Scenes of Grief #3: The White Helmets

Netflix is currently streaming an essential and must-watch documentary about what's happening in Syria. It's called The White Helmets and it's about the volunteers who make up the Syrian Civil Defence. These men are the first responders after a bombing takes place, risking their lives to save others. So far, they have saved nearly 60,000 people. I urge you to watch the film. You will be moved by the bravery of The White Helmets and horrified that the international community allows the atrocities in Syria to continue.

There is one scene, in particular, that is heartbreaking. While the men are on a one-month training mission in Turkey to learn the necessary skills of their job, a volunteer named Abu Zaid hears that his brother was in a building that was bombed and is under the rubble. During a phone call, he gets the devastating news that his brother is dead. Almost half a million people have died in Syria since the start of the war. Abu Zaid's grief is quiet. He is stunned. He puts his hands over his face. Watching the scene, I couldn't help but think of all the people in Syria who have lost loved ones. Abu Zaid could not save his brother, but as a member of The White Helmets, he will save other lives. The volunteers are ensuring that as many people as possible live and that their families do not receive the dreaded news--like Abu Zaid did--that their loved one has died.



























More on Scenes of Grief

The Unbearable

I am reading Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems: Volume One. Recently, I came across these stanzas in a poem called "The Moths:"
If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable. 
If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can't be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
I'm going through something very difficult right now. It's so painful that I can't write about it. It is so devastating to my psyche that I resist even thinking about it. I actively suppress my thoughts of it because my mind cannot absorb it.

I find myself confronting the unbearable. I listen to music and watch films and read and play mindless computer games. I do whatever I can to lose myself, to numb myself, to put myself in another world or another story besides my own. Call it denial. Call it what you want but it's the only way I know how to save my life right now.

The unbearable cannot be changed and so it becomes what we must bear because we have no choice. My body and mind say I cannot endure this, but I will endure it. Through some mysterious process, I will keep living and I will live with this thing that is unbearable and a part of me will die and I will grieve what I've lost and I will fear the next loss, the next unbearable event.

I also came across these lines from "Landscape," in the same Mary Oliver book:
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
The doors of my heart are closed. I do not trust people. I will never again trust people after the things that I have been through. I can't. I feel myself recoiling from the world. I feel myself becoming bitter, resentful, and angry. I want to stay tender. I want to give of myself. I want to make a connection, but after a lifetime of constantly being abandoned and rejected and disappointed by people, I don't think I can.  Opening my doors leads to suffering and I have to protect myself. I have to keep myself alive. I am the only one who can do that because no one saves us. We're lucky if we can save ourselves. I am trying so hard to save my life. Every day, I put all my energy into saving myself, into surviving. There is nothing left over. Nothing. Maybe one day it won't be like this but, for now, it is.

The unbearable. How do we bear it? How do we keep going? I don't know. We may bear it but there are always consequences. You change in ways both subtle and obvious. The anxiety and depression intensify, you find it hard to leave your room, you stop engaging with people, you struggle to find meaning in life. People are always ready with their cliches of "it could be worse" and "it gets better" and "be thankful for what you have" and every other dismissive remark. The insensitivity in the world today is shocking and shattering. So you stop confiding, stop sharing. What's the point when you'll only be told that your pain and your problems are not legitimate, that you need to be positive? People have legitimate struggles. People are trapped in abject situations that they cannot escape. There isn't always a silver lining. Things don't always get better. Sometimes, things get worse. They get unbearable and you get scared and you don't know how to cope with having so little control over your own life. You don't know how much more you can take. You can feel yourself unraveling. You ache to feel hope again.

Sometimes, it feels like the doors of my heart got torn off and I have no protection anymore and life keeps battering me and I just want it to stop but it won't stop, it will never stop. Maybe if this hadn't been going on for ten years, I'd be stronger. Ever since my father died in 2006 when I was only 16, I've been unmoored and destabilized. I can't cope. In one instant, I was shattered and I've never been able to put the shards back together. I became something unrecognizable to myself. I can't heal. I can't repair myself. I can't bear being alive without him. I can't bear the loss. I can't bear what his death revealed to me, mainly that death is emptiness and darkness, it is the ultimate unbearable thing. I can't bear the loneliness. I can't bear the fear. I can't bear the knowledge that he's gone forever and that what happened to him will one day happen to me. I can't bear losing everyone I love. I can't bear to even write these words. I can't bear to think about the past and I can't bear to face the present. Maybe when you have even just one devastating event in your life, everything after it becomes unbearable. All of life is the unbearable.


Note: To anyone reading this, please do not contact me asking what is wrong. I do not want to talk about it and approaching me will only cause me more stress and anxiety. I wanted to write about some of what I am feeling as a way to have some form of catharsis. I do not intend to go into any more detail about it.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - I Need You


In July of 2015, Nick Cave's 15-year-old son died after falling from a cliff. The death of a child is a loss that most people struggle to deal with. Cave is a musician and so the grief inevitably seeped into his latest album Skeleton Tree and the accompanying documentary One More Time With Feeling. You can find out more about the process of making both the album and the film in this illuminating review by David Bennun at 1843 Magazine. Bennun writes:
The film reaches its musical climax with the session for “I Need You”. “Nothing really matters any more,” intones Cave, summoning the desolation of all-consuming grief. Art is not an answer, when you do not even know what the question is. There is no cure, there is no palliative. The only option is to do something because doing nothing is somehow worse still.
Last night, I listened to "I Need You," and I was gutted by it. I cried and cried. I can't get over this song. I can't get over the line "Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone."

Lyrics:

When you're feeling like a lover
Nothing really matters anymore
I saw you standing there in the supermarket
With your red dress falling, your eyes are to the ground

Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone

You're still in me, baby
I need you
In my heart, I need you
Cause nothing really matters

I'm standing in the doorway
You're walking 'round my place in your red dress, hair hanging down
Your eyes on one, we love the ones we can
Cause nothing really matters when you're standing, standing

I need you, I need you
Cause nothing really matters

We follow the line of the palms of our hands
You're standing in the supermarket, nothing, holding hands
In your red dress, falling, falling, falling in
The long black car is waiting 'round

I will miss you when you're gone
I'll miss you when you're gone away forever
Cause nothing really matters
I thought I knew better, so much better

And I need you, I need you
Cause nothing really matters

Oh that night we wrecked like a train
The purring cars and the pouring rain
Never felt right about it, never again

Cause nothing really matters
Nothing really matters anymore, not even today
No matter how hard I try
When you're standing in the aisle, and no, baby

Nothing, nothing, nothing

I need, I need you

I need you

In my heart I need you

Just breathe, just breathe

I need you

Taryn Simon - An Occupation of Loss





















Taryn Simon has a new exhibition currently showing at Park Avenue Armory in New York. It's called An Occupation of Loss and gathers 30 professional mourners from around the world who perform their rituals inside large towers set up in the museum space. It raises issues of public mourning, the ways in which different cultures express grief, and the role of the state in mourning. The New York Times has a review of the installation:
Traditionally, professional mourners are hired by families of the deceased to mark the occasion and to guide the dead to the place where they will lead their afterlife. Mourners are called upon to mark larger losses within their communities, like displacement or exile, in a cultural role that is part witness, part historian and part poet.
***
Ms. Simon’s mourners, with 13 companions, arrived, by somber happenstance, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. They came from Azerbaijan, which banned mourners when the country was a part of the Soviet Union; Cambodia, where mourners were targeted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s; and Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, where mourners are heard on radio and television announcing tragedies and the deaths of well-known people.
***
Ms. Simon collaborated with Shohei Shigematsu, director of the New York office of OMA, an architectural firm, on the installation: a cluster of 11 concrete towers, open at the top and 48 feet tall, that houses the mourners by nationality as they perform. It resembles a large pipe organ and operates acoustically as an instrument, giving harmony to the cacophonic language of loss.
Real the full review



Julian Schnabel on Death and Losing His Father

Recently, I was reminded of an interview Julian Schnabel did with Charlie Rose nearly a decade ago in 2007 while he was promoting his stunning film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In the interview, Schnabel talked about how he was inspired to make the film after watching what his father, Jack, went through while he was dying. Jack was terrified of death. Schnabel talks about how making The Diving Bell and The Butterfly helped him overcome his own fear of death because he was able to live more fully in the present. 

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was originally a memoir written by French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. In 1995, he suffered a stroke and experienced what is called locked-in syndrome. He managed to write his profoundly moving memoir through blinking one of his eyelids. Bauby's story is remarkable, and I recommend both his book and Schnabel's film. It will make you see life differently. 

Schnabel's interview with Charlie Rose is extraordinary. While Jack Schnabel was dying, a friend wrote down everything he said. Rose reads the text as pictures of Julian and Jack are shown on the screen. It's an outburst of words and thoughts and emotion. It's a poem from the lips of a dying man, and it will take your breath away.

You can watch the full interview here on the Charlie Rose website. I strongly recommend watching it. It has stayed with me for almost ten years, and so I want to share it with others and make them aware of its arresting power. It's an interview about life, death, loss, and the power of art.

Julian Schnabel: I`m not scared to die anymore. And one of reasons - one of the reasons why I made this film is because my father who was 92 was terrified of death, and he was stuck inside of his body. And so, the idea is not to be stuck inside of your body. 
Charlie Rose: But so, how did making the movie get you -- eliminate your fear of death? 
Julian Schnabel: By making the present more satisfying. And I think what happens when people go see the movie people come - Yeah, I went out of the movie. I grabbed my kids. I hugged my children. Or I did this or... 
Charlie Rose: Things are precious.
***
Julian Schnabel: My dad never wrote a word in his life, but Darren McCormack, who stayed with him -- I said, "would you just write down whatever my father says?" And he did and he handed me this text. 
Charlie Rose: The only poem he ever wrote. 
Julian Schnabel: The only poem he ever wrote. 
Charlie Rose:  All right. Here it is. The last time we talked, I said I wanted to see it and you sent it to me. And so I unbeknownst to you, brought it with me. "You are a gem of a man. You`re an angel. Do me a favor, give me a scratch. Put me to sleep so I can be reborn. I`m going to miss you. You`re my little guy. I wish my wife was alive. She would tell you what a good man I am. I`ll give you the necklace for a drink. Do me a favor, cover me, put me to sleep. How should I sleep? All of this money and what good is it? Something is missing. I`m dying. Oh, I`m about 55, everything is all right. I didn't realize how sick I was. You know, sometimes I like to eat eggs. Do me favor, give me a scratch. I`m so glad I have a rich son who brought you to me. This place is bigger than you think. How are the kids? I wish you would take care of Julian. I worry. Do me a favor, take his blood pressure. I would like to give him $200 for his trip. Do me a favor, give me a rub. I would like to live with Andrea. Steve is strong. Would you do me a favor? Put me to sleep for 20 minutes. Nice cold bars. What is going in my belly button? Flying flies, green grass of Wyoming. Give me horse bubbles. Make a little mixture so I can bend down and go to sleep. I don`t know who is more stubborn, you or me. You know, I think I ought to give you a break. Yeah. Uh-huh. I would like to give your girl a big black bear. That`s a good iron. Which way should I sleep? I want to look at you. I need that round thing from the Army. What did the market close? How much do you take in, in a year? Plenty of stuff. I`m talking about the big stuff. Is that right? Are we awake? I`m glad you regulate yourself. What am I thinking? Put me in the middle. Could you put me in the middle? No, scratch me in the middle. In the middle. In the middle. I like the way they change their slogans for the middle. I want to be in the middle. What is impressing is that tub you`ve got in the middle. Give me a workout. I should really have some alcohol. I like the strongest stuff. I got plenty in me. You have to do something for me. You`ve got to get me fatter. Are we getting fresh air? You have got to take me and take me. Do me a favor, give me a scratch. Rub me in the middle. Milk sure is good. Babies like milk. Is the baby asleep? I want to insure my money. I would like to drink some blood. Cover me, hug me, kiss me, love me, knock me in the head. Give me some poison. I`d like to get a potion, some lotion. I would like to have a woman that doesn`t think. Give me a drink. Could you give me some courage, doc? Where`s my little guy? Everyone has cancer. I`d like to go to Atlantic City. My kids do good business. How`s business? I`m going to marry her and move to Spain. Stevie, Stevie, oh Stevala. Where`s Deborah? Who is she going with? Yeah, I`d like to give her $10,000. All my kids are dying. I don`t think I`d like it. Is my wife asleep? Life is short. Could you put me to sleep for an hour? Uh-huh. Life is short. Don`t hear nothing. Don`t see nothing. I want to live with Andrea. I`m losing her. I miss my wife. I want to live with you. I miss my mother. I see my wife. I want to clean my teeth. I want to take a bath. Put me in the tub. Yeah, uh-huh. That`s it. Warmer. I hope I can get something for my stomach, but the scrubby that my body. Love me. This is it. Love me. I miss my mother, I miss my wife. I want you to take me, take me, love me, curl me, hold me. Thanks, baby doll." Jack Schnabel, January 16th, 2004.