(Re)defining grief

by Brianne Benness

I’ve been cultivating this notion for about a month now that grief changes people in a fundamental way. I find myself asking new people about the losses that they’ve experienced, trying to locate them in my grief-binary. I don’t want to say that I will only ever feel truly safe with somebody else who has emerged on the other side of loss, but part of me is starting to believe that this is true. That the only way to learn how to support somebody who is putting themselves back together is to have fallen all the way apart yourself.

On my birthday, my friend M asks me what grief feels like, realizing that this might be an impossible question, that grief might not be something that I could describe. I tell her that I know it’s a cliche, but I felt like I was drowning. Like I knew what I had to do to clear the surface but I found myself paralyzed, incapable of acting on my own behalf. I talk about immeasurable future losses, unanticipated moments when I didn’t realize that I would have expected my father’s presence. I tear up a little and look around the bar self-consciously. I’m 27 and crying over a beer in the middle of the afternoon.

I’ve known M since I was 17. She knew me before my mom had cancer. She knew me before my dad had Alzheimer’s. She knew me when everything in my closet was pink. She’s one of very few people who has seen me whole, then broken, and now myself again.

The man that M has been dating for the last three months lost his brother a year ago. His grief seems to be a constant and inescapable factor in their relationship. She is trying to parse out what it means to be there for him without compromising herself; what it is to feel the kind of need that grief brings. Although he is very good at expressing what he needs in a given moment, being held to account still chafes her.

Years ago on a Spring Break trip around Europe, M and I wrote out a list of deal breakers. The list was made up of funny anecdotes that should have been warning signs. You know, like when you’re asleep in his bed and he’s sleeping with somebody else; when you find out he’s been wearing your underwear all day; when you know that he’s the type of person who’s tried to use saran wrap as a condom on more than one occasion; when he asks to drink your menstrual blood. The list is gone now, but I can still feel M looking for the destruction that these signs foretold.

My real deal breaker list is much shorter now. I need somebody who can make and stick to a plan. M doesn’t understand why showing up on time matters more to me (and perhaps to the man she’s dating) than the quality of time spent. “What if,” she asks me, “I told you that I was going to come over tonight, but I fell asleep instead?” The man she is dating is coming back into town tonight, she’s thinking about heading to his apartment to meet him. We have a drawn out hypothetical discussion about this that turns back into a conversation about grief. I say that I don’t understand why she would tell me that she’s coming over if she isn’t certain she’ll be able to follow through. I tell her that when daily life feels impossible, just knowing that somebody will show up becomes everything.

Earlier in December somebody broke up with me because his inability to show up made him too sad. He knew that it was important, he knew why it was important, and he couldn’t figure out how to effectively modify his behaviour. I wonder if I have been asking for too much, if it’s reasonable to litmus test every relationship for my own worst case scenario.

M does go to his house that night. We’ve talked through a few ways for her to express concern about his grief and where he’s putting it. That she doesn’t mind if he needs her when he’s sad, but she doesn’t want to become inextricably tied to his sadness. She doesn’t want to feel relied upon.

After we have breakfast the next morning, I ask M how their night went, if her boundaries feel clearer. She tells me that she’s realized she wants to be reliable. That it’s hard for her, but it’s part of growing up. She can’t imagine what this grief feels like, but she thinks that maybe it’s inauthentic to demand the easy parts of a relationship if you aren’t building something that can withstand a worst case scenario. Because maybe she hasn’t hit hers yet, but it’s coming because life is coming.

M drops me off at the train station. I stare out the window and start to tear up again. I take out my phone and write down that grief felt like knowing with absolute certainty that I could not continue with the regular business of living all by myself while holding tight to the belief that everything I needed to move forward was much too much to ask from another person.