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A Complicated Grief

This used to be the sad part of the story, but now it’s one of the lucky parts: I woke up at 4:00 am on November 19, 2019, boarded a flight for Detroit, and drove to Beaumont Hospital, where my dad was being transferred into hospice. I stepped inside his room, fell on my knees, and held his almost lifeless hand. His arms were wrapped in white adhesive bandages. Here and there, his skin was exposed, a mottled black-and-blue landscape of wounds, many weeping. These large, fluid-filled blisters covered most of his body—hands, feet, arms, back, abdomen. He had a rare skin disorder called bullous pemphigoid, which had surfaced a few weeks after he underwent knee-replacement surgery. The blisters—and the necessary treatment, heavy doses of steroids—led to this: a-fib, a blood clot in his left lung, kidneys no longer supporting dialysis, other failing organs, last rites more than once. The stiff black stitches from his surgery still traversed the bend of his knee because he never recovered enough to have them removed. 

My sister, Ami, and I spent the night by our dad’s side. At six the next morning, a nurse brought in a trolley of individually sealed donuts—glazed, plain, and a couple covered in chocolate and nuts—as well as a thermos of coffee and a basket of sugar packets, creamers, and stirrers. For most of his life, my dad had been a loyal consumer of donuts, even after he was diagnosed with diabetes. He would buy a bag of donut holes and pop them in his mouth, one by one as he was driving to the office, to church, to do errands. The hospital coffee was weak and bland, but that morning, it tasted as good as any I’d ever had. I alternated sips with bites of donut and held my dad’s hand. Ami slept on a nearby couch, a thin hospital sheet and a cotton blanket pulled up to her chin. Our dad’s death rattle filled the room: a loud gurgle, like the persistent percolation of an old electric pot. Despite my deep sadness and grief, I felt an unexpected levity, muted shades of joy and gratitude, and a profound sense of love for my dad and my sister. 

An hour later, our dad died. He waited for our stepmom, Beverly. That morning, she returned to his room like a pristine breeze, wearing a brilliant blue scarf that our father loved. Within fifteen minutes of Beverly’s arrival, the three of us surrounded his hospital bed, held his limp hands and each other’s hands, and recited the Our Father together. As we said “Amen,” he took his final breath—and his spirit was released. 

Just like that. 

He was gone. 




Here’s another lucky part of the story: The week after my dad’s death, I flew home to Austin. It was Thanksgiving week, and everyone was rushing from one place to the next. Because of my father’s death, I was moving at a different pace, as if submerged underwater, everything quiet and muffled, just out of reach.

In the grocery store checkout, the middle-aged woman behind the register asked how my holiday was going, and I responded, “Not so great.” 

“Oh, why?” she asked, placing my groceries into a paper bag. 

“There’s been a death in the family.” The words slipped out of my mouth. 

“Was it expected?” 

“It depends on which way you look at it.” 

And she said, “I know. I lost two sons.” 

The ambient noise of the busy grocery store fell away. A few tears slid down my cheeks. 

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “That’s a different kind of hard.” 

She looked up. “No, it’s all hard. I’m so sorry for your loss. Take care of yourself.” 

The following day, the barista at my favorite coffee place asked about my holiday. Because I had lost the capacity for small talk, I told him that my dad had died. The barista stared at me for an extended moment and said, “I lost my dad when I was young. I miss him all the time.” 

A week later, it was a manicurist. She asked about my day, and the tears returned again. She patted my shoulder and asked what was wrong. I told her that I was getting my nails done—something that I do maybe once or twice a year—for my father’s funeral. She spoke to her coworker, then patted my shoulder again. “I miss my family,” she said. “I haven’t seen them in the seven years since I moved from my country.” 

When I left the salon, she hugged me several times. “You take good care,” she went on. “It will be okay.” 

I recognize, now, that each one of these strangers was saying to me: “Here is a little bit of my grief. Take it. Then, you don’t have to be so alone with yours.” 




Toward the end of January 2020, my mom stopped eating. I had returned to Detroit to clean out my dad’s things in the house he shared with my stepmom. She was getting the house ready to sell. During this stay, my sister and I visited my mom several times at her nursing home and noticed that she’d become weaker and less responsive. For the past seven years, she’d been suffering from an acute and debilitating depression and PTSD that left her in bed most of the time; she’d come to this nursing home after countless psychiatric ward stays, thirty-plus electroshock treatments, and four different residential facilities. A week later, barely two months after my dad died, she was moved into hospice. It was as if he had pushed open the door for her—and she walked right through it. All this despite the fact that my parents had divorced forty-nine years before. 

The following week, my sister and I spent five days with our mom and her younger sister, Julie. The huff and pull of the oxygen machine filled the room. The transparent nubs of the two-pronged cannula kept slipping out of her withered nostrils, and her face was puffy and pallid. Her eyelids fluttered now and again. As I held her hand, I focused on adjusting the plastic nubs to ensure that oxygen was being delivered. As we waited, I listened to the predictable cadences of the machine and my mom’s breathing. It was so different from what had happened with my dad. No death rattle, no failing organs, no clockwork administration of morphine, no recitation of prayers. Just the slowing of her breath and my mom’s consciousness stealing out of her, like air seeping from a worn balloon. 




The last time my siblings and I were together was the weekend of March 13, at our mother’s funeral. I found an Airbnb for us, a cozy bungalow on a narrow canal that spilled into the Detroit River. Large chunks of ice collected along its gray shores. With each hour, the situation was changing: Should we cancel the service? Or go ahead and only include family? With the church, we agreed on a ceremony with no more than fifty guests. My sister changed the catering order. We printed fewer programs and called our mom’s friends to tell them the service wouldn’t be public due to the coronavirus. 

Between the planning and the meals, we watched The Right Stuff. The running time is three hours and thirteen minutes, and we sat on the overstuffed couch, dipping in and out of the film throughout the weekend as news rolled in about the pandemic: the NBA canceling its season, museums and restaurants closing in New York, American citizens returning from Europe, cases multiplying swiftly within an Orthodox Jewish community in New Rochelle. To watch a movie about astronauts launched into space was strangely soothing amid the collapse of the world. Hollywood and history gave us something the twenty-four-hour news cycle couldn’t—a predictability, a steadiness, an end to the story we already knew. 

On the morning of March 14, our mother’s funeral was followed by a simple reception in the church basement. We touched elbows rather than hugged. We squirted hand sanitizer into our palms often. We talked about the museums and restaurants that had been shut down. That evening, my siblings and I ate at one of our father’s favorite restaurants in downtown Detroit. The pandemic still didn’t seem real. The restaurant was at capacity and bustling with people and conversation. It felt like any other Saturday night. We traded stories of our mom and dad. We laughed and we ate. As we said goodbye, we discussed seeing each other over the summer for our mom’s interment ceremony and a scattering of ashes in Little Traverse Bay. We didn’t know the pandemic would keep us apart. We didn’t know that our mother’s ashes would remain in a box in a funeral home in Detroit indefinitely. We didn’t know this would be the last “normal” thing we would do.




“Grief is so long and so mutable,” wrote a friend, who lost his thirty-seven-year-old sister to an aneurysm in 1995. “Any bit of light is good. I think the dark parts are good, too. It is what it takes. God is your co-sufferer.” I wrote down these sentences—and others—in an attempt to understand the grief that was coming and going during those early months of isolation. As the deaths mounted, the geography of grief became infinite; it held no boundaries, and it was hard to know where my private grief ended and the collective public grief began. It was the Sahara Desert. It was the Pacific Ocean. It was the distance between Earth and the moon, ten times over. It was the endless list of names and details on the front page of The New York Times. “Great-grandmother with an easy laugh,” “sharecropper’s son,” “known for serenading friends with Tony Bennett songs.”  




The first time I was around people—other than my husband, our neighbor, and the few friends who came to visit in our backyard—occurred at the end of February 2021 when I volunteered at the University of Texas’s Gregory Gym. In January, the site had been transformed into a mass vaccination site: the intake area where a masked team sat behind folding tables with keyboards and computer monitors; the observation area dotted with socially distanced folding chairs; the area, at the far end, where the vaccines were administered by a team of nurses and medical students. 

For five hours, my job was to stand at the border of the vaccine area and guide individuals to observation, where they sat for fifteen minutes. (At the end of my shift, I received my first vaccine shot.) The operation moved efficiently, people coming and going, the many masks reflecting a variety of personalities (Texas flag, tie-dye of pastel colors, tiny coins of glittery sequins, Dallas Cowboys, U.S. Marines, an embroidery of vibrant flowers, Black Lives Matter). The nurses supervised the continuous flow of humans with the skill and precision of world-class symphony conductors. Most of these individuals were older, over seventy. In several cases, adult children led their parents through the massive operation, pushing wheelchairs, escorting them, arm in arm, to the observation area, carrying their tote bags, their purses, their cherished vaccination cards. 

I felt a sadness and a joy witnessing this care and attention, the love that happens when our parents age. It’s a complicated love with deep recesses of pain. I recalled visits with my mom at the nursing home, after her depression had stolen most of her spirit, the two of us walking down the hallway only halfway, before her anxiety drove us back into her room. In October 2019, the last time he was conscious, I was with my dad when he was hooked up to a chorus of beeping machines and a web of transparent IV tubes. It was Sunday morning, and he was watching Mass on a closed-circuit television in the far corner of the hospital room. 

“O Lord, I beseech you,” my dad whispered, his weathered hands folded in his lap. “I beseech you, O Lord.” Outside, on the other side of the window, morning light traveled through a profusion of autumn leaves. A few hours later, when it came time for me to say goodbye and return to Austin, my dad said, “I love you, sweet pea. Thank you for coming.”

That afternoon in February, as I stood in the Gregory Gym, tears wet my eyes. I was grateful to be among strangers, to be experiencing my grief differently, grateful that it was somehow rearranging itself in a way that was not possible when I sat alone at my desk at home, staring at my laptop screen. I got a chance to be among hundreds of strangers as they began to cross the threshold to safety. It may not have been the same as those intimate exchanges with strangers in the aftermath of my dad’s death, but at least it was something outside of myself, something that I couldn’t manufacture on my own. 

One woman said to me, after receiving her shot, “You can’t see it, but I’m smiling under this mask.” She couldn’t see my smile either. The afternoon sunlight illuminated funnels of motes that floated through the air of the cavernous gym. My feet hurt. 

My heart hurt, too, but in a good way.




“Yours is a complicated grief,” a priest said to me after I mentioned that my parents died ten weeks apart. We were making arrangements for my mom’s interment in late July 2021. I’m beginning to understand that my grief isn’t just one thing, that it can be many things at once. It is the silent swish of a great horned owl taking flight at dusk. It is the deep purple of blooming mountain laurel. It is the sweet taste of vanilla frosting. It is the length of my fingers, how the sight reminds me of my mother’s hands. It is the voices no longer on the other end of the phone each Sunday afternoon. It is the memories of childhood buoying into my consciousness, the sweet and the traumatic, reminding me that my mom and my dad were complicated also, that they were not just one thing. 




Life continues to press on—another round of seasons, of pandemic birthdays, more anniversaries, more deaths and births. A niece lost her front tooth. A friend’s metastatic breast cancer returned. My husband’s father underwent multiple brain surgeries and miraculously survived. One morning, at sunrise, I spotted my first scissor-tailed flycatcher of the spring season, high up on a utility wire that borders the neighborhood public golf course, with its long, deeply forked tail. My first novel was published in April. A few days later, I invited a small group of friends to our backyard for a celebration. I signed a few copies. We ate cake. Three of my friends were fully vaccinated—and we were able to hug one another. The embraces felt sturdy and fleeting. Foreign and familiar at once. 

Any bit of light is good.




In late July, my husband and I finally flew to Michigan, and I saw my siblings for the first time in sixteen months. We picked up our mom’s ashes from the funeral home on Mack Avenue in Grosse Pointe and drove forty-five minutes to Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. The priest greeted my family and a few friends in the Easter Garden. Enormous pine trees towered over us as the dissonant sounds of construction vibrated from the rear of the church. She spoke about the long wait for this sacred ceremony to inter our mom and then said a few prayers. My aunt read another prayer and talked about our mom, and each of us placed a single scoop of ashes into the ground amid a circle of evergreens. Afterward, a spray of white roses was placed on the spot where our mom’s ashes were buried. Nearby, a plaque read: Rest eternal grant to them, o lord and let light perpetual shine on them.

It was only a fifteen-minute ceremony, but it was monumental—putting our mom where she belonged. Afterward, my siblings, my husband, and I ate deli sandwiches at a table in front of the church and then went for a walk around Cranbrook Lake. The last time I saw my mom before her breakdown in the fall of 2012 was to take this same walk. I remembered the synchronicity of our footfalls as we took in the blooming black-eyed Susans, germaniums, begonias, lilies, and a wandering family of geese feeding on the slope of grass. I remembered that we walked mostly in silence.

Two days later, we scattered the rest of our mother’s ashes in Little Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan, where we used to vacation when my siblings and I were small. It was raining as my sister, my brother, and I waded onto a sandbar. The cold water rose above our knees. Smooth furrows of sand were visible beneath our feet. The rain fell a little harder. We each said a few words and then sprinkled some ashes into the water before my brother emptied the remainder of the bag. The powdery bits of bone and skin sank onto the contours of the lake floor, and for a moment, something about the water and the ash and the temperature changed the color of our mother, coalescing into a soft phosphorescence, glowing under the water’s rippling veneer. There she is. An illuminated mass of robin’s-egg blue. As if the organic matter of our mom were alive and dead at the same time. As if she were right there with us whispering, “Thank you for finally bringing me here. Thank you.” 

The glow began to dull as the ashes settled further. We waded toward the shoreline, where there were empty beach chairs—and I began to cry. My sister and brother paused, and the three of us hugged out there amid the subdued blues and grays of Lake Michigan. 

“We don’t have to go in yet,” my brother said. “We can stay out here as long as you need to.” And we did. Huddled in an embrace, the three of us, waves pressing around our legs. After a few minutes, we walked together to the shoreline. 

I never expected such a feeling of intimacy and grace from these rituals. For so many months, it was just something that I thought would never come. Scheduled for one date, and then changed again. Some part of me knew that these ceremonies are more for the living than they are for the dead, but I didn’t realize how this moment—and being with my siblings again—would give a new shape to my grief, give it more movement, velocity, and depth. As we walked onto the rain-stippled sand on that familiar curve of beach in Northern Michigan, the deaths of our parents began to live, for me, a little more in the past rather than in the present. I began to feel a little free.




After our trip to Michigan, I was saddened to return to Texas. As soon as my husband and I stepped off the plane, a young man—the muscular bulge of his biceps visible under the tight sleeves of his T-shirt—slipped off his mask and strutted down the fluorescent-lit corridor of the Austin airport. Welcome back to Texas, he seemed to say with his defiant body language. Don’t tread on me. 

When I am feeling optimistic, I want to believe we’ll be able to overcome this someday, that we’ll return to the patterns of our former lives. This, too, is a form of grieving, and a way of coming to terms. Spontaneous exchanges will become a part of our daily lives again. Fleeting moments of recognition. A smile, a soft laugh, eyes glistening with tears. We’ll say to each other without saying it: Here is a little bit of my grief. Take it. Then, you don’t have to be so alone with yours.


S. Kirk Walsh S. Kirk Walsh’s debut novel "The Elephant of Belfast" was published in the spring by Counterpoint Press. It will be translated into Persian, Norwegian, and Romanian. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Texas Monthly, Catapult, StoryQuarterly, and other venues. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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More from Issue 4: Fall 2021


“Memorial Day in the Post-Apocalyptic Sculpture Garden,” “The Blinding Noise of the Day,” “You Were Running Through My Thoughts”

by Gail Wronsky


The Concrete Slides of Northern California

by Gayle Brandeis