Broken Reality

While watching Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film, Fanny and Alexander, I came across a very powerful scene about grief. I keep thinking about it. I suspect I will think about it for a long time because it articulates (and, in a way, resolves) several things that I struggle with when it comes to grief and loss.

In the scene, Helena Ekdahl is speaking to the ghost of her dead son, Oscar. She talks about what grief has done to her life and to her sense of reality. Helena used to be an actress, and that’s what she’s alluding to when she mentions playing a role.

This shattering of reality is central to my own life. I often use the word “shattered” to describe what it was like to lose my father when I was 16 years old. Something happened when he died, something happened when I was told that he was dead. This wound was created and started to form. Reality was shattered, broken. I have lived with that brokenness ever since, and I have struggled to articulate it, to find words for it.

I am also overwhelmed by the inability to make sense of things. I’m not sure how to explain this to you. I’m not sure many people understand it. Nothing makes sense anymore, nothing has made sense since he died. The way I thought the world was, what I thought my life was, what I thought reality was–all of it was destroyed. It’s why I’m drawn to non-linear, non-narrative forms of art. It’s why I myself write in fragments. His death, and all the other loss and trauma I have suffered in the intervening years, pulverized me, reduced me to ruins. That’s how I write. I write bits and pieces, I write word shards. I write all the fragments that remain of my shattered life and soul. I can’t make sense of anything. I can’t find or create meaning. I can’t do it.

What I find fascinating about this scene is Helena’s acceptance of her shatteredness, her embracing of senselessness, her belief that it makes reality more real, that it is the natural state of life. She has no desire to heal the wound, to repair the brokenness, to make any sense out of the chaos. I think, for so long, I have resisted the senselessness. I’ve thought that I needed to overcome it, or maybe I thought that it would change, that some miraculous moment would arrive when everything finally made sense again. That isn’t going to happen. I know that now. 

He’s been dead over a decade. It’s never going to feel real. It’s never going to stop killing me. It’s never going to be acceptable that he isn’t alive. I cannot heal. I cannot move past it. I cannot bear it. Reality is broken. It will always be broken. All I can really do is create a space for engaging with what is broken, what is lost, what is unbearable. I do that through writing. Writing helps me to survive the senselessness of this world. It helps me live in this broken reality that often defies language and makes words impossible. How do you write when you can’t make sense of anything, when your reality is cracked in pieces? How do you write a scream?

There’s another powerful scene in Fanny and Alexander. It’s just after Oscar’s death. His body is laid out in a room in the house. His two children–the title characters–are awakened in the night by the sound of their mother’s screams. Emilie Ekdahl is pacing the room that holds Oscar’s body. She is releasing the primal shrieks of grief. No language can be found. She cannot speak. She can only wail. It’s one of the most visceral and honest scenes about grief that I’ve ever witnessed. Helena speaks about the breaking of reality, and Emilie enacts it through her body, through her guttural and raw shrieking that gives voice to the depths of her unspeakable anguish. 

I think that’s what I want my writing to be–the articulation of a scream.

I Remember

Recently, we had the first snowfall of the winter season. The kids got a day off from school. I saw many of them playing in the snow and a few even built snowmen. Some of them were at or around the age I was when I lost my father.

I'm never just in the present. I'm always also in the past. I inhabit both realities at the same time. Snow is never just snow for me. It's imbued with vivid, overwhelming memories.

When I stood outside in the snow alone, I remembered the first snowfall after my father's death. 

I remembered standing in the middle of the yard as the snow flakes fell around me, stunned into silence by the beauty I was witnessing that he was not alive to see. 

I remember the warm tears falling down my face. 

I remember thinking about how Emily Dickinson wore white after her father's death.

I remember wishing the whiteness and the coldness would obliterate me.

I remember how I couldn't understand the fatherless world I suddenly lived in. 

I still don't understand it.

Grief During the Holidays

Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander: Episode One (1982)

It's hard to believe this is the 12th Christmas without my father. More than a decade later, I am still dumbstruck by grief and still struggling to make sense of life without him.

I started getting into Christmas early this year. I'm an atheist, but I do enjoy the holidays. I like decorating the tree and putting up pretty lights. I was listening to holiday music in November! I was really happy for a few weeks and feeling good, but when December came the bottom fell out.

I haven't listened to any holiday music since December started. I feel no desire to celebrate at all. It's like a switch was turned off, and I think I know why. It's because all the memories of my father are back, memories of my childhood. The pain debilitates me. My depression and anxiety feel very intense right now.

I think some people would assume that almost 12 years is a long time and it shouldn't hurt as much or I should be over it or okay with it. I'm not sure how to respond to that attitude. This wasn't the death of a distant relative, this was my father. A man I knew for 16 years, the man who raised and loved me. When I lost him, I lost his love, too. I lost all he was. I lost the life we had together. I lost the life we could have had together. No amount of time changes that. It's as raw and real and painful for me now as it was the first Christmas I spent without him. This is my life. I never escape this grief.

I don't update this blog on a regular basis. I can't do it anymore or haven't wanted to do it for a long time because the language for the pain eludes me. I write fragments in my journal. It's the reason I rarely share my writing anymore. All I write about is pain. I don't think most people want to read it. I'm not sure I want to read it, but I live it and so that's what I write.

The holidays are hard for a lot of people who are grieving. Things are never the same after a catastrophic loss. I think a lot about this poem by W.S. Merwin. It's called "Separation":

Your absence has gone through me  
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

I think that says it all. I don't have any words of inspiration for other people who are suffering the way I am. I can only say that you're not alone in your grief, that others feel it too. If you are struggling, consider reaching out to people you know. And don't beat yourself up if you are having a hard time. It's okay to miss someone you loved. Don't let anyone make you feel bad or ashamed about it.

Since my father's death, the new year isn't the same either. I'm just reminded that I've survived another year without him and that I have to live the upcoming year without him, too. What is time? A reminder of our mortality, the thing that takes and takes and takes from us. Time is loss. Life is loss. I think we all do our best to survive it.

“One moment he was there, and then he was gone”

While watching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End, one scene, in particular, stunned me. 

The film is about a widow whose husband continues to haunt her after death. One day, the widow–Urszula–is at a bar. She sees an American man across the room. He has hands like her husband. The American man mistakes her for a prostitute, but she plays along and goes to a hotel room with him. After they have sex, she asks if he understands Polish. He says he doesn’t. As they lie in bed together, she starts to pour her heart out in Polish. He doesn’t understand a word she says, but that’s the point. She doesn’t want him to understand. She just wants to speak. It’s the first time in the film that she communicates her grief, says it out loud.

There is such a rawness to the scene, an emotional nakedness that mirrors her physical nudity. Her silence says as much as her words. Her face expresses so much.

Maybe sometimes we need to speak even if it’s to a stranger. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we are understood. Some of us–myself included–need to put experiences into language. We need to articulate, like Urszula, what it means for someone to be here one moment and then for them not to be here, how that sudden disappearance is profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Absence, the void, the missing–these are things that, by their very nature, defy language. 

I was thinking just recently about how I struggle with language, how I grapple with the unspeakable, how tired I am of words. I’ve filled notebooks with thousands of words and still I haven’t really written anything. What do I want to say? Do I have anything to say?

I write from need. I write from pain. I write from my body and my grief and my despair and my mad aching.

The director Su Friedrich said something interesting in an interview and I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. She’s talking about her film I Cannot Tell You How I Feel.

Marchini Camia: So there was a therapeutic aspect to making this film? 
Friedrich: No, because this isn’t art therapy. Art therapy is something very particular: People have troubles and they go to an art therapist. They aren’t artists; they’re people with problems who use a paint brush. I’m a person with problems who also is an artist. I don’t disrespect art therapy, but it’s not at all the same thing. If I start thinking about working on a film because the subject has deep emotional resonance for me, I know it’s going to be really hard and that I’m going to have to go to places in my mind that I don’t want to. But it’s also going to be hard because I’ll have to get good footage, good sound, I’ll have to write good texts, and then I’ll have to edit so that it all makes sense and works well. There is a huge, huge, huge amount of craft and thought and planning and consciousness in the process that completely takes over from the emotional stuff.

Also I think the goal of art therapy is that you understand how you’re feeling and you get better. That never happens when you’re making a film!

Friedrich is talking about that age-old question of what makes art art. She makes a distinction between art as a form of therapy and art as a craft and a kind of intellectual process. She seems to suggest that people who create purely from a need for therapeutic release or who engage in a more automatic process are not legitimate artists. 

I don’t think I agree. I think my idea of art is more expansive than that. Perhaps because my writing process is much more connected with the therapeutic, automatic, instinctual, and cathartic.

Grief blew me apart. Profound loss and mental illness have forever changed me and also changed how I write and why I write. There is a deep silence in me. There is so much that lives inside of me that I cannot articulate. I wonder if I will ever find a language for it, if a language is even possible. If I can’t find that language, have I failed as a writer? Am I a legitimate writer at all? Am I just, in Friedrich’s words, a person with problems who uses a pen? Could what I write ever have meaning beyond myself and my own personal issues? Is art that which transcends the artist and takes on a life inside other people?

Back to Urszula, naked and speaking her grief. Her act of speaking is so interesting to me because she does it on her own terms and in her own language, not in the American’s. She’s not concerned with being understood. There is something in the act of saying the words. It doesn’t matter if the audience comprehends them.

When you write, you must be prepared to be misunderstood or ignored. You may create a language that few understand, but it is your own.

I also disagree with Friedrich that art therapy eases the pain and makes the practitioner feel better. I don’t write to cure my pain but to bear it.

I find it touching that Urszula is attracted to the American because his hands remind her of her dead husband’s hands. We perpetually seek out the dead in the living, we watch as they are resurrected in everything, from songs to other people’s body parts. There is no easy way to bear grief when the dead can never be laid to rest, when they haunt us to no end.

Painting The Dead

Thinking about the above photograph of Frida Kahlo taken by Gisèle Freund. Frida is in the process of painting a portrait of her dead father. By the time she created the painting, her father had been dead a decade. He died in 1941. She did the painting in 1951. A decade. Around the same amount of time my own father has been dead. 

I see my dead father in every other dead father.  

It feels like a very tender act to paint a portrait of a dead loved one. It feels loving. It feels sacred. To paint a face and a body that no longer exist. To substitute painted hair for real hair, painted skin for real skin. An exchange. You can’t have the flesh, so you settle for the paint. 

Think of how she painted every strand of his hair, every blemish on his face. Think of how she reconstructed him as a way to say that she loved him. Painting as an act of exhumation. Of course, she had photos of him, but a painting is something very different from a photograph. It involves a certain level of labor and imagination. This is not just her father as he was but as she knew him and remembered him. By painting him, she could be with him again, be close to him, to his likeness, to the version of him that she created in paint.

I often envy visual artists. They can paint a portrait, give us a tangible representation of a person, and we can see it and know that it’s real. The writer must do something else. The writer must express the intangible, the unseen, the inner world, the textures of a person. They raise the dead in very different ways and through very different means.

I can’t paint my father’s hair or skin. I can’t re-create his face on a canvas. I can’t even look at photos of him. I know he lived, but I don’t know how he isn’t alive anymore. How can that be? I wonder all the time. How is he gone? How can it be possible? How can it be true?

Silence and Speechlessness

I rarely update this blog anymore because I’ve reached a state of speechlessness. There are no words for the devastation, no language for the grief. Words are not enough. Words are limited, all art is limited when trying to represent certain kinds of pain and trauma.

Silence is my language for now. It says this cannot be said, this cannot be communicated, this lives in a place beyond any means of expression.

Eleven Years

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my father’s death.

I laid in bed, holding a locket that contained his picture and listening to Tori Amos’s “From the Choirgirl Hotel,” an album that deals heavily with the grief and darkness that Amos experienced after a miscarriage.

In “Spark,” Amos sings:

she’s convinced she could hold back a glacier
but she couldn’t keep Baby alive
doubting if there’s a woman in there somewhere

All these years have passed and yet no time has passed. Time no longer registers in my body.

I’m always surviving, not survived. It’s never set or final. I’m never done with survival, it’s never in the past tense. It’s always something I have to do right now and the next moment and the next.

Take your life and all you love and try to imagine it disappearing. Take away the person who loved you and that you loved. Keep taking it all away. What are you? What is left? Take away more people, take away your home, take away your health, add poverty and depression and anxiety. Then, maybe you can imagine what the past decade has been like for me. Loss after loss after loss.

Feel everything you love vanish and then tell me that time heals it. Tell me it gets easier. I will answer that time only brings more pain, that the loss accumulates, that your body starts to break down, that my writing is the record of a mind and body battered and pushed past its limits.

Doubting if there’s a woman in there somewhere

I know that so much of me is gone, that the part that survives is the part that you are reading, that writing has always been and always will be the way that I stay alive. It can’t be anything else.

I’m not sure who I am or what woman remains. I think of myself always as that sixteen-year-old girl at her father’s funeral, watching her life disintegrate, feeling herself shattered. I’m not sure who this woman is who writes these words. I’m not sure I know her all that well or even like or want to be her and yet I am her and she’s all I have, along with these words.

I said to myself today Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. The last decade of suffering cannot have been for nothing. At least you can make words that can help someone else, that can voice this deep, intolerable aching. 

I guess that’s all I can do. Keep writing. Keep creating even though I am destroyed.

The Quietness of Grief

Screenshots from The Dream and the Silence (Jaime Rosales, 2012)

I think I like the quiet films about grief because they are the most honest. Grief is so quiet, it’s a kind of silence, punctuated by the occasional outburst. You feel a scream inside, but you’re never permitted to release it. For so long, I’ve just wanted to scream.


Screenshots from Solitary Fragments (Jaime Rosales, 2007)

When you lose someone and you try to pretend it didn’t happen. When three becomes two, when the whole is broken apart, and you try to convince yourself for as long as you can that you aren’t shattered, you aren’t destroyed.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to imagine that you are just away for a little while, that you will return one day, and we’ll be together again. Could I ever fall for the lie? But what if the lie keeps me alive? I wish my brain would believe it.


I’ve been thinking about Jean Vigo’s underwater scenes in Taris and L’atalante. Of all the scenes in his films, I come back to those. I think it’s because water itself holds such meaning in my life.

For Vigo, water seems to function in various ways. It’s a site where the body can be free, liberated, and sensual. Think of swimmer Jean Taris, barely clothed, playing underwater, bubbles streaming from his mouth, a gorgeous smile on his face.

In L’atalante, water represents a connection to the beloved. The new groom jumps into the water because he was told that if you open your eyes underwater, you can see the one you love. His wife has run away. He wants to see her again. So he goes underwater to reconnect with her. The water creates access, a portal to the one who is lost, a way of reaching her.  

There’s a ghostliness about these scenes even though the actors in them were alive. The way water reduces bodies to light and shadow and the ethereal.

When I was a kid, I loved swimming. It was the only time I was truly free, my body no longer weighed down. I could do flips and handstands and laps. I could sink to the bottom and hold my breath as long as possible. I could float on top and feel the sun on my skin. It was a magical place–just as it is in Vigo’s films. A place of possibilities, a place of dreams.

I’ve never swam in the ocean. I rarely even got to swim as a child. Because it was a rare experience, I think I cherished it all the more. There was a local public pool that I sometimes went to. A family friend worked at a hotel and we got to use the pool occasionally during the summer. I’d always take goggles so that I could go to the bottom of the pool and then look up and see the sunlight streaming through the surface. I felt suspended in time, fossilized in beauty. The sunlight would make these tessellations on the bottom of the pool. I was mesmerized. I didn’t want to leave the water ever. I hated having to return to the real world. I always wished I had a camera to capture what I saw, what that watery world looked like.

After my father died, the only reprieve I felt from the grief was when I got to swim in the pool at a local hotel. My mom and I scrounged some money from somewhere and went for a few days. I don’t think we told anyone. There was no one to tell. We were alone, abandoned by everyone. We were mad with grief, broken apart. We still are. But I still remember swimming in that pool, floating on top of the water, my arms and legs stretched out. I felt released, reborn. The grief was still there, it’s always there, it’s still there even now, eleven years later, but the water held me and soothed me and gave me a few days of peace. I know I’m not writing it properly. I know you can’t feel what it was like to be inside my body underneath the water, just like you can’t feel the grief that throbbed in my veins and that lives inside me still.

I’m drawn to water and to the lives lost to it. Woolf with the rocks in her pockets in the River Ouse, forcing herself to drown when she could swim, forcing herself into death. Ophelia with her flowers and her soaked skirts, babbling about her dead father, maybe searching for a way to get back to him. Water as life force, water as death force.

And I remember my father in the water, a picture of him on a float, basking in the summer sunshine, so alive and so real. Pictures of me and him at pools or lakes, now only together in photos, forever separated.

I wish I could open my eyes underwater and see him again. I wish he was there, emerging from the depths, surfacing back into life, back into my arms.