Cowley: On Grief and Scrubbing Tubs


Sydney Stam

(Graphic by Sydney Stam | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Elle Cowley, Multimedia Managing Editor


Editor’s Note: This piece belongs to the September print issue, which was dedicated to late Chronicle Opinion Writer Maggie Bringhurst who tragically passed away in a fatal car accident on Aug. 6, 2022.


After stepping into my apartment for the first time, I could immediately tell it hadn’t been cleaned after the previous tenant left. The whole place felt disregarded and sad, with its kitchen walls stained with grease and the floor buried in dust — when you walked on it barefoot, the soles of your feet turned gray. My mom was mortified.

“This is what our security deposit paid for?” She scoffed, “This is completely unacceptable. I rented for years and it was never this bad.” I nodded and continued looking around.

The whole place stunk of neglect. Even the floorboards were caked in a thick layer of dust, and the windows were so dirty, I could barely make out what was outside. I leaned against the wall trying to take it all in.

I had been told about Maggie’s passing the night before. We had just got checked into our hotel room and I had begun to unwind from a long day of driving. The news hit me like a semi-truck, a million thoughts running through my head at once. I just spoke with her that Friday — how was this possible? I sat and stared at my computer screen. The reality of her passing hit me all at once, and I started to cry.

As a college student, mortality feels like nothing more than an abstract concept. Yeah, we all die one day, but that won’t happen to me for a long time, right?

The next day, my mom and I went shopping, specifically for cleaning supplies. We filled our cart with sprays, powders and gels. Some part of me had decided that if the house was completely clean from top to bottom, my sadness would disappear along with the layers of dust. As we checked out, I made a mental list of everything that needed to be done:

  1. Mop all the floors
  2. Scrub the sink out
  3. Clean the soap scum out of the tub
  4. Clean all the windows

For hours and hours, my we disinfected every square foot of space. I took it upon myself to scour the bathroom, armed with bleach and enough Clorox to supply a hospital for a month. I sat there hunched over the tub, focusing on making the tile pristine and pearly white. I believed that if I scrubbed hard enough, my grief would wash down the drain. It was all I could do to keep my feelings from catching up to me — scour the tub, back and forth and back and forth.

If I stopped cleaning, the dirt and grime would swallow me whole.

How are you supposed to react when someone you know passes? Do you cry? Do you withdraw? We all read about the stages of grief, but honestly, no part of my grief felt like it fit in neat little steps. This was a real, living and breathing person that I knew. Her passing can’t boil down to five stages.

I squeezed out the sponge I was using and watched a thick, yellowish gray liquid trickle out. All I felt was disgust. At myself and the tub.

Normally, I hated cleaning. During my stint at the freshman dorms, I would let clothes consume my floor until I couldn’t see anything but tacky band T-shirts and jeans. I would let my desk get cluttered and unusable. I opted to work mostly from my bed, and when it was time to sleep, I simply shoved whatever was on my bed onto the floor. Something about the dirt and grime of my new living space felt different, though. I had a compulsive urge to make the place spotless. Every speck of dirt felt like a personal affront that I couldn’t control.

I had known Maggie for almost a year. When I first joined the Chronicle, I was so nervous to meet the other writers. Everyone I worked with was so talented and intelligent, so I worried how I stacked up to the rest of them and how to prove myself. But Maggie was the first person to truly make me feel welcome on the desk. Everyone who knew her would say the same things: she was kind and incredibly compassionate. We had been working on some projects together, and after her death, I had no idea how to proceed. How do you even make that call?

It took two and a half days, but we managed to get the house in habitable condition. We began filling the kitchen with pots and pans, and moved my bed into my room. The space finally began to feel like mine. But although my surroundings were clean, I still felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. Deep cleaning couldn’t fix the grief I felt.

It’s been over a month since Maggie passed. Some days are easier than others. I did open up our last print edition, and upon seeing Maggie’s article next to mine, I nearly broke down.

It seems like the only way to process grief is to give it time. No amount of dusting can speed it up.


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