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grief, with room - jennifer moffatt

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

I was not expecting to find love at the funeral home.

Of course I wasn’t. How absurd to suggest that I might have been. My mom had passed away a week earlier, rather suddenly, and the only thing in my life was grief.

Well, that’s not entirely true, because I was actually living in two distinct worlds—one where there was only grief, my heart a raw and bleeding thing. Its constant throbbing ache in the centre of my chest was so overwhelming that all I could do every night was curl into a ball in my bed and sob. But, there was also a world where she was still alive, where I reached for my phone to text her, or thought “Mom would love this.” This world sometimes existed for as many as two or even three seconds before it was flattened by the other one. She’s dead, it rumbled as it settled over the remains. Gone forever. Then it destroyed me anew, the pain never lessening despite the repetition.

This was how it was for me when I went to the funeral home to drop off the USB drive containing the slideshow and music for her memorial service. My dad hadn’t come with me because he was inconsolable, but in his own inconsolable dad way—manic about things like donating her clothes to charity and cancelling her cell phone plan. That was essentially the first thing he did—she had a massive stroke, her brain riddled with stage four micro-tumours, and he called the cell phone company. Then he sorted through her closet and offered me her shampoo and asked for my cousin’s number to see if she wanted the sewing machine, because god knows I don’t sew. So he was busy. I went to drop off the slideshow.

The man at the desk was attractive in a way that was impossible not to notice, even in my state. Tall, square jaw, chocolate brown hair just long enough to start curling. Wide, dark eyes that watched me kindly, didn’t rush me, waited as I took a breath, then one more before I gave him my name and told him why I was there. I, of course, hadn’t showered in about four days and was wearing clothes I had clearly slept in for just as long. Which was fine. It didn’t matter.

Then he was there at the service as well, in his charcoal suit, waiting in the foyer to greet the family. He was the owner's son and I saw him throughout, handing out tissues, whispering with the caterers at the reception, and then he was there at the end to hand me an envelope and shake my hand. He offered his condolences again in his comforting baritone.

Did I think about him after that? A few times, here and there. Still, that would have been it, but then I saw him at a coffee shop about a month later. It was a Saturday—running errands, living my ‘normal’ life. When I say ‘normal’—I mean it was just as it had been before, except now there was an ache from the sledgehammer of grief that continued to pummel me when I least expected it. That’s the thing about grief. It doesn’t ever go away, and it doesn’t really hurt any less when it hits you.

There was only one empty chair in the humming café, and it was at his table. Our eyes met. He stood up and said my name, almost as if he was surprised to know it.

“Oh, hi…” My brain sifted through the fog of the last few weeks. “Elliot?”

“That’s right. How are you?” His voice was just as warm as I remembered. And, somehow, I could tell he actually wanted to know the answer to his question.

“I’m…” The sledgehammer swung. “Fine.”

His mouth curled into an empathetic smile. “It's still hard, isn’t it?”

I nodded, clutching my cup. It was burning my fingers.

“Would you like to sit?” He gestured at the other seat.

“Sure. I mean, yes, thank you.” I fell into the chair before my legs could give out and blinked at him, noticing the soft arch of his lips, his thick eyelashes. “Do you like working at a funeral home?” The question fell out unplanned. I closed my eyes and shook my head. “I’m so sorry, that was rude.”

“Not at all.” He leaned back slightly, stretching out a long leg. He was wearing jeans and a navy sweater, and they looked just as good on him as the suit had. “I’ve been around the business for as long as I can remember. It doesn’t seem unusual to me at all now. And I like being able to provide comfort to families when they need it most.” He smiled and took a sip of his drink.

I nodded at him dumbly. Either out of practice or stunned by his beauty, my tongue refused to budge.

Then he shifted and leaned forward again. His voice dropped. “How are you really, though?”

The tears prickled. “I miss her.” I imagined curling up against that navy sweater and crying on his broad shoulder.

He put his hand on mine, just a brief touch. “Grief never goes away, but it gets easier to handle.”

“So they say.” I wiped away one tear that threatened to spill.

He tilted his head. “She sounds like an incredible woman.”

“She was.”

He let me talk about her as we sipped. It hurt to remember her out loud, but it was the healing kind of hurt. The words kept her alive, made her life matter, made what she was to me a tangible thing I could hold up for others to admire. Like the way she made my Halloween costumes by hand, and volunteered to have my volleyball team over for dinner before a big game. The way she would drop everything to help me with my homework, and never failed to deliver a batch of cupcakes for the bake sale. There for me, unfailingly, every single time I needed her, and all the times that I didn’t, because she loved me more than anything.

But she was also her own brave, strong person. She was never afraid to try new things, like joining a choir for the first time at forty-two, because it was something she always wanted to do, ever since her fifth grade teacher made her mouth the words in the school concert. She was an artist, could make the most beautiful things with her hands, no matter what she tried—clothes, dolls, paintings, scrapbooks, sculptures. I would always treasure the things I had that she made for me.

And she would stand up for me if I needed it. I told him about the time my eighth grade homeroom teacher said I wasn’t allowed to choose a visual encyclopedia about the Renaissance for silent reading because it had too many pictures, and my mom wrote him a scathing note about how I’d been reading novels since I was seven and I could read any book I wished at school, on top of the three I probably had going at home, thank you very much.

Before I knew it, Elliot and I were laughing and swapping stories in our little coffee-scented chrysalis. He told me about his family and how they liked to make up their own rules for board games and then fight over them. They baked insane amounts of cookies over the winter holidays and froze them so they always had a stash. He let his older sisters do his hair when they were teenagers, and one time they cut it all off, right before school pictures.

I noticed his hair was a bit longer now than it had been at the funeral. One curl fell onto his forehead. I was thinking about brushing it back when he touched my hand again. This time the throb in my heart was a flutter instead of an ache.

Grief never goes away, I can see, but, over time… it will need less room.



Jennifer Moffatt's work has been published by Chicken House Press and Improbable Press, and is upcoming in Audience Askew. Her debut novel from Pride Publishing is out March 2024. She lives with her family in BC, Canada, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @JMoffattWrites.

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3 Comments


travishager
Aug 08, 2023

I really enjoyed the art here. I especially liked that both of them were likeable, which seemed to me to be a function of how the author employed restrain and an air of politeness in their conversations. I found myself thinking of how their story continues…

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evanaustinauthor
Aug 08, 2023

Jennifer, this is beautiful. You are so talented with your concise and razor-sharp phrasing, at putting us right in the characters’ emotions. Thank you for tackling something so tender, with a reverent and hopeful hand.

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Andrew Padgett
Andrew Padgett
Aug 07, 2023

this is love. carrying the legacy of a loved one forward with you, honoring them in memory and in new experiences. we heal by meeting in the spaces left behind and between.

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