An empty black carry-on suitcase sits at my feet. I see it, but I’m frozen until I feel a gentle touch on my elbow as my husband whispers, “Maybe just start with underwear.” I’m packing for a trip I don’t want to take. A question circles around my confused mind, “How is it possible my dad is dead?” But he is. My dad is gone, and I have to pack this suitcase to meet up with my brothers, my mom, and together, we’ll begin a long, sad journey to bring him home.
I feel like my eyelids are peeled open; my pupils dilated so the world around me is hazy and moving in slow motion. I’m still frozen over the suitcase until my husband’s underwear suggestion slowly sinks in. “OK,” I say to myself, “I can do that.”
The next days are a progression of similar small steps and small tasks to accomplish in order to get to the next one because looking too far ahead is unbearable. In some moments, all my mind can say is “OK, now just keep breathing.”
My family and I cling to each other so no one is doing any task alone.
Then, a phrase starts repeating in my mind:
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through it.
The phrase is from the book Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. It’s a book I read as a child, a book I read to my kids, and a song they sing in school. It also became my grief mantra in those first difficult days.
When my mind couldn’t contemplate a future without my dad, I could repeat:
can’t go over it
can’t go under it
got to go through it
I had to go through it all: go through telling my kids, go through the funeral, go back to work and routine. Then, go through living all the year’s firsts without him.
The mantra is still with me, nearly a year later. My family continues to go through it together while missing my dad’s perspective and positive energy. We’ve experienced profound gratitude alongside profound sadness with moments of joy snuck in there too. Just like in the book, the “we” has been the only way to make the grief liveable. Sharing it and shouldering it together makes the “going through it” a little bit easier.
Remembering the book in the context of my own grief made me wonder whether Rosen and Oxenbury intentionally set out to create a story that would help grown-ups, as well as children, cope with life’s unexpected obstacles. Or if the broad application simply means it’s a good story and the reader can find their own deeper meaning hidden inside.
For example, I never really noticed the image of the bear at the end of the book. In the last two-page spread (spoiler alert), we see the bear, hunched over, appearing sad as it wanders a gray beach alone. I totally feel the bear.
Sometimes, the weight of loss is heavy.
Other times, I’m like the family running back through all the obstacles as I, too, ”stumble trip, stumble trip,” along the way. It can feel like I’m moving backward from the progress I’ve already made when a song sparks a memory or I listen to a voicemail I didn’t know I’d saved. But I’ve learned grief isn’t linear. It’s not the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, in that order, on any sort of timeline.
I’ve learned it’s OK to allow myself moments of being scared or sad or saying, “oh no!” I’d never trade the memories or the love to make it easier, but the grief journey is hard. It goes on forever. No going over it or getting over it, only going through it.
My dad enjoyed the journey, obstacles and all. If he was still here, I know he’d want me to shift my focus to another line from the story: “It’s a beautiful day!” Even on the hard days, even when I can only take small steps and breathe, it means I’m here. By living, it means part of my dad is too. So even with the grief, the day can still be beautiful.
Read More: How to Help Kids Cope With Grief