The Body Knows: How Grief Shows Up

By Sara Barry

“How are you doing?” a friend asked, knowing that May is a charged month.

Mother’s Day is a complicated tangle of breakfast in bed and flowering plants, homemade cards, and immersion in what is with an undercurrent of what was supposed to be. What was and then wasn’t and always is.

The end of the month brings the birthday with nobody to blow out the candles. And while I have a tradition, one I fell into rather than creating deliberately, of tending my Henry’s garden since I can’t tend to him, it is another complicated tangle. Joy for his being. Sadness that he isn’t here. Edges softened over time, like a rock in running stream.

“I’m doing OK,” I say. “I’ve been so busy, I keep forgetting it’s May.”

And it’s true. I’m not deliberately avoiding facing this month, but I’ve been caught up in a swirl of Science Night planning and late evening ice cream, Teacher Appreciation and getting the garden ready.

My mind is busy. I forgot that Mother’s Day was coming, despite the signs by the flower store and the notification in my calendar. Henry’s birthday loomed and I hadn’t bought anything for his garden. I hadn’t looked to see if our neighbors would be home for cake.

My mind keeps forgetting that it is May, but my body knows.

I’ve felt it in the number of times I need to take a deep breath, in and out.

I’ve felt it in the tightness across my back and in the heaviness that settles in my limbs and then lifts a little.

I notice the sharp intake of breath when I see a cardinal dart across the yard. 

I tense at the unexpected mention of a 6 month old named Henry who died from a heart defect in a novel about the flu.

I come to tears easily, whether it’s a video about babyloss moms or talking to my neighbor about her own different, fresh grief.

I find myself on the verge at church for no explainable reason at all.

I don’t say, “I’m having a hard month.” I’m not, but there is an undercurrent. My body knows what month this is. It is gathering energy like a storm moving in. The sky may still be sunny, but you can feel a change in the air, an electrical build up.

Come the end of the month, I will exhale. The pent up energy will expend itself in a torrent of tears or day of hard labor in the garden or it will just fizzle out and fade away like a storm that is pending but passes.

Come the end of the month, my body will relax and move on to June, a simpler month, a safer month. It will relax until the calendar turns to December, and then, even if I forget the date, it will start it’s wind up to the day he died.

The mind may forget, but the body always knows.

Does your body respond to certain dates? How does grief show up in your body?

Happy Birthday, Johnny

by Ann Ward

When I was five or six, I started writing letters to my brother Johnny, whose 34th birthday would be today. I wrote them in a scented purple hardcover diary with a lock and key. Sometimes they just said, “Dear Johnny, I love you!!!” in huge penciled swoops. Sometimes they were poems.

When I was a little older, maybe ten, I would clear the books and Barbie clothes from the Rainbow Brite blanket my mum sewed and ask him to visit me. He sat, always in the same spot, at the foot of my bed. I talked to him, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head. I asked him if he was an angel or a ghost, and if he was an angel was he very high up, like Michael (aka John Travolta), or was he just regular. And if he was a ghost, did he haunt any place other than my bedroom, or did he wander around all over the world? And if it would be okay for him to be my guardian ghost.

We never met Johnny in the flesh, but I know that Andrew, Jane and I each secretly thought he'd be our closest friend. But in the end it just made me more grateful for my siblings, whose cool talent I've spent my life trying to emulate.

Andy-roo and Janie, I love you brilliant, genius weirdos so, so much. The longer I live a border away, the more homesick for you I get.

Thank you, mum and dad, for having the strength to make Johnny a real and present part of our family. I can't imagine the pain of losing him.

Happy birthday, brother.

Author Ann Ward (Center) with living siblings Andrew (left) and Jane (right).

Author Ann Ward (Center) with living siblings Andrew (left) and Jane (right).