The Shape of Grief by Melanie Faranello

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A stack of colorful plates in rainbow order

We were sixteen and we knew everything. It was 1989 and we spent weekends listening to Peter Frampton, Jimi Hendrix, the Dead, and sneaking out at night to get high in Dirtball’s basement. We told our parents we were sleeping at each other’s houses, and instead we went to Wisconsin, downtown Chicago, back to Dirtball’s basement. We survived together, because of each other.

We were sixteen and we swore by John Cougar Mellencamp. Truth blasting from my friend’s old Scirocco’s car radio, telling us to hold on to sixteen, warning us changes would come around real soon. He understood something, and we did as he told us: We held on. Because we understood, too. Or we thought we did. We thought we knew everything.

Thirty years later, the things I don’t know feel sharp and sudden against the comfort of the deep knowing one has with old friends. Small, insignificant things that clatter against my awareness, present themselves as New Information.

Like, her laundry detergent.

I am folding my friend’s laundry in her house halfway across the country, where I have come to visit, to help while her husband is away for work, to drive her teenaged boys to school, go to the pharmacy, cook, take her to appointments. I will do it all for three days. For three full days, I will sit with my friend on her large, soft sofa and watch a high-mounted TV with English subtitles turned on because it is easier for her to watch this way now, with the headaches. For three full days, I will not have to leave; I will not have to say goodbye.

I bring a bag full of yarn, knitting needles, and a collection of our old handwritten notes—long rhyming poems we exchanged in our high school halls. Our teenage days documented on these loose-leaf pages. In 7 days, I’ll have 4th free/ When I do, I’ll scream “whoopee”… She holds half the notes on her lap, I hold the other half; we unfold together. We try to knit, but neither of us knows how. She dreamt of this, she says, of me bringing the yarn; she is sure we talked about it on the phone, that I called her from Michaels, where I bought the supplies. I know that in some dimension, it must be true. We manage to cast on, and she attempts a row, but the yarn keeps slipping. She needs to rest. I pull the softest blanket over her, tuck her into the couch, press our foreheads briefly together. For the next hour, while she sleeps, I grow drowsy beside her, knitting a few crooked rows with the occasional gaping hole, the sun beating through the windows.


I make brownies for the boys, dump half a bag of chocolate chips into the mix, then dump in the rest with desperation. I make lime-green Jell-O in a Tupperware that is too deep, chicken soup, scrambled eggs, yogurt smoothies, trying anything that won’t hurt her sores. But everything feels like glass in her mouth.

She grips the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes shut with pain. We sit together on the tall kitchen stools, two Ziplocs full of medications on the counter, and she searches for another song to play. Her lips press together as she scrolls, trying to remember what she is looking for.

“Peter Frampton?” I guess.


Relief sweeps over us, and we decide we should market this—our ESP. Bring it to the carnies! Travel around to state fairs! We make each other laugh. We search online for a laser light show, the kind we plugged into a boombox and used to watch lying across her teenage bed, or in our boyfriends’ basements, listening to the endless “Do You Feel Like We Do” as colors swirled and danced across the ceiling. We consider buying one now, amazed at how they’ve changed. But it won’t arrive in time. Music blasts through the phone speaker, louder and louder, and we rock our heads, and we are sixteen again. Just the two of us.


Her laundry detergent: an oversized jug with a spout. She also buys the pods. Fluffy bath towels, pajamas folded and stacked. I consider the shorts—they could belong to her husband or her sons. I flatten and fold, stack them atop the simple white washcloths. At the bottom of the canvas basket, a pair of her clean underwear, beautiful silk with lace. I fold it into origami, an impossibly small triangle of silk that keeps slipping out of shape; I fold the boxers, match her children’s socks.

She has ten-billion-thread-count sheets, a deep auburn orange, and I want to wrap it around my body, taste the fabric in my mouth.

These new insignificant details, I layer them around the things I know—her throaty laugh, the flush of her skin, the wrap of her bun atop her head, her ears, fingers, teeth, feet; every boy she’s loved, every place she’s lived, all the dreams we’ve analyzed together through the decades; the way she tosses her cell aside when it rings, what she will say before she says it—we are still joking about how to capitalize on this.

In her cupboard, leans a tower of the tiniest colorful bowls. Dipping Bowls, she tells me, laughing at my curiosity.


With one hand, I hold the Tupperware of green powder against the fridge adding water for the Jell-O, and with the other hand, I stir an egg.

“Look at you,” she says from the kitchen stool, “you can do it all.”

I put everything down, apologize. In my frenzy, I am trying to fix what cannot be fixed.


The day before I leave, we are at the cancer hospital, waiting at the pharmacy counter for her prescription. The woman sitting behind the plexiglass smiles weakly and slides the stapled paper bag through the partition.

My friend pats her coat pockets, exasperated. For as long as I’ve known her, she has been misplacing her wallet. I wrap my arms around her, and she sets her head on my shoulder.

I could tell John Cougar Mellencamp this; I could tell him that some things never change.

“I got it,” I say. The woman accepts my card.

“I’m buying you Oxycodone,” I tell my friend.

“It’s only $1.30.”

“I’d rather be buying you a drink.” I hand my friend the paper bag. “Happy birthday,” I say.

The woman behind the plexiglass laughs. “You guys are funny,” she says, a smile breaking open on her face with genuine surprise that makes me wonder what it is like to work in the cancer hospital, ringing up patients’ medications.


Her youngest son is the same age that we were when I tried to sneak my friend out her bedroom window. Halfway out the first-story window, her long legs straddling the sill, nearly reaching the ground where I stood with arms raised to break her fall, her father appeared in the darkened room behind her. “Going somewhere?” he asked.

Three decades later, a few days before she dies, her father and I joke about this moment on Facetime. I am back home on the East Coast, and her family surrounds her at home in the West. As I watch her roving eyes, her face sliding off itself, I push away the fury and the tears and just keep talking through the speaker, keep telling stories. And then her sister, in the most generous gesture in the world, holds my face up to my friend’s. I tell her I love her, I tell her all the words, and yet the words are puny beneath the weight of years, and they fail to stand up for themselves; they are nothing but empty shells of letters knocking awkwardly together trying to say the impossible. After I hang up, my bones turn to water.


Over the next few months, my grief morphs from the general to the specific, slowly revealing the shape of her, her reach and size inside of me. The exactitude of her missing space. I become aware of these edges.

I buy oversized laundry detergent with a spout. Pods. A stack of dipping bowls. But they are not the same ones, and I keep searching for those tiny bowls, but I cannot find them small enough.

A large manila envelope arrives in the mail. A collection of letters we wrote to each other over three decades, so many addresses, so many states and countries where we lived or traveled. Her sister found the package marked with my name in my friend’s closet. I read our letters, tracing her familiar small print on delicate rice paper, postcards, birthday cards, airmail stationary, graph paper, wanting more than anything to write her back. I indulge in our correspondence traversing the years. We are in a pretty fantastic time, she wrote in our twenties. Where we will be in 4 years? Another, early thirties, hits me hard: sorry I never truly said ‘goodbye.’ But I hate the G word and will be seeing you soon! I tuck the letters back into their envelopes, the adhesives having lost their seals.


One night, my fourteen-year-old son calls me into his bedroom. “How do you know if a girl likes you on text?” he asks. “I thought since you’re, like, a girl and all, you’d know.”

I suppress a laugh, dig and clarify, but am useless.

“We used to write notes. On paper,” I tell him. “Passed them in the halls. Sometimes the boy would just ask the girl out, ask her to go steady.”

He groans and covers his face. “Your whole generation was, like, so…cringy,” he says, giving up.

As soon as I leave his room, I want to call my friend. This is a story for her. I will call her and she will answer, expecting my call because she was just thinking about me, and I will tell her about this moment and she will get it, in our way, and laugh like only she can laugh.

I call one million people and I tell them this story. And each of them laughs, but none of them sound like her.

Meet the Contributor

Melanie Faranello’s writing has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in StoryQuarterly, Blackbird, Huffington Post, Catamaran, Vestal Review, and elsewhere. Her novel-in-progress won the Marianne Russo Award and was short-listed for Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction, The Dana Awards, and William Faulkner Wisdom Competition. Recipient of a Connecticut Artist Fellowship Award, she received her MFA from The New School. She works as a teaching artist and is the founder of Poetry on the Streets, LLC, a community engagement project using creative writing for social impact. Read more of her work at

  11 comments for “The Shape of Grief by Melanie Faranello

  1. Broke my heart like only the most beautiful prose can. Thank you for this piece, Melanie!

  2. Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to your friend and the friendship you shared. It reminds me so much of my own dear friend who died at 49, leaving me to miss her and the ease we had between us. Gone now for 25 years, but still deeply remembered.

  3. What an absolutely beautiful tribute to the decades long love you have for your dear friend. Holding you in your grieving. Thank you for sharing.

  4. What a beautiful friendship. I’m so sorry for your loss. And I thank you for touching something in me that I had forgotten. I need to call a certain friend…

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