The Rituals of Grief

Submitted into Contest #191 in response to: Write about a character who is starting to open up to life again.... view prompt


Fiction Sad Inspirational

She played the notes again. This time with her eyes closed. Her right pinky extended, it hovers, then lightly taps the black F#. After a moment’s pause, her left thumb signals the rest of her slender fingers to cascade down on the keys. They rapidly unleash like gorgeously falling raindrops, one after the next.

The piano radiates out the emotions she held in, as she strikes the keys harder and harder, faster and faster. Notes swirl and fall like a storm. She pauses a moment after the song has finished and takes a breath. Her wrists linger and float over the black and white ivories. She was about to begin again when her phone pings.

“Are you almost here?” Reads a message from her mother.

Amelia stands up from the piano and walks up the wooden stairs to her old bedroom. The bright lilac paint and cheerful photos covering the walls make it feel more foreign than ever. She examines herself in a full-length mirror. Her straight black, no-nonsense hair is sharply clipped at her jawline, the edges giving a slight curl. A furious pink has invaded and surrounded her deep brown eyes. The lids had been swollen for days. She barely recognizes herself.

She smooths her hands over her dress.

“Is this too racy to wear to your father’s funeral?” she wonders aloud to herself.

It was the only black dress she packed, but now she was second-guessing the way it clings to her curves. She noticed the way her body had softened after the divorce, giving her more ample hills all around. She wasn’t unhappy about her more voluptuous figure, but today was not the day to show it off. Amelia felt foolish but it was too late to change.

Grey cat hair sticks to her thighs like a magnet, no matter how many times her palms brush it away. She smacks her forehead gently. Her dad had hated cats. Now she looks like a wannabe jezebel covered in cat hair. I am absolutely ridiculous, she thought.

Amelia doesn’t want to go. She wants to keep playing the song she played for him at her recital when she was thirteen. Before she quit piano forever because she got boobs and Jason from the basketball team wanted to spend Saturdays with her. 

Thinking back, she was embarrassed that she had been so cheap with her time. Jason hadn’t been worthy of it; she knew then as she did now. Her Dad would make casual mention of it, as fathers do. And Amelia would ignore it, as young girls do. Now, she felt as ashamed of giving up on piano as she was of the feline coat smothering accidentally sexy dress. I have been—and continue to be—ridiculous.

She tapped her foot anxiously because knew she could miss the speeches if she didn’t leave immediately. Amelia finally had to face reality and so she walked out the door.

It was a sunny day, which pissed her off. It felt like the weather wasn’t taking his death seriously. It was mocking her as if it were just any other day. Wasn’t it supposed to be gloomy and raining in honor of him and the grief that has collectively overcome the world? It is just another day for most of the world, she considered with another sting.

The wake was at the local funeral home where she had been many times before. She felt numb knowing it was her turn to stand at the front to give out hug after hug, handshake after handshake, and repeat, “Thank you for coming.”

She stood in her place alongside her grandfather, mother, and older sister, which all felt a bit monarchical. It was like being in a trance, with a song she didn’t like echoing over and over.

A sly, but comforting smile broke her daze as Amelia made eye contact with her father’s friend, David. He was devastatingly handsome, even now in his sixties she thought. Speckled charcoal and ash hair matched bristle along his jaw. Amelia had an innocent crush on him when she was younger. He was one of the fun adults. A family friend that took time to listen to what she and her sister had to say and would crack jokes that she didn’t have to pretend to laugh at.

She watched him in line as she was robotically hugging, handshaking, and thanking. As David approached, he didn’t offer the usual, “So sorry for your loss,” but instead he gently turned his head and in a heartfelt way said, “This sucks.”

He opened both arms for a hug and Amelia all but collapsed into them. She was as surprised as he was, but she didn’t hold back. His embrace was strong, and his fresh-cut grass smell made her feel safe. Tears poured down her cheeks as she tried to breathe through sobs. He stroked her hair gently and gave a soothing “It’s okay,” after a few moments.

As she felt herself becoming a spectacle, they pulled apart. He kindly pretended not to notice the smear of tears and snot left on his shirt as he moved on to offer condolences to the rest of the family.

Amelia’s eyes lingered on David as he moved through the crowd. She wanted him to come back and to hold her. She hadn’t seen him in almost a decade, probably not since her wedding. So much had changed since then. But his broad chest was the only place she had felt comfort in the three days since her father had hit the ground after his stroke.

Her sister, Kate, nudged her as she realized the calling hours were coming to an end and the priest had begun the closing prayer. She hadn’t been a practicing Catholic in years and felt out of place as they did the archaic singsong prayer, “And he will be with you for-ever and ev-errrrr,” the priest chanted in a monk-like, monotone voice.

Suddenly the group moved in unison and began walking in a circle. Amelia was caught in the middle of this whirlpool of Catholicism and wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

She clasped her hands and angled her head downward, imitating everyone else. She moved her feet in slow motion with the crowd, feeling like a barracuda hiding amongst a beautiful, well-rehearsed, school of fish. No one else seemed to notice her awkwardness besides David, who gave her a warm smirk from afar.

Finally, the wake ended, and friends and family headed to Hal’s Place, as was the usual custom in the town. Hal’s was a dive bar that brought solace served via burgers, fried fish, and a few other greasy but delectable dishes. Metal back chairs sat around wobbly tables and tour posters featuring bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin adorned the walls. It was homey and offered a comforting familiarity that came from having the same bartender crack your beer cap off in an identical motion for half a century.

Her father’s brother, the jovial Uncle Sammy, ordered a round of Budweiser in her dad’s honor. After a few toasts and favorite memories were shared, Amelia found herself standing at the bar next to David.

He lightly clinked the bottom of their bottles together. “Hang in there, ‘Melia,” he said as they sipped their beer.

She gave a half-hearted nod and drank another mouthful. She didn’t know what else to say but knew she didn’t want him to walk away.

“Let’s go outside,” she suggested boldly.

She led the way through the narrow tables as they went out the side door to the alleyway. He stood stiffly as she leaned with one shoulder pressed into the brick. Acutely aware that this was the first time she’d ever been alone with David, she found herself wishing that one of them smoked so they had something to do. However, she was too relieved to be away from the crowd to overthink it. She looked at him in anticipation. As the elder of the two, she expected him to say something to make it better.

He made a serious face she wasn’t used to, creasing his forehead in four parallel lines as he looked up.

“So… I lost my Dad when I was twenty-five. Heart attack. It was hard then, and it’s hard even now. But it gets a little easier to function every day,” he started.

Amelia didn’t give any indication that she heard him. But she shifted her eyes from his to a place just over his shoulder, where it seemed like she was settling them in to listen. He took this as a sign to go on:

“I think part of what’s so hard when a family member dies is simply knowing that there is one less person out there in the world who loves you. It can already be such a lonely place, and it’s like a big piece of that love—the best unconditional love—has been taken away...”

David could see water forming in her eyes and was starting to regret sharing. He wasn’t great at this type of sentimental talk, but he was trying for her.

“But their love is not gone. Not at all. It’s been immortalized,” he said with ripples forming around his mouth, as he gave an isn’t-that-cool? smile. She felt as if he was sharing a proven theory that had taken years to test and come up with. Maybe he was.

“That love still exists, it’s just being sent from a different place... All your times together; your moments, big and small. All the things he taught you… they live on forever in the universe and who you are. You bring them with you every day... Every time you come to Hal’s and order a mediocre fish sandwich.” He added trying to make the conversation feel lighter.

Amelia put her hand on his shoulder and brought her lips close to his.

Instead of meeting her mouth, he gently turned his cheek and maneuvered her head into his shoulder for a hug.

She was humiliated and angry, but only for a moment. Amelia started to laugh at how ridiculous she felt, covering her eyes with one hand, but after a moment it turned into a cry. He held her in the least scandalous way he could manage and let her weep.

After a few minutes, David gave her a pat on her back, and she slowed her sobs and wiped her face.

“Listen, your dad was amazing and so are you. You’ve got a bright future ahead. I can feel it. You’ve just been through a rough time lately,” he paused, letting the silence fill in everything unsaid.

“But it’s going to get better,” he finished with one corner of his mouth turned up.

Others had said this before, but Amelia decided to believe his words.

She gave a nod and muttered, “Sorry about before.”

“Don’t think twice about it,” he objected with a wink. He placed his hand on Amelia’s back to usher her back in.

Inside Hal’s, they rejoined the rest of the merry mourners who were now singing collectively. 

Next week, there would probably be another grief-stricken group here, piping out different songs and toasting with another lager, but that made their time no less sincere.

Her mom caught her eye and pulled her into the group next to her sister. If her mother could find a way to smile, so could Amelia. Even if it was just for the night. She joined in feebly at first but soon sang as loud as anyone.

Through bleary eyes and broken hearts, her father’s friends and family wrapped their arms tightly around each other and belted out his favorite songs.

It was one of her dad’s favorite performances she ever gave.

March 29, 2023 14:54

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Russell Mickler
16:58 Apr 04, 2023

Hi Mary! I liked the imagery in the first para, with the cascading raindrops over the piano. Very poetic, and a good visual. The bend in the story to the funeral is touching. I think the anxious voice of a teenage girl resonates in this piece. Good capture of a moment in time, good mechanics, and attention to the emotion of your character. Seemed very authentic to me. Well done :) R


Marta Eastover
18:42 Apr 04, 2023

Thanks so much, Russell! This was my first submission here and it was fun to write. Cheers.


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