Back in June my sister married her best friend and in less than 24 hours they went from the highs of wedded bliss the to depths of grief over the loss of their beloved dog. That’s their story to tell.
My story is this: having a bird’s eye view into their pain, watching them process both together and individually gave me pause. I offered both food (I’m from the South. Casserole, anyone?) and presence. And as it was happening I kept wondering why I responded that way. Why would I simply offer food and presence? It doesn’t seem like enough.
I learned that my newest BIL and I are a lot alike. We are outwardly emotional. I like that about him, kindred spirits in spilled tears and hearts worn on sleeves. I watched my youngest sister exhibit a maturity I had not had the opportunity to witness previously. The way she tenderly loved on and cared for her new husband was such a sight to see. She knew when to move in and when to leave him be. It was amazing.
In the midst of observing, I realized why it was so fascinated with their journey. I am not often an observer of grief. I am often smack dab in the middle of it. When you move as often as I do, the things that were anchors one day are memories the next. Daily texts about coffee dates become quarterly texts about wedding dates and birth announcements. Driving to the grocery store on autopilot becomes a journey with a GPS. Kids that sleep through the night become kids that sleep at the foot of your bed.
Experts say there are 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. While I studied these in graduate school and have held onto to them as true, my life experiences have led me to see that perhaps there is a sixth stage. It’s a pre-stage really…before any change or loss actually happens.
Pre-grief. It’s that weird time between knowing something is going to happen and it actually happening. The stage where almost everything you do is for the “last time.” And there never seems to be enough time; time to see all the people, see all the sights, and pack all the things.
I vividly remember sitting in the junky parking lot of my favorite coffee shop in Stamford. I had just purchased my regular; 16 oz black coffee with vanilla flavoring. The barista saw my arrival and had my order waiting at the register by the time I walked the length of the store. I was a regular. It was my place. So often did my family frequent it that they knew not only my order but my husband’s too and would often ask if I was picking up one or two cups that day. I loved that place.
As I sank down into the driver’s seat of my vehicle clutching my favorite hot cup of coffee I started to cry. I looked out at the bleak landscape. A gray parking lot, covered in piles of melting gray snow, and the small place inside my heart that knew we were leaving unleashed a downpour of tears and emotion. It’s fear really, maybe that’s the extra grief stage-fear. Where would I find a new favorite cup of coffee? Would the barista be as kind and friendly as my current one? Would the new duty station provide us with as much opportunity and friendship as this one had?
I hadn’t even really liked this town when we moved here. It was different from any place I’d ever been and I was frightened by the appearance of the businesses that flanked the path from my house to the train station. It looked seedy and unkempt upon first arrival.
Yet 2 years later here I was crying in the dumpy parking lot sipping my favorite coffee and watching the train pull into our small neighborhood station wondering how I would have the strength to leave.
Those seedy businesses? They turned out to be the best places for dry cleaning, gassing up your vehicle, and after school childcare.
As I sat grieving for this place I had come to love I was trying to steel my heart against the inevitably of leaving it in a few short weeks.
The other thing I’ve learned about grief is, though it sucks no matter how you slice it, it’s far easier if you are the one leaving. It’s the people that are left behind that have the holes in routine, the gaps in their daily lives left by your vanishing presence.
I know this because for the first time in many years, I am not the one to leave. My friends are. We are back in a fleet concentration area, meaning that, where we live is heavily populated by service members and their families. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a sailor.
I haven’t lived in a heavily concentrated military area in several years. At our last duty station we were the ONLY active duty family some people had EVER met. At this duty station we are 1 of thousands of military families, so our friend pool is largely military too. And the only constant in military life is change. So my friends continue to come and go. And lately it’s been a lot of go. In the span of 3 months, 3 of my closest friends have the left the area for not only opposite ends of the country but also the world, and my grief is palpable.
I can feel it. I can feel it when I go to text them or invite them to meet me for a walk, a coffee, or a workout. I can feel it when my boys ask when will we see them again, or I wonder what they are doing today. I can see it on my Netflix account where my boys’ younger brother of choice is still listed as a user on the screen. I can feel it when my oldest child agrees to do something he doesn’t necessarily want do because at 9 years old he has already learned that time is short and when you are given an opportunity to spend time with those you love, you do.
I have sat in this place of grief for months now. My last friend leaving this year flies out next week. I have cried many tears. I have been angry and frustrated and down right irritable. I’ve also been full of fear. Fear that I don’t have the capacity to open up again. Fear that my boys won’t mesh with new friends I meet. Fear that I will live the rest of my days at this duty station pining for another one stationed with my friends that moved away.
I have sat on my couch many nights since August and eaten way too much ice cream or gone to bed at a ridiculously early hour because the grief has been too much for me to bear.
Yet, just this past week, I felt a shift, a renewed spirit to open up, to be hospitable, and to invite others into my life. The truth is I like people and I’m learning it’s ok to befriend more of them.
This shift was unexpected. I had gotten so used to missing my people that I forgot what it was like to fling open my doors and share meals and stories with acquaintances.
Truth: all of these friends that are moving onto their new duty stations were acquaintances a mere 2 years ago. I had never laid eyes on one of them prior to moving to San Diego. Yet over the course of the last 2 years, the more I opened my doors, the more they opened theirs. Occasional conversations to turned to weekly meet-ups, weekend suppers, shared stories, and shared lives.
I see now that it took opening up in order to have these close friends. That close friends don’t just happen. I’m also learning that opening my doors to new acquaintances doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my friends, I’m just adding a seat at the table.
And now I know why I offered my brother-in-law food and presence. Food brings people to the table and presence invites them to stay just as they are.