As a society, we don’t like messy grief.
We make movies and write books about people whose grief is nice and neat and tidy and, most of all, purposeful.
But messy grief — or, as I like to call it, real grief … no one makes a movie or writes a book or turns for advice to a person whose grief remains.
It sucks because it sets up unrealistic expectations about what most grief actually is — a long, drawn-out, ugly, up-and-down ride from hell that sometimes doesn’t end. It leaves the one who grieves comparing himself to the archetypes set up through movies, television and literature and feeling as if they are so far off course with their own grief because it is anything but nice, anything but neat, anything but tidy and completely devoid of purpose.
Twenty-three years ago today, my grief began. My wife and I went to her OBGYN expecting to see our first child on an ultrasound monitor for the first time. And we did. But we also found out that day that our son would likely not live much past birth.
We tried. We tried so hard to change that diagnosis. We did everything medically available at the time, which included forearm-length needles being shoved into my wife’s taut belly to inject fluid so our little guy had room to grow and move around.
Jacob Alexander Agliata was born and died on Dec. 20, 2000, and let me tell you … that day was hard. But it was nothing like Aug. 30 of that year. By the time Dec. 20 rolled around, I think there was some level of acceptance as to what was going to happen, and we reveled in every second of the roughly six hours Jacob’s underdeveloped lungs drew breath.
And then he was gone.
But on Aug. 30 of that year? That’s when our innocent little worlds collapsed and the grieving started — the ugly, nasty, confusing, what-the-fuck-is-happening kind of grief.
Faith helped us, but it also set up that exact type of grief I’ve grown to hate — the kind of grief seen as worthwhile and good if it’s being traversed for a higher purpose. People told us they admired us for how we were walking the walk we were forced to walk. They said we were a testament to God’s goodness.
Meanwhile, I silently hated the God whose goodness needed to be showcased through the coming death of my son.
I rapidly grew to despise the Christian platitudes we’d get, both before and after Jacob died.
That God gave us this situation because he knew we were strong enough to handle it. Really? Because I was physically and emotionally falling apart during and after the whole thing.
That God must have needed another angel in heaven so he called Jacob home right away. Well that seems like a pretty crappy thing to do, and does God ever really need anything.
That we were fortunate because we were a young couple who could have other kids. Oh really? Let me take away one of your kids and replace her with another one and see how you feel about that.
Twenty-three years later, I still grieve. Yes, it’s different today than it was in 2000. I don’t grieve the loss of my child as much as I grieve the loss who I was before. Seeing a tiny coffin at the front of a church, a tiny coffin with the body of your infant son in it, having to watch at a cemetery as that tiny coffin is lowered into the ground … you don’t recover from that.
You adapt. You adjust. You move forward.
You don’t recover.
“You are so brave,” we were told.
No we weren’t. Bravery involves a choice. We didn’t have a choice. If given the choice of actually being brave or having Jacob here today, I’d take Jacob a million times out of a million. I wasn’t and am not brave. My heart continued to beat, my brain continued to function, and so I continued.
And I continue to this day.
I am not the same as the young man I was on Aug. 29, 2000. My life fundamentally changed the next day. There was no going back to the way things were after some predefined period of grief. The timeline split and we were forced to craft some sort of new normal in which we had to incorporate all the trauma associated with continuing a pregnancy for four months that we knew wasn’t going to end up with a happy ride home from the hospital with newborn baby in tow.
All the times well-meaning people asked my wife about the baby in her growing belly.
All the doctor’s appointments we sat in the waiting room with couples who would be bringing their children home at the end of their journey.
The Question, which we get to this day, that necessitates a decision … “How many kids do you have?”
Grief sucks. It’s nasty. And it doesn’t always go away. We as a species are nothing if not adaptable, and so that’s what we do. But we are never the same. Some things don’t end.
So if you have a situation in your life in which grief remains, screw the movies and TV shows and books that suggest there’s a beginning, middle and end to your journey. There might not be. That’s OK. Screw anyone who suggests grief progresses in orderly, well-defined, linear stages. It doesn’t. Not in my experience, anyway.
You are OK. You and all your grief are just fine. Your grief doesn’t need to be neat. It doesn’t need to be tidy. It doesn’t need to come with a purpose. It doesn’t need to be a faithful walk with a higher power. Sometimes, things just suck. I don’t know why. But I know it’s true.
Sure, go ahead and do what’s necessary to make the grief less, to create that new normal. But don’t think you’re weird or broken or wrong because it’s not going away. You’re fine moving forward exactly as you are, with your grief beside you, on top of you, inside you and all around you.
Grief is ugly. Grief is mean. Grief is cruel. There’s nothing good about it. But it’s real and it’s yours and sometimes the best thing you can say at the end of a day is that you survived it. I have survived nearly 8,400 days since my world blew up.
That is really all that matters.