Grief (01.22.2013)

Z S
5 min readSep 3, 2023

At 7.32 on a frigid Monday night in January, the house phone rang. It was 2013 but they still had a landline. Meg had gone to the neighbor’s house to play hopscotch. Liz, the high school senior had made her ritual retreat upstairs to her room. Bev had just opened a can of Progresso light Zesty Santa Fe Chicken soup after settling the two kids. She remembered that detail. She walked around the kitchen island and answered the phone.

“Is James Kimball there?”, a male voice asked.

“This is his wife”

He identified himself as being from the Sherrif’s office in Rochester country, New York., which she knew to be the home of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where her middle child and only son, Tim was a junior.

“Do you know Timothy Kimball”? he asked, pronouncing Kimball with a slight lisp.

“He is our son. How can I help?”

This is how you pick up the phone and feel the trap door open up underneath you.

Tim’s car had been sitting in the parking lot at Charlotte Park for over twenty-four hours. Charlotte Park sits on the shore of Lake Ontario. An eyewitness had seen Tim walk out of his car. He had walked over that icy surface until the ice gave away. In those sub-zero temperatures, he never stood a chance. Eight weeks later, the fifth week of spring, Lake Ontario surrendered his body. But she would not know all of this just yet talking to the man on the other side of the line.

The sheriff called James because the car was registered in his name. He asked a bunch of questions but she couldn’t recall any of those now. Her frantic mind had already made a leap past any logical explanation for his car being at the lake to the equally logical worst-case scenario.

The sheriff said he would call back within an hour. She took the soup off the stove, into a Tupperware, and shoved it in the back of the refrigerator. She never ate that soup. She stood there holding the kitchen island for more than five minutes rehearsing the phone call she would be making to James. It did occur to her that it would be kind to give him the last pain-free hour of his life, sitting with the guys at the bar shuffling cards around the table.

Bev sat there at the dinner table, looking across the room at the mirror hanging in the hall. She met her own gaze evenly. The words of the Sh’ma, a Hebrew prayer, tumble through her mind.

You are alone in the world, she whispered to the poor, pathetic mother in the mirror, preparing for the worst.

She finally did call him. The phone rang twice before the bartender picked it up. He knew Bev well and called for James.

“God, Bev, What’s going on?”

“Can you come back now James?”, she asked in as much a matter-of-fact tone as she could muster.

“Is everything okay?”

She could not make that leap of unkindness to tell him that in the middle of a bar.

“Just come home James”, she said. “Get home now”.

Days passed, then months and then it turned into years. The grief she felt never ceased. So she leaned into it. So she decided she would be tough and as stubborn a person as she could muster to become. She never did.

Years later, a friend’s father died suddenly of heart failure. She went to his funeral and stood there in the corner as she always did. She had hugged his mother as she sobbed for her loss…. all without a word. She remembered feeling a deeply shameful pang of envy for a brief moment. At least with a natural death, you get a chance to mourn. She was even robbed of that for her son. It felt so much hollower when someone you loved simply disappeared.

Dealing with death demands a maturity of a different kind — from everyone in its path. From the survivors to friends called upon to support them, to acquaintances just learning the news. The demands are different, depending on the griever’s relationship to the deceased or to the second-degree relationship shared but it’s no less incessant. You either choose to accede or push it away.

All grief is personal and all grief is individual as the person doing the grieving. Love is personal too, but there is no shortage of words written about love. However, if you peer closely enough you realize this eternal truth — Grief is love.

Bev gradually came to understand especially after talking to her counselor, the only man who understood really what she was going through, that she could not keep it all in, that she had to give voice to her loss. She also understood that her friends and her coworkers were not compelled to listen. Many of them did. Bev and James had benefited from so many kindnesses, small and large. But many did not. Their lives did not compel them to confront the pain. So why do it? Why acknowledge it? Why connect to discomfort?

Days after Tim’s funeral, a woman in their neighborhood had explained to James how she could not attend the memorial service they had for Tim because it would have been too emotionally difficult for her.

“It’s nice you had a choice”, James replied. Bev wasn’t sure the woman even noticed the shiv in her ribs.

As they went back to that lonely home day after day, in the silence of those nights, it occurred to Bev that the desire to create a life kept entirely within arm’s reach was seeded somewhere deep in the loss of her only son. Yet she would lay there, smug in the idea that she had found a loophole to inevitable tragedy, convinced she could avoid any more pain, that she had survived the first big onslaught.

Perhaps it was the loss of so much that made her want so little in the days after. The less they had, the less they would invariably have to part with. When she lay there in that room looking at the RIT university poster, she felt as though she knew something that all those people didn’t.

Perhaps it sounded strange, but those perfectly ordinary people with those perfectly ordinary lives seemed to her like the crazy ones. Didn’t they know how precarious their happiness was? How fleeting? Didn’t they know how quickly all those delicate and beautiful people they loved so much could suddenly disappear?

Grief comes to us in many forms. In those moments sleeping on Tim’s bed for a brief second, Bev’s had simply disguised itself as wisdom.

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Z S

Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.