It Happens Whenever It Happens

“She looks like the Dutch Boy. Do something.”

Three sisters surrounded the fourth.

I began fluffing my sister Fran’s hair with a brush in one hand and freezing the look with the hairspray held in the other. I was 16, she 28. I hadn’t the faintest notion of how to style anyone’s hair, but still I tried. When one is called upon to handle a hair emergency, one must act.

Fluff, spray. Fluff, spray. Step back and look. Fluff, spray.

I noticed her pearl necklace wasn’t straight. I moved it again and again, but it always slid away from my hands and settled into a puddle of tiny ivory spheres at the base of her throat. After so many attempts, I let the strand fall where it may. There was no use trying anymore. Rigor mortis had set in, her flesh was now unyielding.

Yes, my sister was in a coffin. Yes, my sister was dead. Yes, this moment was grim and sad, but at least I’d made her hair look better. At least there was that.

If you ask me today, almost thirty years later, I couldn’t tell you how I did it. How just a few days prior she’d had a headache, a bad headache. How I heard the knock at my bedroom door as I blew my hair dry getting ready for school. How the ambulance came. How I cleaned up the spot of blood on the carpet. How I heard my father say the words brain hemorrhage over the phone. How I heard an eyewitness account of her life support being turned off, her turning blue for a moment before it was over. How our mother had just died five months before. I couldn’t tell you how, only that I did it because I had to.

“She looks like the Dutch Boy. Do something.”

I don’t know whether it was denial or delusion. I don’t know if it was a matter of simplistic necessity. Like a poor college graduate, perhaps I had asked for and been kindly granted a forbearance on my grief. Having been through so much pain in such a short time, maybe it was all three. Maybe it was survival in its most base form. I couldn’t tell you how I did it, but grief is like that. Grief has no set timeline. Grief happens whenever it happens. It comes when it does and it goes when it’s good and ready.

In the case of my sister’s death, grief has happened in dribs and drabs over the years. It was delayed a bit for sanity’s sake, but it came eventually. And it still comes. When I’m with my other sisters and her absence is felt. When I know something would make her laugh. When I want her perspective. When it’s her birthday and the I can’t watch her blow out the candles. The grief comes. It happens whenever it happens.

And that’s true for any and all measures of grief. From the death of a sibling to the death of a dream. Grief happens when it happens and it’s over when it wants. You don’t rush these things. It starts when it needs to and no one can gets to tell you when to stop.

I remembered this story, the one of my being my late sister’s impromptu hairdresser, on a walk around my neighborhood one balmy summer night. I used to run before the tumor, neither far nor fast, but still I enjoyed it. These days I can only walk. The hills here challenge me and my bum leg. The downhills are especially tough now that I’m missing some muscle. It’s humbling, to say the least.

Running, for me, was work. As I wasn’t necessarily athletically adept, it required focus and concentration to even move at the snail’s pace I did. I liked that. I knew for that one hour or so my brain would shut off. There would be no extraneous thoughts, no insecurities, no neuroses. At the end of it I felt fit and able. I felt accomplished. And the thoughts didn’t have time to creep in. I miss that. I mourn it.

Music was my only running mate, the only one I cared for. The one that helped me keep my pace. Some songs were staples, causing my Pavlovian response to run. They are songs I listened to over and over and loved until I couldn’t run. I’ve successfully avoided listening to these songs in their entirety for almost 6 years now. Skip. Change the channel. Fast forward. 

And then it happened, on my walk one balmy summer night, lost in thought over something unimportant. I was halfway through the song before I realized it was one of those songs, the ones I do my best to avoid. I wanted to run, but I can’t, so I mourned that.

I let them play. I didn’t skip ahead. I let the feelings of loss come in because even though it’s been almost 6 years, even though I’m alive and I can walk, I still mourn this. I’m still sad I can’t run. I’m still miss the me I once was. So I cried on my walk, listening to songs that weren’t sad, mourning deaths both big and small. Grief happens whenever it happens. It comes when it does and it goes when it’s good and ready. No one gets to tell you otherwise.

The grief I have at the loss of running may seem trivial in comparison to the grief I have at the loss of my sister, but it’s just as important. It still requires my attention now and again. It may take a lifetime to sort through and that’s my goddamn given right. It’s yours too. Whatever the thing is or the person, however big or small the loss, no matter how long it’s been, your grief is your own and no one gets to tell you otherwise.

In some odd way, I’m glad my grief snuck up on me. I’m happy to have let those feelings pass on through, of not just my running days but of my sister as well. That absurd memory, of sisters committing their one last act of love. Yes, my sister is dead, but at least her hair looked good. 

It made me think of the human capacity for strength and humor and love. How we hold it together when necessary and fall apart when we least expect it, but still carry on. It happens whenever it happens, the grief. Take it as it comes, when you can, for as long as you need to. Don’t ask for forgiveness. Don’t feel the need to explain why. It happens whenever it happens and no one gets to tell you otherwise.


This post is inspired by a dear friend’s blog post entitled, Grief is a Thief.

*Featured image courtesy of Pixabay