It’s that time after a visitation, in which everyone starts to leave, or maybe, to flee. They’ve seen the open casket. They’ve looked down upon the deceased; the funeral home has attempted to make the dead look as they did in life. (It hardly ever works.) Folks attending the visitation quietly but quickly move away from the casket and the rows of purple upholstered chairs in the purple room.
The room is probably supposed to be soothing, but it isn’t.
How can a room be soothing when there’s a coffin cradling someone you’ve lost? There are big sprays of brightly colored flowers surrounding the casket, carefully arranged. How could flowers soften the blow of loss? How could they do anything really? They can’t. They really can’t. Nothing softens the blow.
You are one of those people moving with determination to the door, out of not-soothing room. It’s the second time in eight weeks that you’ve been in this room. One time is too many; two times might break you.
To be honest, and you try to be honest, you already hate this room at this particular funeral home. You’ve attended too many visitations and funerals here over the years. You pause to add up all the funerals you’ve attended there: your grandfather when you were 11; your cousin’s husband when you were in your early 20s; your great-grandmother in your early 30s; another cousin’s baby with the smallest casket you’ve ever seen in your late 30s. (Of course, this isn’t the only funeral home that you’ve had to go to. There are others, but this is one sticks with you. Haunts, you even.)
To be honest, and you try to honest, you already hate this room at this particular funeral home.
You hate the lavender walls and the plum carpet. You hate the straight-backed purple chairs, which force you to sit upright when all you want to do is bow your head and slump. You hate the large screen on the wall. It scrolls through pictures of the dead or maybe even plays a video on loop. You hate the sympathetic smiles of funeral home directors—men in expensive suits—who guide you from the ornately decorated foyer into the purple room. They whisper condolences, but their smiles never quite reach their eyes. They also usher you out when your time is up.
Another funeral or visitation awaits, so your time is limited, as if your grief can be scheduled into two-hour blocks. You hate that these men try to be comforting when there’s no comfort to be had.
You begin to move to the door out of the purple room, a little more quickly this time. You can see the foyer now. You ignore the twinges of pain from your sprained ankle. With every step, your pain becomes more pronounced, but you have to get out of here. You creep closer and closer to the foyer, almost to its door. You can see the parking lot any time someone exits the large, white door with the shiny bronze handle at the entrance to the funeral home. You’ve never craved the look of asphalt and white lines, and their promise of escape, as much as you do now. You make it into the foyer. You don’t make it to the door.
Your thoughts stray. You remember that you were in this exact funeral home nearly just under two months ago. 57 days to be exact, but who’s counting? You get caught up in the numbers and forget for a moment why you are here. You’re here for a visitation for a great aunt that you barely knew. You’re here so your parents wouldn’t have to go alone. You’re the oldest kid, so you volunteer to do things like this, even when you really don’t want to.
The last time that you were here…No. Not now. You can’t think about the last time yet. You push the thoughts and feelings about the last time, 57 days ago, down deep, where you hope to never find them. You forget that they can still find you, in the moment you are the least ready for them.
You hadn’t even reckoned with all that you lost by the time that the casseroles were gone.
You’re here at the visitation to support your mom in particular. It is her aunt who died. Her father’s sister. Her father’s and your grandfather’s funeral took place here too. You try to forget how he looked in the satin-lined casket without his glasses and in clothes that you bet he would have never worn otherwise. You try to forget the uncomfortable pastel dress you didn’t want to wear. You try to forget that he no longer smelled like the cigarettes that he wasn’t supposed to be smoking. You try to forget how numb you felt and how you started crying during his funeral and weren’t sure you would stop. You try to forget how other folks offered their condolences and casseroles in those first few overwhelming days of loss and then they moved on. You hadn’t even reckoned with all that you lost by the time that the casseroles were gone.
And now, you try to remember something, anything, about this particular aunt. You can’t really, though you can remember your other great aunts. You can’t remember any of her children, your mom’s cousins, as you realize when they stop you in the foyer. These cousins also can’t remember you. They all seem to have forgotten that your mom has three daughters, not just the two who have remained in your hometown.
Your mom tells them who you are over and over again. You’re the oldest daughter. The one who left almost 19 years ago. The one who has now come back, finally, to where you belong. They look you over with your tattoos and piercings. The way they look at you tells a whole story about how you don’t seem to fit around here, which is, perhaps, why it was so easy to forget that you even existed.
You left. You were lost, and now, you were found. Maybe.
If someone suggests that you are the prodigal daughter, you think darkly, you might lose what little composure that you have managed. You breathe. In and out. Out and in. As you try to remind yourself that punching people in the throat is not okay any time, but especially not at a visitation.
You smile, sadly, at them and apologize for their loss—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—in your requisite black dress. It’s decorated with bold flowers. It was not your first choice of what to wear. You have another black dress that is just black, but you can’t find it because it is still in a box, somewhere in your house. Your move is that recent. You’ve been home for mere weeks, and you moved back for your parents, your family, but it doesn’t feel like enough. It never really feels like enough, does it?
Your smile fades a little more after each introduction.
You’re the one who left. You’re the one they lost, which seems to matter more than the fact that you came back. You can’t handle that feeling right now, so you let it glance off of you, hoping it doesn’t leave a mark. It will be back later. You’ll get to it. Eventually. Probably at 2 am when you should be sleeping but all your feelings that you’ve tried to avoid decide to make an appearance.
Your smile fades a little more after each introduction. You are now working hard not to frown. You shuffle dutifully behind your mom and dad. You listen to the small talk that happens at events like these. You shake hands or give tentative hugs. You listen as folks tell you that they haven’t seen you since you were “this high,” gesturing with their hands to a foot or two above the ground. You’re 38, almost 39. You haven’t been that small in at least 37 years. You decide not to say so.
You still haven’t escaped. You’ve actually lost ground because you are back in the purple room. So, you try not to look at this stupid room in this stupid funeral home. You try to forget how recently you’ve been here before. The more you try to forget, the more you remember. You try to forget how people were offering tentative hugs and “I’m so sorrys” to you only weeks ago, when they remembered you at all during the visitation. These folks forget you too. (You have been gone so long that you’ve become a ghost. No one can see you, so you dissipate into the ether. Your children were left out of the obituary. They’re ghosts too.)
You have been gone so long that you’ve become a ghost.
Weeks ago, you were on the other side, sitting at the front of the room in the terrible purple chairs when all you wanted to do was fucking hide. You try to forget the photos that appeared on the screen. You try to forget how there’s only one or two of you with the deceased.
Deceased, you think now, gives a sense of distance, a clinical way to approach those who died. Does it make it easier to handle your loss if you use this word? Or does it make you a coward to use it? You can’t tell. Maybe, it’s how you survive.
You try to forget the memorial for someone you loved and who helped raise you that happened here. You try to forget that your stepmom is dead. (Not a funeral this time but a memorial when you were 38, almost 39. It’s another to add to the count.) You try to forget all of this because you will fall apart. It is not the time to fall apart. When is the time, really? You have no answers.
Your attention comes back to the current visitation that you are at right now. Your smile is gone now. Your escape seems less likely, so you attempt to steel yourself. It doesn’t work. You don’t feel like steel. You feel more like the dainty coffee cups with the red strawberries that your grandfather had when you were a kid. You always handled them with care because they seemed so fragile in your chubby hands. You didn’t want to them to get chipped because chips can lead to cracks. And cracks can lead to a full-on break. A break might be able to be glued together. It might not. Some breaks are irreparable.
Some breaks are irreparable.
The time ticks by slowly, like honey inching its way out of a jar. The air conditioning is cranked up, so you are giving an occasional a shiver. The visitation continues on. You’ve told some folks that you’re sorry for their loss, but mostly, you’ve gone quiet. Seen, but not heard. It’s not because you don’t actually feel sorry that they are burying someone the next day. You do.
It’s that you can’t make yourself speak today beyond the rote expressions of condolence; the words won’t manifest. The pain of your own loss is fighting to get free. Your loss is too fresh, too recent. It’s been a little less than two months. You know because you keep counting. You can’t stop yourself. First, you count the hours, then days, then weeks, and then months. Eventually, you’ll count the years too. Shit, eventually it will be years.
The pain of your own loss is fighting to get free.
You haven’t given yourself time to grieve. You know you haven’t. So, grief finds you. In the quiet moments. In the car. In the chaos of the summer days with your children at home. Your mind drifts to your stepmom and how your last stupid text to her was about her new phone number.
Today, though, you choke down the pain and all of the guilt about all the things you never got to say or do. You keep your jaw clenched. You observe and decide not to feel. This visitation isn’t about you, you think, get your shit together. Mainly, you don’t speak much because you’ve got no real solace to offer up because you currently have none.
Loss makes you lost.
After all, when you lose something, you rarely get it back. When you lose someone, you never get them back. It feels like they leave a hole that now resides in you. This hole is as a reckoning of all you lose when someone dies. It begins in those hazy days when death doesn’t seem real because the shock hasn’t worn off yet. It remains with us in our grief; it gets deeper and wider. One day, you try to fill it up, but you can’t. You stuff it full of memories, but they don’t fill it up.
They’re gone, and you remain here. It’s a fact. Loss empties you out. You wonder what you have left.
Because everything that you remember reminds you of all that you’ve forgotten. You can remember your stepmom’s love of John Wayne movies and the beach, but you can’t remember her favorite color. You can remember how much she loved your kids, her grandkids, but you can’t remember her favorite food. Everything you can’t remember wears on you.
You are lost and hollow. The more you try to not grieve your loss, the deeper the hole gets.
With every attempt to fill it up, every attempt to remember what you’ve forgot, the hole gets deeper and wider. It’s not just a hole anymore; it’s a crater that threatens to swallow you whole. The impossibility of filling it becomes obvious.
Loss makes you lost.
Once again, you try to forget your own hollowness. You are here for this visitation. It’s not about you, you think over and over again. It’s not about you.
The visitation is hard on your stepdad. He’s your dad, really. You can see it in the way he carries himself. He lost his hair again, due to another round of chemo, and his beard this time too.
For as long as he’s been in your life—since you were three when he married your mom—he’s had hair that reaches his shoulders and a beard. He’s shaved off the beard a few times, but he always grew it back. His head is shaved, but you can see how it is coming back in gray—not in the dirty blonde hair that he’s always had. It’s a coincidence that you have dirty blonde hair too, when you aren’t testing out new hair colors.
Since you were little, folks have always thought you were his biological daughter because you looked like him. Same hair color, same brown eyes. He didn’t always correct them. You didn’t always either. You always liked that you looked more like him rather than your biological father.
It’s a little hard for you to look at your dad now because he’s lost so much weight. He looks older, so much older, than he is. It’s because of the cancer and round after round of chemo, mixed with multiple bouts of radiation. Stage IV brain and lung cancer is unrelenting and aggressive. It requires unrelenting, aggressive treatment. The aggression is getting to him. You see it. You try to ignore it. Now is not the time to consider it. And yet, you are waiting for another loss of someone you love, while barely struggling through the recent one.
At some point, you and your dad make it to the front of the room near the screen. (How are you still in this room?) He watches for a moment as the photos shuffle by.
“When you pick mine,” he says, “I want them to be about hunting and fishing, the grandkids, and your mom.”
You forget how to breathe, so you nod. And then, you manage to say, “Okay, I will.”
He’s been planning for his death since he learned he had cancer. Meanwhile you’ve been trying to not think about how near it could be. This isn’t the first time that he’s told you what he wants at his funeral. Weeks after his diagnosis, he had you drive by the small cemetery in which his dad is buried, to see if there was enough room for his burial plot. You got out of his truck and looked with him. It’s overgrown, but there was enough room. He seemed satisfied. You were not. You got back in the truck with a weak smile and told him you would handle it, when the time comes.
You are waiting for another loss of someone you love.
Now, you’ve also just agreed to help with the slideshow when he dies. Being the oldest child, you think, really, really sucks. You can’t get out of the room fast enough. You’ve already tried to leave and been thwarted. But now, your dad decides he wants to leave, and you try not to run to the door. (You can’t run away because of your damned sprained ankle.) The parking lot is within reach. And his truck isn’t that far away. With determination, you move past the people hanging around outside near their cars and trucks.
Your uncle, your mom’s brother, is walking up to the funeral home as you are leaving. You stop; you say, “Hi.”
He looks at you. Really looks at you.
And tears form in your eyes.
“Hey,” he says, “You never cry. What’s going on?”
You start to cry, and you can’t find a way to say what you are thinking. You want to shout. You want to say that you just lost one parent. You can’t be preparing to lose another. You can’t be. It’s too much. It’s unfair. Everything fucking sucks. You can’t lose anybody else. You just can’t. You can’t lose the dad who loved you unconditionally, the one who and chose you, rather than the abusive one you fled. You can’t do this again. You can’t do this anymore. Your heart breaks because you know that you’ll have to. You can’t avoid it. The hole widens. You try not to fall in.
You manage to utter your dad’s name.
Your uncle draws you into a bear hug, like he used to when you were little, and says, “He’s doing okay now.”
“You can. I know you had a bad childhood, but you survived. You’ll survive this too.”
You lean into the hug and hope that he’s right. He sees your mom and heads toward her.
You look down at the asphalt and the white lines and take a moment to dry your tears. You can’t let your dad see you cry. By the time you’ve made it to his truck, the tears are gone. You hop in the back and crack a joke about some of your relatives. Your dad laughs. You laugh too. Your parents drop you off at your new house, and you hug them both tightly. And you think about what you’ll lose.
You think of the hole that remains when they’ll both be gone. That future absence that haunts you.
This hole, these holes, will never be fully covered, but, maybe, you think, it can be patched. And you know that, at some point, you will start to patch it up best you can. You’ve patched up others over the years. You are less likely to fall into them now, but you still fall. You know that patching can never make up for all that you’ve lost. It can’t, but also you don’t want it to.
The more you try to not grieve your loss, the deeper the hole gets.
That bit of emptiness stays with you because you lost someone you loved. It reminds you of them.
It reminds you that you loved them. It reminds you that they also loved you. You’ve loved them and lost them. It hurts still. Likely it will forever. What you’ve lost, what’ll you lose, seems staggering. It is staggering.
But, what about the love the preceded the loss? The loss wouldn’t hurt so much without love. It wouldn’t be so hard to patch the holes, if the loss didn’t remind us of all the love we lost when someone dies. But, did we lose it? You don’t think so.
You think about how you carry the laminated bookmark with your stepmom’s obituary in your purse. You can’t bring yourself to take it out. Every time you rummage through that black bag with the rivets on the side, your hand brushes the bookmark. You see your stepmom’s smiling face. You can’t help but smile. You can’t help but think of what you lost. And in some moments, you can’t help but cry. This is part of what you have left.
Sometimes, when you see her face and read the words that can’t sum up her life, even as they attempt to, the hole yawns wider. You think it can never be patched. But, other times, when your fingers brush it, you remember how much you love her and how much she loved you. You patch the hole, a little, each time you remember love
You can’t help but think of what you lost.
You wonder if the act of patching is a way to reassert your love. The hole might be deep, it might be a crater, but it isn’t unable to be patched. Each patch is a way to say “I love you. I miss you. I always will.” You know, you know, that you loved her and that you loved everyone else that you’ve lost, all of them. You know that you miss her and them and that you’ll miss the others that you can’t help but lose. You know that you always will.
You patch the hole, a little, each you remember love.
But you’re patching the holes, slowly, even as you know that you’ll fall into them again and again and again. You love, and you patch. You know all that you’ve lost. You know all that you stand to lose.
You love. You lose. You love. You lose. Your love, your loss.
And yet, you continue to love, even as you also know that you’ll lose again.
This post is an excerpt from Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness. The essay is from 2019. My dad, mentioned here, died after a long struggle with Stage 4 brain and lung cancer at the end of September. I’m nowhere near patching the hole that he left in my heart, and I’m trying to remind myself that just because we lost him doesn’t mean we lost all the love between us.