Six months after Rob died, a global pandemic began. What a crazy year in which to grieve. While COVID-19 has complicated our grief process in myriad ways, foremost, the pandemic forced me to reevaluate the wisdom of cross-country travel this summer for the anniversary of Rob’s death. I wrestled for months about giving up that plan. I’d already made the itinerary and carried it in my day planner since the winter. I didn’t want to give it up.
With every fibre of my being, I wanted to be there in that place to remember the day Rob died. I wanted to visit his grave, spend the day in the mountains. Eventually, though, as COVID cases surged in the west and other states along our route instituted travel restrictions, I made the hard choice to give up my plan. Saying goodbye to the hope of a Washington summer not only meant saying goodbye to road tripping and being with friends. It meant giving up the opportunity for on-site grieving, which I assumed must be the most valuable and important kind.
Healthy grieving relies on understanding your limitations, and I finally had to acknowledge mine. The things I could control, and the things I couldn’t. I grieved the reality that, because of COVID, a cross-country trip with four kids didn’t seem wise this summer. And I came to accept it, albeit begrudgingly. I felt no pressure from Rob to be there. He wrote a book about dying; he knew how hard grief was to navigate. He would have understood and supported my choices. He trusted me to make good decisions for our family. Instead, I felt pressure from myself to “do this right.” I’d fallen into a classic trap: I believed there was only one right way to grieve the first anniversary of my husband’s death.
Once I made the decision to stay local instead of travel this summer, questions arose. How to mark this day that changed our lives forever? What could we do if we couldn’t grieve on-site? Would anything we did be even close to adequate? Well, come to discover — grief isn’t site specific. You can do it anywhere.
Hitting the Road
A few weeks ago, we loaded up our camper and drove south to spend four days on Cape Cod. If you were to rank vacations, it wasn’t the greatest. COVID restrictions limited how many cars could park at beaches, making access almost impossible for out-of-towners. All of the souvenir shops we loved to browse limited customers, and the oppressive heat left us craving exclusive access not to their merchandise but to their air conditioning. Large crowds outside of our favorite walk-up fried clam joints made local seafood less appealing. Add to all that a consciousness of why we were going away in the first place. At one point, my son astutely observed that perhaps we shouldn’t have expected much from a vacation planned on the anniversary of Rob’s death. For a bit, I thought maybe he was right. Maybe this had been the wrong way to try to grieve.
But as we drove along the Cape’s quiet back roads, we began to reminisce. Here was the place we’d stopped for ice cream with Rob that summer we’d camped a stone’s throw away. There was the baseball field where we’d watched a summer Cape Cod League game together. As we filled the car with memories, I added ones the kids had never known — of the years we’d vacationed on Cape Cod when they were too small to remember. Rob body surfing at Nauset Beach, his husky voice growling out a Creedence Clearwater Revival hit on karaoke night at a dive bar in town. Funny stories of our younger years, wistful memories of times gone by.
Another Sort of Burial
On the evening of the anniversary of Rob’s death, the kids and I set out for our favorite beach, a place full of memories. Memories of a dad who helped his kids collect crabs in tide pools, of a husband and wife relaxing together in beach chairs while their children happily played in the surf. Memories of happiness before it was marred with sorrow.
The kids and I wrote notes to Rob and sealed them with corks in tiny glass bottles. And when the tide stretched out as far as the eye could see, we dug a hole deep in the sand. As the hole began to fill with water, we plunged our hands deep, burying our messages safely into the ocean’s floor. We laughed as the water rose. We splashed each other and chased each other with seaweed. Our own little haphazard seaside burial, marked by a mixture of all the joy and grief of the last year. Life lived defiantly in the face of death.
When we settled into the camper that night, I sighed and said, “Well, we made it.” “You’ve been saying that all day!” one of my kids exclaimed. I hadn’t realized it. The words had been my litany over the day without my even paying attention. Maybe I hadn’t grieved the way I thought I wanted, but the day felt like a finale nonetheless. We’d grieved the best we could with what we had. And somehow the day felt complete.
Here’s To Making Do
As much as I talk about flourishing after loss — and I’ve come to ardently believe in its possibility — I also believe in simply surviving after loss. Sometimes surviving is more than enough. Surviving a crappy COVID vacation. Surviving a year of navigating life with grief. Surviving the absence of my beloved, not simply 3,000 miles away but seemingly an eternity away. Grief doesn’t need to be deeply symbolic or ceremonial. It doesn’t even have to be site-specific. There’s a lot to be said for just hanging on, for making do with what you have. There’s no one right way to grieve.
I discovered that day that our family didn’t need to be in Washington to say goodbye to Rob again. Life asks us to do that every day. Though I’ve restricted our travel this season, grief has still joined us wherever we’ve gone. We could bring our grief wherever we traveled.
If that’s the case, if grief will companion us wherever we go, here’s to simply hanging on, to surviving the very worst, to making do with what we have. Here’s to lackluster vacations and grieving rituals, to the shifting of tides and the ever-presence of memories regardless of location. Here’s to grief and love that know no geographic boundaries. Here’s to making mistakes and reworking plans and pointing our feet forward, however awkwardly, toward new life after loss. All of this is the right way to grieve.