not overly concerned and I could just come by after work. After I dropped the kids at school, however, something felt weird in my gut. I don't know if it was a warning my father-in-law needed me as much as it was a push that my husband did.

Turns out, even the most un-cancel-able of meetings and classes can easily be moved. And once they were, I was driving much too quickly to the hospital. When I parked I texted Jim:

Me: I'm in the parking lot. What room is he in?

Jim: Take the elevators to the fourth floor. I'll meet you.

I'll never forget it as long as I live. The chime of the elevator. The light on the "4" button extinguishing. The slow parting of the big metal doors. And my husband, standing there, looking right into the elevator as if he were about to pry the doors open himself, locking eyes with me and forcefully whispering, "Run."

And off we went, holding hands and moving as quickly as we could through the long labyrinth of the hospital, Jim's jaw clenched in worry, his eyes narrowed on the obstacles--gurneys, nurses, vending machines--that stood between us and our finish line.

Our race, I realized, was to the ICU, where my mother-in-law stood slowly to greet me, to assure me, and to seek assurance from me. We embraced. I hadn't even looked at my father-in-law, but I could hear the beeping of far too many machines for me to feel assured.

When I turned to face him, to this giant man I had known for more than a decade, but somehow didn't really know at all, I barely recognized him. His mane of thick white hair was matted and wet. His face was yellow and hollow. His skin was paper. His breathing was slow and erratic. But before I could take in more of him, I heard a throat clear and we all turned to see a row of doctors with the look on their faces that said, "Med school never really trained us for how hard this part would be."

I've wondered since that day if it was hard because it was so sudden. Or if, perhaps, the swiftness made it easier.

Because in so many ways, our current phase of life--our safety and shelter at home for the foreseeable future--feels so similar to the grief Jim and I endured last month. In some respects we should have seen it coming. We saw the symptoms appear in a land far from here, but we had plenty of reason (or delusion) to feel optimistic. And yet, like all snowballs--whether personal health or public heath--we were all of a sudden told in a forceful whisper, "Run."

And before we could wrap our heads around what was happening, we were listening to the worry in our gut, we were canceling meetings we thought were unmovable, and we were racing to be with our loved ones where we hoped we'd find assurance.

As much as it feels weird to admit, there is relief in grief. When my father-in-law passed there was relief. Not relief that he was gone, of course. But the relief that comes from the unknown becoming incredibly known. We didn't have to make tough decisions, or apologize for missing work, or even explain our sadness to others. There was a relief that we were allowed to hold on to one bigger emotion, and forsake all others.

And I can't help but feel that same relief as I sit here at home, still in my bathrobe at four in the afternoon, my children fighting over the iPad, my husband typing away on a document for work, our dogs in a constant state of curiosity as to why we never leave the house anymore. What I am experiencing is grief--dear god I miss my students, and hugging friends, and the margarita at our favorite Mexican restaurant. And the grief came on swiftly--wasn't I just hugging our waitress for bringing me that margarita last month? What I am feeling, what we are collectively feeling, is grief. And yet, in that, I feel relieved.

When my father-in-law passed, everything around me that I thought mattered suddenly didn't. No meeting was that important. No project deadline was set in stone. No event truly required my attendance. My life was easily rearrangeable and others were happy and quick to help me with those rearrangements. The pressure from everything else felt lower. I suddenly had all the time and space in the world to feel what I truly needed to feel. I was absolved of so many things so that I could grieve.

And it was a huge relief.


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