5 min read

Things That Need Doing

Content note: This piece contains frank discussion of loss and grief.

I'm missing a load of laundry.

It's a load of laundry that got done earlier this month, by someone else, while I was handling a different crisis than the one that just fell on me. Nobody is sure of who did the load of laundry because even though it was just a couple of weeks ago it was also a very very long time ago. It's a load of laundry that contains all my most comfortable clothes, the ones I was wearing when I was extremely sick, before the crisis that happened before this most recent crisis. (It's been a hard month.)

And now, that load of laundry is missing, and so all my most comfortable clothes are missing.

I've looked everywhere I can think to look, and I can't help thinking that maybe, like so much else, it's just gone. That can happen. I know it sounds impossible, I know you're thinking no, wait, that can't be right, because I've been thinking it too.

But sometimes, things just disappear.

I am awkward around grief.

This has been the case for as long as I can remember. It's a vicious combination of certainties: I know that everyone experiences grief very differently. I know that everyone processes painful emotions very differently. I know that I, personally, am awful at processing painful emotions in ways that don't involve cramming them into a very small box and then cramming that box into a somehow even smaller box and then hiding that box under a mountain of work. And I am permanently terrified of doing The Wrong Thing – which is to say, stepping a little bit wrong and having that misstep make things even worse for everyone, forever.

My solution to this problem is, as with most things, to lean into relentless practicality. There are needs, even in moments of immense suffering, that must be met, and so my custom is to see to it that they are met: I show up with groceries and I stock the freezer and I cook big batches of food for visitors; I clean the bathrooms and I walk the dog and I fold the laundry that was in the dryer when it happened; I make sure there's tissues for every chair and I fold programmes and I clean up after the reception.

I am awkward, but I am useful.

Yesterday morning I found a little energy. First, I used the energy to look for the missing laundry. That project turned up all these patches of dysregulation in my home – places where, during this relentless month, I simply could not attend to anything. The suitcase I never unpacked, the huge piles of cleaning rags that were necessary during the messiest moments of crisis, the packages that never got opened because they arrived while I was calling around to find any emergency facility with capacity.

I didn't intend to rearrange the furniture, but all those little patches of dysregulation – I couldn't fix them, not with the way things were. I couldn't take the hoard of dishes out of the bedroom without counter space to deliver them to, and I couldn't clear the counter until there was a place for all the no-longer-necessary medications to go, and I couldn't create a place for those to live until the packages were out of the way. Everything suddenly felt like it needed fixing, with unbearable urgency.

It was a cascade that led to me on a stepladder in the early afternoon, unwinding a pothos from a curtain rod for relocation, and whispering 'it'll be okay' to the leaves as they snagged on the blinds, even though I know that sometimes it won't be okay.

In moments where I know it won't be okay, I don't say 'it'll be okay.' I just say 'I love you,' over and over again, because it's the only true thing left worth saying.

When someone I love is grieving, I do the things that need doing. Or, if doing what needs doing isn't my place in their life, I'll send something that I hope will offer practical moments of comfort: meals that can be easily reheated or frozen, a very soft blanket that has never been used and does not contain the perfume of a lost life, a tin of homemade toffee. I can't fix the thing that's broken, but I can fix the problem of not having toffee. I can make space for grief to be what it is, without logistics getting in the way.

I don't know how to do that when grief is in my own lap.

For the past month and change, I've been carrying a loved one through a time of suffering. I neglected lots of things that needed doing, assuming I'd be able to attend to them on the other side of that suffering.

And now I am on the other side of that suffering, and so is she, although we're not together in that. I'm doing the things that need to be done. I'm opening the mail. I'm looking for the lost laundry. I'm moving the pothos plant to a place where it can get lots of sun.

All of it is important. All of it needs doing. And getting it done is good. But there's only so much of me, and doing the things that need doing – it doesn't make more space for grief. It just shifts the weight of me from one focus to another for a little while: grieve, then clean out the fridge, then grieve some more.

I have been grateful for every check-in, every kind word, every flower and meal and photo shared. Friends have kept my head above water this month in a lot of ways, and in the past several days more than ever. It is good to know that I'm not alone, even in what feels like the loneliest moment I can remember.

Grief is unique in that it's neither communal nor individual. My loss is deeply personal, like the removal of a strange new bone that had grown in my abdominal cavity. No one else had that bone. It was mine. I grew it.

But everyone else has had something taken out of them, too. And we are all sharing our wounds and our stitches, not comparing or competing but simply saying: I am hurting, too. I am missing something, too.

I used to know precisely who to turn to in moments of sorrow and loneliness. I'm not good at sharing my raw, unprocessed, unfiltered feelings with people, so I'd go to my best friend and look into her eyes and say I'm so sad or I'm scared for no reason or I'm all alone. And she would look back and that was enough.

She was there for me, unconditionally and without reservation. And at the end of her life, I was there for her. That's the contract. All the time, I brought her all kinds of things that she couldn't fix, but she always tried to make them a little better.

When it was time for her to bring me something that I couldn't fix, I tried to make it a little better.

Now, the friend who I would have turned to with this feeling of loss is gone. We did our best for each other. It's not her job anymore to make the unfixable things a little better, not anymore. Least of all this, the biggest unfixable thing of all.

I don't know if I'll ever find that lost load of laundry. Maybe I just live in slightly-uncomfortable clothes now. And anyway, my bar for comfortable clothes is very, very high.

Maybe I'll just get used to the idea of never having perfectly comfortable clothes again.

Sometimes it's like that.