It’s striking to me how often we try to “keep it together” for other people, or for ourselves, when all we really need to do is let go, and feel, and hurt, and crumble. We live in a strange society that honors the “strength” of grieving people who don’t cry, who are “brave,” who “move on.” I’ve always felt in my heart of hearts that all of that was so wrong. So why did I fall for it myself when Mom died?
On the day of Mom’s memorial service, I busied myself with arranging pictures, and greeting guests, and worrying over whether or not there would be enough seating for all of the family and friends who were coming. The funeral director kept asking me if there was anything I needed, and I kept shooing him away, asking him to please just check on other people, people who needed checking on. I was fine. I was strong. And I had a memorial service to run.
As the service started, I sat quietly, holding my fiancé’s hand on one side and my Dad’s on the other. I kept telling myself not to cry, this was not the time, there were people watching. I remember a specific moment when my brother was speaking, when I suddenly and fully understood that I was at my mother’s funeral. Whatever we had decided to call it, whatever led up to this day, Mom was dead, after all this time. I breathed deeply, and wiped a quick tear from my face. It just hurt too much to think about. I stepped up to the podium, and began my eulogy, my last love letter to Mom. I choked back tears as I finished speaking, returned to my seat, and tried to remain calm.
The funeral director then invited anyone who wanted to speak to just stand up where they were, and say whatever they wanted to say. I got nervous. I was afraid there would be silence, crickets chirping. I was so wrong.
People, some of whom I hardly knew, stood and spoke. They wept openly as they shared how Mom had impacted their life, helped them to love themselves, and encouraged them to reach for their dreams. I bit my lip for the eternity that people kept standing, kept talking, kept crying. When the funeral director said a closing prayer, I was just so relieved that I had made it through the day, and that it was over.
But it wasn’t. I didn’t realize that there was an odd kind of reverse receiving line that happens at funerals. I was stuck there as an endless line of people poured out of the chapel to hug and cry and hug some more. Men awkwardly clasped my hands and muttered condolences. Women I recognized as Mom’s friends kept telling me how wonderful Mom was, how proud she had been of me and of my brother. I know I should have been grateful, but I have never felt so trapped. All I wanted to do was maintain my composure, get through this awful day, and get out of that building as soon as possible.
And that’s when something amazing happened. Somewhere, on the other side of the room, I heard someone crying. No, sobbing. Loud, wracking sobs, like you hear in movies. I looked past whichever person was gripping my hands just then, and I saw Tony.
Tony had long been a close friend of the family, and had been with us through many of the medical and emotional challenges we had faced during Mom’s illness. He was absolutely wrecked, unable to speak or breathe, so deeply and viscerally affected by Mom’s death. I pushed through the line of people then and fell into Tony, joining him in his despair. Together, we cried. Hard.
In that moment, as I was trying so very desperately to “keep it together,” Tony had fallen apart.
He had been a strong enough man to let down his guard, allow his emotions to wash over him, and really grieve. Publicly, loudly, and honestly. During my darkest hour, while I tried to hide from my pain, he threw open the door, pulled me in, and shared that grief with me.
I have never told Tony how much that affected me, how it gave me permission to stop being so “strong” and just cry. This is how it is with death and with grief. The people who affect us most may never know what they have done for us. I had been so busy attending to the public business of the memorial service that I hadn’t allowed myself a chance to attend to the real and personal business of grief and tears, of love and loss. Tony gave me that gift, by showing me how to fall apart.
There are still days that I struggle with allowing myself to grieve as fully and openly as I need to, even around my closest friends, my family, my husband. I question how people will react, what people will think of me if I really just let go and be very, very sad. We all struggle with this. It is normal, and it is difficult. And the best thing we can each do is find the Tonys in our lives, the people who are unfailingly comfortable with their own emotions, and share our difficult moments with them. Beyond that, all I can hope is that when my friends are in their own dark places, I can be their Tony, and be strong enough to fall apart with them.