There is a particular feeling, sweet and sorrowful, that rises slowly in your consciousness as you near the end of something you have loved. A misty-eyed sensation you cannot address even in the privacy of your internal monologue because doing so means admitting it is real and present, and ignoring it means you can live in blessed ignorance for another day. It is a feeling as ancient and familiar to me as my own sense of self-hood, perhaps older even, because the day I was first aware of myself, this feeling was already there.
For most of my life, I have marveled at this feeling, this sensation that sits beside my emotions yet seems to be made of all of them, part and parcel. It wasn’t until I lost my grandfather and came to confront the ugly truths of my relationship to most of my biological family, that I recognized it as the all-encompassing touch of grief. Losing my grandfather was a familiar ache. So familiar it shook the dust and illusions from my entire childhood, reverberating through my memories and revealing truths I knew but lacked the means to confront so long ago.
In these unpleasant times, full of worry, pain, defiant joy, and the unwavering certainty of tomorrow, this feeling seems to invade my every day. In part because it is normal and healthy to grieve the life that might have been, the loss of so much potential, as my country has squandered every blessing it ever had for the enrichment of those wealthy few. Much has been lost for reasons I cannot fathom and cannot accept. But I also grieve for the little things that come and pass as I make my way through my life.
The impulse is a familiar one, but not something I would have thought of as grief. Nearing the end of a show or a book, or a game, I always find myself tempted to delay the end. Some stories can carry me through this hesitation, the power of their words and action so gripping that I couldn’t even force myself to look away. But most do not. A beloved TV show with only two seasons, the favored arc of a podcast, a good book whose conclusion I have glimpsed… All wonderful things that have improved my life that I was unable to bring myself to end.
This year, especially, as change shakes my life in the one way that the beginning year of the pandemic failed to do, I find myself searching not only for stability, but for something that will resist the law of nature that says all things must end. If I do not watch the last episode, then I have not finished the show and I will have that last good moment to forever savor in it’s imagined perfection. If I do not finish the podcast, then I can comfort myself in the more difficult days that there is still more for me to experience. If I do not turn the last pages of the book, then I do not need to depart from canon and wonder what will come next.
The only way to avoid grief is denial. The siren song of sweet ignorance that has captured so many people despite their best intentions. Only the most powerful of refutations can ward away the specter of mourning, and it is incredibly easy to embrace it when the stakes are so trivial. There is little consequence to the willful ingorance you embrace in putting off the conclusion of a TV show. You are denying yourself something you enjoy, but you are preserving the essence of hope. It seems a fair trade, when you are faced with little else to comfort you.
It might seem trite, to speak of such minor grief as the end of a story whose comfort resided in its familiarity rather than its power in the same breath as the loss of a loved one or the realization of a truth long denied. But it is practice on these smaller griefs, these things of little consequence, that prepares us for the greater ones. If you cannot learn to accept that a story has come to an end, how can you learn to accept that someone’s part in your life has concluded? How can you accept that the life of someone you love has ended?
I can’t say for certain that learning to accept the end of Better Off Ted after only two seasons prepared me to accept the loss of my grandfather. I almost can’t believe I wrote that sentence and my fingers ache to delete it and write about video games instead of this strange essay on grief. But, truthfully, it prepared me to learn acceptance and without acceptance, I wouldn’t even be writing this. It was a minor step, one more small lesson in a life of learning to accept what is rather than fight for what I feel should be, but most steps are small and it is only in the context of a journey’s end that we can see the true importance of every step along the way.
Grief is old and familiar to me, like using “I” pronouns in my head when I’m thinking and arranging my thoughts. I couldn’t pinpoint a day I first became aware of it no matter how hard I try and it is only in retrospect that I can recognize it at all. Despite my long denial, despite the illusions I crafted, part of me always knew what I was losing. What I lost. The backdrop of my life, played out on the stage of my mind, is grief and now I can recognize it as itself, rather than a collection of colors and individual bits of scenery and paint. I value that, if only because it allows me to distinguish between the story played out on the stage and the scenery that adds detail to it. Grief has been a constant companion, and it still is, but it isn’t who I am. It is a theme in the story of my life, but it is not my life.
So, during the worst days, when a moving story brings me to tears as it reaches a moment of power and I recognize that some of those tears are simply for the end of the story itself, I can recognize the touch of grief and accept it. I can enjoy the depth that grief acknowledged can bring to my experience, to the joy that has helped fortify me against the iniquities of the world, like salt enhancing sweet, and then accept the end. Because it is an end, not the end, and there will always be something new to enjoy and grieve in time.