What Grief is Like

Yesterday was my daughter Lucy’s fourth birthday.  We had actually celebrated on Friday and as four year olds find these things a little confusing we didn’t make much of a fuss yesterday.  However, we did get the influx of phone calls. With family all over the country, each time we heard the familiar long distance ring we got Lucy to answer the phone.  Each time someone said “Happy Birthday” she would respond with “Happy Birthday!”

She’s still figuring out how this birthday thing works.

Of course, there was one phone call missing: the phone call from my sister Roxanne, after whom Lucy is named.  Two of Lucy’s birthdays have passed now without hearing “Happy Birthday” from Aunt Roxanne and the phone call’s absence is as palpable as ever.

I was actually doing pretty good all day.  I was happy to hear from our loved ones. I had a normal day of work, play, supper and a meeting for me in the evening at my house.  I didn’t think about the missing phone call much at all, and when I did, I was okay. Then it changed, in a blink.  After everyone had left my meeting, Dallas told me: “Your sister called.” And I said:


With a question mark.

As if there was another option. When there was no other option.I only have one sister now.

I stopped, stunned.  I had totally forgotten in that moment that Roxanne couldn’t phone, that she would never phone again on Lucy’s birthday.  I had forgotten, briefly, that she was dead.  I had returned to a world with two sisters, a world where I could still pick up the phone and hear Roxanne’s voice on the other line.  And, then, like a ton of bricks, it hit me all again.  Grief came over me like a giant wave and I was swallowed whole.  After a day where I had been perfectly fine, I couldn’t stop crying.

That is what grief is like.

It’s hard to explain grief to someone who hasn’t been through it.  It’s hard to explain how you can have moments where life is totally normal and you feel like you are doing great, and then, in a second, have that turn around as the grief monster rears its ugly head.  One author calls these “grief bursts.”  They are those moments just like I described – where one small comment, or smell, or memory triggers a sudden onslaught of emotion.  They can happen anytime – in a grocery store when you catch a glimpse of your loved one’s favourite food, in church when you sing a certain song, on your child’s fourth birthday when you don’t get a phone call.  And they can happen months, years, decades after a loss.  Someone special to me told me that she was once in a bank when she saw the teller’s name tag, bearing the same name of the one she’d lost over 20 years ago.  She had a grief burst, right there in the bank.

That’s what grief is like.

Let me tell you – grief bursts STINK.  But I’ve learned to embrace them as part of my new normal.  I’ve given up trying to figure out when they will come or trying to somehow stop them.  I can’t.  The good news is, a year later, they are far less frequent than they were last year this time.  For that I am thankful.  Still, I know that 20 years from now I may be in a bank and see the name “Roxanne” on a name tag and have a “grief burst” again. Because that’s what grief is like.

Why do I share this today? I guess I see how much we need to help each other understand grief.  I hope those grieving who read this can be encouraged to see how normal those moments that seem “crazy” actually are.  Friend, there is no such thing as a “crazy” response to grief.  Your response just is.  That is all.  If you cry in a bank or a grocery store or at a birthday party, it just is what it is.  And remember that the blessing of the “burst” is that it is just that: A burst.  It bursts – and then it passes. It may take a few minutes, a few hours, a few days.  But, you ride it out, and let it be, and remember it won’t last forever. You’ll have them again – that is for certain – but they will not define your life. I promise.

I also hope to help those who have not yet been on the journey understand what it’s like for those who have had a deep loss.  Don’t be surprised by the appearance of grief long after you thought someone was “better.”  Don’t judge.  Don’t worry.  It’s not “regressing” or “going backwards” or “not being over it.”  It just is.  It’s just what grief is like.

This time, my grief burst lasted about an hour.  I cried it out, and went to sleep. I woke up a little puffy eyed, but content.  I’d ridden the wave and the waters are calm now.  I felt God’s comfort, and, eventually, His peace.

This morning I got big hugs from the wonderful Lucy Roxanne Friesen, now four years old. “I love you the girlie!” I told her. “I love you the Mommy!” she said.  She may be confused about “Happy Birthday,” but love she’s got down.  Just like her Aunt.

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Add Yours
  1. Mikayla

    I hear you – grief bursts suck.. a lot. I try to turn my grief bursts into happy moments where I can pray and think about good memories with that person. It makes them a bit nicer to have


  2. Ward3

    These never really go away. It’s been a strange week here at Casa Ward3, with my partner and I both having these grief bursts. Hers were more recent – finding her late nephew’s page still up 2 years later on Facebook, finding out that the mall she was working at when her late partner died is being demolished. It’s melancholy causing.

    Mine was finding out that the business where my friend shot himself 37 years ago is finally moving out of downtown in my hometown and to a new location. It has already moved a couple of times around downtown, but I never went into their store after my friend died. He was 14, and I just couldn’t face it. Maybe I can go there now that they are out of downtown – I don’t know, but I wish I could because they sold such cool stuff. Maybe the memories are bearable now, but since I started thinking about it here, I don’t know that they are and they may never be.

    The bubble does take one right back. Fortunately, it’s easier to remain present now than it used to be, but it’s still painful to have lost all of these so very young, at 14, 33 and early 60s. It’s not that they are dead either, in a way, since we carry memories with us, but the end of these was too soon, lives too short, potential lost. We were not ready for this outcome.

    Also fortunately for me, the folks around me are a blessing and understand and can hold me even as I deal with my 37 year old memory of a boy dead too young, just as I can for a partner died young, a nephew died young. And I remember, once again, Emanuel, G-d with us, so we don’t have to let this wash over us alone, and the burst doesn’t blow us too far away from our regularly scheduled, but much emptier without them lives.


  3. Jan Leacock

    Its been 31 years since I lost my husband and firstborn son ..and tho way less frequent I still have those grief bursts.. .I am glad that I still remember them .
    . The grief comes …you feel your grief like yesterday and then it passes . The love and memories are still there …Gone but never forgotten .Thank you Lord for reminding me of them and how much they were and are still loved by me AND you in heaven .!


  4. Lynn Gates

    My dad died while I was at home In England, having gone there to look after him while my Mum was in hospital. Having all the rush of making funeral arrangements and having to leave Mum to return while she was still sick, (I had a ten year old at home here at the time) I never really had time to grieve. After I returned there was an ad for Mcdonalds showing a little girl holding a grandad’s hand. For the longest time I would burst into floods of tears every time time it came on and was convinced I was going crazy until one day I connected —- I was catching up on grieving


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