Grief Journal: Stories We Tell

All of my life, I’ve loved stories.

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Family legend has it that, when asked how it went after my first day of kindergarten, I declared I wasn’t going back. When asked why, I said, “We just play, and learn colors and our alphabet. I know all of that. I just want to learn to read!” (This shows you how long ago I went to kindergarten; nowadays, teaching kids to read seems to start in the womb.)

Learn to read I did, seemingly by sheer force of will. I have a vivid memory of sitting in my grandmother’s living room at age five, with the Bible on one side, and the dictionary on the other, for the hard words. I don’t remember not being able to read; it’s as if anything before then just wasn’t worth bothering about.

After that, I devoured words, reading in giant gulps. I snuck books like other children hoarded illicit candy, every book a doorway into other places, lives, and even worlds (a love of fantasy and science fiction took hold very young). When I wasn’t reading, I was making up my own stories in my head, both waking and sleeping. I swam through life on a sea of words and ideas, living in my own head so much that my mother took me in for a hearing test. It was determined that I heard just fine; I simply was too absorbed in the stories to actually listen to anything as mundane as a call to dinner. 

My parents also loved reading, yet I don’t remember many books in our house when I was young. I would read anything I could find—ingredients on packages, stray flyers, books at other people’s houses, my father’s text books from college. I still remember the first time I went to a proper library—it was like a scene from a movie. The light shone through the windows, and I ran in seeming slow motion to shelves and shelves and endless shelves of books. It was the most magical place I’d ever been. I wanted to live there, and not be bound by the librarian’s stupid rule that children under 12 could only check out x number of books per week, and only from the children’s section.

When I grew up and had my own house, I vowed, I would be surrounded by stories.

I now live in a house full of books. I married a man who writes stories for a living, and loves movies the way I do books. We love the same kind of art, finding it just another kind of story. Our house is full of books, movies, art and cats, just as I always dreamed.

These days, I read nothing. Or rather, I doom scroll, anxiously flicking my thumb from one appalling story on my news aggregators to another. I take in headlines, too afraid to even open the article, already knowing what it’s going to say—how hate and anxiety and paranoia has seemingly taken over. There’s a vague sense of oppressive doom.

The books on my shelves rustle their pages, politely clearing their throats, reminding me of my former happy place.

But stories are too needy. They want my attention, they ask for my imagination, they want to suck me down into their depths, the words and sentences not a comforting blanket, but unraveling and wrapping around me until I feel as if I will suffocate.

Only one story consumes me these days. It’s the story I tell myself over and over, trying to make sense of it. After all, a story is supposed to make sense. It should have a happy ending, or at least a satisfying one. 

All of the stories I’ve read never prepared me for the story I’m living now. The story of a mother who lost her son too soon, who failed him even as she loved him. That’s a story that happens to other people, a story that gets tied up in some neat bow or lesson learned. 

There’s no lesson here, at least not one I’m yet willing to face. There’s just loss, and grief, and learning to live with a hole that can never be filled or healed. There’s learning that you can live when the worst possible thing happens, and that indeed, you must go on living.

So I walk past the books on my shelves, ignoring their siren call, their lie of comfort and stories that make sense. Because my story can never truly have a happy ending.