The Sensuality of Grief

I can't stop thinking about something that Monica McClure said in an interview with Paperbag. After the loss of a lover and two friends, McClure felt compelled to "make grief into art" despite her concerns about the "aesthetic failings of this kind of poetry." She goes on to say:

There was a lot of longing for the memory of the physical feeling of the deceased’s body that I hoped would show through because that’s one of the most interesting things about grieving to me—the sensuality of it.

The loss of a father is quite different from that of a boyfriend or close friend, but the longing for the body of the deceased is just as intense. I think about my father's hair, his skin, the sound of his voice, his hands, his scent. I yearn for his corporeality. I grieve with all five senses. My own body is still trying to cope with the absence of his body. He no longer occupies my physical space and that is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, parts of his death. This person that I saw and spoke to every day for sixteen years vanished.

It is no wonder that my grief has been so physical--racing heart, shortness of breathing, chest pains, fatigue. The damage has been irrevocable and devastating. The body always remembers, whether you want it to or not. Any sound, any scent, can activate an onslaught of memories that demolish you.

I used to imagine one day being cut open by a surgeon and he or she finding my grief carved all over the inside of my body. I felt the scars must be there on the tissue and the organs, and maybe they are. I feel the rot and decay within myself. I feel like Frida Kahlo with her broken column. I feel that, if I could see inside myself, I'd find such brokenness too, and I fear it is too late to repair.

Kazuo Sumida - Notes From Underground: Memories of My Uncle

Notes from Underground: Memories of My Uncle records [Kazuo]Sumida’s personal journey into darkness, from the death of his father in 1984 until the death of his uncle in 1990.
Born in 1952, Sumida has spent most of his life in Kochi Prefecture, originally called Tosa, in southern Japan. Upon his father’s death, Sumida suffered a period of depression and frustration. He sought refuge in the night. To avoid ongoing turf wars between yakuza gangs, and easily angered patrons of Kochi’s pleasure district, he began shooting with infrared film and a filtered strobe flash, unseen by the human eye. He later photographed in Nobara, a downtown gay bar. There for the first time he met his uncle, his mother’s brother, who was a performer at the bar. With the protection of his uncle, who died of alcoholism at the age of 56, Sumida photographed extensively at Nobara.

The pictures that resulted from this 6 year journey into the night are both charming and brutal. We see his uncle dancing in a ballerina costume, caressing a microphone that looks like a dildo, and sitting on his bed in a shabby apartment, his legs covered with bruises. We feel the energy of the night in views of the city aglow in neon. And we feel the deep sadness that Sumida and his mother felt in 1990 at the funeral for his uncle.
Laurence Miller Gallery

On Loss and Art

I wrote this piece and posted it on my tumblr three years ago. I'd forgotten about it until today. I'm publishing it here because I still believe every single word of it.

I want to write about loss. Four years ago, my father died; then my grandmother died; then my uncle died. All these people within the span of a few years disappeared. I attended their funerals, I stood in rooms with their lifeless bodies, I put flowers on their graves, I watched mourners amass and then disperse; I’ve watched each season come and go without their presence. It has almost destroyed me. There was a time when I literally could not leave my house, when I felt so anxious and depressed I did not know how to function in the world. I can’t say I’ve fully recovered from it.

Let me be totally honest: I am not a resilient person. Things get to me; I brood on them; I can’t let them go; I almost wallow in melancholy but it’s how I’ve been since childhood. I was very close to my father. We were very much alike; shy, detached, contemplative, uncomfortable, socially awkward but kind and good-hearted and respectful of other people. He listened to me. We would often go to the park and play tennis then take a walk. That’s when I would tell him all these things buried inside, about my dreams to be a writer, to be a part of the world, to matter in some way, how I didn’t belong anywhere, how lonely I always felt. And he listened. He did not judge or utter platitudes. It was just us and the trees and the squirrels and the endless sky; the sun on our skin, acorns and leaves crunching under our shoes. We were together, alive, conscious of our connection and our profound bond. When I lost him, I lost a way of life; I lost those walks in the park, I lost his acceptance, his gentle support, his belief in me, his easy company. Ultimately, I lost myself. And I found out, in the process of all this death, that you do not lose somebody once. You lose them over and over again; every day of your life, every time you wake up, when you look at their picture and yearn for them again. I live in a state of insatiable wanting, for a time and a man that I can never retreive.

But this is where art comes in. If my life has been defined by death for the past several years, it has also been punctuated by periods of pure escape, through books and movies and paintings and music. It is through art that I attain transcendence. After my father’s death, my mother and I took to going to the local movie theater on a regular basis. We saw comedies and foreign films and dramas and thrillers. We sat together and laughed and cried and cringed. We found a world on that screen that was beautiful and bearable, that eviscerated our minds of sorrow for two hours until we stepped outside into the real world again. I intend to write more about these films and what they have meant to me in another posting.

To books. What can I say about them that hasn’t been said? I’ve accumulated too many. They are piled on tables and hidden in drawers because I am not blessed with bookshelves. The great books I’ve read I still carry inside myself, like a little library of my own—like Mrs. Dalloway or The Waves, like the Great Gatsby or I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell or the story “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield or Rebecca Solnit or the poetry of Plath, Dickinson, and Whitman. They are all within me because they have all awakened some part of me. If we can keep losing on a constant basis then maybe it is also possible to continually discover and unearth and then hoard and covet what we have found and share it with others. Maybe that’s what makes life worth living; to keep grabbing at these glittering fragments of life, these words and poems and songs that we spontaneously come across. I don’t know what comes after this life. I personally don’t believe there is anything; so it makes me want to live more now, to revel in the moment as much as possible; to read and create and think and empathize and give and write and love and remember. Always remember. But I still miss him; I still grapple with the meaning of a life that does not contain him. And I can’t help but long for those summer days of us walking together without a care in the world…

May Benatar - Kafka and the Doll: The Pervasiveness of Loss

I struggle with the concept of healing because I do not believe it exists, at least not for me. Do we ever truly heal? Is there not always an open wound inside of us? I've had moments when I felt healed--listening to a song, having some beautiful experience that fills me with a happiness I thought I'd never feel again after my father's death. But then I remember him and the pain surges back and I know that, as good as life is sometimes, as wondrous and sublime as it can be, it will never be enough because he is not here. It will always lack something, it will never be quite right or complete. His absence lingers everywhere. I am always haunted by what is lost, what can never be.

I used to want to be healed. I thought grief was like a disease that could be cured but I think it's more of a chronic condition that we manage and cope with as best we can. I will never be who I was before his death. My mind and body have changed. I've had to accept that there is no healing for me, no peace, just moments of reprieve when the pain is not so acute and all-consuming.

Still, May Benatar's story about healing and finding love in different forms is so important. Healing may not be possible for me, but I know that it is possible for many people who are grieving and mourning.

Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was desolate. 

 Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.

 "Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures." This was the beginning of many letters. When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted. 

When the meetings came to an end Kafka presented her with a doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained: "my travels have changed me... " 

Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll. In summary it said: "every thing that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form." 

There are many versions of the story of Kafka and the doll. I heard this one from Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher in Washington D.C. 

Only after many tellings am I able to relay this story without crying. And I have found that when I tell it to others young or old, my listener is invariably moved, occasionally bursting into tears. 

When I went online to find confirmation for the story, I found one source that referred to it as a "healing story." That seems right. For whether this actually ever happened the story is real and true and provides a template for healing. 

For me there are two wise lessons in this story: Grief and loss are ubiquitous even for a young child. And the way toward healing is to look for how love comes back in another form.

 I think there are advantages to viewing grief as omnipresent, an inescapable part of being a human being. Grief encompasses far more than the loss of a loved one, although that is perhaps its most profound manifestation. The loss of the doll in the story is devastating to the little girl. This is what moves Kafka to create the wonderful stories of travel and adventure. He perceived the depth of her pain. It is reported that he put as much time and care into creating these letters for the little girl as he did in other writings. 

Holding the perspective of the universality of loss, helps us with shame and loneliness. If a profound grief reaction to divorce or children leaving home or the loss of a pregnancy, or unemployment, or retirement, or having to confront the limitations of our children, or aging, or the loss of health is something I share with my fellow beings, I am less alone. And I don't have to be ashamed that I feel the way I do, for shame is part of the legacy of isolation. 

And love coming back, in a different form? I believe it was Kafka's letters that were the real gift of love, and what was ultimately healing for the little girl was the relationship that was the balm. Someone cared enough for her pain to write her lovely stories of the lost doll's adventures. A great writer at that. 

How healing it is to hold this conviction, that love will return. It is our job to recognize it in its new form.

Joan Didion On Writing "The Year of Magical Thinking"

In a 2009 article for The American Scholar, Bob Thompson writes about his experience of interviewing Joan Didion as she promoted The Year of Magical Thinking. The interview yields important insight into Didion's approach to writing about grief:

Didion had just published The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the sudden death of her husband and the simultaneous, life-threatening illness of their only child. I had read the book in galleys and found it remarkable. “Are you going to talk to her?” an editor asked, and I quickly said yes. But I had not thought the assignment through. The real question, I soon realized, was what we were going to talk about. Here was a writer, after all, who had just put everything she knew about death and grief into print.
 What was I supposed to do–ask her how she felt?
 Didion is a tiny woman in the best of times. In the fall of 2005, she couldn’t have weighed much more than her age, which was 70. Her daughter, Quintana, had died that August, after Didion had finished the book, and we sat down to talk just a few days after the memorial service. “Many people have said to me: You don’t have to promote this,” she told me, but “if I didn’t do it, it still wouldn’t bring her back.”
 Late in the interview I managed a few questions about the memorial. She’d been touched, she said, when her brother handed her a handkerchief, because Didions normally avoid displays of emotion (“It was so sweet, you know? We don’t usually hand each other handkerchiefs”). But mostly, I went with the plan I’d worked out. I stuck to questions about writing — about Didion’s experience of creating this particular book, and about how it had differed, or not, from the writing she had done before.
 Here’s some of what I learned:
 She has never written from outlines, but she would sometimes think as much as 30 pages ahead. Not this time. “It didn’t feel like writing,” she said. “Writing to me is really hard. And I just sort of sat down and wrote this — or typed it.” She knew she wanted to come back to key scenes over and over, foregrounding different details to evoke the obsessive nature of her grief. She sensed that a crisis in her daughter’s illness would form a “movement” that would fall a certain distance into the narrative. That was it.
 Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, had drilled into her the need for a “billboard” — a short passage, early in your story, that tells readers what it will be about. So when the time came, she typed one in. It mentions marriage, children, illness, memory, and disorienting grief, and it includes the best description I’ve seen of Didion’s pre-Magical Thinking literary persona. “As a writer, even as a child,” she writes, “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”

Stephen Colbert Remembers His Mother

At the end of Stephen Colbert's beautiful and loving tribute to his mother, Lorna, who passed away a week ago, he says Thank you for listening. Sometimes, grief is so overwhelming there is nothing we can do to comfort another person. No amount of affection, kind words, or casseroles can soothe the grief-stricken, but we want to do something, we want to feel that we are being a good friend, lover, sibling, companion, we want to assuage the pain, make it go away, but we can't. It is one of the most helpless feelings--to watch a person grieve. But sometimes, what we can do is listen. Stephen Colbert wrote this tribute to his mother because he wanted to take the time to honor the woman who had loved and cared for him his entire life. He wanted to speak about his loss, let people know what she meant to him. This is an important part of the grieving process. When people want to talk about the dead, when they want to cry and laugh as they reminisce, the best thing any of us can do is give them our time and attention and truly listen .

Father's Day

I need to cry but I can't cry. So I'll write because, for me, that's close to crying, it's a release of emotion, a vulnerable and personal act. I didn't want to wake up this morning. Every time my eyes began to open and let in the sunlight streaming through my bedroom window, I clamped the lids shut and buried my face in the pillow. I didn't want to move. I didn't want to be disturbed. I didn't want anyone to ask anything of me. I didn't want to read or write or even be conscious. My bed is my refuge right now. It's soft and I like covering myself with blankets because it feels like someone holding me, it feels like this perfect cocoon where I can't be harmed and, more than anything, I need to feel safe and protected. I love my room. It's the only place of freedom I've ever really known. I have old hollywood stars on the walls and stacks of books everywhere and pictures and a globe of the world and little trinkets I've collected over the years. My room looks very juvenile, with purple walls and a pink dresser. It looks like a little girl's room, at least it feels that way to me, but then there are Susan Sontag's journals and The Blue Octavo Notebooks and all my Virginia Woolf books. There are all these parts of myself struggling to dominate--the intellectual part, the silly part, the mature part, the naive part, and so on. But that's to be expected. I'm only 23. I'm not a child but not really an adult either. I am lost somewhere in between.

I didn't want to wake up because it was Father's Day and I don't have a father anymore. We didn't visit the grave. I wonder if we should have. We didn't really mark the day. I avoided the internet for the most part. It was too painful to read all the posts about other people's dads. I am still very jealous and resentful of people with fathers. This is an ugly part of me, one that I don't like to acknowledge. It was worse after he first died. I loathed the kids at school. When I heard some of them complain about their dads, I would become livid inside but I always hid the anger. I was consumed by my grief at the time. I know everyone has complicated relationships with their parents. I know that it's not anyone's fault that my dad is dead. I can't project that on to other people. But it still hurts to see girls with their fathers. It hurts to see elderly old men when I know that my dad is forever 45, the age at which he died. I will always wonder what he would have looked like with gray hair and wrinkles. I will wonder about a lot of things.

So today was painful, like it always is, like it's been for the past seven years. What I wouldn't give for one day with my dad. Everyone says that, I know. But I really did think it today. What I wouldn't give. But that's not possible. We say those things hypothetically, knowing that it will never be an option. He is gone. He will always be gone.

I was also thinking about this blog today and why I have it and what purpose it serves. Am I being exploitative by writing about him? Should I keep my thoughts and memories private? Should I share such intimate things online? Why do I feel the need to write these things at all? I tell myself that I want to connect with other people, I want to bear witness to my life, my pain, my grief and, in the process, make sense of what I've experienced. I also see writing as an act of creation. I'm trying to create myself anew, birth a different self, but I don't know if I'm actually accomplishing that. I don't know if these words mean anything to anyone besides me. And I worry that I have allowed myself to be too defined by my grief. My father's death is the only story I have, but am I going too far? Am I too consumed? Is it all too much? I don't know. I just don't know. 

I feel like I am constantly failing as a writer, that I've put the impossible burden on myself of writing the grief and pain out of me, of giving voice to this one singular loss that is, to be honest, unspeakable. I write and I write and I write but I am still dying in this silence, in this ineffable tragedy. Often, my mind doesn't even process things anymore. Sometimes writing is therapeutic and sometimes it's excruciating because I am so exhausted, so worn down, so without language and without the words I need, words that I once thought were lying somewhere inside me but now I think maybe I am only silence and darkness and nothingness. His death has completely annihilated me. It killed the person I was. It killed my dreams and my hopes and my innocence and my illusions. I am parts of a person, not a full human being. I am shards and what do you do with shards? 

I keep trying to imagine the future, the life yet to come and I can't envision it. I want to matter. I want to be heard. I want to accomplish something, contribute to the world. I want to write words that are meaningful. I fear that his death has trapped me in a place I cannot escape, that I am so traumatized that I cannot function, that I will always be in this bedroom with my books and I will be content because I love this room but I'll have missed out on something grand and beautiful. And yet, this solitary, lonely life is all I know and it's all I can bear. I have my books, my journal, my films, my music, all the things that fulfill me. Why do I have to be more? Why do I keep pushing myself to be something I'm not? My quiet life in the country has value too. Who I am right now is complicated and contradictory and messy but it has value too. I am too much. I praise all the girls who are too much, I am proud to be one of them, with our thoughts and passions and shyness and dreams and this cauldron inside of us that keeps churning and churning. We overflow. We write and cry and lose ourselves in art and find ourselves again somehow. Cixous knew this. Cixous knew that we gush and brim, that we are a torrent, that we are excessive, that wave after wave crashes in us. No one will ever fully know or appreciate us but we have ourselves. I have myself. I have these inadequate words that stumble over one another, that never get to the point, that never touch what they are trying to reach, but I have to keep reaching, you see. I have to keep writing even though I feel like such a failure, such a pathetic imitator and impostor, such a fraud to call myself a writer at all. 

The Little Match Girl

When I was a little girl, my father read bedtime stories to me. I had a large book of fairy tales, given to me by my paternal grandmother as a Christmas gift. It was filled with beautiful illustrations of classic stories, like The Beauty and the Beast, Thumbelina, and Jack and the Beanstalk. I loved the book.  I still have it. It is a magical link to my childhood.

One night, my father picked up the fairy tale book and began to read "The Little Match Girl." It was one of my favorite stories, the one that most haunted me, the one with the most beautiful illustrations, and the most brutal ending. But my father had never read it before. After he finished reading the story to me, he said "sweet dreams" and kissed me good-night, all the usual things he did. Years later, I found out that, once he left my room, he rushed to my mother. 

"Do you know how that story ends?" he asked her. "The little girl--she, she dies," and his eyes began to water. 

My mother still talks about this incident with disbelief and tenderness in her voice. I can just imagine my father on the verge of tears. I'd only seen him cry once, and that was at his mother's funeral. He hid his emotions from me, like so many dads do, but I know he was a sensitive person. I can't remember if he ever read "The Little Match" girl to me again after that night. I think one time was all he could handle.


Review: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

"I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer ,even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs..." -- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Reading certain books is like putting your hand to a flame. These books make you understand why the moth is lured to the fire that consumes it. To be consumed is to be alive. There is a pleasure that flares before the pain. The moth enters death but it also enters light. This, for me, is the contradiction of reading grief texts: they are at once dangerous and seductive. A powerful after-effect of loss is the need to connect to other people who understand your experience. You need to talk about what you have lost, what your grief feels like, what you remember about the dead. Grief texts provide a space in which death and mourning can be confronted rather than avoided. 

However, there is a price to always being conscious of one's grief, never being free of it. Grief texts take us back to our own trauma. They dislodge memories that we thought were safely put away, maybe even forgotten.

The Year of Magical Thinking was a book that forced my hand to the flame. Didion's clear and crystalline prose lured me because I need a language for grief; like her, I need to "make sense" of my loss even as I realize, just as she did, that we "need more than words to find meaning." But reading her memoir meant that I had to return to my past and see my own experiences reflected in her story. The sudden loss of a loved one, the numbing arrival at the hospital, the funeral, the days and months of trying to cope with so much devastation--I lived all of it again through Didion's memoir. And that was difficult, but it was also therapeutic and necessary.

Some people only believe in the future; some, the present. The past gets thrown away, overlooked, but the past gnaws at us, demands reconstruction and even reckoning. Didion does not turn away from the past (grief texts never do). It is only by going back that one can find a way forward, or maybe one keeps going back and perpetually rearranging memories, piecing together the puzzle of cause and effect. Maybe writing the loss is one way to disentangle ourselves from it. Or maybe it only binds us tighter to what we have lost.

For decades, Didion's life was intricately intertwined with that of her husband's, John Gregory Dunne. As writers, they read one another's books and often collaborated on projects. Didion writes that "our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices." This unity was violently broken on December 30, 2003 ( a date repeatedly mentioned, as though the cold truth of numbers can add sense and logic to the tragedy) when Dunne collapses and dies as he and Didion eat dinner. A wife instantly becomes a widow. The circumstances are even more tragic because Didion's daughter, Quintana, is in the hospital. Didion's mourning is postponed. She must attend to her daughter. There is no time to fall apart or dwell on what has happened. One gets the sense that Didion is only able to confront her husband's death through writing about it. The memoir offers her the time and space to make sense of her loss.

People often speak of the shock that follows the death of a loved one. You're at the hospital and then there is the funeral and nothing seems real. This can't be your life. The dead can't really be dead. You're still the you from before, the person who had their loved one. You can't fathom being anybody else. You expect the dead to walk through the front door. Didion herself writes of her own "magical thinking," her belief, all throughout the year after Dunne's death, that her husband would come back, that "what had happened remained reversible." Didion uses her own personal story as a starting point for larger inquires into the nature of grief, how it affects the mind and body, how we process loss as human beings. 

For a writer, anything can be changed. Words can be added and replaced, whole paragraphs are rearranged to create rhythm and meaning. We relish that power, but death is not within our control. This seems obvious, but we still think we can alter the course of events. it's only later that we discover the dead will only live again through our words. At Dunne's funeral, a healthier Quintana "reads a poem she had written to her father." Even Quintana reaches for words, believing they can somehow convey the depth of her anguish. She writes about Dunne. Didion writes about Dunne. Later, Didion will write about Quintana's death in Blue Nights. The living write; the dead are written about.

As the memoir progresses, an important theme that emerges is Didion's realization that she cannot protect the people she loves. Years before Dunne died, he'd been diagnosed with a serious heart condition that he and Didion knew would kill him. It was not a question of if but when, and yet their lives went on as normal, until that devastating night in December. Didion could not prevent his death; she could not save him, and she cannot save Quintana either. She is at once in control stylistically with her concise prose, and utterly helpless as a wife, a mother, a human being. Didion admits that "things happened in life that mothers could not prevent or fix." While Dunne's death was sudden, Quintana's declining health is a prolonged and agonizing deterioration that Didion can only watch. Perhaps the need to write about loss springs from a desire to no longer feel out of control or like a bystander in your own life, watching everything fall apart.

When my father died in 2006, I could not read or write for a week. Having constructed my life around words, I suddenly faced their limitations. My aphasia lasted but a few days but it was enough to show me what it really means to be speechless, to not have the language you need to convey your grief and devastation. Fortunately, the speechlessness that momentarily afflicted me did not claim Joan Didion. The Year of Magical Thinking is the antithesis of wordlessness. It is a text that defiantly and tenaciously pursues language. Didion is determined to lay her hands on the words that will describe her loss, words that are naked, flayed of artifice and superfluity, so alive and luminous and aching and unforgettable. This book forced my hand to the flame. It wounded me as I read it, reminded me of my own losses, all the funerals I've been to, all the grief I've had to cope with, but it is a book I cherish, that I would not be the same without.

When my stepfather had a heart attack in March of 2013 and I anxiously sat with my mother in the hospital waiting room wondering if he would survive double bypass surgery (he did), Didion's words came to me and I kept reciting them in my head like a prayer, like a sign that someone else understands, someone else has the words to say what I cannot about how fragile life is, how close we are to tragedy, how thin the line really is between life and death, how none of us are ever, ever prepared for the worst:

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
In a heartbeat.
Or the absence of one.


I wanted more than a night of memories
and sighs.
I wanted to scream.
I wanted him back.


Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.

I Am One of You Forever

Fred Chappell's masterful novel I Am One of You Forever is about a young boy growing up in the mountains of North Carolina in the 1940s. Jess Kirkman lives on a farm with his mother, father, and grandmother. A young man named Johnson Gibbs assists the family on the farm and, from the beginning of the book, a cloud of doom hangs over his story. After World War II begins, Gibbs announces his enlistment in the military and his fate is sealed. When his death comes, halfway through the novel, the family must face a tragedy for which they are not prepared. A telegram arrives, bearing the terrible news. At the time, Jess is only in third grade. He has never before seen or known death. It is the almost indestructible telegram that illuminates the family's process of grieving for Gibbs.

Below, I have transcribed the entire chapter about Gibbs's death and how the family deals with it. The chapter is entitled "The Telegram."

The telegram was always there, not to be got rid of. It was never opened; we knew what was in it. The telegram told us that Johnson Gibbs was dead, that he had been killed in a training accident at Fort Bragg. A mortar round had exploded where and when it had no business to. Others were injured, only Johnson was killed, just a few days before he was to be shipped overseas.
There was an outburst of weeping at first, especially my mother wept, but later there was no more. A flinty silence descended upon the house, there was a hard gray feeling in us. Inside my throat it was hard as steel; I thought that if I rapped my chest with my knuckles it would ring like a suit of armor. We wandered about dazed and mechanical.
For a long time the telegram sat on the dining table, propped against the blue-and-white ringed sugar bowl. The telegram glowed yellow like an ugly pus, and no one would touch it. Neither could we bear to see it there, and we took two weeks of meals out on the porch.
Then someone--my father, it must have been--removed it but it came back. Everyone took it away, but it always returned to its place on the table, propped there to stare at us.
I found a proper hiding place for it, a rat hole out in the woodshed. It felt hot in my hands when I carried it, not like paper at all but like a burning slime. I stuffed it into the hole and sealed the hole with a rock. There were red and white burn streaks on my hand where I had carried the telegram and I had to wash my hands a long time before they went away.
Then that evening at sundown it was back on the table, leaning there against the sugar bowl. It was still unwrinkled, as pristine as when it had first been delivered.
But none of us could remember its being delivered.
Once I saw my mother bearing away a wooden tray heaped over with dish towels and I knew that underneath the towels lay the telegram and that she had formed a plan to get rid of it. I admired her bravery, but I thought that her plan--whatever it was--wouldn't work, and it didn't. The telegram reappeared, insolent and undamaged.
It was on the table there and none of us would so much as glance at it. But of course we kept gazing at it as if it were the only light on in the darkest night of the world.
My father took it to the top of a pasture hill and laid it in the grass and set fire to it with a kitchen match. It curled in slow agony and burned away smokeless, leaving an oblong of yellow sear that would never grow green again. By the time he got back to the house it was waiting for him on the red tablecloth.
At night it crept over our sleep like a great sheet of yellow ice, and we felt it was suffocating us in our beds and sat up dry-eyed but drenched with sweat.
One time this yellow ice came during the day, an endless glacier. We struggled upon it against the desperate winds and the sky's moaning. We held hands and guarded our faces against the wind and against each other's gaze and it was a long time before we made it back to the farm, to the house among the warm hills and fields.
The telegram had the power of becoming smaller, shrinking to the size of a postage stamp or to a mere speck, a mote. Then I would find it in my pocket or in the bedclothes. Often it seemed to have lodged in the corner of my eye, a yellow spot that would not go away and caused my eye to burn and water. That was the worst physical pain, when we couldn't wash it out of our eyes even with weeping.
Yet in all these weeks we never talked about it, never mentioned it at all. That seemed strange to me, that the telegram brought us so much pain and fear and we wouldn't speak of it. Perhaps we were afraid that if we talked about it, it would grow more omnipresent and we would never escape its power.
I prayed that it would be removed from us. I have never prayed so earnestly since, with such guileless passion. I knew that all of us were praying, my grandmother continuously night and day. But the prayers had no effect on the telegram, and seemed not even to alleviate the dead feeling in our hearts. It was then I found out that I could pray in despair and the despair might only deepen, that I could form the words and cling to the meaning of them even though my spirit had shriveled within me to a pinpoint.
Then one evening I pulled a chair to the table and sat down to stare at the telegram. Let it do to me what it can, I thought. It was just at dusk and the telegram was the brightest object in the room. I don't know how long I sat looking. The room darkened and stars appeared in the upper windowpanes. At last the telegram began to change shape. Slowly wrinkling and furling inward, it took the form of a yellow rose, hand-sized, with layer on layer of glowing yellow petals. It seemed to hover an inch or so above the tablecloth. It uttered a mournful little whimper then, a sound I had once heard a blind puppy make when it could not find its mother's warm flank. And with that sound it disappeared from my sight forever, tumbled spiraling down a hole in the darkness. I watched it go away and my heart lightened then and I was able to rise, shaken and confused, and walk from the room without shame, not looking back, finding my way confidently in the dark.
I think that my grandmother and mother and father each had to undergo this ritual, and I think that we each saw the telegram take a different transformation before it disappeared, but we never spoke of that either.
It was an agonizing rite to undergo, hardest of all for my mother.

Poems About Grief and Loss

When death happens, how do we speak about it? Many people, myself included, turn to poetry for comfort, for salvation, for the words we need but cannot find in ourselves. The Poetry Foundation has compiled an extensive list of poems that deal with grief, loss, and mourning. It includes many of my favorites, like Anne Sexton's The Truth the Dead Know and W.S Merwin's Separation, but also contains poems that are new to me. I think this is an excellent resource for anyone who is grieving and searching for solace through the written word.

You can find the poems here:

The Grief of Animals

It's important to note that not only humans feel grief in the wake of loss. New research is showing that grief is more universal than we might have previously thought, existing across the entire animal kingdom. In an interview with NPR, Barbara J. King discusses her book How Animals Grieve and the implications of this new field of study:

On the methodology of researching animal emotions:  In the book I tell stories — some gleaned from the scientific literature, others from interviews with animal caretakers — of individual animals and how they expressed love for a relative or friend, then grieved when that other animal died. Rather than writing about grief in the collective or as an abstract, I describe what happened when a gorilla silverback lost his closest gorilla friend, when the house cat Willa lost her sister Carson, when a dolphin mother observed in Greek waters lost her infant. It's from those stories that patterns, and hypotheses to test, emerge. 

"I also describe field scientists who use GPS collars to track elephants' movements then closely observe the behavior of individuals as they approach the body of a dead matriarch, or others who compare hormonal (e.g., glucocorticoid) changes experienced by monkeys who have lost kin in witnessed predator attacks versus monkeys who have not lost kin but witnessed those same predator attacks. Video, too, is revolutionizing the study of animal emotion; when we film what happens as an animal is dying or dies, we can assess the behaviors by rewatching and coding the tapes, rather than by making snap judgments about what's unfolding quickly in real time." 

On the variations of grief across different species: "Animals are individuals. Not all elephants, not all dogs, grieve when a relative or friend dies — some may be curious and want to explore the body, others may be indifferent. I wouldn't want to say 'all animals are capable of grief,' though, because we don't know the scope of animal grief yet. Would I expect amphibians, reptiles, and insects to have the capacity for grieving as birds and mammals do? No, not really. We've yet to fully discover how brain physiology correlates with the expression of emotions like grief in the animal kingdom. 

"We humans grieve differently than other animals do: using language, enacting symbolic rituals like funerals, and with an acute awareness of our own and others' mortality. Other animals don't do those things. But many other animals do love. My book is as much about love as it is about grief, because it's from love that the grief emerges." 

On how animal grief and emotion change our relationship with animals: "Animals teach us that grief is a natural, if at times profoundly difficult, result of feeling love and joy with another being...What can animal grief teach us about our relationship with other creatures? To me, that's the heart of why animal emotion is incredibly important to study and understand. 

"The more we understand that the chimpanzee (or cat or rabbit) confined to a biomedical lab feels his life and his friend's death in the next cage over, and that the dairy cow sorrows over the repeated loss of her calves as they're taken away to slaughter, the more we work effectively towards animal welfare. Each one of us can do something for animals. Maybe you're all about educating children in wildlife conservation, or working to get cats and dogs spay-neutered. Or maybe you decide not to eat animals anymore. Whatever works for you, it all makes a difference."

Anne Sexton - The Truth the Dead Know

For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.


I was watching the rain drip from the gutters today and all I wanted was my father back. I could not understand how all this still stands--the house, the gutters, the sky--without him. He was what held my life together. It made sense with him. Now he is gone. It's the vanishing that is so hard to accept. It's standing in rooms where he once stood and not comprehending how he could cease to exist. Where is he? What is he? And that is to be my fate, too--a nonentity, an unanswerable question, a void, a substanceless memory?

He should have turned 53 years old today. He should have blown out candles on a cake and smiled for a disposable camera and hugged me when I gave him a gift. That's what today should have been. Instead, I slept until noon, watched soap operas, read The Buddha in the Attic, and started Sontag's journals. I devour words like they are nourishment, like they can exist inside my very body and make it swell and glow and maybe they can. If I have words, then I have myself, my life, my consciousness, my intellect. If I have words, then death is somehow diminished.