“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
-WS Merwin, “Separation”
We are two almost middle-aged women, dressed in thick woolen socks and pajamas, immersed in a rocking party (sense the sarcasm!) – toned-down and unpopular music, coffee, knitting and girl talk about life and all its bits and pieces at my house in the middle of nowhere. Going on a once-a-year shopping outing (I hate shopping) that physically and mentally drains the soul. I engage in my standard psychological wardrobe warfare – dressing in inappropriate attire for the cold (bare legs always). The tactic works – I cannot go anywhere without an old man or woman exclaiming about the ice cold I must be suffering from (but I sneakily know that they are the ones suffering looking at me, feeling the chill run through them while I feel fine – it almost feels like a superpower, I tell you, to be able to produce those kinds of reactions!).
This is my Thanksgiving outside America. I am one of these women and the other is now a close friend who used to be my “office nemesis”. And I am so thankful for every second we are friends now.
Years ago, when I lived and worked in Iceland, I met my colleague Lóa, whom I quickly nicknamed “office nemesis” because it seemed to me that we hated each other. I tried to make polite conversation with her, but it was met with an icy shutdown (as I perceived it). She would reply but in short answers, in a tone that indicated she was not interested in saying anything more. I don’t know what I had done to her to rub her the wrong way, but clearly, despite being the same age and have various things in common, we were not going to be friends.
My dear friend Jared, who actually helped me get that job and was a colleague there (and therefore also knew Lóa), tried to tell me that Lóa is just rough on the exterior and what I perceived was not really her. I sometimes kept trying to make an effort, but it did not work.
But sometimes friendship comes in surprising and unexpected places. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for that. All the missteps and weirdness Lóa and I experienced dissipated when we were roommates on a work trip to Stockholm. Finally this broke the ice, and we slowly built up the close friendship we have today. It is one of the rare cases when first impressions could be tossed out and reevaluated. Sometimes people are not what they appear.
I later learned that Lóa had been somewhat envious when she heard about my Thanksgiving celebrations (before we were friends) and wished she could take part. She has taken part every year since then – whether we held it at her place in Iceland, at mine in Sweden or with my family in the US. And whether I live in France or Uruguay or Australia, she will always take part in my Thanksgiving. It’s really our Thanksgiving now – a traditional (tradition being something of which she is terribly fond!).
One of my best Thanksgivings was the year when Lóa hosted at her house while I returned from Norway (where I was living at the time) and did a massive amount of cooking, inviting all kinds of international friends to the dinner. Most of my best friends were there, and it was one of the few times I had the pleasure of spending with the aforementioned Jared and his late wife, Hulda. (I am thinking of Jared with much love this year, knowing he is spending this holiday alone for the first time since Hulda’s passing earlier this year.)
His loss brings into focus the balance of loss and gain. I think with love of how I gained a lifelong friend in Lóa. But how easy it would be to lose someone important. Loss can be quick, and the finality of it never really hits home. The finality hits sometimes, but the loss is felt in waves.
Earlier this year I met a guy, Mark, who has been going through a rough time after losing his dad. I wrote to him about how it felt so empty to just write, “I am sorry about your dad.” It sounds hollow and empty, but the words are heartfelt. I felt the same helplessness when I tried to write to Jared about his loss. Mark had written that the death was a “huge, huge thing to process”. I responded that I expect that this loss – and all major losses – will be difficult and continue to be difficult, sometimes unexpectedly so. It did not really occur to me consciously until he and I discussed it what a process it really is. The idea that dying is just one moment for the person who departs, but the people who live on relive not only the death itself and its accompanying feelings of grief, anger, helplessness but also all the moments and aspects of life, the moments and memories together, which can be a form of relief and torture simultaneously.
Part of this process is facing the fact that so many unexpected questions and feelings come surging to the surface. Grief that you thought you worked through comes back months and years later. A question you never thought to ask while they lived comes back. Maybe regrets about all the things you never said. The things you never appreciated fully – or perhaps appreciated and never shared. The suddenly burning questions are a torment, knowing that even if it was an inconsequential thing you wanted to know, you realize fully that the answer is something that you can never have. Even the most “living-without-regrets” person will inevitably face up to moments of regret.
The loss also takes away something of the one who goes through it. As I told Mark, loss is accompanied by the sense of never quite being the same afterwards, feeling the same. Jared mentioned today while having his own lone-wolf Thanksgiving, “Some days I wonder if I’m really the one who died that day.” It occurred to me in searching for some words of comfort (if that is possible) that part of him did die that day, and he will never get that part back. He will never be the same again. It is not that he cannot live on and do all the things he did before – but it will always be shaded by this experience, this love, this loss. Mark also made the point that his own observation and regret after his dad passed was that anyone who meets him now loses out on the chance to know his father – both for the sake of knowing the father and for knowing him through the father’s eyes – knowing him better or knowing about him in that context. Or for Jared, the people he meets now will know him as a widower and will never have the experience of knowing him as the man who seemed to light up and come alive (even more than he already was, of course) when in his wife’s company.
And while time may lessen the avalanche of diverse and unpredictable emotion, the mundane bits of life will keep the wound from completely healing. Random things like receiving mail in the deceased’s name – constant small reminders, the lifetime of things that they left behind. All the things you don’t think of until you have to go through it.
As I told Mark, and probably said to Jared while struggling to find words, there is no cookie cutter approach or reaction to death…. It is incredibly complex and is a “life event” that makes an indelible and lifelong impression – or varying impressions over time – on you. I have never understood the people who say things like “Get over it” or something that is gentler but along the same lines. Time is like a mask at times – sometimes there will be periods where the grief is not in the forefront of the mind or heart. But then years could pass and some little thing will suddenly hit and stir it up anew.
It’s Thanksgiving – and I have spent so much time in the last year thinking about untimely loss and grief – other people’s and my own – so it was not my intention to spend Thanksgiving night rambling about its complexities and heartaches. But there is no better time to reflect on letting go of pettiness (for example, the year Lóa and I spent as “office enemies”, which is, in hindsight, petty) and embracing real meaning and loving and living fully before you don’t have the ability to do either any more.