We’re standing in the front atrium of our high school, forty or so girls in rows of ten. We’re all in matching warm-up clothes, and there’s a boom box up front, blaring hip-hop music. We’re rehearsing for our halftime dance number.

Suddenly our coach comes hurrying down the hall. She pulls the team captain aside and speaks quietly into the girl’s ear. The girl crumples. Without a word of explanation, she walks away, supported by the arms of our coach. Practice pauses while the other team leaders figure out what to do.

Later we learn that the captain’s father has been in poor health for a long time. She’s only a few months away from graduation, but they don’t think he’ll make it. Eighteen years old and facing life without her dad.


September 11th starts as television broadcasts from a faraway city. Then it becomes rumors whispered in the hallway between classes. Buildings falling, dust clouds flooding the streets, a plane crashing into a field.

I’m in third period calculus when a front office aide interrupts the lecture and hands a note to our teacher. He reads it, then asks the pretty blonde girl two rows in front of me to gather her things and go with the aide. Terror and tears gather in her eyes as she leaves the room.

Later we learn that her brother worked in the Twin Towers. That’s all we ever hear.


It’s the summer after my freshman year of college, and I’m getting ready to go to my parents’ office. The bathroom radio plays Top 40 hits while I brush my teeth, wash my face, and get dressed. Through the closed door, the phone rings, but I know my dad will get it.

He knocks a few minutes later. I open the door and find him braced against the frame, his head buried into the crook of his arm. My brows furrow, but even then I’m not alarmed. Just confused.

Later, at my uncle’s funeral, I will think about that moment over and over. I will hear my dad’s voice, calm but thick, as he tells me that his brother is dead. I will think about how we are never really ready for something like that. Never expecting to lose someone that we love.

But I will also remember the strength that my dad showed in the moments after. He grieved, but he did not let grief shut him down. He cried, but he did not drown. He was changed, but not diminished.

I don’t know if I can be that strong that quickly. But I’m glad to have a model for it in my life.

10 responses to “Unexpected encounters with grief”

  1. Margot Wood Avatar

    Kristan, I loved reading these. Your writing is so beautiful.

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Thanks, Margot. :)

  2. tria Avatar

    what a powerful topic Kristan! “He was changed, but not diminished.”…that’s something difficult to see in yourself when hit by grief, so it’s beautiful you could see that in him.

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Heh, actually, I’m not sure I saw it / realized it — at least not that concretely — until I was writing this post… But that’s part of why I like reflecting on my life so much! There are often observations and lessons left un-mined.

  3. Anthony Lee Collins Avatar

    This really made me think.

    When my father died (completely without warning), my mother and I grieved, but we didn’t fall apart. We did what needed to be done — made arrangements, dealt with lawyers and banks, etc. My mother did most of it.

    Some people said that if you don’t fall apart right away, if you keep it bottled up, it will be much worse later. Well, that was over twenty years ago, and my mother is 97 — I think if she was going to fall apart she would have done it by now.

    “He grieved, but he did not let grief shut him down. He cried, but he did not drown. He was changed, but not diminished.”

    Very good way of putting it.

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Glad to hear it. Making people think is possibly the highest compliment for a writer/storyteller. :)

      Your mother sounds like a strong woman.

  4. yogadog Avatar

    You do write beautifully. Currently, my sister and I are holding hands and wading through grief, as our mother fades away in front of us. We are both strong and neither of us is falling apart. But there are definitely cracks in the veneer. Which makes me think perhaps strength isn’t the only thing necessary for surviving grief. In San Francisco, to earthquake proof the newer buildings, the architects design the foundations with a certain flexibility. That way, when the ground under them shifts, the buildings sway without toppling. Perhaps that is what your father had, the ability to sway.

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Thank you. I think the building analogy is perfect — and all the more apt because both my dad and my uncle were architects.

  5. Meghan Ward Avatar

    These are really wonderful, Kristan. Although we can never really prepare for death (even when someone is very sick and you know it’s coming, it’s just as much of a shock when it really happens), I can’t imagine losing someone suddenly, without warning, especially someone young. Sigh. We have a lot to be thankful for.

    1. Kristan Avatar

      Thank you. And… “even when someone is very sick and you know it’s coming, it’s just as much of a shock when it really happens” <-- This is so very, very true. I was recently reminded by a friend's family tragedy.