What I needed was a rest break on the Island of Grieving and Useless Folks

August 28, 2022
Los Angeles Times

In January, my husband blindsided me with divorce. Not for a moment during the prior 36 years did I doubt that we would spend the rest of our lives together. It was clear to everyone that we were meant to be — bashert, as my Jewish friends would say.

After my husband made his announcement, I could not eat or sleep. On those rare occasions when I did sleep, I would wake up confused, asking myself if this was really happening. I sobbed constantly. I sobbed in public. I don’t mean I cried; I sobbed. And I couldn’t stop. Everyone I know has now seen me sob. Strangers have not been left out either. When the cashier at Target asked me how my day was, let’s just say she probably regretted it.

I was fully aware of the irony, a professional humorist who can’t stop sobbing.

About three months after my husband had moved out, I spotted him in Costco. I smiled, yelled out his name and went toward him with outstretched arms. Then I suddenly remembered that we were getting divorced. “I guess I will always be happy to see you,” I said, feeling somewhat sheepish.

It took me several months to tell friends and family what had happened. I saw their pained faces as they heard the news, and their terrified faces as they watched me sob. My visible grief made them feel uncomfortable. I don’t blame them.

I did not realize last January that I had entered the World of Grief, a territory that no one chooses. I always assumed grief was like extreme sadness or depression, but it went on a little longer. That’s like saying a tsunami is like a big wave, but a little bigger. It’s impossible to imagine the full body grief experience before being knocked down by it, repeatedly pummeled by the constant waves that follow.

In March, I closed the nonprofit that I had co-founded, and which was about to be launched. I backed out of jobs knowing I would not be able to do them well, if at all. I did not recognize this new nonfunctioning version of myself, but I had to make room for her.

I fantasized about a place for people like me, the Island of Grieving and Useless Folks. Meals would be served. There would be live Irish music concerts, during which the entire audience would be allowed to sob. No one would try to make anybody feel better. There would be dogs, many dogs. They, of course, always make us feel better.

Before I started fantasizing about imaginary islands, I would have described myself as capable, bordering on fearless. But for seven months, grief took away my confidence that I could survive in this world, that I could take care of myself, let alone others. I felt I had nothing to offer anymore. Because my grief had been triggered by someone’s choice and not an unavoidable act of nature, I began to doubt everything I once thought to be true: loyalty, love, trust. Did these qualities exist? Is this what a dystopian society feels like?

With the help of friends and family, I kept going despite not wanting to. There are some things we can — but should not — do alone, and grieving is definitely one of them.

A month ago, I moved into a new home. I had been praying for a sanctuary with trees and bees, a place where I could heal. After I heard this place was coming on the market, I drove by and heard birds singing. I rented it without ever seeing the inside.

My next-door neighbor has a puppy that she lets me play with. Another neighbor brings me homemade rye bread, straight out of the oven, still warm. The neighbor across the street makes me zucchini muffins; her daughter recently made me candles. I hear birds chirping every day, and squirrels scampering on my roof. (I hope they’re not rats. That would be so much less charming.)

The property managers keep asking if there is anything else they can do for me. Who does that? Did I mention that during the walk-through, the first time they met me, I sobbed?

When my kids were little, they took swimming lessons at the YWCA. There was a sign by the pool that counted the days “without fecal contamination.” We never saw it get past 13. I now count the days I go without crying. I haven’t reached double digits yet, but laughter has slowly returned to my life. I am beginning to understand that grief never leaves, but it fades and makes room for other experiences.

Aside from the outpouring of kindness from friends, family, strangers and animals, one realization helped me more than all else: I came to understand that the depth of grief is equal to one’s capacity to love. There is no shame in grieving. Au contraire. We should hold dear those who grieve, for they are also the ones who love fiercely. I will never apologize for sobbing in public because of a shattered heart. That heart loved deeply. And for as long as I am alive, I will make space for those who grieve.

I am now that island for grieving and useless souls.

Firoozeh Dumas is the author of “Funny in Farsi” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel” and recently wrote her first screenplay. Her nerd dream came true last month when she was a clue on “Jeopardy.”