photograh by Mike Labrum

Counting the Days of Grief

Savala Nolan
Human Parts
Published in
3 min readSep 12, 2023

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Grief is said to come in waves. I’ve found this to be true. It’s a helpful image, and intuitive, maybe because we ourselves are such watery beings, gestating in water and made of it, consuming it, bathing in it and dressing wounds with it for our entire lives. Thinking of grief as a series of waves helps me navigate (which is to say, anticipate and ride) the periodic swells, and how they crest, and how they break against you, and then recede.

This past July marked five years since my dad died. And yes, there were waves, just as there have been on every anniversary

It’s important to remember, though, that the actual process of grieving runs its course differently for everyone. In the week after my dad died, there were days when I spent hours lying in bed watching the sky, thinking absolutely nothing at all, just feeling, feeling a silent, dense sadness, while others were able to enjoy tv or cook a meal or make phone calls. And vice versa.

There’s another reason we feel grief in different ways (or, put differently, at different times): though I suppose there is a single, exact moment of death, the moment we mark someone’s death may be different from how our loved ones do.

For instance, we don’t know exactly when my dad died. He died alone, and his body was alone for several days before anyone knew. The coroner gave us a date based on an exam, and that’s the date I use to mark my dad’s death. July 23.

But other people in my family mark it differently. Some mark the day he was found, which was the day they found out he was gone. They day they got the phone call. Honestly? I don’t even remember that day. I remember the day happening, obviously, and I remember fragments of it — my then-husband breaking the news to me in our kitchen and the sound of my voice, disembodied, crying out no! no! But I don’t remember the date, or care to… I’m most concerned with the date his spirit left this realm, or was free to leave this realm even if it hung around for a bit. For me, that day is salient. (The other salient day: when wegot his ashes; the day we had his body again; the solidness of his body, its presence and weight embraced by our grief, our thoughts of him; his body safe in my house; his body no longer alone.)

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Savala Nolan
Human Parts

uc berkeley law professor and essayist @ vogue, time, harper’s, NYT, NPR, and more | Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins | she/her | IG @notquitebeyonce