When it comes to expressions of love, the largest common denominator is the act of loving; the rest is just a matter of person and preference. Love comes wrapped up in little boxes or oversized packages; tenderly whispered or declared from the rooftops; eloquently written or in fumbling awkward utterances.
As far as expressions of love go, I’ve always preferred micro-expressions, the small but thoughtful gestures that show me someone cares. These thoughtful and personal acts have no pretense and nothing to prove. Things like a note from your mother telling you she’s proud of you, a hug from your daughter who’s no longer into hugs, or a small gift from a friend that she bought because it reminded her of you–happen because you are loved and because you love in return.
I had a completely different post written for today on loneliness and social isolation. But I got distracted by the subject of love, which was initially puzzling because loneliness and love seem like two things that couldn’t be any further apart. However, after thinking about it for a moment, I realized that these things are more closely related than you think when it comes to grief.
Loneliness, after all, is relative. Even when surrounded by family and friends, one can feel lonely because they lack the love and connection they desire. One of the reasons we feel so lonely after someone dies is because we yearn and ache for their love, and feel like their love is gone from our lives.
Last night I was struck while reading through a string of comments on our Facebook page left in response to a post we wrote about how grief makes you feel like you’re losing it. One reader wrote about how her late husband’s flip-flops have been by the back door for two years, and every time she passes them, they make her smile. Another reader wrote that she wears her deceased father’s pajama bottoms to bed every night because she thinks they make her sleep better. These little things may seem odd to some people, but to the person grieving, they are small and tender expressions of love.
When we think of honoring and remembering deceased loved ones, I think we often jump to vigils, roadside altars, and Facebook memorial pages. These are ‘shout it from the rooftop’ expressions, the gestures that let the world know your loved one was here and was (and still is) loved. But for so many of us, the most common and meaningful tributes come in packages so small and commonplace that most people would never even notice them.
For example, if I invited you to my home for a cup of tea, I imagine you would stand for a moment before deciding my little red armchair is an excellent place to sit and chat. As you look around the room, you would observe a few family photos, but beyond that, nothing notably personal. You probably would never guess that when I sit across from you in the very same room, I am surrounded by the objects of three generations and a lifetime full of memories and love.
The shelf next to the piano holds my mother’s old sheet music, some of it so torn and tattered that we can no longer play it, but I can’t throw it away, knowing that at one point, my mother found herself lost among its notes. You’d never know that the chair you’re sitting in has been getting in our way for years, but my mother bought it, so I’m sure it will never find its way to the dump. And you’d never know that the linen chest sitting in the corner also sat in my grandmother’s living room for decades, housing antique treasures and propping up family photos.
A photo in your wallet, a trinket in your pocket, words you speak in the morning, a song you listen to every night, a shirt hanging in your closet, a message on the answering machine–if you think holding onto these things make you pathological, think again. These aren’t the sad acts of someone who can’t let go, and they’re not the symptoms of a person’s grief gone wrong; these simple objects, small gestures, and everyday routines are how we continue to live a life surrounded by our loved ones and how we continue to say I love you long after a person has gone.