Three Grieving Mothers

On August 25th, CNN aired an intense and emotional interview with the mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Sean Bell. Lesley McSpadden, Sybrina Fulton, and Valerie Bell share the experience of losing their sons to brutal violence. Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th, 2014, inspiring massive protests against police brutality. Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman in 2012. Sean Bell was also killed by police officers in 2006.

The mothers offered comfort to one another, spoke about their grief, and discussed the difficulty of watching the character assassination against their sons in the media. Fulton and Bell encouraged McSpadden to keep Brown's memory alive and to focus on the happy times she had with him. Fulton said:
You have to focus on when he was smiling. You have to focus on his first day of school, and you have to focus on Christmas day and things like that.[...] Just don't focus on the death, because that's going to eat away at you.
 When interviewer Don Lemon asked Fulton if it was possible to ever be whole again, she responded
I don't think it's a matter of being a whole. What I think it is is a matter of a new life. This is the new life. I can never go back to who I was and what I was because I'm missing something very precious in my life and something very special.
Bell described losing her son, Sean, as losing a part of her body:
But you remember, you remember what that part of your body has done for you. Like if you lose an arm, you knew what that arm did. So my thing is keeping the memories that will keep you and carry you on.
McSpadden mentioned that when it rains, she thinks of her son, Michael:
Something about the rain. Something about it.[...] I feel him. He's there.

In the midst of tragedy, these three women came together to support one another and to honor the lives of their sons. This interview is one of the most profoundly moving things I have ever seen.

You can watch the full interview at the CNN website.

Sybrina Fulton embraces Lesley McSpadden

Sybrina Fulton holds Lesley McSpadden

Valerie Bell comforts Lesley McSpadden

Sybrina Fulton, Lesley McSpadden, and Valerie Bell

Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin)

Valerie Bell (mother of Sean Bell)

Lesley McSpadden (mother of Michael Brown)

Pictures of the Dead

I told myself I could handle it.

I missed his face. I saw his face for sixteen years straight, every single day. It’s the face I saw each morning when I’d go in his room to kiss him good-bye before my mom drove me to school, the face that sat across from me at dinner each night.

I wanted to see his eyes, his nose, his cheeks, all the features that made him a living human being, that made him my father.

I told myself I could handle the pictures. I’d packed them away for years, only taking them out on special occasions, like his birthday or the anniversary of his death. I put all my photographs of him in a red photo album. I’d flip through the album and cry myself to the point of exhaustion, I’d sob until I could not breathe and my chest trembled and my eyes were swollen shut

I want to see him but I don’t.

I want to remember him but I don’t.

To remember him is to remember his death all over again. It is to feel an absence that nearly kills me. He is not here but the pictures are and the pictures are nothing. They bear witness to a life that was destroyed.

I’m Orpheus looking back at Eurydice at the edge of the Underworld. To look back is to see the loss over and over, to watch the dead die again.

I search for him in the photos but what I find is an illusion.

I told myself I wanted that illusion, that I could handle it. So I took some pictures from the red photo album and displayed them in my room so that I could see his face every single day the way I used to.

I lasted a few months before I could not bear it anymore.

I turned the pictures so that the backs only showed. I had to turn away from my father’s face. I had to turn my father’s face away from me.

I can’t look back or I will be swallowed by grief.

At some point, I will slip the pictures back into the album sleeves and put them back where they belong, back where I don’t have to see him and remember all that I have lost.

Grief Journal

I'm working on an art  project. I guess it's also a kind of conceptual writing. In a spiral-bound notebook, I write the word "grief" over and over. This one word covers the pages. I usually listen to music when I work on the project. Repetitive tasks are therapeutic for me and allow my brain to rest and regenerate. I desire to peel back language. I wanted to strip my life down to one word. I wanted to become intimate with the word. My hand forms each curve of every letter. I live this word. I am tormented by this word. It's a word I think about, the only word that comes close to describing what I feel about his death. My grief is enormous. The word itself is so small, only five letters, and yet it represents a deep, relentless emotion. When I can find no other words, I will always have this word.


You owe nothing to the dead.

Knowing that I need to write this grief, realizing that it will not be written, that it can't be written.

The words are imprisoned by us. We are imprisoned by the words.

I am forever estranged from reality. I create alternative realities where I can exist and survive.

I don't write what I know; I write what I can't let go of.

I think often about the flower lady in Mrs. Dalloway, singing of life and death as the masses walk by her. She knows a truth we cannot seem to fathom.

Instead of being trapped in my life, I want to live it and celebrate it. Do you realize how radical it was for Whitman to make a song for himself, to celebrate his life and his body?

My grief is enormous.

Tired of trying to be legible and knowable and comprehensible.

I've been listening to Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks. This was inspired by seeing Stevie honor Linda at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. My father would have loved it. I remember he gave me the cassette tape of Stevie's "Wild Heart" album and the CD of Ronstadt's Greatest Hits. I wished he was there watching the ceremony with me. When the Nirvana part came on, I danced manically to all the songs. I think it was a grief dance. I think I lost my mind for a time, intoxicated and wild and fearless like a maenad. I wish I could leave my body and see myself from outside myself, see that frenzied godless girl seeking freedom in electric rhythms and shrieks. It reminded me of youth--that sense of liberation and energy and anger. My father wasn't there. He will never be there but I'm there and I don't know how to accept that because it injures me. His absence injures and my intensity is frightening, the depths of my feelings are dangerous.

I can only see lack, absence, the tear in reality, the missing space. I don't know how else to see. Grief is part of your vision. It's how you think, feel, experience life. Everything is touched by loss and radiates absence. Perhaps other people protect themselves from this. They have a way to filter out, build a membrane between themselves and the world but I am unprotected, skinless, all raw nerves.

I am forgetting so much, forgetting him and what it was like to be with him. He is constantly present in my mind but he is shadow, like something always in the corner of my eye that I can't catch.

Art holds our intensity, absorbs it.

Life is chaotic. I can't find sense or meaning. I can't tie it all together in a coherent narrative Instead, I give in to the chaos and try to salvage what I can from it. These are my fragments, my ruins.

I write a mess, a garble of words that lack meaning. I don't make music, just a lot of clattering. I suppose I'm trying to embrace this. I do consider the fragment my form. The fragments represent my life and mind. They have their own music, their own rhythmic dissonance.

Often, in life, I do not speak up. I know that speaking is dangerous. I think writing has always represented a form of safe speech for me.

I get upset with my mother sometimes for doing things that can hurt her. "Don't you know," I want to scream but never do, "that you are so fragile? That you are all I have? Don't you know your pain is mine, that if I lose you, I am nothing?"

I have a terrible fear of loss

I read that the tendons in the heart can snap after a traumatic experience, that this causes the heart to pump blood less efficiently. Am I dying of a broken heart? Yes, I am. I can't undo this. I can't be the girl with a father and a whole heart.

I have passed through life almost as a ghost, leaving no trace, making no mark. I am here, but I'm not. The outside world and other people can never know me or fulfill me. I have always gone inward, to my dreams and visions and passions.

When I look back, I see pain. When I look forward, I also see pain. It does not end.

Writing is feeling.

On the film Picnic at Hanging Rock--> It's not about solving the mystery but about contemplating the mystery.

Many years into the future, long after I am gone, I want a girl to read my words and know she is not alone. That's why I must write.

Haunted by my own muteness, by the week after his death when I could not read or write. Perhaps that week comes closest to capturing what I felt, what I still feel.

Language that isn't language at all.

On re-reading Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet-->I first read Letters to a Young Poet at least ten years ago when I was in my early teens. Now I read it again in 2014. Who was I when I first read it? What am I now? I can almost touch that girl. I get glimpses of her. The writing, feverish, dreamy girl before loss and grief. The ghosts of this room are loud and ever-present.

The smell of books brings tears to my eyes.

I used to hear my mother and father talking at night. I could hear his voice through the wall. I miss it so much.

I am ravenous for information about my father. I feel like I know so little about him.

How can the world exist without him?

I dream of him often. Dreams within dreams. In the dream, I wake up from another dream of his death. I wake and he is alive again. I think everything has been reversed. Then, I wake for real and the truth devastates me.

I want to explore the complexity of grief through multiple forms and genres.

The terror of writing, of needing words that you can't find and building your life, your sense of self, your salvation around them.

The past will break you. The past will kill you.

My life is ruled by shame. I knew shame at an early age.

I am scared to love what can die.

My heart pounds all the time. I lie in bed at night and soothe myself by repeating "I'm alive. I'm safe. I'm loved." I feel pinned down by an enormous weight--the burden of grief, poverty, and mental illness.

I feel the absence of feeling. I feel the feeling of absence.

I've always been unreal to myself, immaterial.

I write in order to resist silencing and shaming.

On reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-->Duality and multiplicity interest me because I feel that variousness within myself. That I am not one thing, but many selves.

On Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms--> his attempt to lose himself, to shed a concrete, static self by creating and inhabiting other lives.

So much loss but also so much love.

Films ignite me. When I see a great film, I'm lit from within, warmth and excitement suffuse my body. I wish I could enter the screen.

Films, music, and books are my refuge. I give myself to them. I build my life with words and images and songs, everything that moves me, that haunts me, that sustains me.

Reminder to myself--> Get back to the real writing, to the guts, the writing you are scared of and hiding from.

What is the body? Something we told ourselves we could live in.

The body is all we have and it's everything we lose.

All these feelings, all these dreams housed in one perishable body. All the memories, the depths, and no one will ever know it.

I am loved. Remember always.

Diaries as sites of resistance, creativity, self-invention, and self-discovery.

On Kiarostami's Close-Up--> I relate to why Sabzian pretended to be the famous director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. I too have wanted to be other people, to not be myself. More than being another person, Sabzian wanted to be respected, revered, listened to. He no longer wanted to be invisible.

Some of us fight language. For us, writing isn't so much therapy as it is trauma. There is a violence, a struggle, and I'd like my writing to reflect that, to capture the truth that words are not enough, that they have limits, that there are places words cannot penetrate.

On the film Borgman--> the film made me think about how we're always in a state of knowing and unknowing when it comes to the people in our lives.

On the documentary Manakamana--> a cinema of stasis and silence with bursts of laughter, music, and speech. Life-affirming.

On Anna Kamienska--> she writes of the longing for childhood, living with loss, the resurrection of the dead in dreams.

I lie with my journal in bed. I always want it near me.

My chest literally aches for the past. Things will never be as they were.

Life is only interludes of peace between constant tragedy. I can't savor the peace because I know it is temporary and while one could argue tragedy is equally temporary, it's the tragedies that ruin you. After tragedy, you're never the same whereas the moments of peace are not as life-changing.

Trauma sculpts us. I feel like those ancient statues with arms and heads missing, bodies eroded by time. I was always fascinated by them, especially The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Maybe there should be a vault with all the missing body parts of great sculptures. It would be the most truthful depiction of life, a monument to our fragmentation. We are defined by what's missing, by the craters left that mark the presence of something precious but vanished. My arms are intact but these arms cannot hold my dead father. My arms will never hold him, will never know the feeling of his shoulders, neck, and skin. My body has been separated from his body for eight years. Now his body, like those ancient statues, is in pieces, unrecognizable.