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Tell Me One More Time What to Do About Grief

Someone is gone. Perhaps this is the first year you had to get used to it, or maybe you’ve had years of practice with how the calendar keeps going, and it’s still hard.

Either way, for right now I recommend getting in the bath.

Lie faceup if you want. I prefer facedown, coming up for air every few seconds like a nervous snorkeler. On a personal note, my bathtub is short, so I am forced to choose between submerging the top half of my body or submerging the bottom half. I always choose the top half, leaving my legs out of the water, looking like the first dolphin to live in an apartment.

Now onto a jigsaw puzzle, or doodling, or just stacking your mail into a Jenga-like pile. Anything that uses your hands more than your head. Stay in your robe all day, or if that’s too warm, try a shirt with no pants, like Winnie the Pooh. Eat something. Tell one of those people who keep saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” that there is something they can do and it’s to bring you more pretzels — the good kind, or really any kind but the ones you bought last time, because those were bad. How can they make a pretzel bad? I don’t know, but they can, and they did and last time you bought them.

Eat, rest, keep yourself clean, but this loss doesn’t seem to go away. You start to wonder, can this be avoided going forward? Maybe you should cut off ties and become a hermit. Even then, the rat you befriend over forgotten Saltines will naturally have a shorter life span and you might find yourself alone, mourning a rodent, scream-crying for a creature you named Little Miss Crunchy. I believe it’s in our nature to want to be loved, to try to love in return. And if our gorgeous personalities don’t push everything away, mortality certainly takes care of the rest.

This past January I lost my closest friend to cancer. Her name was Adina. She was a writer. For 26 years, we had one of those friendships where you couldn’t do anything without the other person weighing in. She knew how a pair of pants would fit me before I even tried them on. I have memorized where our arms would go when we hugged.

The complexities of grief continue to bewilder me, but what I do know with certainty is that I am here and she is not, and now, a new year will begin without her.

If you also grieve, I am sorry. Because it’s not only that someone has died, but that no one alive seems to know what to do about it. Some people will disappear or will silently drop off lasagna, while others will push you too hard to try Zumba. The bottom line is that people hate to see you broken and will fumble to help you get through it. So here I fumble, offering you what has helped me:

Buy foods that are easy to prepare, and make it your only goal to eat them before they go bad.

Save your darkest thoughts for a journal, and never reread this journal. Label it in such a way that no one will ever be tempted to read it, like, “My Longer Dream Interpretations” or “A List of My Moles.”

When you think about the person who is gone, try to remember everything, not just the good. Remember the fights. Remember the small annoyances. It’ll keep the person whole.

Accept awkward apologies and flowers. Try your best to love other people besides the one you lost.

And finally, whatever people tell you, do not start reading that Joan Didion book.

My grandma, who is 89 and very sharp, sent me an email the other day. Despite sticking with an AOL address, she’s very good at email. At her age, she has seen most of her friends go, so her perspective on grief is somewhat different from mine, maybe more practical. This year, she has sent me several emails, some with recipes for stew, some with progress reports on her broken molar (update: It doesn’t hurt!). Most recently, she sent me this quotation, from “The Summer Day,” a poem by Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The new year begins, and somehow we keep moving. For those of us still here, what will we do?


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