“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Say what you will, but I loved the book-to-screen adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars.
I think I might love it more than the book. Some declare it nothing more than another sappy story about star-crossed teen lovers, but it is far more than that. The central characters, Gus and Hazel, hold opposing views on what it looks like to like to have lived and die well, and these arguments require readers to examine their own beliefs about the meaning of life. John Greene’s novel communicates universal truths about love and loss, regardless of age. I loved TFiOS for its beauty and truth, and perhaps most for the honest portrayal of what happens to the love ones left behind.
I am one of those left behind.
My dad has been gone for twenty-four years now. I did not attend his funeral. I had just turned five. My mom knew it would be hard to get a highly active and fidgety five-year old to sit still and feign mourning. There wasn’t exactly a playbook for this. Most children’s introduction to death is with flushing a fish or putting down a dog, not burying their father. So instead of attending the formalized funeral, we held our own memorial service, led by one of my dad’s best friends where he explained death and heaven and hope of life everlasting to me and my tiny peers.
But what happens after?
What happens after the memorial, after the family and friends have gone home and the meals have stopped being served? What happens in the years and decades afterward? What I didn’t realize is how these eight months of my life when I was four years old, culminating with my father’s death would shape me. No one explains to a five-year old little girl that she will feel like an important part of her identity is missing for the rest of her life. Or that she might try to fill it with friendships and boys and love but that nothing will fill it or make it go away.
With every new milestone, I find myself missing a man I only knew for five years. I wonder what advice he would have given me, what sports I might have attempted, and how I might have been different if he had been around to help raise me. Losing my Daddy colored my entire existence.
“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
So what does lifelong grieving look like? For me…
Grieving looks like always wondering if your memories are your own or if they are merely implants of stories you have heard so many times, they feel as if they have become yours.
Grieving looks like sitting on a swing set alone, talking to God, wondering what heaven is like, and hoping that somehow by proxy, your Daddy is listening too.
Grieving looks like composing a memoir-style piece during a college writing course, knowing the ending is terrible, but having no idea how to end it, because you do not understand the impact the event has had – until you have actually lived the years yet to come.
Grieving looks like being utterly terrified of being abandoned and hanging on too tight to every serious dating relationship you enter from the time you are sixteen until you meet the man you will marry.
Grieving looks like watching a documentary on a bereavement camp for kids during your engagement at twenty-four years old, wondering what it will feel like to walk down the aisle without your birth father, and crying so hard you are positive you are scaring your fiancé.
Grieving looks like swelling with pride and brimming with tears at your little sister’s wedding when your Uncles marvel at how much she reminds them of their late brother.
Grieving looks like wondering if your future children will have any of your Daddy’s features, and what it will be like to explain to them they already have a Grandpa in heaven.
“Long after your friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, you are still in a place of ebbing sadness. Mourning plateaus gradually…”
– Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath
Our culture is uncomfortable with grieving. We tend to do it badly, and confine it to a distinct amount of time, then expect people to move on. Contrary to the popular adage, time does not heal all wounds. Losses need to be processed – through counseling and relating in community. This is why art that embraces loss and stories like The Fault in Our Stars feel like gifts in this lifelong process. They provide a space to stop and reflect and relate.
I am so continually grateful for the beautiful life that I have been given, but grieving is a part of life too – one that should be given its due.
We need reminding that we are not alone in our pain, to wrestle with hard questions about what is to come, and to reminisce and hear the stories again and again. All of our little infinities will end and stars will fade out at some point, and what’s left will be the tales of how we lived and the ones we loved.
What did you think of the TFiOs story? If you have lost someone, what helps you through the lifelong grieving process?