The grief marathon

And in this corner... | Jan. 11, 2019

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I debated on whether or not to share this piece since I have covered the issue of grief before. This is a culmination of three years of meditation, and it took me months and months to put this together in a way that sounded coherent enough to share with others. Note: Running this piece this week is actually timed for the first anniversary of my friend Kevin’s passing. If you ask me how I’m really doing, and if I give you the most honest answer, this is what I would say:

Photos courtesy Blair Cohn
Lois Cohn dancing with her son, Blair

This piece comes around the anniversary of my mom’s passing. I always take some time to reflect on her, the loss, life, mortality and the need to seize the day while you can. I also recently lost my lifelong friend Kevin, so I’m attempting to put together something coherent from the mash-up of emotions while living and dealing with these losses.

When my mom got sick, I tried really hard to put on paper all the details of the situation and spell out my feelings to help comprehend what was happening. I had a manic energy– pacing around, lying on the floor, getting up off the floor and feeling a restless urgency to do something. When faced with the ultimate bad news and knowing there was no silver lining, I was like the guy who goes limp when being dragged away in protest. Or like a cartoon character who digs his heels in really hard to stop from going off the cliff. I desperately wanted to slow my mom’s decline and call time-out. It was the unimaginable, and I was in disbelief. I was looking for a way, any way, to change it.

At the time, I referred to all this energy as my own “rain dance.” Here’s my brief explanation:

I’m trying everything, anything, to change the news. Lois is going to die. I pace around their house trying to fix the situation. Change the news. Change the outcome. If I keep moving, then maybe the reality won’t catch up with me and actually become a reality. I have to do something to fix this. Clean the kitchen. Take out the trash. Send the gardener over to clean and trim the backyard. Stand at the kitchen sink and wash out their tiny coffee pot. That tiny coffee pot to me represents a symbol of the stability and security of my parents.

It’s like a rain dance.

We had the band Hedgehog Swing come to the house and play for Lois. She wanted them at her memorial, but why wait until then? I became more manic and made a list of weekly concerts we could do at the house.

Meanwhile, Lois began cleaning out her own closets and drawers. We brought food over. Cleaned again. Watched movies. Talked. Kept trying to keep moving. It was my rain dance to change the news.

It didn’t work.

Since her death, I have been trying hard to put into words what it’s like to live a normal day-to-day life once some time passes and after all the people who offered their support go on with their own lives. The new normal sets in about three days later, and shortly after that it gets to a point when most people don’t want to hear the same melancholy conversation on repeat. So, I mostly kept it to myself.

I have been meditating on this for three years, and I look at grief and loss a bit more metaphorically now. Nowadays, there’s no more rain dance, but it’s more of a slow and steady long-distance race. I can explain it more like this:

When I was young, I was a sprinter– and I was fast. As a winger on the soccer team, I could streak up the sidelines and score. I was faster than most. In junior high, I helped set a city record by running the fastest leg of the relay. And I was able to keep up the pace for long distances, too. I could outrun my opponents and felt good about it.

Kevin and Blair

My mom died, and it was like my legs buckled out from under me and they didn’t quite work the same anymore. I couldn’t get any speed. Kevin died, and I was no longer the fastest runner at the front of the pack. My pace became more like a crawl. When I got my bearings back, it dawned on me that I am running this thing alone. Or kind of alone.

Grief as my running mate drafts off my shoulder and never leaves. Grief is always a hair trigger away in a song, a memory, a stop at a red light. Usually, it’s some type of break long enough for me to stop running and think and focus on those missing. I feel it in my stomach. I feel it in my tear ducts. Some days, a trigger can stop me in my tracks with no pace at all.

Grief has not only changed my pace, but it has also heightened certain senses. Part of this race is becoming highly attuned to the quiet being even quieter, the stillness being even more still. I have a heightened awareness of little things, like the wind passing through the trees. I will actually stop running and take time just to experience it when I can. In fact, my favorite song these days is just the sound of the wind in the trees. I can hear my mom in it. The quiet brings back the focus of those now missing. I can feel everyone that has passed. I can feel their absence.

While I’m running alone and really in the zone, I also see a flashing slideshow of images and memories. The soundtrack is just the sound of my own breathing. These days, my heart is in a vice grip that actually constricts my endurance for long distances and long periods of time.

I can run my daily race of obligations– in fact, I keep a hectic pace up for weeks but can be tripped up at a moment’s notice with something that triggers it all and makes me start sprinting again.

But often I pick up the pace just so I can outrun The Messenger that will eventually deliver the next diagnosis or have the phone ring about someone with the big C, or someone’s heart attack, or Parkinson’s or dementia. Or maybe He will come for me if I stop running.

What keeps me running the fastest is the harsh knowledge that my mom sat in her favorite chair and stared off into the abyss after being handed her death sentence. Her time was being cut short, and she faced the decline into the darkness. And I also run the fastest to outpace the sadness of human suffering and the cruelty of terminal illness. I run fast to outrun the inevitable bad news.

I can work, plan, travel, be a dad, be a husband, be a son and brother. I can organize, socialize and exercise. I can be told, “It’s all OK,” and have my back patted. My daily race of meetings, emails, events, diaper changes and bath time make for noise clutter. For excellent distraction. For passage of time. For good running companions.

It’s when people around me stop talking about my mom that I hear grief’s footsteps drafting off of me the loudest. When my friends keep their emotions all to themselves and don’t talk about Kevin that much anymore, I can feel the grief right there again drafting off my shoulder.

Time may take me farther away from the date of their passing, but it doesn’t put any distance from the grief, no matter how fast or steady I run.

I understand the truth in the phrase: “The loneliness of the long-distance runner.”

I keep running the grief marathon.

I have made a conscious decision: I won’t completely surrender to the grief. Maybe I will slow my pace down on purpose just a little from time to time so I don’t lose the sense of loss. If I can keep the sting real enough, I can keep the last images and last experiences still fresh. I won’t have to let go.

So, each day, I lace up my shoes and keep running, listening for the wind in the trees.