Nonfiction

A Field Guide For Grief

In the days following my father’s death, people attempted to console me by telling me that I could rest.

By Grace Shields

February 13, 2022

Purple Curtain

In the days following my father’s death, people attempted to console me by telling me that I could rest.


"You have the time now to grieve," they'd say. "Now you have the space to begin the grieving process."


They gave me permission to grieve, but nobody showed me how, exactly, I was supposed to go about grieving now that I had the chance.


In the months of decline leading up to his death, I began to draw sketches of birds on everything. Black and white lines filled my journal, covered the junk mail and scrap papers that went into the recycling bin. I lined the margins of the oncology ward’s printed monthly calendar with tiny colored pencil birds perching on branches. I flipped obsessively through the Audubon Society’s guide to the birds of New York, transferring what I saw to my own pages. As my sketches began to resemble their real-life counterparts more and more I showed them to my father. I hung them on the fridge next to the number for the doctor’s personal line and the bright pink Do Not Resuscitate form we had yet to fill out. I went so far as to try to ink them into the skin of my foot with a needle and a glass vial of jet black ink, but the broken skin opened up in the shower and washed the shaky lines away.


The day my father died passed by in a series of hazy images, like I was watching all of my movements from outside myself. I was living inside a film whose language I didn’t understand. I knew that people were speaking to me, but the words didn’t make sense. All I could hear was the beeping of the machines and the rhythms of speech circling around me without meaning.


I was flipping through a book of grainy photographs from a life that wasn't, that couldn’t be, my own:


The security guard leading my grandfather and me through the white halls of the ICU


My father, trying to speak through the BiPap machine strapped over his mouth and nose


The doctor, ushering my grandfather and me into a partitioned room separate from the rest of the ICU to tell us that this would likely be the last day


The writhing of my dad's body as he tried to remove the BiPap mask, as he fought for oxygen without its help


Putting my hand on his cheek, holding his eyes with my own in an attempt to soothe him, putting my ear to the mask to hear him whisper the words "I love you" through the gusts of air being pushed into his lungs


The forms, like ghosts drifting into the room and out, speaking to me with words I sometimes understood, bringing me food that I couldn't eat and giving me hugs I could barely return


The beeping of the machine, the alarm when the numbers that meant Oxygen slipped too low, the thrum of the life-support machine, the mechanical whir as morphine was released into the tubes


Conversations that fell on my ears like a language I didn't understand


The moment his hand relaxed in mine


Through tears, the movements of faceless nurses swathed in grey quietly moving around his bed like smoke, turning the machines off, removing the plugs, wrapping up the cords and the tubes


The final hug, when I pressed my face against his chest only to feel a stiff cold where my father should have been, that moment when I knew he was no longer there


After that, colors and shapes and blurs


There is no through line to that day other than his hand limp—but warm—in mine throughout the final hours. Leaving the hospital, I didn’t know what to do with myself. For six months I had lived with my father, driven him to radiation and chemotherapy treatments—to nephrology, neurology and radiology departments. I kept notes in the meetings with so many doctors, the appointments blending together into one endless day spent in windowless rooms. For six months I read aloud to him from the couch, fixed his coffee the way he liked it, folded his woolen socks. I made him laugh, made sure he saw the sun each day. I adjusted to a life where my job was simply to keep him alive. With my dad no longer there, I began to wonder what my purpose was.


After his death, an unspoken rule shared by everyone around me was that I should not be left alone. I didn’t necessarily want to be alone. What I really wanted was something I couldn’t have. I wanted to be with my father. In between trips to the funeral home to identify his body and to my grandparents’ house to pick up the ziplock bag of possessions collected from the hospital, I went to the mountains. I walked with my partner and friends of the family along grassy stretches of the Appalachian trail. Under the cathedral arches of pine that shaded the path, we were quiet together. There were so many photos of my father, of us together, in these same places.


I was told that even though my father had passed I would continue to sense his presence. There on the trail I expected to feel a comforting hand on my shoulder, to hear his laugh ring through the meadow grasses. Instead I felt a hollowness in my chest and an ache in my shoulders. I kept looking for him, wanting to feel him there on the mountaintop with me, but I knew where he was. I knew that he was tucked away in a morgue downtown. I knew he was gone. I wanted to run back the way we had come, to drive back to the funeral home and to sit with his body again before it was cremated. I was afraid he would get lonely. I was afraid he would wake up and there would be no one there to hear him calling for help. People kept reminding me to keep my eyes open for signs from my dad, that these would help me come to terms with my grief. But how was I supposed to remember to watch for signs when all I wanted was him?


As we turned a corner on the trail, a small grey bird started to follow us. It hopped along the ground, looking a little like my dad in his charcoal-colored wool coat and fedora. It’s him! It’s Robert! cried our friends, and I wanted with everything that I had to believe them. The bird watched us with a quizzical look while we scrambled up a rocky lookout point my dad had loved and looked out over the rolling blue mountains. If I didn’t know better, I would say the bird was amused. With a flutter that was reminiscent of my father flipping his scarf over his shoulder, the bird flew away as we readied ourselves to leave. Maybe it was him, some kind of message from beyond.


Or maybe it was just a bird.

Grace Shields, based in Brooklyn NY, is a second year MFA student at the new school studying fiction and creative nonfiction writing. When not journaling at a candle lit corner table with an Irish coffee and a bowl of pretzels, she can generally be found staring out into the ocean or sketching comics. Her graphic essay on grief was also featured in Sazeracs, Smoky Ink literary magazine.