MWD25 - On Thirteen Ways of Looking at Grief
A special edition, neither Midweek nor Dinner-time.
On the day of my college graduation, I was grieving. Grieving the loss of that place and all that it had given me. Grieving the knowledge that I wasn’t ready for all that came next. Grieving that I couldn’t just stay that girl forever. I cried from the moment we began lining up to the moment the choir (of which I was a member) sang the Hallelujah chorus to close the ceremony. After, I found my oldest friend, who was supposed to be graduating with us but lost a semester to a back injury. He told me his mother was dying. We held each other, and I cried again. A few months later, I left my new husband and my graduate courses for a few days to be with my friend for his mother’s services. She was only 58, and I had no words of consolation, nothing I could offer my friend except my presence.
John Green is drawing 170,000 circles, and at first I didn’t know why he chose that number. And then, of course, in a breath, it struck me. Green’s project is inspired by the work of Hiroyuki Doi who began drawing circles after the death of his brother. He said it gave him “relief from the sadness and grief.”
Another friend recently lost her dad. She described it like this:
It happened so slowly.
And then so fast.
And I have not gone a day since then without thinking of her and this perfect phrasing of a completely imperfect situation.
Jesmyn Ward writes of the searing loss of her husband to COVID, and we grieve with her. Can grief be shared? She writes of watching the marchers protesting the death of George Floyd, the deaths of all the George Floyds:
The people marched, and I had never known that there could be rivers such as this, and as protesters chanted and stomped, as they grimaced and shouted and groaned, tears burned my eyes. They glazed my face.
In many ways, a protest is just another act of grief, an outcry against a pain so substantial as to have no logical recourse. In They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery writes, “the power of protest is found in the communal space it creates.” It is a grief shared. A grief outloud. A grief that does not concern itself with propriety.
When I was a toddler, our next door neighbor had a baby. I didn’t know this at the time, of course, but I have heard the story. The baby was a healthy, beautiful boy, their first, the joy of their life. When he was 18 months old, something went terribly wrong. Telescoping bowels, I’ve been told. Intussusception. Not usually fatal, but this time wasn’t usual. Some time after his death, someone asked that aching mama how she was doing, and this was her response:
Every morning, when I wake up, I want to go outside and lie down in traffic. And every morning, I don’t.
That’s it. That’s the only way.
These are my rules:
If someone needs help loading or unloading a moving truck, and you can help, do it.
If someone you know has lost a loved one, and you can attend the funeral, do it.
Laila Lalami writes about the breaking of the social contract in “Not in This Together,” and as I read, I kept thinking of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, writing about the death of her mother:
The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack.
And I remain convinced of the wisdom of Dorothy Sayers:
To oppose one class perpetually to another — young against old, manual labor against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man — is to split the foundations of the state; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship.
I recently read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and it will likely be one of my favorite books of the year, perhaps of all time. I haven’t yet reviewed it, but I’ll begin here: anyone who has taught Shakespeare (that’s me) knows that he had a son named Hamnet who died and that Hamlet, (the play written after his son’s death), is an alternative spelling of the name of his son. To make sure no one accused her of fabricating events to fit her narrative, O’Farrell includes a note explaining this history at the opening of her novel. However you came to this knowledge, you enter the book knowing the boy will die. It is not a surprise.
Still, it remains one of the most powerful pieces of writing I have ever experienced, especially as a mother and a sister. Especially as a human with a heart overfull.
After the boy’s death, the priest tries to offer comfort with his words - “God had need of him” - and Hamnet’s mother
turns on him, almost snarling, filled with the urge to strike him. I had need of him, she wants to say, and your God should have bided his time.
It is the destruction of the world
in our own lives that drives us
half insane, and more than half.
To destroy that which we were given
in trust: how will we bear it?
It is our own bodies that we give
to be broken, our bodies
existing before and after us
in clod and cloud, worm and tree,
that we, driving or driven, despise
in our greed to live, our haste
to die. To have lost, wantonly,
the ancient forests, the vast grasslands
is our madness, the presence
in our very bodies of our grief.
One day before I left home to drive across the country and drop my daughter at boarding school for the first time, I found one of my hawks, perched low, silent and still, on a standard streetlight. Usually, they stay high above the ordinary, and all summer long, the morning hours have been filled with one or the other of them, crying out across the open air. Every morning as I would walk the dogs, I would hear them and start looking up. Eventually, the sound would allow me to locate them, and there one would be: on the lights above the baseball field, or on that topmost outstretched branch, or on the impossibly tall poles, stringing power across this skyhigh corridor. All summer, one would sit, utterly unmoved but for the slight uplift of breast at the moment of the call. Scree-eee-eee, it would sing. And then pause. And then again the call. And again. For hours.
Once I spotted it, I, too, would stop moving, stilling the dogs to watch, trying to discern the reason for the call. It did not appear to be hunting, or defending a particular domain. It did not appear perturbed or flustered. It would just call and call again. At some point late in the morning, long after I had retreated indoors where its cry would be softened but still audible, I would realize it had quieted, and I would wonder where and how it spent the rest of its day. And I would wonder again: what does that cry mean?
And then there was the unexpected appearance, low enough to feel more real than symbol, and it was quiet. So quiet. We gazed at each other for long, lonely minutes, and then the next morning I left and for days I drove and drove and cried and mourned and grieved my little losses, and now I am home, and my hawks are still here, but they do not cry. Not at all. Not even when perched in their usual spots. They are still watching. But they are silent.
Ann Pancake’s brilliant, heartshattering novel Strange as this Weather Has Been focuses on the people of Appalachia living with and fighting the devastation of mountaintop removal mining in their communities. In it, she writes, “I learned what it is to grieve your life lost while you’re still living, and I learned that there are few losses harsher than that.”
Helen Macdonald’s “The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down” opens with an image of the author finding a dead swift by the River Thames, and I love this description,
The bird was suffused with a kind of seriousness akin to holiness.
David Grossman knows grief. His To the End of the Land was my introduction to his writing and to the personal pain he suffered when his son was killed in the war this novel is so profoundly against. And then a few years later, I read his Falling Out of Time, an Everyman-style play in verse which includes the following perfect lines:
In August he died, and
when that month was over, I wondered:
How can I move
while he remains
Please forgive this dive into the darkness. I am well, truly, emerging into the hope that clings so indulgently. If you are hurting, please reach out and get the help you need. I’ll be back to regular programming next week. If you think this post might interest someone you know, please feel free to share it.
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