When I was small, my mother taught me how to put a puzzle together. How you separate out the edge pieces and put them together first. Then you examine the image on the box and look for pieces that correspond. Slowly, you fill in the center, bring structure to chaos. Once you’ve put all of the pieces back together you’re done. But while the image is a replica of that on the box, it is not exact. Instead there are tiny fissures in between the pieces showing where they were broken apart. Where the cut was. Where the damage was done.
I read that jigsaw puzzles were enormously popular in the Great Depression. They were cheap and you could do them over and over again. My family and I had puzzles we would do over and over until the pieces were floppy and pliant or, worse, until pieces were missing.
The puzzle I worked on this week is a Christmas scene. A collage of old timey cards and posters and whatnot. Of course, it’s also Christmastime and I listened to music as I worked on the puzzle.
So much of the crooner Christmas music comes from WWII and the post-war era–the alleged golden age of the United States. But those people were completely fucking traumatized. They’d borne witness to horror and want and death and maiming and loneliness and grief. Many of them had lived through two horrific wars and a vast economic depression. And it had shaped them. I know this from my own parents. How the Depression and the World War II made them who they were, which was on the surface this gorgeous couple with their daughters and their suburban home and their vacations but beneath that everything was a soft piece of wood, sodden and collapsing from within.
But then my father died. Suddenly. One day he was alive and the next day he was dead. Alone. In his sleep. I was a child but I kept thinking of the calendar he had on his wall in his studio apartment where he was living away from us, my parents having separated. It was a calendar of nature scenes. The last one I had seen was a red barn in a green field with trees and mountains. An image of perfection. It reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle and my father was dead.
My own mother believed she would not die right up to the moment of her death. She believed she had gotten away from death. Escaped it. She was free. She was free. Then there was the fear in her eyes that morning as she was dying and I held her cold hand. In that moment I felt like I had failed her, failed to bring her peace, and so before she could die in front of me, I fled. Her death had been the thing I had feared my entire life and now it was there. Happening. The fear that had glued me in place released and I got into my rental car and drove to the airport but she was dead before I even reached the highway.
On Monday, my beloved friend died as I worked on this jigsaw puzzle. She died unexpectedly and I kept waiting for someone to tell me that it’s not true, as she was too young and vibrant. She was alive. I think of the time I was sick and she brought me chicken soup and stupid magazines. I think of her joy and hope and wonder at finding the house her parents had last lived in on the market and how she and her family took a leap of faith and bought the house and moved across the country.
At one point in the day, I am overcome with sadness and kneel down on the floor. My dog comes to me and I pet him. I put my hand where his heart is and lean my forehead against this back. He takes all of my emotion in and stands still beside me. The breath from his nose hot on my cheek. We stay on the floor together in the quiet as my friend had died and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to keep reaching out to see how she was feeling or to talk about beauty products or to get her sage advice on my personal heartbreak. I write her a message and hit send, “I love you. I can’t believe you’re gone.”
When a person dies suddenly the inability to say goodbye or make amends or whatever it is that is needed creates a sense of unreality about the loss. Weren’t you just here posting memes? Didn’t you just mow the lawn? I remember reading how Elizabeth Edwards kept looking for her son Wade after he died suddenly in a car crash. She said she opened drawers looking for him. Searched for him under beds. She, of course, also died suddenly the day after announcing that her cancer was untreatable.
So I kept working on the puzzle. Filling in the edges. Separating the pieces by similarity. Examining the image of what once was and creating this new image stitched together. I felt almost panicked as I fitted in the final pieces of this puzzle, unsure of what would happen when I was done. It felt like then I would have to say goodbye to her for good, to let go and feel her fade away.
Instead, I kept feeling. I told myself, Do not ignore your grief. Let it exist beside you, the ghost twin.
Examine the image that is your life more closely. Those cuts between the pieces represent the trauma. My trauma. Yours. Our collective trauma. A year of trauma capped off with more. Trauma isn’t easily integrated. It takes work to get past it otherwise you keep reliving it to try to get a different outcome. Without integrating the trauma, you keep trying to put the puzzle back together but you never quite get the pieces right and so you keep doing it over and over again, a pattern of loss and shame.
Grief is a process that requires expansiveness and curiosity. I will wander through my grief, a maze where sometimes I will be lost, or in despair, and often surprised by moments of joy and exquisite pain. I will wander through my grief. Fixing the edges. Creating order out of the chaos until I finally fill the image back and I see that acknowledging the cuts between the puzzle pieces was the most important part all along.
My beloved friend Nadine Darling died this week. A devoted mother of many children, a beloved wife, and a fiercely loyal friend, she will be dearly missed. If you have anything extra to give, please donate to this fund for her grieving family: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8vcoDCbG5O