What Does Grief Look Like?

Rocks remember

It has been said that grief feels a lot like fear.

Late August, and late afternoon, the Pont du Gard near Remoulins, southern France

And part of grief does, I’ll agree with that.

There is a part of grief that soaks through our dendrites with the same adrenalin cocktail that comes with acute panic, wild-eyed disorientation, and dry-mouthed dread.

Part of grief shows up like that.  Yessir.

But it’s just a part. A teensy, peripheral, lite-weight part of grief.

At least grief as I’ve known it.

The rest –- and this is the predominant part, the part that goes deeper and lasts longer than you really want to know from me right here in a friendly little blogpost — is an Armageddon-like assault on the body, the mind, and the spirit. A head-first, G-force drilling to the center of the earth.

A joint-wrenching, marrow-draining, jaw-locking, capillary-bursting, limb-flailing catapult into regions of the soul you never knew existed and, once crawled through, ever thought you’d emerge from sane.

Let alone walking upright.

In other words, grief — the out-of-the-clear-blue-decimation kind of grief; the major-loss kind of grief; the grief that naturally follows the sudden and violent loss of your cherished child, for example — goes way, way, so very way beyond fear.

Where does that comparison — grief = fear — come from? Some observers might think the reason grief feels like fear is because they assume the bereaved harbor one specific fear: the fear of forgetting the deceased.

Hmm. Well.

While I cannot speak for the entire human race, the fear of forgetting isn’t anywhere near the root of grief.  I’m not even convinced that that specific fear exists at all.  At least for me, the supposed inevitability of somehow forgetting my son Parker never figured and still does not figure into my grief.

True, I had no idea at the beginning what things would look like years down the road, (if, in fact, I would make it far enough to see that road).  But from the moment of implosion when major grief smashed like a meteor through the crown of my head rearranging my vision and view of the universe forever and allowing me to see things in better-than-Blu-Ray-bazillion-pixel clarity — things as they really are — I knew in one blow and intuitively there was never forgetting.

And now, I’m here. A few years down the road. Five, to be exact.

And what do things look like? What does grief and its (supposed) “forgetting” and (certain) remembering look like from this vantage point?

You’re looking at it.

During that week in Provence, as close as we could get to the 21st (our family’s holy day), we all stood right on what for us is holy ground.

Make that, my men stood.  I sat.  On a rocky outcropping below the Pont du Gard’s eternal arches, I kept my horror harnessed just like my camera strap around my neck, my fear and grief channeled through a telephoto lens, making an effort, (as I know Randall was doing), to be lighthearted and playful with the boys.

Who wants to rein in this kind of explosive joy?

This primal, golden exuberance for sunshine, for flight?

For each other?

For water?

But now I realize that they were probably making an effort to be joyful, too, these sons of ours.  They know, just as we do, of course, that these are the same stones from which Parker always jumped.  And considering how often we came here, that’s a lot of jumping. A lot of his DNA rubbed deep into these minerals.  A lot of our family’s collective memories are pressed with his presence.  Right here.

The summer of his drowning (in some very small, obscure and unmarked irrigation canal in southern Idaho, by the way), he’d been right here first. A month to the day, actually, previous to the accident.

He’d drawn a crowd that afternoon at the Pont du Gard. He’d stood up on a rocky ledge next to his then eleven-year-old (and somewhat pensive) little brother Dalton.  Both were wearing blue swim trunks.  The French elementary school class on the lower tier of the bridge, there for a class outing, began chanting — screaming — at the top of their lungs, “Les Bleus! Les Bleus!!” (“The Blues! The Blues!!”), which is the nickname for the French national soccer team. They wanted the two boys in blue to be the first to jump.

Of course, Parker wanted to make it worth their chants.

He swiveled right to them, to all those little innocent children, and waving those big volleyball player arms up and up again in the air, got them screaming even louder, “Les Bleus!!”

He put his hand to his ear, like, “Can’t hear you!”

Louder screams.

Then quietly and from behind, Dalton, the timid one back then, stepped forward and grabbed his big brother’s hand.  They smiled, Parker whispered something down to Dalton, Dalton pursed his lips and nodded, and then the two erupted with,  “Un!! Deux!!! Trois!!!!!!”

And to the cheering of the children, the two in blue sailed hand-in-hand into midair.


It’s all there as I peer through my lens amid shadows that are slinking down the stones of Pont du Gard.  I know my light is fading.  I only have a few minutes to capture these few minutes. Behind my camera, I slowly realize I’m humming “Bookends”, baby Parker’s favorite Simon and Garfunkel song.

(You think I’m making this up for dramatic effect. But I’m neither that strategic nor that good. Ask Glen and Anneli, who survived a round trip drive from Philly to D.C.  crammed into a subcompact with Randall, Melissa, and 18-month-old Parker.  Like a cracked record, our toddler asked — barked — from his car seat, “Time It Was?! Time It Was??!!” We adults, naturally (what was the option? It was a small car and a long drive) complied.  From our cassette player in the car stereo we played that single thirty-second song. Nonstop. Over and over and over again. And over again.)

The lyrics Parker knew by heart and sang all his life long:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was 
A time of innocence, a time of confidences 
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph 
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you


The boys will appreciate these photos one day. And so will I.  I have no idea — no one does— just how very precious our photographs might be for us one day.

But since I do not agree with Simon and Garfunkel that photographs and memories are “all that’s left you”, because I know that my son has not left me, not literally, and that there is more comfort than to merely revel in memories and scrapbooks alone, that I can have a continuing , non-forgotten relationship with him, — because of all that, I am not fearful about losing my photos. Nor my memories.  Nor my memory.

This is what makes a mammoth difference in my life going forward: I do not remember my son.  By that I mean that I do not simply “re-member” him, not in the pulling-him-back-here, reminding myself, looking back and re-collecting way.  Why not? Because he is here, of course.  A member of us now as ever he was.  Pulled tightly to our sides, not trailing from behind us.  Looking ahead with us.  Collected already in our midst. And as that present presence, I am creating memories with him.  In the here-and-now.

Those who leave us early (and if we really, passionately love them, whenever they leave is bound to feel like “early”),  they take on another shade of vividness, and are just as real, though much harder to share with others who are not willing to pay the price for imagination and faith.  In my reality, Parker is every bit as present as he was when he was last at the Pont du Gard.  But I have to tell you: His realm, superimposed on ours, is much more brightly colored now than any of the darkening waters of this existence.

He is far more radiant now than ever he was when bathed in the shimmering sun slicing beneath Pont du Gard.

Since I know this in my bones — that he is here with me, and with his father, and with his sister and with his brothers and with the countless many who loved him in life and continue to love him in another frame of life— since I do know that he is here and not gone to some nebulous elsewhere, then my task for now is pretty straightforward:

Take the heavy camera off my neck.

Tuck away the lenses.

Call to my beloveds:

I’m here!

And plunge.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

42 thoughts on “What Does Grief Look Like?

  1. This one had my eyes blurry before I read anything at all. Water and jumping and rocks – how brave you are. Your boys (all of them) are just lovely. I am so grateful, and I’ve thought this before, that you have this gift with words and places to put them and a channel for a small bit of your grief. I learn so much every time I read and I love remembering Parker and seeing snapshots of your family.

    • Sweet Mary,
      And it still has my eyes blurry. . .Sometimes I do wonder how I stand working through words in order to share this with others. It’s like doing your own wisdom tooth extraction. Still. . .I must. I do it out of great love, which just maybe might be the most powerful general anesthetic. You think? All my love to you, dear beautiful and wise Mary.

  2. I love you Melissa. Thank you for this — your words both tender and strong, the pictures, and the connection to your family.

    • Oh, Liz, you’ve got me dripping all over my keyboard. It is so very good to see your name in this little box. So many powerful images come back to me with you and your Mark. Please know I think of you more often than would make you comfortable. Thought of you, in fact, just this morning out of the blue while making my bed, strangely enough. Can’t tell you exactly why, but maybe that was when you were reading this post. Forever with great admiration and love, Liz. . .

  3. Love reading this. Beautifully expressed, my heart was touched. What a gift to be able to express your feelings in words the way that me as a reader are touched deep in the heart. As a mother and as a woman i can through your words comprehend the grief you carry.
    Varme tenker sender jeg deg.

  4. I have James Christensen’s print “Lehi’s Dream” hanging in my house where I can see it everyday. I believe that those on the other side are right by us and talking to us. Thank you for sharing such a tender moment. Love you!

    • Sondra, Finding you here today is sweet and meaningful to me. And the truth you’ve just described from the painted description of Lehi’s Dream is something both sacred and nuts-and-bolts of the gospel truth. I know the interconnectedness between “there” and “here” to be true in ways I wouldn’t not want to share too freely, but which are nonetheless part of what the bigger story I want to share with others; that such encircling guidance is a possibility for all of us and we should take that possiblity very seriously. Your bright faith and goodness have blessed my life, Sondra, in multiple ways. Thank you for being here.

  5. Melissa, thank you for taking me to that special place and again sharing so much of yourself. While seeing the exuberance and joy of your beautiful boys, I could also feel your unspeakable pain. The last frame had me in tears…..and really says it all. Much love to you, Friend!

  6. Today I will jump into the water of my life and my childrens’ lives with more exuberance, love, and tenderness because of this post. God bless your sweet aiming toward the water toes, Mel.

      • I was telling my 6-year son it was time to come in (the sun was setting and it was getting dark) and I thought of you and this post. We have a circle of grass with 3 trees in the middle of our cul-de-sac. The kids call it “their private island.” I said, “Let’s not go in. Let’s go to the private island.” We laid down in the grass, watched the sky darken and the stars come out. I held him and we kissed a few times. (He told me not to tell anyone). We promised we would meet on our private island – anywhere we were. It was ten minutes of bliss. Thank you, Melissa. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to stop in the hustle of getting ready for bed if it weren’t for you and Parker. Thank you.

      • Mel, that’s one of those essential, peeled-back moments that cost little more than the extra attention we can pay, but pay back forever and ever. I’ll slide right into a quagmire of clichés with this, I’m afraid, but ok: those moments of seemingly-mundane, subtle, intimate connection. . .they are what matter. And they are what your whole body misses when they are gone. Just that smell of childskin and nightair and a patch of grass beneath. . .You’re lucky.

    • Mary, ma belle— Come to me anytime, anytime, all the time. I’ll take you on two seconds’ notice. Thank you for being an incredibly powerful force in all our kids’ lives in Pairs and beyond. Toujours avec affection profonde et vraie, comme tu es, toi aussi. M.

    • Alisa, was just talking about you yesterday with the boys, believe it or not! Uncanny. They remember our Paris days with your kids in full technicolor, and I’m thankful we connected there. Your children are blessed to have such loving parents. Such beautiful people you are. Love always, Mel.

  7. Melissa, I wonder if you’ll ever know how much your words mean to so many! Thank you for your honesty, your ability to put the most heart wrenching experiences into words, to touch our hearts and our lives and to enrich and teach us. Bless you and Randy and your wonderful children! Love you!

    • Renee, Well, I have to say that when a pile of thoughts-in-words I’ve sorted through and swept together (and spell-checked, to boot!) actually connects with others, I am totally, lusciously gratified. I really appreciate when others comment, then I know what works. We are each so blessed to have love in our lives. So thank you for adding to ours, Renee. Grosse, feste Umarmung, Liebchen.

  8. These are beautiful images of exuberant joy and flight. Thank you for sharing the magnificence of your captured memories and your lived reality.

    • Kathleen, They are gorgeous creatures, these boys. I’m a poor photographer, but getting the hang. Words require no machinery, so I’m a bit more comfortable with them. I’m learning a lot in this process. Thank you for your thoughtful comments every time!

    • Emily, Thank you so very much. I don’t find myself courageous, but crazy, sometimes, to expose my experiences so publicly. That is a fear I have had to beat back again and again. With every post, nearly, and just about every poem. But how will anyone else who gets hit with tragedy — and it can be any one else at any moment — ever see what this experience is about if I”m not willing to write about it? So if you keep reading, I keep writing, my friend. Always love smiling into your picture here on my screen 🙂

  9. Melissa…I wonder if allowing grief to come into our lives is the only way our Heavenly Father can truly mine the depths of our hearts…or carve out a space that He can then fill with His love. Would we ever really seek Him, in the deepest, most profound ways, without grief…I understand a little about this, I think, as Ryan suffers. I know Parker is attending to the needs of many people. I know he loves Ryan. I feel his love often. He is not forgotten.

    • Marleen, you are wise and right. And you do understand a lot about this, I know that. Parker is attending to many, all of those who loved and needed him in life, and those who love and need him still. And i’d venture also to those who have no clue as to who he is. It makes him happy to serve in that way, anonymously. Ring and run, you know? I know you remember him, Marleen, and he loves you.

  10. Mel,

    I loved this. Not that my sorrow is anything even close to yours, but i’ve been afraid to read anything about him because of how sad I still am. I’m crying while writing this. But your words are so utterly true and beautiful that I know I can be happy remembering him and rejoicing in the existence and love of the rest of our family. Your boys are so handsome, smart, and brave, and your daughter is sublime. I love them, uncle Range, Parker, and you. Thank you for your amazing words, which have filled me with courage and the Spirit. I miss you!

    Love always,
    Livi lovey

    • Ah, Livi Lovey, my sweetest sister-niece, you r HERE?! I do not question for a second that your loving cousin has his eye firmly on your life and cares hugely about your heart and well-being. He always did, from those early toddler years when you two shared the turtle sandbox to that day we spent doing an Easter egg hunt on the beaches of Normandy. You are an extraordinary human being, Liv, whose life choices must make your big cousin very proud indeed. You make me proud.

  11. You, my dear friend, are brave. I so admire that you are not paralyzed when you see water, let alone jump in. . .both emotionally and physically. You give me courage when mine wanes. . .I love you.

    • Diane, It’s interesting. Since Parker, there are things I am no longer afraid of that used to freeze me solid. The list is long. But there are other things that never fazed me that now challenge me greatly: large bodies of water and group activities; the telephone ringing; saying goodbye to anyone I care for, realizing I’ve been superficial in an interpersonal exchange. .) And you know me too well to think I’m brave. 🙂 But you love me and I love you all the same . Your friendship makes me rich.

  12. Dear Melissa,
    I love how well you can express in such eloquence what a world feels. I love how you show the world your courage and were able to watch while your boys jumped off rocks and into the water. I love that you neither play down the amount of courage it took nor play it up. I love that you simply, clearly, and poignantly describe exactly what it was like. I love you and I miss your family a lot.

    • Michelle, Grüß dich! And it’s so good to see you here. Thank you for your nice words, and for taking the time to comment. And thank you for being a soft listener in Munich. And a good missionary in Paris. I still remember our conversation on my blue office sofa. And all the chats circling and circling the kitchen island 🙂 Mit wahrer Liebe und den wärmsten Erinnerungen. . .Bises.

    • Thank you, D&D. I’m getting to be more comfortable with a camera. And that last shot (you figured this out) was taken by Randge. Who also bought the camera. And has loved that I love using it. Immer mit tiefer Liebe, deine M.

  13. I don’t cry that often, and not since my mother passed away last October. But I sat and cried and cried at the computer. I love that you show us we can at the very same moment have both exquisite pain and joy, and accept life; while still holding on to that which transcends this life. I feel a release as I imagine your leap.

    • Dear Carolyn, I am very sorry to hear about your mother. And you are approaching the one year anniversary. Heavy days, although I have found that while anniversaries can be especially sharp-edged, there are random days when out of nowhere winds change direction, color, velocity, and suddenly I am blown flat. Like an old barn in a tornado. I’m geting much better at running for shelter when I see the winds shift, and at patching myself together when I’m a pile of lumber on the bare ground, but it’s true that loss is forever. Grief, the underbelly of love, in some form or another seems to also be forever. But there can be great joy, as you’ve noted, joy more resonant and opulent than one had even known before pain. This all sounds like a clunky chain of clichés, maybe, but even clichés can be true. I hope that you feel the loving presence of your mother as you forge ahead. She is certainly as vibrant as ever. No—more. Much love, beautiful Carolyn.

  14. Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of my dear sisters tragic passing. I thank you for your words. They have given me comfort when my heart was hurting with grief.

    • Kristyn, I am so sorry that you’ve known that brutal meteor smash into your cranium.It becomes a marker separate from all others in your life, I know that. And I’m grateful these few words comforted, if only for a moment. Really, humbly grateful. May she always be close, but right now especially.

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