Grief - Pt. 1: People We've Lost
This journal is long, not as organized as I would like it to be, and a bit unended as I continue to make my way through my own processes. You could say I am unpacking in real time as I write this.
I included Part 1 in this title because I believe this is a topic that I will be revisiting a lot along this journey of writing. I’ve lost a few people throughout life through distance, through heartbreak and through the permanency of illness and death. I think when we use the word ‘grief’ we tend to tie it solely to the loss of someone through death, however we can experience grief in various ways such as when a relationship ends in an abrupt or taxing way, when we are left feeling disgruntled and confused or even through simply missing someone.
For the sake of this journal, I will be sharing my experience of grief, as I sit in it presently, through the loss of someone very dear to me who passed away 1 year ago from cancer - my Aunty Sharon. This journal is long, not as organized as I would like it to be, and a bit unended as I continue to make my way through my own processes. I guess you could say I am unpacking in real time as I write this.
Aunty Sharon, Share - as her friends called her - vibrant, sexy, independent, a fiery Leo who knew how to set boundaries and protect her peace long before any of this self love culture and education came about.
At four to five years old, I longed for the random weekends that I was allowed to sleepover by her apartment at Keele and Gulliver in Toronto. We would play two person Dominoes and Go Fish, she would order pizza, wings and chow mein from a Chinese food spot down the street, she might sit on the phone or do her nails while I tried to learn how to shuffle the deck of cards or stack the Dominoes up into a pyramid because those were the only two forms of entertainment, other than the new TV sitting on top of the old TV in the living room.
At 12 to 14 years old, she became my greatest ally and advocate, helping to convince my mom to let me pick my own clothes when shopping and to stop dressing me like I was still 7 years old, saying to my mom “don’t you see she’s about to be a teenager, do you want the other kids to make fun of her?”
She became my refuge when at 17 years old I had had enough of my parents control - did I mention in every single last blog that I was rebellious as ever as a teenager? - and I ran away and spent the summer at her apartment where she gave me some semblance of freedom, allowed me to recalibrate, listened to how I was feeling, and checked me hard when I turned around and tried to pull a fast one on her too.
Life ebbed and flowed through my twenties and I would be lying to you if I said I spent much time with her during that period of my life. We would have one phone call a year where we would catch each other up on someone we might be dating - although I was always too nervous to share with her for fear she would tell my parents - and we would see each other for Christmas depending on how she felt that year.
She never feared aloneness, she wouldn’t hesitate to simply stay at home rather than surround herself with family antics. Come to think of it, her boundaries were heavy, which the family often perceived as selfishness; but what I realize now is that she prided her self love and care, protected her space and peace and wasn’t caught up in the generational pattern of codependency that exists so strongly in my bloodline.
In September 2019, Aunty Sharon found out she had stage four colon cancer, they gave her 4 months to live. She kept this secret to herself for 2 months before telling only my mom and none of her other siblings. My mom began going over to my aunt’s apartment more than usual and didn’t say a word to anyone, which is hella surprising for a Caribbean parent, if ya know ya know, dem love chat.
A week before my birthday in December, Aunty Sharon called me to say she had something to tell me in person but that I couldn’t share it with anyone. My birthday came around and my beautiful friends threw a surprise party for me, they strung up family photos around the event space, one of which was a photo of baby Tash and Aunty Share and as I looked at it, I turned to my girlfriend and blurted out “I think my aunt has cancer and they don’t want to tell me.”
I’ve always been interestingly intuitive, in some ways it may even be freakish, but if I say I know something, it’s because I really know, my physical body might tell me, a dream might share some deep symbolism, or I just simply be knowin’. As much as it hurt to accept it, I just knew.
A week later was Christmas. We hosted a small family dinner and Aunty joined us - she looked breathtaking. I’ve heard that before a major decline into chemotherapy cancer patients have a moment where you wouldn’t believe they were ever even sick. Their complexions change, they seem to lose any excess emotional and physical weight they are carrying and they appear physically strong. I’m extremely grateful for this moment because it’s the visual that I continue to maintain in my mind of her - her skin clear and glowing, hair long and healthy, she had lost any upper body weight she might have put on and her spirit was calm.
I think when her and my mom finally told me she had cancer I didn’t process it. I now know that grief began right at that moment in December 2019. I remember going to LA two weeks later and my stomach was as round as a basketball, I had stuffed down the sadness into my gut. Throughout 2020 I remember being unphased by the entire world shutting down, moving through the pandemic, George Floyd, bouts of covid and then developing health issues with my bladder, kidney and hormones, and associating none of these new physical issues with sadness, grief and anxiety.
My aunt was optimistic, so we stayed optimistic. She pushed past those 4 months they gave her to live. We had celebratory moments when we thought the chemotherapy was working and despair moments when we discovered the cancer had only spread to other areas. Her personality changed. She would go from extremely compassionate and loving to moments of extreme rage and frustration. If something simple wasn’t working out, like losing her keys or the remote control not working, you could now expect her to throw a fit of rage and then come back and apologize later. I recognized that fear and anxiety was taking it’s toll on her. I wonder what it must feel like to have someone put an end date on your life and you are expected to wake up each day not fearing that it could be your last. That in itself is traumatic.
2021 feels like a blur when I try to think of her. I don’t remember much beyond phone calls and her asking me to order her Wendy’s when her salt cravings were at there highest. What I recognize is that all my moments with her last year are overshadowed by the deep sadness and loss I felt when she eventually passed away. In August of 2021 she landed in the hospital before passing on September 21st, 2021. Through that month of August I had the most heightened level of anxiety I had ever experienced. It felt like someone was stepping on my heart and I was gasping for any air I could get.
Just prior to her landing in the hospital I wasn’t sure what emotions I was feeling so I hired a therapist. In my first call with my therapist I said “I think I’m grieving but I’m not sure...because I’m not sure what grief is suppose to feel like...but I also know that when my aunt passes I won’t have any time to grieve because I’ll have to be the one to step in and handle everything.” I said that in June and sure enough come September any hurt, anxiety and sadness I might have been feeling I had to push aside to plan a Toronto and then Jamaica funeral, organize celebration of life dinners, and rally the family together as much as possible.
When all was said and done by November I think I thought it was over. I think I thought I had reconciled her death. I thought my energy would climb back up, the sadness would disappear and I could get back to regular scheduled programming. But what was regular scheduled programming anyway? I could barely remember how I felt before hearing her diagnosis of cancer in 2019. By January 2022 I was crying almost everyday. My heart hurt so much. I didn’t want anyone to even mention Aunty Sharon’s name. I had hired a therapist but refused to even bring her up or share what I was feeling. I would mask my feelings by saying “I think it’s hormonal” or “maybe I’m stressed out.”
Since January until now I’ve been doing my best to be as intentional as I can with healing through grief. I’ve given myself time to process, I’ve given myself time to explore and rest, and then soothed myself through any guilt I’ve felt for resting. I’ve tried my best to cry more, although this one feels tough because I haven’t figured out how to fully release all my tears. I tend to hit a point while crying where I stop myself and say “man the hell up Tash, this is enough” and then I’ll just halt the floodgates.
I’ve managed over the last 9 months to finally have one conversation with the therapist about her. Yes all of one convo, bare with me y’all. In this convo, I expressed the guilt I felt for not doing more for her. I also debated whether or not I had pled to God enough to cure and save her. I struggled with praying for her many times because one part of my spirit said "this is part of God’s plan and I am not in any control", and the other part of my spirit detested this and said “nah God I’m not having this, save her right now, I’m holding you accountable to working a miracle in her life immediately.” I also questioned who my aunt was, how much had I really known about her? Why didn’t I ask her more stories about her life and journey?
My aunt always wore this ruby gold ring on her middle finger. For as long as I’ve been alive that ring was forever on her hand. A few months before she passed away, I was spending time with her and noticed that her hands had gotten so frail and tiny from the chemo that the ring continued to slide off. I asked her where she got this ring from and she told me that the love of her life gave it to her when she was 19. She said she never had another love like that. He passed away 2 years later in a car accident and she never took the ring off for as long as she lived. I later found out from my mom that ten years after that my aunt had a second boyfriend who lived in Montreal who also passed away from a car accident on his way home from Toronto to Montreal.
I wondered to myself what this type of love lost and grief must have done to her. How did she process and cope with losing two men in the same fashion a decade apart? What emotions did she feel? And did she stuff this same sadness and grief down inside of her stomach never to be faced again? They say all illnesses can be attributed to emotional upheavals, and cancer is synonymous with resentment. I sometimes wonder what resentments did my aunt struggle to let go of.
I now have and wear her ring regularly. Sometimes I choose not to wear it because I can’t look down at my hand and not be reminded of her. Most times I see beauty, sometimes I see sadness.
Three days after she died, I had sleep paralysis, or what we Jamaican’s like to call “duppy hol’ wi dung.” I was laying on my side in bed and I saw and felt Aunty Sharon lean over me, kiss me on the cheek and say “Nat, I’m okay, don’t worry love” and I looked at her and she looked beautiful just like my Christmas memory of her and I felt sad because I knew she was gone. And then true to form I realized I couldn’t move and got hella scared and thought she was tryna tek mi weh (take me to the after life) so I started reciting Psalm 23 rapidly in my mind until I woke up fully.
Since then she’s appeared in two more dreams to me. One dream she was wearing a pink, sexy off the shoulder dress, and the other she was wearing a similar style dress in black. In both dreams she looked happy. Her hair was flowing and her body was shaped differently, she was curvier and plumper, a shape that I imagine she might have desired in her waking life. An astrologer told me recently that “one of my ancestors wants me to know that they have reunited with their true love” and whether this was real or bullshit, it gave me solace.
Grief is a crazy thing. Before this I felt like I had grief on lock. I had gone through enough heartbreak and intimate relationship loss that I had developed a strategy and knew how to pick myself up and keep it moving. Losing a loved one permanently…I still don’t know what to do with that.
The grief comes in waves. It ebbs and flows in and out when you least expect it. Reminding you of how much you loved and then lost and then loved again.
I read a beautiful quote by Lexi Behrndt that said ‘grief will never truly end. It may become softer over time, more gentle, and some days will feel sharp. But grief will last as long as love does - forever. It’s simply the way the absence of your loved one manifests in your heart. A deep longing, accompanied by the deepest love. Some days, the heavy fog may return, and the next day, it may recede, once again, a constant dance of sorry and joy, pain and sweet love.”
Grief is the deepest love we will ever experience. And for that I’m grateful.
What is your most recent experience with grief? How is it different from earlier experiences?
Is there someone you’ve lost that you would like to write a letter to? What would you say?
Let me know in the comments or consider journalling your thoughts.
Bare with me y’all.
I love you.
Til next time,
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