When we're dying or have suffered a catastrophic loss, we all move through five distinct stages of grief. We go into denial because the loss is so unthinkable we can't imagine it's true. We become angry with everyone, angry with survivors, angry with ourselves. Then we bargain. We beg. We plead. We offer everything we have; we offer our souls in exchange for just one more day. When the bargaining has failed and the anger is too hard to maintain, we fall into depression, despair, until finally we have to accept that we've done everything we can. We let go. We let go and move into acceptance.
There are five stages of grief. They look different on all of us, but there are always five.
“She hasn’t cried. It’s been four days and she just…”
“Sometimes, it’s easier to just go to work and to avoid dealing with what’s going on,” Archie whispered back to Mary Margaret.
Emma sat curled up in the corner of her bed. She could hear every word the two exchanged. It was impossible not to, with the way the loft was designed. She pushed herself out of bed and did her best to avoid their worried hushing coming up to her from the floor below.
“She’s working too hard, Archie. Yesterday, she ran out of things to do in the office and went out to give traffic tickets on purpose. She even gave Ruby one for jaywalking. She won’t even…talk about going to the funeral.”
“Well, she has to go, she won’t…you didn’t see her, Mary Margaret. It took three of us to pry her off of him when the ambulance arrived, I think she’s still in shock.”
Emma hurried down the stairs, hoping to avoid them both.
“Well, maybe you shou-Emma! Hey! You…why aren’t you dressed?”
Emma glanced down at her Deputy’s uniform with a shrug and went for her jacket.
“I’m going to work, Mary Margaret.”
“But today’s the-“
“I’ve got to go; I’ll see you guys later.”
She didn’t wait for a response before slamming the door shut behind her on her way out.
All of the denial in the world hadn’t stopped Emma from changing at the station and attending the funeral anyway. She stood in the back, wanting to avoid Regina, and was the first to leave, followed by Ruby, who stood in silence as Emma tore apart her desk at the station in a fit of rage before curling up on the floor and letting herself cry.
Seeing Graham put into the ground made it all real and she couldn’t fight the images of his death anymore.
Her stomach fluttered as he leaned in for another kiss. She couldn’t fight what she’d been feeling for weeks, not anymore. She leaned up to meet him halfway when-
Emma let out a strangled sob, recalling the horror she’d felt as she watched Graham die. Ruby’s arms wrapped around Emma and she held her firmly against her chest. Ruby said nothing, she just let Emma cry, and afterward, she never spoke of Emma’s moment of weakness again.
Her small act of kindness spared her from Emma’s anger, unfortunately, everyone else wasn’t as lucky.
It was easier to pick fights with Mary Margaret, she was always around. Then along came Archie, because he couldn’t let anything go. The more he tried to help and get Emma to open up, the more she lashed out at him. Mr. Gold knew better than to speak about Graham until he had a way to help her channel her anger, right in Regina’s direction.
Suddenly it became about making sure Regina didn’t win, that Graham’s job, her job, didn’t go to some mindless minion.
Once the badge was hers and Gold had somehow snuck Graham’s things into the station, Emma’s anger had been replaced with a small sense of calm, but it didn’t last.
She’d never been one for praying, what was the point? If God did exist, he clearly had better things to do than to help her. After all, she’d been abandoned on the side of a highway and left to navigate through the cruel world of the foster system on her own before getting caught up in a life of crime with Henry’s father which had led to her losing Henry and her dignity.
But here she was, in a church, with a nun, a complete mess, trying to understand why she couldn’t have Graham back. It seemed unfair that the moment she finally came to accept love it had been cruelly ripped away from her before she could enjoy it.
She’d prayed at home, alone in the church, by crying out in the middle of forest in the hopes that God would hear her, but none of it had worked. And from the look of pity on Mother Superior’s face, Emma could feel what little hope she had left slowly slip away.
“Sorry, Mayor, she’s really sick, I think it could be contagious. I’m having Ruby take her to see Dr. Whale. Don’t worry; she’ll be back in the station by Monday. Right. Good-bye.”
Ruby ran her fingers through Emma’s hair as she whispered a lullaby Granny had taught her as a child. After spending the past week crying in her spare time and trying to keep it together at the station, Emma had indulged in one too many drinks, and completely fallen apart the night before.
“It’s going to be okay, Emma,” Mary Margaret whispered, kneeling next to the couch to provide Emma with a new box of tissues.
“No, it’s not. Everything hurts and I don’t…I just want him back.”
Ruby and Mary Margaret exchanged worried glances.
“I know, Emma. I know.”
With Ruby still stroking her hair, Emma fell into a restless sleep, her dreams too vivid to keep out for long.
“You need to let me go, Emma.”
“But I don’t want to.”
Graham pulled her hand away from his cheek and brought her knuckles to his lips, kissing them.
Emma watched, frozen, as he slowly faded away from view.
“Graham, don’t go!”
Emma sat up in a sweat, looking around wildly, expecting to see Graham. Her eyes landed on Henry and she choked back a sob, but it was too late. She could tell from the look of pain in his eyes that Henry could see what a mess she was.
He launched himself at her and Emma hugged him close and tightly, holding onto him like her life depended on it.
Henry pulled her out of her depression. She couldn’t let him down any more than she already had, so when Monday came, she was back in the office, clear headed, and with all reminders of Graham safely tucked away in her closet.
She needed to be strong for Henry and that meant she had to really say goodbye to him.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner, I just…really suck at this,” Emma whispered, looking down at the bouquet of flowers she’d neatly placed at the head of Graham’s grave. She closed her eyes, feeling stupid, but Archie said this would help and for once, she was listening.
“I think-I mean-I loved you, Graham, for a few minutes there, and maybe we could have had something, but I can’t keep thinking about what could have been because it’s never going to happen. I’ll never forget you and I think, because of you, maybe, someday, I’ll finally let myself love someone who isn’t Henry, so thank you for that. And I promise, I’ll be a good Sheriff, not nearly as good as you were, but I’ll try.”
She bit her lip and let out a long sigh.
Grief may be a thing we all have in common, but it looks different on everyone.
Grief comes in its own time for everyone, in its own way.
Emma stepped out of the gates and towards her yellow bug, smirking as she saw who was leaning against the hood.
“Hey,” he said, pushing himself off of the car. “I owed you another drink, so here.”
Emma smiled and took the cup of coffee from August’s hand.
“Smooth, August, very smooth,” she said, shaking her head as she motioned for him to join her in the bug, having no desire to linger near Graham’s resting place any longer than she had to.
The very worst part is that the minute you think you’re past it, it starts all over again.
And always, every time, it takes your breath away.