Here’s what the movies tell you: grief comes in stages. It may take weeks or months or years, but you work through them one by one until finally you come out on the other side. You recognize them as they hit you, but they don’t come in a line like ducks in a row. It’s more like herding cats.
You’re thirteen and you’re in your sister’s room, sitting on the day bed that used to be yours. You’re both waiting for someone else to break the silence until your mom enters. You convince yourself she’s worried, not heartbroken, and when she says the paramedics are downstairs, you convince yourself they’re still working and things are going to be fine.
Then she says four more words and you know it’s over. He didn’t make it. The end.
You’re 23 and it’s Day 0. The last two weeks have been hard but you know you can fix the relationship. You just need a little time, a little more work, maybe a little patience and understanding.
Then he tells you what he did. It feels like a piece of shrapnel hit you in the chest, sharp and fast, knocking the wind out of you, but it’s okay. The two of you have gotten through worse, you think. You can still salvage this, you think. But the more you talk, the more you realize that what you’re really doing is buying more time, waiting for him to fix it.
Then the other shoe drops and you think maybe he doesn’t want to. The end.
Except it isn’t, because on Day 1, you ask him what he’s telling people. On Day 2 you tell your mom it’s a break, it’s temporary, you’re going to be fine.
On Day 7, you admit it’s an actual, honest-to-God, break-up. You still don’t tell your mom the whole story. When he comes back and fixes it, you’ll forgive him and she won’t, and who wants that hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives?
It’s probably Day 12 when you say that you can’t talk to him…now. That you won’t get back together…yet. That there is nothing left to save…but maybe, in a few years, you can start again.
It’s Day 28 when you read that things do work out how they’re meant to occasionally and you take it as a sign.
The anger doesn’t come for years. For years it’s “God’s plan” and “The grave holds no power.” And then one day, someone asks you how it happened and you finally say the words that have been tickling your throat over the last few months. “It’s like God just decided ‘You’re done’ and flipped the switch.”
That’s when you stop talking to God, because how can you keep saying He brings good through pain when he’s the only explanation for the pain this time?
The anger is immediate. The moment you realize that, after everything, he still lied and he doesn’t want to fix his mistake, it hits you. You’re shaking, you’re taking turns too sharply and coming to intersections too fast. You jerk the wheel left because, after all this, you need a goddamn beer. You’re shaking as you pace the bar’s back porch and shaking as you wrap your hands around the glass, letting it cool your sweating palms, and you don’t stop shaking until it’s gone, leaving nothing but the foam head in the bottom of the glass.
The anger comes back on Day 3, when he sits across from you like nothing happened. It’s like a wave, hitting you in the chest and knocking you backwards, as you watch him check his phone over and over. You’re drowning in the silence so you start talking, reaching for something to hold onto, finding it’s all just current rushing away from you.
He walks away like nothing has changed, like he isn’t leaving anything behind.
It comes again on Day 5, but this time in a rush like placing a Christmas tree in a fire pit, when you read her message. You don’t know what to be angrier about: that he asked her, which doesn’t sound much like the accidental, “I wasn’t thinking” story he started with, or that he’s still moving in with them, when not two months that was you he was going to live with.
You wonder when was the last time he told you the truth, or if he ever has.
The anger comes on Day 27, when you get drunk and text him and demand to know why you are so easily replaceable. When he accuses you of picking a fight every time you talk now, you agree. Because now your anger is something you hold, something you’ve whittled into a sharp point to lash out with, hoping to strike something, hoping to make someone bleed the way you are.
You’re even angrier when you look up and realize you’ve been yelling at air.
Bargaining isn’t conscious because, no matter how many fantasy books you read, you know dead is dead. It’s praying for one more dream so you’ve got something else to hold onto, poring over his old things to find one more message. It’s standing at a graveside, completely still, hoping you’ll hear someone speak.
The bargaining comes on Day 2, with the denial, thinking of all the things you’ll do better if you get one more shot.
It comes on Day 5 when you ask if he’d want to try again and you start thinking of ways he could prove he can keep his promises this time.
It comes on Day 15 when your therapist asks what will be different years from now that would mean you could be together again. You list them: you’ll both have gone through therapy, you’ll both get better control of your moods, you’ll get better, and if he could choose you, make you Priority 1, you’ll do a better job showing him he’s already yours.
Even to you it sounds like grasping, like holding on to a rope that’s been rubbed down with oil. It slides out of your hand and leaves nothing but the red imprints from where you held on too tight.
The depression hits at once, but you won’t remember it later. You’ll remember sobbing, thinking of all the things you’re going to miss out on. You remember being awake at three a.m., most of your friends asleep on the bedroom floor, while you sob into one’s arms and the phone about how scared you are to face the morning.
Depression comes like a rainstorm. Sometimes you see the clouds on the horizon, but mostly, you feel the sun on your arms and the downpour starts from nothing. It’s Day 1 when you barely leave the couch, and Day 4 when you text your best friend, “Why doesn’t he love me?” and cry yourself to sleep clutching her reply to your chest. It’s day 26 when you see him with another girl and Day 29 when you hear a Demi song and can’t stop thinking of him. It’s Day 8 and 12 and 30 and the moments between, when you lock yourself in the bathroom to cry or stop for a Guinness on your lunch break or check your phone and roll back over in the morning, because without that good morning text, what’s the point? It’s when you drive nowhere for hours on Day 17 or spend Day 11 hating yourself because, if you’d been better, he wouldn’t have left. It’s the ache in your stomach, the weight on your chest that forces you over, the blow to the knees that knocks you down. It’s that quiet half-hour when you force yourself to leave the phone on the counter so you can’t see him not text, to look anywhere but the clock so you can’t see how slowly time is passing.
Acceptance comes sooner than you expect, because there’s nothing anyone can do for death. It comes in the form of a novel you read over and over, the way the memories come easier and you feel only a pang of regret about the wedding father-daughter dance you won’t have and the children who won’t know their grandfather. The anger quiets as you become able to list all of the things that are good and pure that have happened since, things you wouldn’t give up for anything, even if you could have him back. When the missing him hits you, you take a deep breath and let it go.
Acceptance comes on Day 4, but only long enough for you to take the money you were saving for your first big trip together and mix it with that for the last trip you thought you’d take without him. You regret it the next moment but you don’t undo it.
It comes on Day 7, when you take his shirt out of your drawer, and Day 10 when you hear someone you admire tell you the story of her “him.” You recognize that light at the end of her heartbreak is probably waiting at the end of yours. This one sticks for a whole hour.
On Day 18, it’s you crying into your couch, repeating over and over that it’s not fair but it will be okay, and it holds long enough for you to fall asleep.
It’s on Day 26, passing him in the hall and feeling okay. Not all right, but like you will be eventually. That lasts until you see him with the girl a few hours later.
And, you’re finding, it’s on Day 30. It’s when you want to text him so badly you’re afraid you’ll burst. You promise yourself that you can, if you still want to in 10 minutes. You wait another ten after that and one last round after that, when it finally passes and you feel like you can get on with your day.
You recognize that tomorrow is another day. It could be worse, but it will be there. And you never know: maybe that’s when it will all get better, one way or the other.
(You wonder if that’s more denial or if it counts as bargaining. If it keeps you moving, you’ll take it either way.)