The After Series: Grieving Without a Grave

We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.

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The green grass appears as a welcome. I watch a mother and daughter walk with a bouquet of sunflowers, and the brilliant yellow vies for my attention. My heartbeat quickens with an unnatural pace and foreign rhythm. I use deep breaths to fill the hollow space inside me.

I am just a voyeur—sunflowers on a grave is not my moment to witness. But I gaze at them with wide eyes like an outsider craving an invitation. I stare as both ladies kneel at a gray headstone, and pay respects to a beloved. A resentful chill crawls on my skin in the desert heat. I taste salt on my lips and tears elbow their way down my face. I bow my head, trying to corral my sadness. I try to negotiate the inner strife–It’s been seven years since you lost Dad. Compose yourself. I crave a physical place for my grief to land. But there isn’t a tombstone engraved with my father’s name or a birthdate or a message of love to visit. Sunday mornings aren’t spent talking to my dad in a graveyard or seeking refuge in his presence. Instead, I replay a montage of moments from years ago, when I pushed a single button, giving away my opportunity to sit next to my father for the remainder of my life.

As I exit the funeral home to the cremation center, the dust gathers between my toes and I hear the dirt crunch beneath my sandals. My perfume mingles with the lingering sterile smell of the mortuary. I walk toward the building, my eyes shifting forward while my father’s body is placed on a flat board, each family member grabbing a wooden corner moving him across the final threshold. We cram into a small room, one by one, standing close, but trying not to look at my father’s dead body. Watching meant we might have to confront our mortality. The funeral director, a rotund man with a gray beard, pushed my father’s body onto a steel platform, his gentleness irrelevant. The thud of the body signaled it was time for me to assume my part as my father’s final executioner. My legs felt saddled with lead. In a single deliberate move, the director of the funeral home pushed my father’s body into the gray incinerator and in the next second the metal door shut with an unforgiving sound. “Are you ready?” A question weighted with a demand and a goodbye. My finger reached for the red button, flashing like a beating heartbeat and with one move, in a single moment, we honored my father’s wish for a cremation. Saying goodbye this way eliminated for me any chance of talking to not only my father but one of my best friends. Without a grave, a longing has lingered. There are days when I want to say, “Hey Dad! Do you remember those evenings when we sat at the kitchen table spending hours talking about nothing?” or “Dad, I need your help. How do I handle this situation?” or “I need you. I need you to listen.” Instead, I keep these emotions buried as I watch the mother and daughter speak to the grave. It’s easier this way. There isn’t anyone to tell the feelings only my father would understand. I keep quiet. I accept my grief and hold on to it. I gather my memories, one by one, bind them together like a neat stack of papers and hold them close. I am on the outside, living with the grief, with the melancholy still looking for a home. A part of me will always dangle near the green lawn, wishing for flowers, a few words and a moment with my father.

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