Grief: Time Does Not Heal All Wounds — But It Can Help

Nicholas Van Noy, in Wyoming on a cross-country road trip, 2002.

This Christmas season feels especially magical. For the first time, my almost-two-and-a-half-year-old daughter really understands what’s going on. It has been a season of laughter, joy, excitement, togetherness, and lots and lots of baking. It’s been the type of holiday that makes it easy for me to forget that not everyone is having this sort of experience.

And this is something I feel very strongly about remaining mindful of, because I have been on the other side of all of the togetherness and merriment. On the outside looking in, through what seems like a wall of impenetrable glass. I know from painful experience that just as much as the holidays can be bright and magical, they can also be dark and distressing.

My brother Nicholas died ten years ago — on December 19, 2009, to be exact. He had just turned twenty-seven less than a month before. I didn’t find out until the morning after he died, so December 20, 2009 is the day I always associate with the moment life changed forever. It’s crazy to write that it has been an entire decade without Nicholas here in physical form.

Nick was my brother, but he was so much more than that. He was my best friend and the person who made me feel the most seen, the most free, and like the truest version of myself. He just got me, and I got him. Until I met my daughter, Nick was hands-down my favorite human on the planet. He was home, despite the fact that we lived on opposite sides of the country as adults.

Two days after I found out Nick died, I boarded a plane from Boston to Sacramento, California. The flight was already booked because Christmas. F*cking Christmas. I have a lot of gaps in my memory from those early days of shock and heartbreak, but amidst that blankness are a few searingly clear memories. One of them is stepping into Logan Airport, suffocating in loss and surrounded by the buzzing excitement of all of the holiday travelers around me. All of the Merry Christmas-ing felt like a million little knife cuts, one after another, each reminding me of the difference between other people’s lives and my own. I felt like I had landed in my own nightmare world, but was somehow still expected to function in the “normal” one, too. It seemed like an almost impossible ask.

Everything hurt back then. Life felt as close to unbearable as I can imagine it getting. I was certain that I would never feel joy again, and that the broken heart I felt oh-so-literally in the heaviness in my chest would never lift. I had no roadmap for how to get through. Theoretically, I had always equated grief with sadness and yet that’s not really what I was feeling. What I felt was alternating tidal waves of numbness, exhaustion, anxiety, confusion, fear, and wanting to crawl out of my own skin, all of which were incredibly isolating. Adding to the isolation was the fact that I didn’t know a single person who had been through a situation like mine. In my group of friends, all of the deaths had been grandparents and a smattering of parents — all of which are horrible in their own right, but nonetheless made for a different scenario than my own. I was grieving the sudden death of a loved one, but I was also grieving a life largely unlived. A life that was supposed to run in parallel with my own. Until Nick died, I had no understanding of what it truly felt like to be alone.

All of this was compounded by the fact that there was also some weird tinge of shame to it all. Our society isn’t great about recognizing or acknowledging grief. We don’t know what to do with it, and it makes us uncomfortable. So I spent a lot of time trying to act “normal” and failing miserably. I put pressure on myself to move to the next phase, whatever that was. At one point, about six months in, a then-friend of mine even told me, “You have to get over it.” And, on some level at the time, I believed her. Which is ridiculous because I now understand that I hadn’t even begun processing my reality or emotions at that time. No one could.

I was desperate for answers in those early months. I wanted an end date, an exact timeframe from those people I knew who had been through grief themselves. When would this end? When would I feel normal again? How could I ever feel normal again? I wanted those answers so badly and pressed for them so hard and, yet, I didn’t believe them when they were offered. I could not wrap my head around the fact that my world would ever feel remotely tolerable again.

Ten years was one of those markers that floated through my head at that time. What would life be like a decade in the future? I tried to picture myself at that far-away point, to see if I could catch a glimpse of being okay at some distant time. A glimpse of who I would be. Because I certainly would be a different person. That much was clear to me.

And I’ve found it’s true. In so many ways, my life is spliced into two distinct parts: Life With Nick and Life After Nick. The seemingly relentless grief of those early days and years — that’s sort of like limbo. An in-between time when you’re no longer who you were, but also haven’t yet figured out who you are going to be in this new world. At least it was for me.

I understand now that I will always miss Nick, and there will probably always be moments of grief and longing throughout my life. They are much further between now, though, and manageable when they come. The waves are lapping, not catastrophic. Most of the truly nightmarish phases of grieving are well in my rear-view mirror: the bad dreams; the phase where I got fixated on the mechanics of his death and whether he was scared or in pain; the phase where it was like temporary amnesia set in every night and, every single morning, I spent a couple of split seconds like a blank slate until reality came dripping in, one horrible detail at a time. The physical part of grief, which no one ever talked to me about — the literal pain in my chest, the deepest sense of exhaustion I have ever felt, the hair falling out from stress. Maybe worst of all was the entire first year of shock when, so many times when I was at my lowest points, I would start to call him. “Nick will make me feel better,” I would think automatically, often getting as far as dialing his number. And then, I would remember. And each time it was like learning anew that he was gone. We learn about death from a young age, but in my experience, when it hits home, it’s almost impossible to comprehend. How can someone be there and then suddenly not be there? Where did they go? It is mind twisting.

I’m happy to say that once some time passed, I got to a point where Nick no longer feels gone in the way that he once did. It’s almost as if, over time, the two of us have renegotiated our relationship. It’s still very much alive and well, but it just doesn’t involve coffee and road trips anymore. And there have been a few times — a small number of them, but deeply powerful when they occur — where I have called upon him in moments when I truly needed him, and I could feel his presence in the room in a very real way. No different than when your eyes are closed, but you’re still aware of another person’s physical presence near you. And sometimes, if it’s a person you know well enough, you can even identify who that person is, just by the feel of their energy. It feels like that.

If you are reading this article because you are in the midst of grief and looking for those same answers I was once so desperate for, know this: I am okay now. I couldn’t give you a timeframe for when that happened, because there is nothing linear about reconstructing yourself or figuring out how to live with loss. But it does get better. At some point, life will even feel normal and sometimes happy and funny and boring and all of the other things it did before. It’s just a new normal. You will be changed, but you might even find that some of those changes are good: that you are more compassionate, more aware of other people’s struggles, and more appreciative of the moment at hand.

I’m also sharing this as a reminder (even to myself). The holidays can be a cozy, magical, beautiful time of togetherness. If you are having a holiday like that, by all means, savor every moment of it. They are precious. But also remember that the same does not go for everyone around you. The holidays can be an incredibly painful reminder of those who are absent. And you may not be able to identify those people who are hurting at a glance. Also, know that profound feelings of loss and grief don’t just apply to the first or two year after a death, but for any amount of time. Grief might be finite, but loss is not.

If you know someone who fits into this category, it’s okay to acknowledge the person who is gone. You don’t have to worry about hurting them or making them feel any sadder than they already do. What you will actually do is give them the gift of recognizing that even though their loved one is no longer here in the physical sense, they are still remembered and missed. They still matter and, in some way, live on.

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