The first time I saw his urn was “the big grief.”
It was the first moment my 20-year-old brain fully grasped that yes, my dad is in that $10 Hobby Lobby vase.
And no, he isn’t coming back.
I guess up until then I had the weird, if necessary, delusion that this was some big misunderstanding. That I’d drive all the way to Wyoming only to arrive and find that, I don’t know, maybe he’d be at my grandma’s house making pie. Not that he was known for doing that, but he also wasn’t known for being dead and that’s what he was apparently doing just then.
But the urn. The flag. The funeral rites.
That’s the big grief.
Everyone’s there for the big grief.
That’s the funeral where strangers hug you and you’re socially allowed to say nothing because it’s your day for grief, if not your day then your moment, and everyone is there for their own grief but they’re also there for yours.
It’s when everyone expects grief. And when that day passes, everyone imagines the grief passes too — except it doesn’t, really, and if you asked them I’m sure they’d say they don’t think it does, either.
But after the big grief, no one really thinks about you and your small griefs. Perhaps it’s because unlike the big grief, the small griefs don’t always make sense to others. They aren’t urns and funerals and Dad’s favorite momentos.
The small griefs are:
- Crying in the breakfast foods aisle of a Safeway because my dad used to make me breakfast sometimes.
- Crying at work when a dad brings his daughter in for ice cream because my dad and I used to get ice cream together sometimes. Even though ten dads have been in with their kids to get ice cream that night and none of them made me cry.
- Crying when I realize my dad won’t be at my wedding, though I never even wanted a wedding and I’m not even seeing anyone right now.
- Crying when I realize my future SO will never meet my dad.
- Crying when I realize my cat will never meet my dad. This one is very real and felt very ridiculous, but my dad was an animal person. He would’ve loved my cat. I have to stop talking about this one or I’m going to cry again.
- Making dad jokes that my dad would’ve loved, then crying about the fact he’s not around to make them.
- Remembering that time my dad and I spent two hours coming up with puns for the name of every single country on Earth. I don’t know why that memory stands out, but I keep coming back to it.
- Remembering the time my dad got a concussion when it was just he and I at home and I was convinced he was going to die. Pulling off his glasses, tapping the side of his face, propping his head up. “Look at me. Please don’t close your eyes.” Keeping him transfixed on the TV with Spongebob playing. Him giggling, half-lucid, to himself. “Sandy, Sandy, Sandy…” He wasn’t going to die, but I was 15 and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready for my dad to die yet. When I was 20 I said the same thing, but at his funeral.
- Crying when I accomplish things and knowing that he’ll never be around to see them.
- Crying because things will never go back to normal. I guess when life fell apart I always clung to the notion that some magic glue would bring us all back together again. But it won’t, because he’s dead. Even magic can’t change that.
- Crying sometimes because I don’t know why.
The small griefs are painful, confusing. I thought I was done grieving! I did the funeral, I ate a whole cheesecake, I cried with a bunch of strangers. So why am I crying now? Why am I still stuck in this?
I guess it’s because you don’t really process everything all at once, or in a linear way. You process in snippets — in memories, moments, motions. You come to terms with every individual facet of loss in its own time.
And there are so many.
Which is why sometimes I cry at the Safeway, or I cry in the car on the way to wherever because something inane reminded me of something I hadn’t yet processed, or why I don’t cry at one thing but I cry at another because grief is complicated. It doesn’t make sense even to the people going through it.
So once the big grief is over — once the flowers are dying, the clothes are donated, and fresh grass is growing — don’t forget about those grieving. Don’t think that they’ve healed just because the big grief is gone.
The small griefs are still there, waiting.