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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What We Lose and Mourning With Those Who Mourn

In this regard I find myself dubious about the politics of women’s peace groups, for example, which celebrate maternality as the basis for engaging in antimilitarist work. I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman. A child can be used as a symbolic credential, a sentimental object, a badge of self-righteousness. I question the implicit belief that only “mothers” with “children of their own” have a real stake in the future of humanity.
I don't have a lot of experience with grief. Friends of mine have died, but each time it has been after an extended period in which I hadn't seen them. At one point, Tony was one of my three or four closest friends, but I hadn't seen him in nearly a decade when I found out he'd overdosed and died. His funeral was weird and uncomfortable; it was held in a church that he hadn't attended in probably twenty years and filled with people who had probably never set foot in a chapel before. His sister gave a lovely talk, and the bishop who clearly never knew him doled out boilerplate platitudes that hopefully comforted the believers, but probably gave little to the majority of the attendees. I didn't envy the guy's position, but wished he'd spoken less.

One of Tony's close friends stood to talk, but was overcome by emotion and just sat down. Later my friends and I had a little party where we told stories about him and walked to the gully where we used to play and scattered a small bag of his ashes. I hope that the friends he'd made later in his life all had a chance to get together, too. Looking at his Facebook page it was clear he'd made an impact on their lives and they were suffering badly. In their messages I saw a lot of the same things I knew about him. He didn't judge anyone. He was emotionally available. He was funny. He liked to look straight in your eyes and get frickin' deep about something and wouldn't let you laugh it off.

I remember him introducing me to Rage Against the Machine in his basement and telling me what the machine was and explaining who burning guy on the cover was. Another time he decided to become a vegetarian, shortly after we went to a local concert and he disappeared for a while. He showed up a few hours later saying that on a whim he'd jumped onto a freight-train, depression-era hobo style, and jumped off near a McDonalds and ate the biggest hamburger they made, then he walked back. He would get mad that we all had a crush on his sister.

The news hurt bad, but it still struck far away from me. Like when I saw on Facebook that a work friend from years back had been t-boned at a stoplight, or when several acquaintances from high school committed suicide in the same year. I wasn't there among their family when it happened. I didn't watch it happen over months or years. There was a hole in my life, but not one that hit me every day.

Three of my grandparents have died, one of whom died pretty young of pancreatic cancer when I was a young teen. When we were waiting for my Grandma's diagnosis our family decided to hold a fast for her. Among LDS people, a fast usually lasts two meals and you don't eat or drink. The idea is that you want something extra badly and so you sacrifice to get it, also when you haven't eaten your body is weakened, which is supposed to heighten spirituality. Obviously we wanted the diagnosis to be good, but also we wanted to be comforted if it was bad.

I was at church that day, and someone found a big bottle of stale sprinkles and I kept eating them. I couldn't figure out why they were so delicious until I realized that I was starving, and then I realized why. I felt pretty awful about breaking my fast, but had honestly forgotten. Surely the God I believed in wasn't going to take away some of the strength of all of our prayers because a teenager forgot for a minute and ate some handfuls of sugar, corn syrup (which is also sugar I think?), corn starch, and food-grade wax (gross).

The diagnosis was bad and she went fast. One day, I think it was the Easter party, my cousins and I were playing tag or something and my mom asked us to play on the other side of the house so that Grandma could watch us play through the window. The memory that sticks with me every time I think of my healthy grandma is my sisters and I finding an old unopened Alvin and the Chipmunks card game in the basement and asking her if we could open it. She read the instructions and taught us how to play. I don't remember if the game was good, but was amazed that you could learn to play a game by reading the instructions. Up until then I thought of games like they were oral tradition; someone just knew the rules and we didn't question how. I thought every grandma kept a box of foil-wrapped Ding Dongs in their freezer, just for grandkids.

Both of my wife's parents have passed away, and in those cases the grief was more immediate and awful, but I feel like those stories aren't mine to tell. Watching her go through the death of two parents in such a short span was gut-wrenching, and being unable to do anything about it made me feel useless.

The weirdest part of grief for me is how everyone else's life just goes on when your own seems to be in tatters. I would run errands for my wife and there were cars on the road of people just going to work and yoga and shopping or whatever. The checkers at the store had their own problems and seemed completely unaware that a family had lost its matriarch. It makes you want to scream at the teens jostling around and joking in front of you; "don't you know that people are sad today?"

We don't do that because it would never stop. There are always sad people. While we post pictures of our Christmas dinners and happy kids with toys and sleepy parents who had to wake up too early because Santa came, or families in matching pajamas, someone is mourning. I have a friend who catalogs all of the local deaths on Christmas day. Each headline is the story of someone for whom the most wonderful time of the year is now a constant reminder of their loss.

What We Lose calls itself a novel, but it feels more like an autobiographical braided essay. I'm not sure what is true or made up in here, but it doesn't matter. Clemmons wrote it immediately after her own mother's death, and the emotions are so raw that it's a little uncomfortable sometimes. It seems rare to sit in grief when it's so urgent and the wounds are still so open. Her ability to capture that is a pretty amazing feat.
Loss is a straightforward equation: 2 - 1 = 1. A person is there, then she is not. But a loss is beyond numbers, as well as sadness, and depression, and guilt, and ecstasy, and hope, and nostalgia - all those emotions that experts tell us come along with death. Minus one person equals all of these, in unpredictable combinations. It is a sunny day that feels completely gray, and laughter in the midst of sadness. It is utter confusion. It makes no sense.

Thandi, the main character, bounces around in both time and topic. Sometimes she discusses the crime rate in South Africa (complete with graphs), others she talks about love and race. As a South African immigrant to the United States, she straddles the middle ground that's talked about in a lot of the books I've read. She feels like she doesn't belong anywhere.
I've often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you're out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may even envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.
The bananas thing to me about grief isn't that it seems like it sticks around for a long time, it's that people ever move on. I think about last spring when a mother and a bystander drowned trying to save a 4-year old child from a river near where I live. The mom left four kids, the bystander didn't know the family and left behind a wife. Honestly I don't know how people come back from that.

We were crushed this year when our beloved cat died. Going downstairs and telling my kids, especially the daughter whose bed our little kitty slept in every night, was one of the hardest dad things I've had to do yet. The other night I was looking under my bed for some chapstick or something and thought I saw her looking out at me, just like she used to (which was against the rules and she knew it). I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child. And someone loses one every day.
I realized that that was how heartbreak occurred. Your heart wants something, but reality resists it. Death is inert and heavy, and it has no relation to your heart's desires.
I don't really have a hopeful ending for this. I don't think that's the point. The frustrating thing about grief to me is that I never know how to help someone who is going through it. There's so much terrible stuff we tell people who have lost a loved one: "God needed them more than you did," "they're in a better place," "actually it's kind of blessing if you think about it." We want them to feel better because their hurting makes us uncomfortable when what they need is someone to mourn with them.

Here's a great illustration by BrenĂ© Brown.

I think that What We Lose does well is to bring us down in that hole. It points out how useless it is to ask someone who is hurting, "What can I do to help?" We need to know what it's like to hurt, and some of us have never had to hurt like that and we have no idea what it's like. If your best friend who you had brunch with yesterday and was your number one source of emotional support died today, my story about my old friend dying is the closest I have to what you're going through, and there is no comparison.
This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.
We don't just grieve when people die. We mourn lost friendships, we pine for the days before health problems have changed our lives, we hurt for children and friends who have undergone a trauma that will change their lives forever. And we're all so bad at helping (I have been terrible about it). Maybe you're like me when you read the inside of this book jacket and think, "I don't want to read about someone's mom dying." It's not fun, but if we really want to help someone it's necessary. And to do that, we need to be able to crawl into that hole with them. It'll make sense if you watch the video.