Those who grieve can also smile

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief lately. From bombings and school shootings to the relentless beat of people around me dying, it is a season of loss. If grief were a color—somewhere between black and white—then I would be seeing the world in grayscale.

We tend to be gapers at other people’s tragedies. We look, sometimes stare, but we keep moving. Life does, after all, go on.

What troubles me lately, though, is the judgment cast about others’ experiences with grief. As we drive by the scene, we bring our expectations. We think about how we would experience the same thing. Until we’ve been in the scene itself, however, I don’t think we know how we will respond.

After my mom died one morning in October, more than 25 years ago, my family gathered at the house. The shock of her illness and unexpected death exhausted us and left us in a grayscale world, where emotions didn’t make sense and we kept searching for a list of things we should be doing.

Those early hours were, for us, a grace period. We suddenly had time on our hands. My brother, father, husband, and I sat down to play cards, spades I think. Maybe playing cards isn’t on the official list of post-death activities, but it gave us a diversion.

My family is, let’s say, eager about games. We are loud and engaged and competitive. We like to win, but we prefer to play against challenging foes. My husband did not grow up playing cards and is not eager about games.

My dad said to my husband what he always said to us when we were younger, “When there’s a lull in the game, it’s your turn.” But his idiosyncratic card playing, much to our surprise, was working well.

In the heat of the moment, while we were waiting for him to play a card, a friend of my father’s came to the house. Just as my husband played, laying down a card that confounded us, we burst into laughter and chatter, not realizing someone was in the room.

She looked confused, maybe even abashed. She had her serious face on and it must have bewildered her to see our rowdiness. We sobered up for her, all of us wishing she’d leave while at the same time appreciating her desire to comfort.

When I say that grief is on the grayscale, I mean that it is variable. Some moments are darker than others. People in grief sometimes laugh and play games, talk and joke, linger on the lighter end of the scale.

The kids from Parkland have been criticized for smiling in photos posted on social media. I can understand why these photos seem like a disconnect. Still, it’s wrong to expect these kids to always lament and mourn.

Maybe it seems like bad timing for them to scramble around Ariana Grande for a group selfie, as they did at the March for Our Lives. But these moments are relief from the burden of grief.

Time slows down after a trauma. You try to survive for a minute, then an hour, then a day. You long for time to regain its familiar rhythm, to be released from the suffering just for a moment.

These kids, and all of us who suffer loss, have sadness and desolation big and deep enough for the meanest critic. I read an article about a survivor of Columbine, who still has nightmares of being chased down the hall by a man with a gun. Terror lurks just around the corner.

In this season of loss I want to remind myself and others, too, that moments of joy, of lightness, of gratitude, of normalcy are few and far between. We should feel grateful that for an instant those who grieve can find pleasure.

I wrote in my last blog that a former student died last week, leaving a wife and two kids. I was struck yesterday by the photos she posted of the kids playing with cousins and friends. They made a massive blanket fort, using bunkbeds as support. The kids peered out from their creation with grins and giggles.

For a moment or two time pauses, allowing us some joy, before depositing us back, inevitably, to the sorrow.

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