‘Smad’ and Other Words Born of Grief

In the year since my husband died, there have been many lessons — and a few new vocabulary words.

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Fernanda and Mike in their last photo together. (Courtesy of Fernanda Santos)

One year. I’ve made it. Flora and I have made it. We have survived our first year without Mike.

Together, my 9-year-old daughter and I have managed to plod through the muck, gulp for air and dive under these stormy waters we’ve sailed, holding our breath, and holding it, as we wait for the storm to subside, wait for the whirlpool to stop spinning. We’re still out there, swimming. We have each other as lifesavers.

Sometimes we look up and see stars. We see rainbows. We see clouds shaped like cats and lizards and eagles, clouds that frame the setting sun and smear the sky in yellows, oranges and reds. We see the stars and the rainbows and the colors tinging the sky and we smile. Sometimes we close our eyes so we don’t have to see the other cry.

READ: 6 Tips for Talking to Kids About Death

She handed me a hot-pink sheet of paper on Thursday. “If my stuffed animals lost someone they love,” she said, “this is how they’d feel.”

On this sheet of paper, she’d written a bullet-point list of feelings: smad, hasad, glasadmad, melancholy, low self-esteem.

“Which one of these feelings do you feel the most?” I asked her.

“Smad,” she said. That’s a combination of “sad” and “mad.” Because grief is not a single-layered experience. It’s a knot, a jumble of emotions. It is disorienting. It can be paralyzing.

“Why do you feel mad, Flora?”

“I’m mad that this happened to me.”

I was driving. I gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to stop where I was and hug her, but we were on a highway and there was no safe place to stop. Our eyes met in the rearview mirror and I told her, “I’m mad that this happened to you, too.”

‘There is no magic to first anniversaries. There is no relief. I do feel a sense of accomplishment, for we have not fallen apart.’

“Our hearts are like a glass of water, and every emotion we experience is a drop of water,” I said. “If we leave an empty glass of water under a running tap, what happens to the glass of water?”

“It overflows.”

“Yes, and if we don’t talk about our feelings, our heart gets so full that we feel like we’re drowning inside, and I’m so glad you talk to me about your feelings, Flora.”

“You’re the only person who understands me,” she said.

These words hold true when applied in either direction.

The couple’s daughter, Flora, with Mike, during their last family outing before Mike died. (Courtesy of Fernanda Santos)

Nothing has changed and everything has changed since Mike has been gone. Everything is changing. We are still learning. There is no magic to first anniversaries. There is no relief. I do feel a sense of accomplishment, for we have not fallen apart. I’m also more present these days, less worried about what I might miss if I don’t look there. Because I should really be looking here, where I am. I intentionally leave my phone at home when I’m out with Flora and I don’t worry about what is happening in the world because the only thing that matters is that we are together.

READ: Are My Kids Reacting to Their Father’s Death — or Just Acting Their Age? 

Looking back on this year, I realize that it was more about raising Flora without Mike than it was about missing Mike. Because missing Mike is a permanent condition: It can’t be fixed. I do get smad sometimes. Most times, I’m hasad — happy and sad. I could have dwelled on the cruelty of his loss, but I can assure you that I haven’t and maybe that’s why I have allowed myself to learn the lessons that Death wanted me to learn in this first year:

It’s a waste of time to agonize over what you can’t change.

The clock is ticking.

Live.

Fernanda Santos is a storyteller, author, speaker, immigrant, mother and widow rediscovering joy, one day at a time. She posts occasionally about her journey of rediscovery on her website, fernandasantos.com. A version of this piece first appeared in her newsletter.

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