The Difference Between Bearable and Unbearable Grief

Returning to places I used to go to with my late husband is always a bit emotional. Being in the airport reminds me of how he made everything into a competition (I had TSA pre-check and he didn’t, so he had to go through the regular security line; he would repeatedly catch my eye from his line and signal that he was going to beat me through—he was jubilant the time my bag was selected for extra searching and he did actually beat me). Going to the local arts festival reminded me of how he would impulsively buy artwork. Shopping for produce reminds me of the time he somehow aroused the suspicion of a grocery store security guy and got followed throughout the entire store, prompting him to crouch down and navigate through the produce section like a ninja.

I have deliberately avoided going to some of the places we went to together because I suspect being there without him will be very emotional for me. One of our favorite restaurants is in our neighborhood, just a few blocks from the house. Before the pandemic, we went once or twice a month, often just sitting at the bar to eat oysters and have a glass of wine. It was our go-to place for small celebrations, like me getting a paper published or him scoring a victory at work. After his stroke, we weren’t able to go, because of both the pandemic and his mobility challenges, but we did get carryout twice. After he died, I had to work up the nerve to just walk past the place and many times I started to walk past it, felt emotion welling up in my chest, and changed my route.

Last week, my brother-in-law and his wife were in town and they suggested we all have dinner at that restaurant. I immediately agreed, with the caveat that I might in the moment not be up for it, which they understood. We decided to go on Monday night. One of my first thoughts that morning was, “I’m having dinner there.” The anticipation built up all day. I had no idea how it would hit me to actually be inside the space. I felt fragile all day—a little on edge, a little protective of myself.

There’s an Albert Gyorgy sculpture called “Melancholie” that portrays grief as a gaping hole where the heart, lungs, and other organs should be. This image of grief captures the enormity of both the loss I feel and the irony of still having a body that moves through the world. On Monday as I moved through my day, going to work and then walking the dogs, I might as well have had my organs torn out. I felt raw and vulnerable.

When my brother-in-law and his wife arrived, they asked me if I was still up for going to that restaurant and I said, “Let’s do it.” I was no more up for it than I had been a few months ago, but I was tired of carefully avoiding walking past the place. Stepping into the space, smelling the old familiar scents, seeing the dark wood that my late husband loved so much, having flashes of so many memories of celebrations at the bar, was overwhelming for a moment. The place was busy and we were surrounded by the buzz of other diners. The three of us took a long time going over the menu, with me telling stories about which dishes my late husband had particularly enjoyed. One of the benefits of a busy restaurant is that everyone else is too absorbed in their story to notice three people crying at the next table.

We toasted him repeatedly. I kept noticing the empty chair beside me, where Tom would have been. His absence was so tangible it felt like he was there, one of the many ironies of loss.

It was a delicious meal, full of love. I felt deeply connected to my brother-in-law and his wife. I think it would have made my late husband very happy to see the three of us there together, laughing and crying and toasting him. When I got home, I sobbed for a long time, lingering over the memories we had talked about at dinner, savoring each one and mourning that there will be no more.

I loved feeling so close to my brother-in-law and his wife and being flooded with memories of celebrations with my late husband. It didn’t lessen my grief one bit, but it allowed me to share my grief. It didn’t make my grief more bearable, but it made it differently bearable. If grief is a gaping hole where my organs should be, for the time I was in the restaurant, I knew I wasn’t the only one with that gaping hole. But the hole is still there, and it might be even bigger because I have a better understanding of the gravity of loss my brother-in-law and his wife feel.

The grief was exactly as hard and painful as I thought it would be. I had anticipated it to be unbearable, but I did bear it, so it turns out the grief was bearable. The only difference between what I felt and what I thought I would feel is the label. It turns out I can sit in a restaurant for 90 minutes feeling completely gutted. I had mislabeled that as unbearable, but now I know it is bearable.

There is no hack to make it more bearable.