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You Can’t Glue Ashes: Notes on the First Year of Grief

“​Blind me to the faults of the other fellow, but reveal to me my own.”

-Ben House, Sr.

To: Ben, From: Ben

A few days before Valentine’s day, my first-grader was sitting at the kitchen table filling out twenty superhero cards for his friends. When he filled one out for Ben, I was a little confused. He’d never mentioned there is another kid with the same name in his class.

“No, Dada. This one’s for Bossy.”

Gut punch. Tears well up. Holy shit.

It was the first time I realized we were nearing the one-year mark.

“Can we take this over to where Bossy lives now, at the cemetery?”

He doesn’t f*cking live there!

No, I didn’t say it.

Deep breath.

“Sure, bud. That would be wonderful,” I said, biting the inside of my lip to choke back the waterfall.

I hate cemeteries, but we went. It was the first time I had seen the headstone. Ben had fallen asleep in the truck, so I left him in the truck with my mom and walked over alone. She didn’t want to get out because it was raining.

Of course, it was raining. Grief is a constant rainy day.

I really have been doing pretty well these past six months. The tears turned from daily to random times each week. From there, they only started to show up once or twice per month. These days, they mostly get me when a little red bird crosses my path at the walking track, or whenever we drive up that old dirt driveway to his house, or when Nanny gives me some new treasure she’s found while cleaning out a closet or a room. Or if my Mama cries.

I stood there, staring at the tombstone and my mom rolled down the window and asked if I could fix the flowers. Stupid flowers. Why do we try to dress up death?

I did as I was told and knelt and emptied the metal canister the fake flowers were floating in. Dirty rainwater poured out, making room for the flowers to sit again, rather than swim. As I straightened them back, I read the epitaph: Here lies a man.

You Can't Glue Ashes: Notes on the First Year of Grief

​There is No Template

A friend of mine is a district manager for a big box store. I’d never really thought about it, but one day we started talking about templates. Did you know that you can walk into pretty much any big box store in any city in America and the floor plan is going to be exactly the same? They use a schematic, so all customers know what to expect, no matter what city they’re in. But grief is not like Old Navy or Target: it has no schematic.

The truth is, I nearly called this article, “How to Process a Year of Grief,” but I could never tell you how to process your own grief. How could I presume to tell someone else how to put the pieces back together? Sadly, they’ll never fit. You can’t glue ashes.

As my friend Robert told me just the other day, “The stages of grief aren’t linear.” Not at all. So I won’t tell you how to process your own grief. Other than to say, take your expectations and pour them out, like rainwater on tombstone flowers.

Nobody tells you a year of grief can feel like a blink and eternal conscious torment, all at the same time. How can a day feel like a thousand years? I’m not sure, but you can bet it happens. Grief doesn’t follow anyone’s timetable. She is volatile and unruly.

You Can't Glue Ashes: Notes on the First Year of Grief

Grief is a rainy day that becomes a mudslide.

Grief is taillights just ahead, suddenly lost in dense fog.

Grief is a memory, just out of reach.

Grief is a scattering of ashes into the wind.

Grief is a song on the tip of your tongue.

Grief smells like old coffee and dusty books.

Grief is a pair of overalls that will never fit.

Grief will never fit.

Grief is a slow dance with the ugliest girl in the room. And yet, her hands are soft as silk, her scent is strangely familiar. Her embrace is cold. Part of you wants to scream, “Get away from me!” And the other part of you wants to run away with her, snuggle together in an easy chair, and fall asleep under a heavy quilt of memories and tears.

Dance with her, my friend. You have to dance with her. Eventually, she’ll drop you - choosing to share her cheap perfume and cold stare with another poor soul. But she’ll keep her eyes on you, as she flows around the room. You can’t avoid her gaze or ever quite get that smell out of your nostrils. Grief is that way - floating and a fading in and out of sight. Grief is a dance no one ever wanted to learn.

​Grief is a dance no one ever wanted to learn. via @iamsteveaustin #grief #catchingyourbreath

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​Remember When?

Shortly after his death, Nanny sent me home with a treasure chest of Boss's writings: letters from Vietnam, articles he published while he was overseas, school papers, and love notes. There are also photographs, his high school diploma, and a prayer shawl he ordered from some damn televangelist once the dementia had really set in.

The truth is, my grandfather doesn’t live in a trunk in my room any more than he lives at the cemetery, underneath rain-soaked plastic flowers. He lives in my memory. In every story we tell on Sunday afternoons, sitting underneath the clinking of the ceiling fan at Nanny’s house. When we tell our remember-whens and belly laugh to keep ourselves from crying. He lives in my son’s piercing blue eyes, in my wife’s buttermilk cornbread, and in the way my four-year-old daughter naturally commands a room. The country boy lives in my blue jeans and bare feet as I check the mail. The old newspaperman lives in the tears that won’t stop falling as I write this article. It seems that my old Grandpappy lives, even in my grief.

In Memory of Ben House, Sr., 1935-2018

​You Can't Glue Ashes: Notes of the First Year of Grief via @iamsteveaustin #grief #catchingyourbreath

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By Steve Austin

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.