Li-Young Lee - Little Father

I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds
clean and comb him every morning
and pull the blanket up to his chin
every night.

I buried my father underground.
Since then, my ladders
only climb down,
and all the earth has become a house
whose rooms are the hours, whose doors
stand open at evening, receiving
guest after guest.
Sometimes I see past them
to the tables spread for a wedding feast.

I buried my father in my heart.
Now he grows in me, my strange son,
my little root who won’t drink milk,
little pale foot sunk in unheard-of night,
little clock spring newly wet
in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
little father I ransom with my life.

William Carlos Williams - The Widow's Lament in Springtime

Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before, but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirty-five years
I lived with my husband.
The plum tree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red,
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they,
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.

Judith Kroll - Your Clothes

Of course they are empty shells, without hope of animation.
Of course they are artifacts.

Even if my sister and I should wear some,
or if we give others away,

they will always be your clothes without you,
as we will always be your daughters without  you.

You Have The Right To Grieve

There is no shame in grieving. We've managed to make the expression of grief disgraceful and unacceptable. We tell people to be strong and move on and heal and get over it. We silence the mourners, hide them away because it's too terrifying to face the reality of death but it is real and it's not going away. You have the right to grieve, to speak about your loss, to be devastated by it, to break down, to be lost, to struggle, to never move on, to never heal, to love the dead, to post tweets and status updates about your pain. There is no such thing as "too much information" when it comes to loss because you can never say enough. Grieve excessively. Grieve as long as you need even if it lasts your whole life. You have the right to grieve.

Meghan O'Rourke on Scott Simon and Public Grieving

At The New Yorker, Meghan O'Rourke writes about Scott Simon's decision to tweet during his mother's last days. She argues that social networking sites are the 21st century equivalent of communal grieving spaces where people can mourn together. As grief and mourning have become increasingly private, people are longing for ways to share their pain with others. Loss is an inescapable part of the human condition. Why shouldn't people take to Twitter and Facebook to announce a death or express their sorrow? What is wrong with seeking human connection at a time when your world is falling apart and mortality is as close as ever?

The brevity and sequentiality of Twitter eerily evokes the reality of time, allowing us to witness an event. Watching someone die brings us powerfully in touch with how brief—yet intense—each life here is. The tweets, which felt almost aphoristic (a mere hundred and forty characters each), underscored one of the strangest things about being with someone at the end of her life: the surreality of time, the way that time bends and distorts, becomes material. Suddenly, we are aware that the sunny summer days won’t go on forever. Our time is limited. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, and yet the most elusive.
The extraordinary response to Simon’s tweets also suggests a hunger on the part of Americans for a way to integrate death and mourning into our lives—a hunger that is being met by social media. Facebook and Twitter are changing the way we mourn—rescuing America from a world where grief was largely silenced and creating, instead, a kind of public space for it. As I observed in The New Yorker in 2010, and in my book The Long Goodbye, in the twentieth century, we had forgotten how to mourn. Having lost the old intimacy with death—living longer, dying in hospitals—we turned it into something “shameful and forbidden,” as the historian Philippe Ariès argued, in 1977, in “The Hour of Our Death.” And so death and its aftermath became something to “heal” and “get over.” Americans adopted a kind of muscle-through-it approach, exemplified in the TV series “24” by the female President staunchly (and, we’re meant to think, appropriately) telling her aide, after her son’s death, “Grief is a luxury I can’t afford right now.”
Before the twentieth century, though, private grief and public mourning were tied together. Your mother died, and your neighbors brought casseroles and sat Shiva or stayed for the three-day wake. Often, the mourners washed the bodies themselves. Funerals (and final illnesses) took place at home. Death itself was hardly private; in the nineteenth century, people used to come and stand in your room, waiting to witness the solemn and ecstatic moment of death itself, as evoked by Emily Dickinson’s deathbed poem “I heard a fly buzz when I died”: “The Eyes around - had wrung them dry - / And Breaths were gathering firm / For that last Onset - when the King / Be witnessed - in the Room - ”
So Simon’s Twitter feed was not an imposition of his mourning on others, not some kind of gruesome exhibitionism. It was simply a modern version of what has always existed: a platform for shared grief where the immediate loss suffered by one member of a community becomes an opportunity for communal reckoning and mourning. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson once said, suffering is a human privilege. Grief is the flip side of love. Mourning has become an all too isolated experience—but Facebook and Twitter have become a place (strange as it may seem) where the bereaved can find community, a minyan of strangers to share their prayers.

Denise Levertov - Talking To Grief

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

via Maud Newton

Maxine Kumin - How It Is

Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

Matt Rasmussen - Outgoing

Our answering machine still played your message,
and on the day you died Dad asked me to replace it.

I was chosen to save us the shame of dead you
answering calls. Hello, I have just shot myself.

To leave a message for me, call hell. The clear cassette
lay inside the white machine like a tiny patient

being monitored or a miniature glass briefcase
protecting the scroll of lost voices. Everything barely

mattered and then no longer did. I pressed record
and laid my voice over yours, muting it forever

and even now. I’m sorry we are not here, I began.

Kathleen Rooney on Suicide, Elegy, and the Poetry of Matt Rasmussen

In an essay for Poetry Magazine, Kathleen Rooney reviews Matt Rasmussen's poetry collection Black Aperture, which is about his brother's suicide. Rasmussen grapples with the lack of closure caused by the suicide of a loved one, re-works the elegy form, and explores grief in a very personal and specific way:

Black Aperture differs significantly from other classic and contemporary elegies in that it pointedly does not make much of an effort to express the universal human experience of grief, but rather it insists on the strange and provocative aspects of the circumstances of Matt’s brother’s death. Its eschewal of the universal and insistence on the specific actually makes it more affecting for the reader and better able to achieve surprising empathy.
At its simplest, an elegy is a lamentation for one who is dead. Traditionally, an elegy traces the emotional arc of an expression of sorrow followed by praise and commemoration of the life and work of the deceased, eventually winding up with a sense of solace. At its simplest, Black Aperture is an elegy. But it is not simple and it is not traditional, and its complexity and its breaking of tradition speak to why it works so well. It defies the genre’s conventions and refuses relief—there are grace notes of peace, but there are no easy answers.
If elegies such as Smith’s seem to say that everyone will have the same death, basically, Matt’s seem to say that some people’s deaths are just different and that his brother’s death is not one that he wants—that it is unique in comparison to everyone else’s. It is presented as singular. “There is a strange anger toward the person who’s committed suicide that might not be present when someone similarly dies unexpectedly,” he said in our email interview. “Certainly there is anger and disbelief when someone tragically dies, but with suicide it’s directed at the person who has died. This anger, however, is tempered with a feeling of remorse or intense sorrow for the person who took his or her own life because no longer are they the person you knew. […] When someone dies of suicide there is a reluctance to talk about them, or remember them, because they are no longer who you thought they were, so I think there tends to be an immense silence that surrounds a suicide. 
Black Aperture succeeds by accessing its great personal subject through the concrete textures of a day-to-day life rendered suddenly surreal; it locates a vibrant middle ground between, as Matt emailed me, “the dark recesses of your grief and the bright world of life, the world that forces you to live and eat and do stupid, mundane everyday things,”

Scott Simon, Twitter, and Grief

NPR host Scott Simon recently made national news as he tweeted from the deathbed of his mother. Based on the comments sections of various articles, some people have difficulty stomaching the expression of grief in such a public space. Grief, as we are told, should remain private. Twitter might seem like a silly or trivial venue for writing about something as serious as the death of a parent but, for many people, including myself, social networking sites are more than just places where I hear news, gossip, and commentary. They are where I connect with other people, share my thoughts, expose my vulnerabilities. The people in our feeds do mean something to us. We care about them and, even though we will never meet them in our everyday lives, we feel an intimacy with them.

When my stepfather had a heart attack in March of this year, I immediately began tweeting. I was at college, many miles away from home. My mother called me in the morning to tell me my stepfather was about to have bypass surgery. She was alone. I was alone. It would take time for her to pick me up from college (I don't own a car). So to cope with my terror and anxiety, I posted some tweets about what was happening. It helped me to bear witness to what I was experiencing, to share it with other people. I feel that it gave me the strength to be there for my mother once we were together, at the hospital, trying to pass the hours in the waiting room. Throughout the day, I tweeted. I worried that I was being too open, giving "too much information" but what mattered more than anything was facing this traumatic event with my sanity intact. Twitter provided an outlet for my fear, and I am grateful for that. I am also grateful for the support people offered me at one of the darkest times in my life.

Writing tweets as your mother dies is not for everyone, and no one is saying that it has to be for everyone. For Scott Simon, it is comforting. But something more is happening. Simon is sending a message. One of his tweets, in particular, confirms this :

I love holding my mother's hand. Haven't held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.

Simon is realizing too late that he has made mistakes. After we lose someone, or as we are in the process of losing them, we scrutinize ourselves. Did I love them enough? Did I show that love? Did I truly appreciate this person while I had them? Often, we feel we have failed them. Simon, through his tweets, is warning other people to not make his same mistakes. While you have your mother, hold her hand. Don't be scared to show your affection and love. Simon is tweeting in the midst of death but his message is life-affirming. At a dark and painful moment in his life, he is choosing to share his feelings with the world. His way of grieving may not be for everyone but it is his own. Grief comes in many forms and we can learn from all of them. 

Nothing To Say

Right now, I can't write anything worth reading. I have nothing to offer. I just want my father back. I want him to walk through the door and hold me. I want us to be together. My life is nothing but absence, grief, and aching. With each day, there is less of me.

Blair L.M. Kelley on Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and Mourning

Over at The Grio, Blair L.M. Kelley writes of the role mourning has played in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Kelley also examines the similarities between Martin and  Emmett Till. In both cases, there was a public outcry generated over the crimes, the killers were found not guilty, and the unjust verdicts outraged many Americans. Kelley places Martin's death within the larger history of racism, white supremacy, and violence against black people in the United States:

But the trial only came after Mamie Till publicized her son’s murder by holding an open casket public viewing of her son’s mutilated and distended body. News of Till’s murder reached a national and international audience when pictures of Till’s corpse were published in Jet magazine. Many of the thousands who attended the public viewing and millions who read of his killing demanded that a trial take place.
So it would be Mamie Till, despite her personal grief over the death of her son, who would take the story of the case further, demanding that federal authorities bring charges in the case after Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing in the pages of Look magazine. It would be a national mourning that made the Till case a touchstone for a generation that had been encouraged by progress in the push for civil rights, and yet devastated by a blatant miscarriage of justice in a southern court.
This time we are mourning for a boy from Miami, visiting his father in Sanford, Florida, unaware of the racial terrain in a neighborhood with some crime and an overzealous neighborhood watchman, driven by assumptions. While I am almost sure Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton, talked with him about being cautious and respectful if approached by the police, I’m sure none of their advice prepared him for being followed by George Zimmerman. 
We are mourning because Martin’s death at the end of Zimmerman’s gun was initially dismissed by the police as a “Stand Your Ground” case of self-defense, Florida’s version of an ALEC-sponsored law that, unlike most self-defense laws does not require that self-defense is the last resort of someone who cannot escape the altercation. We are mourning that any fistfight might turn into justifiable homicide. 
We are proud that Martin’s parents had the courage to publicize their son’s death in order to push for a trial, but we are mourning because unequal justice still seems to be the norm. We are disheartened because we know a Florida woman, Marissa Alexander, is not allowed to stand her ground against an ex-husband with a documented history of abuse, but Zimmerman was found by the court to be justified in believing he needed to kill an unarmed stranger. 
And sadly, despite all the changes that have occurred over the past five decades, many of us are mourning, worried about what we should tell to our children that might just keep them safe, as if some set of behaviors could prevent them from being perceived as a threat. We mourn for all our boys.

Wanting To Die

I have wanted to die many times in my life. The thought has come into my head with such ease, and I've heard the phrase repeat over and over: I want to die, I want to die, I want to die. This happens when my depression is at its worst. I have not, and never would, act on these thoughts. To me, they are just words, just sounds that ring in my skull or come out of my mouth. They are not connected to actions. They are only a desire.

But I remember a time years ago when I was more serious about suicide than I've ever been. It was just a few months after my father's death.  I was alone in the house and had found a full bottle of Tylenol. I  poured all the pills into my hand. They looked like little blue-and-red torpedoes. I knew the damage they could do, but they gleamed in the morning light and I was enthralled. I considered swallowing them. I flirted with the possibility of oblivion until it lost its allure. I dropped the pills back into the bottle, heard them all clatter to the bottom.

For years, I would have these spells when depression seemed to push me outside my body. I did not feel solid. I was not real. I remember watching a documentary about Eugene O'Neil. In his youth, he often stared at his reflection. His friends interpreted this as vanity but when they confronted him about it he said that he kept looking at himself in mirrors to make sure he was still there. He never felt real either.

I've stood at intersections, about to cross a busy street, and secretly longed to be struck by an oncoming vehicle. It's almost happened a few times. I was in a spell, a daze. Sometimes, I was conscious of a desire to die but, more often than not, I just didn't care. Let it be over, I thought. This life is unbearable.

Just this week the phrase I want to die came back to me, kept echoing in my head, like a chant, a mantra.

I wrote to a friend who was in a similar place:

Today I thought the same thing. I want to die. Instead I sobbed in front of my mother, wishing she could make this pain go away but she can't. No one can.

To this same friend, I also sent the following text:

Profoundly depressed. My bday [birthday] is on Saturday. I ache for my daddy. I'm gutted but reading writing and thinking. Surviving.

Putting the overwhelming emotions into words helped me cope with them. Telling someone else, knowing they understood and that they cared, allowed me to keep going. In the moment of writing, I am alive and I want to be alive so that I can keep writing, keep putting one word after another and releasing what is inside me. That's how I make it through each day. I know of no other way.

The desire to die never fully disappears. I do not want to be here, in this life right now as it is. I want my father. I want what I lost seven years ago. I can never have it; so I will forever yearn for it. His death was a rupture, a shattering. I feel his absence in every part of my life. There is no escape. I have no intention of acting on my thoughts but I think it's important that I have the right to my feelings and the freedom to say that I am in pain and I want it to stop and I don't think I can go on. Being able to vocalize those emotions, to engage with them rather than deny them, is therapeutic for me. In that act of expression, of confrontation with the darkness, I am choosing words and creativity and connection.  I am choosing to live

The Missing

It's been a difficult week for me. My birthday is this Saturday (July 20th). I will turn 24 years old but instead of reflecting on this milestone I am thinking about how it is my eighth birthday without my father, how, after his death, I could never really have a "happy" birthday again.

I broke down and cried yesterday in front of my mother. I rarely do that. I prefer to cry alone in my room, buried under the covers with my face smothered by a pillow. I don't know where the tears came from. One minute I was fine and then they were there, rushing from my eyes. There was no stopping them. I started to shake.

"I miss him so much," I said.

"I know," my mother replied.

We both miss him. I didn't know it but yesterday (July 18) was the date she met my father for the first time. I imagine them young and innocent, my age, meeting one another, falling in love. A world before me. A world that gave birth to me. The beginning of a life that didn't know its horrific ending.

When everything is gone, I will still have my grief.

I have birthday cards he gave me. In one, he wrote that he would always be there for me. Always is a word we can't afford to say.

He briefly appears in my dreams now. One moment there, the next gone. When I wake up, I wonder if he was there at all. I remember his face. I can't speak. I can't move.

My father stays one age forever, the age at which he died, while I grow older and miss him more each year.

Trayvon Martin and National Grief

Well before the not guilty verdict was read in the George Zimmerman trial, media outlets were warning the public of possible riots and mass violence. Such warnings were without merit and served only to perpetuate  stereotypes about the black community, mainly that it is violent and dangerous.

Instead of riots, we saw outpourings of emotion.  After George Zimmerman was granted his freedom by a Florida jury, people gathered in the streets and on social networking sites to express their sorrow, disgust, and outrage. Citizens held spontaneous rallies, walking the streets of cities across the nation and holding up signs that proclaimed their solidarity with Trayvon's family. These protests were not just a way for people to release their frustration with the racism that plagues our society and justice system, they were profoundly emotional demonstrations of national grief.

We are grieving Trayvon--a young man who had his whole life ahead of him--but we are also grieving for all the people who, like him, were just  living their lives until someone decided that the color of their skin meant they deserved to die. I also suspect that many in White America are grieving the loss of a particular image of this country as fair and egalitarian. While people of color and other marginalized groups have known for a long time that there are different sets of rules based on your class, your race, your gender, and your sexuality, many who have had the privilege of not thinking about such things are now waking up to the fact that racism and other forms of oppression are alive and well in our nation. We are not who we thought we were but, with this vociferous conversation about race happening right now, there is a very palpable sense that we can be better, that we must be better.

Grief can lead to stasis or it can lead to action. Right now, groups across this country are harnessing their grief, they are being galvanized by it. Their grief is sending them into the streets, urging them to sign petitions, inspiring them to reach out to others and create community. Grief is propelling Trayvon's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, to use their traumatic loss to help other people. We need to feel our sorrow and despair. We need to be angry about the racism in our communities. But we also need to grieve and find the power in our grief; we need to recognize how it makes us more human, more compassionate, more aware of other people's pain. Our grief is important. It does not need to be hidden or suppressed. Instead, we must use it to fuel political action and to make meaningful change across this country because we should do all we can to stop another George Zimmerman from gunning down another Trayvon Martin.

Dorianne Laux - How It Will Happen, When

I have these sudden revelations of my father's death, when it's real to me. It's like I can almost touch the loss, like it's this tangible entity that I can hold in my hands. It has weight and texture and it nearly crushes me. This poem captures those moments.

 There you are, exhausted from a night of crying, curled up on the couch,
the floor, at the foot of the bed, anywhere you fall you fall down crying,
half amazed at what the body is capable of, not believing you can cry
anymore. And there they are, his socks, his shirt, your underwear
and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile next to the bathroom door,
and you fall down again. Someday, years from now, things will be
different, the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows
shining, sun coming in easily now, sliding across the high shine of wax
on the wood floor. You’ll be peeling an orange or watching a bird
spring from the edge of the rooftop next door, noticing how,
for an instant, its body is stopped on the air, only a moment before
gathering the will to fly into the ruff at its wings and then doing it:
flying. You’ll be reading, and for a moment there will be a word
you don’t understand, a simple word like now or what or is
and you’ll ponder over it like a child discovering language.
Is you’ll say over and over until it begins to make sense, and that’s
when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead. He’s not
coming back. And it will be the first time you believe it.

The Dead Live Inside of Us

Just as we affect others merely by being alive, those who are already gone continue to affect the living. A person lives on, even after returning to dust and ashes, as long as someone still clearly remembers the things he did, the things he said, his ways, his sensitivities, the thoughts that were his alone. As those who knew him pass on in their turn, the posterity in which he survives then shrinks until the last of them is gone, and he dies a second, final death. Thereafter he appears no more among the living.
However, this extended life, depending entirely on the memory of the living, is always in peril. So the living must continually renew their memory of the dead and share their life with them. They must accept as their natural duty not only to mourn the dead, but also to try to call back the life that the dead have lost. They must be like Orpheus, the musician, who followed his wife Eurydice, dead of snakebite, all the way down to the realm of death.
 --Takehiko Fukunaga, Flowers of Grass


"I was always in one piece. Then my father died." --  Sylvia (2003)

L'Empreinte de l'Ange

I am still processing the film L'Empreinte de l'Ange. I took notes as I watched it because it seemed like an important movie about grief but it wasn't quite what I expected.

Elsa loses her baby girl in a hospital fire. Seven years later, she sees a young girl and is convinced it is her dead daughter. She begins to stalk the girl and her family. She is accused of being insane, told that she just hasn't accepted the death yet and that she needs to move on.

Her father says "Stop living with a ghost."

Her co-worker says "You'll never completely forget. It takes time."

Her ex-husband says "She's dead. When will you accept it? You can't live in the past."

But nothing will stop her obsession with the girl.

As the movie unfolds, unexpected discoveries are made and two families are irrevocably changed. It's a film about grief delayed, a loss not yet confronted.

Truffaut and Bazin

After André Bazin died, François Truffaut sat with his body for hours and later dedicated The 400 Blows to him. Bazin was a famous french film critic but he was also a mentor and father figure to Truffaut.

Source: David Edelstein in his introduction to The 400 Blows  on Turner Classic Movies

Susan Sontag: Notes on a Childhood

At the age of five, Susan Sontag lost her father. Years after his death she listed all of her childhood memories in one of her notebooks. The memories are written as short, fragmented lines in no chronological order, and are partially reproduced in Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963. The lines are succinct and simple, revealing very little of Sontag's emotional reaction to her father's death, but there is still something so heartbreaking about them :

Mom telling me daddy is dead. In the living room.
Keeping Daddy's ring in a box.
Dreams of Daddy coming back, opening the ap't door.