The Burials Along Memory Lane

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the Jason Isbell song Elephant. It was late at night. I was driving in my car, before I knew about Shazam, trying to remember a couple of lines of lyrics so that I could search for the song when I got home.

There is one line that has always stayed with me:

I buried her a thousand times

People ask me often what I wish other people knew about grief. This - what these lyrics of this song mean (to me) - is something I wish people knew. And yet I rarely try to give it words. Though I imagine at least some of you understand it completely.

But how would we, who've felt it, begin to explain it to those who haven't?

When you look at me, you see someone who said one goodbye, someone grieving that single, devastating death.

But death was just the final burial, the last goodbye.

When I look at me, I see someone who was busy grieving a life before I got busy grieving a death.

We who grieve have often lived through a thousand burials that came before the final burial that everyone else saw.

The list is different for all of us.

The burial when they didn’t recognize me for the first time.

The burial when they decided to stop treatment.

The burial when someone first whispered the word ‘hospice’.

The burial when someone first called them an ‘addict’.

The burial when I called the school counselor and forced the words ‘suicide attempt’ out of my throat.

The burial when she called her job to tell them she would never be well enough to come back.

The burial the first time I wished the hospice could give them more meds, so we could all be relieved of this suffering.

The burial when they stole from me for the first time, then looked straight into my eyes and denied it.

The burial when they recognized me for the very last time.

The burial when I realized they really weren’t going to show up for the first big family event.

The burial when I first allowed my brain to consider that they really might die from this disease.

The burial the first time I hoped they were in jail because it felt safer than the street.

Yes, there are many sudden and unexpected deaths. There are deaths where the first goodbye is the last goodbye. But for so many of us, we’re standing on a burial mound of a thousand goodbyes that came first. Often these are burials that no one else saw. A thousand goodbyes that we ourselves only barely had time to process as we tried to keep one foot in front of the other.

People tell us to remember the good times and to focus on all the amazing life we shared. What they don’t know is that Memory Lane weaves through every corner of town, not just the most pristine neighborhoods.

In the early days, a walk down Memory Lane often doesn't land you in a lovely garden. You're likely to find yourself wandering down a dark alley, desperately trying to find your way back to the right side of the tracks, where your most treasured memories live. But it turns out that Memory Lane can be a bit of a labyrinth, winding through the burial ground of those many painful, slow goodbyes that so few other people know exist.

Don’t worry, these detours – painful as they are – are not for nothing.

They are how we learn to navigate the ugly, confusing boroughs that we’ve desperately tried to avoid.

If we don’t learn the topography of this side of town, we risk getting trapped there, wandering in circles, relieving these burials again and again. Or we live in constant fear of stumbling into these uncharted enclaves. So rather than risking even a single step down Memory Lane, we plop ourselves down in front of a screen, or on a barstool, or in an endless work project, lest we allow our minds to inadvertently get lost in these disorienting districts.

But as it happens, these terrifying detours are where you become the cartographer of your memories. Here you can wander back through the countless burials that paved the way to the final goodbye, sketching the path, drafting an atlas. You can investigate the twists and turns, surveying the dark corners and dead ends. Here you can prove to yourself that – though painful – you can navigate these memories.

Once you’ve charted the sprawling landscape of these burials and mini-goodbyes, you can pass through now and again without the same fear of getting lost. They become a short stopover on your way to the parks and gardens. Yes, they remain deep woods and dark alleys and dead ends.

But they're familiar now. You know what's there. You know you can traverse them. Eventually, you’ll probably even learn some shortcuts, bypassing the darkest bits and skipping the dead ends.

Some of us manage this mapping on our own. But some of us find these edges of Memory Lane too dark and deep to traverse alone. If you find yourself frozen on that barstool, or adrift in dark memories, wandering in circles and unable to find your way to the gardens and parks, don’t panic. You’re not alone.

This is what grief and trauma therapists are there for. They exist to walk with you back through those winding woods and dark alleys of Memory Lane, helping you to learn your way. Perhaps in another universe, they're known as topographers of the past. They are companions to help you plot your course and build the confidence to eventually make the journey on your own.

So what exactly is it that I wish people understood about grief? It still feels pretty hard to put to words. Let's just say that in grief, Memory Lane isn't always an easy place to navigate. Be gentle, we might still be working on the map.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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16 Comments on "The Burials Along Memory Lane"

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  1. Diane  September 6, 2023 at 3:52 pm Reply

    Still working on Memory Lane map after 1 1/2 years…avoidance does help for awhile, but the pressure just builds up, emotions boil over. I try to journal/discuss memory by asking “what is it you fear” or “why does it scare you so much’. Not easy to do but has to be looked at or the pain won’t die back. Your articles are priceless! Thank you so much.

  2. JC  September 2, 2023 at 4:05 pm Reply

    My son took his life on his 22nd BD 7 months ago. I’ve had a hard time grieving. I realize through this article that I already died by “death from a thousand cuts” as I watched him slowly fade farther and farther from me through addiction. Thanks for this article. So….strangely comforting….a little bit at least.

    • Nancy  September 5, 2023 at 7:18 am Reply

      I’m so sorry JC. I’ve had a really hard time with grieving too. At the time Aaron died it had been 20 years of cycling between terror, shock, new starts, hope, and devastating losses. It’s 3 years now and I’m still often numb

  3. Margie  September 2, 2023 at 7:57 am Reply

    This was a beautifully written and meaningful post. It put into words what I have been feeling since losing my husband to brain cancer two years ago. It’s all those “thousand burials” no one saw as I cared for him at home by myself during the pandemic… the burials of all our hopes and dreams… watching someone you love slowly die in front of you and feeling so powerless and hopeless. The aftermath and emptiness after they are gone. I feel lost and can’t seem to escape the dark and very lonely side of Memory Lane. And you are so right it’s all those memories no one else even knows about or can understand that still hurt so very much.

  4. Lizzylou  September 2, 2023 at 3:42 am Reply

    What a powerful and enlightening article. It reminded me of the beginning of the nightmare of terminal illness and the time it became obvious that my beloved husband’s time was nearly over. I hadn’t thought so much about the journey to the hospice or the gradual loss of the person I still adore. Although deeply saddened by it, I do believe that this article is incredibly helpful on this long and rocky road of grief. Thank you for the insight and the beautiful way in which it is written. You have a wonderful site that continues to support me and so many others. Thank you.

  5. Louis  September 1, 2023 at 11:52 am Reply

    I’m trying to go back to our house in Florida where my wife passed. We brought the house and lived there for 15 months. This is so hard though.

  6. Sandy  September 1, 2023 at 3:34 am Reply

    It’s over 5-years since my daughter died. Yes, I am still grieving. My daughter was born with a very rare syndrome that left her severely disabled. For over 30 years we tried to give her the best life; loving her so much, but at the same time my heart broke for all she “missed”. In her last year when the doctor said “hospice” I thought I stopped breathing. I don’t know if I’ve taken a deep breath since that day. For her sake I know my girl is in a better place & her suffering is over, but I’m still learning in this new world without her. Thank you for the great article.

  7. Paige  September 1, 2023 at 3:34 am Reply

    Oh thank you for this! I could never explain to people why their (trying to be helpful) suggestion of “think of all those happy memories you had together” was just… not helpful. Why the memories were more painful than happy. Why it’s taking such a long time to find those parks and gardens!

    We lived through 4.5 years of terminal cancer, where all treatment was palliative right from the start. Even though he looked normal and healthy to begin with, we knew from the diagnosis that it was going to kill him, it was just a matter of when. Now I realise there were so many burials in that time. A thousand burials or more.

  8. Nancy  August 31, 2023 at 7:33 pm Reply

    This is all so true. I think about it everyday. All the mini “deaths,” along the way, the undeniable recognitions, and bitter acceptances, and stunned horrors. The disappearances, accidents, losses of all kinds, fears, arrests…. Labyrinth yes. Dark, twisted, haunted. When I found my son on the floor from fentanyl poisoning I actually went numb. I wander around in these dark places all the time.

  9. Greg  August 31, 2023 at 7:07 pm Reply

    Written eloquently and spot on. I’ve been waiting for the next post, and wow! Really wish more people understood fully the wreckage along the path, and the continued retrace of the dark corners along the way to reaching a point of solace.

  10. KATHRYN STOCKTON  August 31, 2023 at 6:33 pm Reply

    im rounding year 1 1/2 the posting was helpful to me still the grieving process carries on.

  11. Mark H  August 31, 2023 at 5:26 pm Reply

    Thankyou Litsa for this and all your articles.
    I lost my beautiful partner Desley to a large anyurism. 19 weeks ago. There was no goodbye.

    Utter shock and disbelief followed .

    Of course we didn’t know what had happened at the time. Nothing made sense to the ambulance and emergency helicopter team . She was walking between two horses. Possibly crushed and a massive heart attack ? But no. She had died instantly from the anyurism
    The memory of Desley in hospital , hooked up to machinery while her two sons and I sobbed in shock and disbelief , is the the lane I revisit. I know I will for some time .

    There is a garden there though. Desley died doing what she loved in a beautiful open paddock with her horse.
    She did not suffer.
    That softens the blow somewhat.

  12. Bridget  August 31, 2023 at 4:37 pm Reply

    Thank you for this very relatable article. Once diagnosed I did grieve for my husband long before his passing. Sometimes I thought I was going mad; it was terrifying and shattering.

  13. John  August 31, 2023 at 1:07 pm Reply

    I was in California when I learned of my loss. I drove across country to be with family. I can’t comprehend the loss.

  14. Carmella Russell  August 31, 2023 at 12:57 pm Reply

    After almost 10 yrs I am still learning about my grief journey. So thank you for the article and recognizing memory lane and little burials. Your articles and social media posts have helped me navigate grief these past several years.

    I am also trying to help my cousin on her grief journey on the recent loss of her husband of over 50 yrs. In trying not to say too much, the wrong thing, or even nothing at all, I’m periodically keeping in touch via texts, engaged her again on Words with Friends and shared a copy of your book with het.

  15. Rebecca  August 31, 2023 at 12:36 pm Reply

    I loved this post, you so beautifully articulated the multiple griefs/burials of losing a loved one. Thank you xx


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