I drove across country after my mother’s death with three white boxes of her ashes nestled in a tote bag among puffy, powdery snacks, toys, and some of her jewelry.
In Buena Vista, Colorado, the motel room door didn’t close. I shoved it. I pulled the lock. Kicked it. The door persistently bounced back open. The front desk couldn’t move us; the motel was full. They promised to send someone right up. My son was tired. My then-husband was tired of me. No one from the front desk came. I got more agitated. I needed the door to close, I needed a space for something.
People were passing by, peeking inside our room. Looking at me, a person without a mother.
Everything I’d stuffed down to deal with the details of a visitation, a cremation, writing an obituary, discovering how much obituaries cost, handling a confused four-year-old, seeing my father in person after 20-plus years, and rushing to sort my mother’s meager belongings for Goodwill, since I had to return to my full-time job because you only get so many bereavement days and —
At the front desk, I imploded. “My mother is dead. You need to fix this door because she is dead and I need to cry. Do you understand?”
I sat in the bathroom of the motel room and wept (turns out that door was broken, too) as the manager spent two hours drilling and fitting new locks and hinges. My child watched cartoons. I found the sound of the drill comforting, like it was boring into me, making the space for my grief ever larger.
I got more agitated. I needed the door to close, I needed a space for something.
My mother lived a compact life. Besides our small family, there were only two people to call: her hairdresser and her cab driver. Because of a stroke, she had limited mobility; the cabbie had been driving her to appointments and errands for years. There were only four of us at her visitation. My father didn’t come. He gave me a condolence card in a city park. My name was misspelled.
In the days and months afterward, I kept my grief locked down. People gave me the kindest words, but life around you moves on, even if your grief doesn’t. I’d been down this road before: my sister had died suddenly, four years earlier. Now my grief was doubled. It was a damn Grand Canyon of grief.
I found myself up at three in the morning, searching the internet for answers to the missing that swirled inside me.
One night I typed, “My mother died, now what?” and down a rabbit hole I went. (This appears in my new book, How to Make Friends with the Dark, about 16-year-old Tiger Tolliver reeling after the sudden death of her mother.)
...life around you moves on, even if your grief doesn’t.
When I was growing up, death was finite and fixed. There were funerals, casseroles, black clothes, and then... nothing. The dead lived on only in photographs on mantels or in dusty albums kept in a trunk in the attic. Perhaps in the form of an inherited watch or a vintage dress, delicate as parchment paper and encased in zippered vinyl, far back in a parent’s closet.
When I was growing up, your relationship with a person died when they did, and you learned to tuck your grief away.
But I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to do that. And even though I had my mother and my sister with me (in small boxes), I didn’t have a place to go. To grieve, to weep, to rage. No tombstone to sit near and clean off every few weeks. I needed an outlet.
In my internet rabbit hole, I found that death had changed. Death didn’t actually mean goodbye, anymore. Not in the digital age, anyway.
On YouTube, there are farewell videos. People with terminal diseases post videos for their children to view throughout their lives, to commemorate special events: one woman, ravaged by chemotherapy, made videos for her daughter’s high school and college graduations, her wedding day, the birth of her future children. Each video was specific. “I’m so proud you’re graduating today. I knew you could do it.” “You look beautiful in your dress.”
Death didn’t actually mean goodbye, anymore. Not in the digital age, anyway.
So many videos, dedicated to the idea that even if the dead are no longer here, they are still, well, here.
My mother belonged to an age of grainy black-and-white home movies, but if they exist, I’ve never seen them. I have one video of my sister at my wedding dinner, which was held at a bar, but I can’t bear to watch it.
I can and do watch the online videos of strangers, and I do find it comforting. I grew up thinking grief had to be private and lonely, but it doesn’t. Like Tiger, I found a whole world of grief and loss. Strained finances and geography used to prevent some people from participating in formal family rituals. But a family member can film and post a service or memorial now. Someone can FaceTime you in. You can Facebook Live a funeral. You can scroll back through the deceased’s Insta feed and revisit memories as though they’d happened just hours ago. Remember when. There’s even an app that uses a special algorithm to detect speech and patterns in social media feeds, so your mother can now tweet her love of Olivia Benson forever.
With the tap of a button, your grief is communal, even if you are thousands of miles away. If you can’t meet with a grief group because of work or family schedule, you can join an online group of mourners who will guide you through cancelling credit cards, selling homes, sorting belongings, and managing the surprisingly painful onslaught of STUGs, or “subsequent temporary upsurges of grief,” also known as the moment when you suddenly find yourself buckling to the floor of a Target because a stranger is wearing the same perfume as your dead mother. (I might know something about this. DM me!)
This wide world of mourning can be a solace to introverts, too. Some people need to mourn quietly, without the pressure of in-person condolences or fractured family relationships. Maybe the thought of attending a public service fills them with anxiety. Being able to watch a live feed or a posted clip helps them feel part of the grieving community without being worried about anyone upending the casserole table over old slights.
With the tap of a button, your grief is communal, even if you are thousands of miles away.
In How to Make Friends with the Dark, Tiger grieves without guidance. She has no idea what to do with her grief, her anger, her Boxes of Mom (which she talks to). And though Tiger joins an in-person teen grief group and finds community in her sadness, learning that, ultimately, we carry our people in the most important place of all (the heart), I find comfort in virtual grieving.
In person, people get tired of the never-ending story that is grief. They want you to get better, heal quicker, stop crying.
But online, grief is like the bar in Cheers: everybody knows your pain.