Notes from a journey through grief
A week. I’ve been trying to write this for a week. More than a week. Days and days of being tired of writing about grief. Of being tired of being sad. Of falling behind in my work, my writing, my lesson planning because I’m just too stuck in my head and heart space to give a shit. Except that I do give a shit, but keeping my head just above water is getting exhausting.
I participated in the FB share game where you list a number of things that people don’t know about you. The number is determined by the person who tagged you. I was given the number 8. I did the first 7 rather easily. #8 took a chunk out of me.
I’d been mulling over the word “strong.” It’s been used so often to describe me. Sometimes hurled at me like a poison-tipped arrow. A long, made-for-hunting-enormous-animals-like-moose kind of arrow. “Oh, you’ll be fine. You’re strong.” “You’re strong, you’ll get over this.” (This one is usually accompanied by a dismissive hand wave that I imagine catching in mid-air and snapping into several pieces.) “You’re so strong for doing this, V.” They’re referring to my public display of grief. I didn’t realize I was being an exhibitionist. I’m grieving as best I can. The only way I know how. I’m making it up as I go.
I was talking to a friend the other day who lost her brother ten years ago. She offered some sage advice and a gentle, understanding ear. “You’re doing it, V. You don’t realize it, but you’re doing it.” I had asked her how she coped after her brother passed. She thinks I’m doing a good job at dealing with my grief. I’m not always sure.
Sometimes I think I’m fucking myself up more by writing about it. By continuing on this memoir journey and incorporating my brother’s story in the book, the last few months of his life and everything he revealed and we shared during that time. Sometimes I think I’m being masochistic for digging into it and sitting in it and breathing it in. And sometimes, often, I feel like that’s the only thing that’s helped me survive these few months of the greatest grief I’ve ever known. A grief that has made a nest in my lungs and caused me to walk around breathless much of the time. Grief, literally, had me by the lungs.
I got the call at 2:30 in the morning on June 24th. I was at a writing residency in Berkeley, California, thousands of miles away from my family in New York. “Your brother passed away.” I felt my lungs clench. Tight like an iron-clad fist. It’s only now, all these months later, that I’ve started to unclench that fist, finger by steely finger. ~Grief’s Nest, an essay by Vanessa Mártir
And so, I think the past two weeks, my body said, “No more. Chill out. You’re killing me.” The writing stopped flowing while I cared for my lungs. While I drank teas and talked to my lungs. Coddled them. Practiced deliberate breathing exercises. Meditated. Worked out. And then, share #8 pushed through:
This one has taken me a few days because I’ve been sitting with my heart in my palms, staring, coddling, trying to console her, but today I have to confess that I’m in a space that I can’t quite describe or name. I just know it’s a space and I know it’s connected to my grief.
I’ve found myself googling grief and essays on grief, this strange land I’ve been exiled to. The thing is I’m not sure what I’m searching for. Perhaps it’s witness. Perhaps it’s freedom from the immense isolation that is grief. Perhaps I just want to comprehend the rage and the pain and the suffocation of it, because, fuck, let me tell you, grief is brutally physiological: It’s literally taken my breath away. My asthma was exacerbated for months and my lungs still aren’t back to normal…but then again, grief is carried in the lungs so…
One of the worst parts of this grief is how isolating it is and how inept people are at dealing with it, myself included. People are supportive in the first few weeks, then they move on. And it’s made me feel guilty to continue to mourn when others are so tired of dealing with it. But even when people leave, grief remains…& I’m having a really hard time dealing with it. Some days I’m okay. Some days it’s so hard. But every day, every single day, I think of him. I hear a song that reminds me of our childhood or I see someone that has his walk or cocks his head to the side the way he did when he was trying to make a point. Every day I feel that burn behind my nose, a fizz like there’s carbonated water in my nasal cavity. That warning that tears are coming. If I catch it in time, I can breathe thru it and will them back in, but sometimes, like today on the bus in the Bronx, there’s nothing I can do so I just let it sweep over me. Grief.
I’m learning that it’s okay to say I’m not okay. That it’s okay to not always be strong. That I have to be patient and gentle with myself. And that I have to be honest with my feelings… I’m grieving. It’s terrible. I don’t see a way out. I don’t see the light or the end zone or the exit. It’s just how it is…” (Tuesday, November 20)
A few days ago, a sister friend sent me a Slate article about ModernLoss.com. Something clicked. I found people who understood. Articles and essays and anecdotes about grief and how people dealt with or couldn’t deal with it. I’m not alone. This is normal. I’m not going crazy. I’m not being consumed. Shit, V, it’s only been five months.
In my research and reading and searching for some clarity, I’ve discovered/found the following:
– I will never be the Vanessa I was before June 24th. Ever. This grief, this process, is about learning how to live with this pain. Learning a new normal.
– We live in a culture that gives grief and the grieving a stiff upper lip. A culture that does not understand (or doesn’t want to) that grief takes time. This culture is not accommodating of grief. And, yes, that’s wack. Grief used to be communal. Mourning was ritualistic. I remember as a kid going to novenas for days after a person died and again for years afterward on the anniversary of the person’s death. We didn’t have a wake for my brother. He didn’t want that so instead we had a memorial for him when I got back from VONA, but nothing really ritualized. Mourning has become a private and psychological experience which just makes the process so very isolating.
– “The truth about grief is that it hurts. It can hurt for a long time—even years.” Period. ~via Slate.com
– We live in an era that lacks clear-cut rituals or language for loss. We have to change that. We have to. Loss is a rite of passage that we all have to go through. Thomas Lynch was on point when he said: “Grief is the price we pay for being close to one another. If we want to avoid our grief, we simply avoid each other.” That’s not going to happen, it shouldn’t, so we have to come up with better ways to support one another and remember those we’ve lost, if only for the sake of our hearts.
– Grief is very individual. It’s personal. It’s different for every person, and that’s okay. Roland Barthes, in his Mourning Diary refers to grief over losing his mother as a “laceration.” (How’s that for a visual?) He resented the world for moving on while he was stuck in his own sense of drowning. “Everything began all over again immediately: arrival of manuscripts, requests, people’s stories, each persona mercilessly pushing ahead his own little demand… [N]o sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.” I feel his pain. We’re expected to go on with our lives, to continue writing and teaching and working and doing whatever it is we do. It’s hard. So fucking hard to go on with your life when you feel like you’re drowning in a cup. That cup is called grief and it’s like a fucking bottomless, endless ocean sometimes.
– I feel so alone in this, so isolated, and I resent it. I resent that people supported me for the first few weeks then went on with their lives. I resent that I feel guilty for continuing to grieve when it’s just too much for anyone else to handle or carry with me. I get it that I can’t expect anyone to walk with me. The conundrum is that I don’t want anyone to walk with me or feel this with me. I want to experience it alone but I want to know that someone will be there if I need to reach out. I understand that this doesn’t make sense, but grief isn’t logical. And it isn’t linear either. It’s all over the place.
– I’m terrified of forgetting what his voice sounded like. My brother, Juan Carlos Moncada. The lilt in his “okay.” I’m afraid I’ll forget how he looked at me when he said, “I’m proud of you, sis.” That love in his eyes that I know no one felt or will ever feel for me. Not like that. We had a special bond, my bro and I, and I’m angry that I don’t have him anymore. I’m fucking livid about it and I don’t know how to come to terms with it. Sometimes I don’t know if I even want to.
– Grief makes you feel the entire spectrum of emotion, from devastating pain where you feel like you’re choking to a sadness that weighs on you like boulders to a stifling anger that heats up your chest and assails your brow and makes your head throb and your fists clench and you heart scream, “please, no more.”
My mentor Chris Abani wrote an essay, “Painting a Body of Loss & Love in the Proximity of an Aesthetic,” that’s slayed me little by little since I started reading it yesterday. I couldn’t read it all the way through. I kept stopping to cry and breathe deep.
In his extended essay on memory, Memoirs of the Blind, Jacques Derrida argues that it is not that we desire to mark loss, to record memory physically. Derrida argues that it is not that we desire to mark the moment of trauma, of the wound, but rather that we often need to and want to record the moment just before it. In all those trains that rode to the camps in Germany, people frantically drew, made marks in the wooden cattle cars. On Angel Island in San Francisco, we can see the same markings in the timber beams that held up the roof and in the frames of the double bunk beds made by early Chinese immigrants held there in limbo between the China they left and the new land of promise just miles across the small bay. Marks made as talismans against loss. In this I think that Derrida and I agree; that to create the memory is to turn away from the moment, to remove one’s gaze from the trauma and in turn instead to transubstantiation. We know it is through this ritual, however tangentially or deeply obscured the lens, that we can even begin to bear witness to these histories, these shadows of love and loss that we carry within us.
This raises the specter of art as witness.
Transubstantiation. Chris gave me a word for what I’ve been trying to do in this writing about my family over these past few years and especially since my brother’s death in June. Transubstantiation. The changing of one substance to another. The shifting of this grief into story. An attempt to write and weave through the trauma. To find or make beauty out of something that was and continues to be so profoundly traumatic. To somehow wrench myself of this pain over losing my dear brother and destroying the silence that killed him.
Every true artist knows that art is a weak vehicle for addressing trauma in all its magnitude and yet it is the most durable, the most reliable one we have. In this way the witness of art transcends mere testimony, mere accounting, mere reportage, to define a space that allows for surrender and resistance to occur at once…
Witness is an act of love, not in the sense of the sentimental although that is certainly part of it. What I mean by love is the act of seeing. Why is seeing an act of love? It is perhaps the only true act of love. Seeing slows the world down, bringing it into focus, even for a moment, the object/subject of sight, imbuing it with worth and value, while also actively resisting its erasure. But more than that, seeing requires not turning away from difficulty to the safety of comfort…
Witness works first by seeing and then by lingering. The seeing as I said slows everything down, and the layering creates a thickness, a mass that sits in our consciousness without threat, even if it does reek of menace. And this in turn allows us to approach by degrees, the violence of the event and the damage it leaves behind…
I had to write to Chris this morning. I had to tell him what this essay did for me. That it gave me language. That it rattled me.
I will have you know that your essay is slaying me right now. I haven’t been able to get through it. I keep stopping to cry and breathe deep.
I had an essay workshopped this weekend. The large majority of the feedback was positive, extremely positive, gushing even. Except one where the writer questioned a few things about my expression of grief and my relationship with my brother. I’ve been thinking a lot about this grief and why I can’t seem to shake it in my writing. And enormous part of me wants to stop writing about grief, but this is the ghost that’s haunting me right now. That’s been haunting me for some time, even before my bother passed. Your essay is helping me to understand why this memoir and these essays I’m writing have me by the maw. “Transubstantiation.” Having a word for it is causing a visceral physical reaction. I’m shaking and my stomach is churning and my ears are ringing.
Thank you, Chris. Just thank you.
I haven’t always seen this “seeing” as an act of love. This seeing that is this writing. This memoir and this blog. This attempt to take my heart and put it onto the page. To show you my family and what happened and how that devastated us all. And how it eventually killed my brother. I’ve often seen it as an act of betrayal. I’m revealing secrets. I’m telling the world what happened to my mother. That she was raped and that’s how my brother was conceived. That she was blamed and is still carrying that trauma. That my brother was a drug addict and that we can trace his spiral into addiction and reckless behavior to when he was thirteen and was told that he was the result of a rape.
And still, I see the love in this writing. I have to see it. It stares back at me from the page. It’s the writing that’s helped me push back that muddy murk of resentment that I carried with me and coddled and nurtured like a newborn baby. It’s in the writing that I’ve seen that, yes, mom was abusive and harsh, but she loved me and she did the best she could with what she had. How she survived being raped and managed to raise three kids, I don’t know. She’s the bravest woman I know. I see that now.
The problem of course is that witness cannot save lives directly, or even alter the course of current events necessarily; all artists know this. What we have is that we can create a shift in perspective, collectively or singularly, that can if not alter, at least dent, the current worldview. With enough blows, we hope that it can be hammered into something malleable yet beautiful. In my experience, this is important because worldview is everything.
True writing, being a writer, is the struggle to wring meaning, to wring value, to redeem even the most unredeemable thing, to find transformation in even the most heinous moments, to prove, through a very complex sophisticated telling, that every life can and does in fact must have value. There is nothing else.
When I read this, I imagined a steel pan being created. The steel being shaped into an instrument. The dissonant sounds as the steel is banged into a shape that will in time make beautiful music. But first the steel has to be knocked around. The making is violent although the result is gorgeous. Metaphor.
And so, this is ultimately what I’m working to do. Shifting the perspective on what happened, to slice into the silence and the shame.
As I was writing this I missed a call from a dear friend who I was supposed to see today but cancelled on because I’m avoiding the world. She left me a long message that made me cover my mouth to stifle the sobs because I’m at the library. “I see you,” she said at the end of the voicemail. “I see you, Vanessa.”
My mentor Elmaz Abinader sent me a prompt this weekend. She was at VONA when it happened, when my brother died. She’s one of the ones who held me through it. She wrote: “Write me about how loss is a muscle and love is a canteen. Then do 100 jumping jacks.” I didn’t do the jumping jacks. Instead I went to the gym, but here I am writing with that prompt in mind.
I feel like my heart has grown an entirely new area in which to hold and honor my brother…A new valve. A new chamber. A new muscle. The heart is, after all, a muscle. You have to tear muscle to make it grow. That’s why you’re sore when you work out, because you’ve torn muscle. So the heart has to break to grow. I wish the breaking wasn’t so devastating.
My mind goes to an article my friend posted on my FB page today: 8 Ways to Cope with Grief at Milestones
Search for the sweetness in your grief.
This may sound radical, Lesser says, but “Try to reframe your grief from something that feels like it’s going to kill you, to something that can feed you and motivate you. The world is suffering from not grieving. If we grieved, let’s say, the loss of forest habitat for birds, if we really let ourselves feel that loss, we would act differently. We would love better. And we would preserve what really matters.”
When you’re struggling with a milestone event, remind yourself that your grief is a sign that you loved deeply. Tell yourself, “I’m a lucky person. I got to love that person who died or left me. And now the loss of it is showing me what a lover I am and how much room there is in my heart for love.”
My reaction to this at first was pretty harsh. I got mad. Sweetness in my grief, what the fuck is that? There’s no sweetness to this shit! But I had to pause and think and acquiesce. I am so lucky to have had my brother for 41 years. I’m lucky to have spent the last three months of his life with him. I’ve grown so much over the past few months of grieving him. I’m so much more aware of my feelings and my heart. I’m not running away from my pain like I always did. I’m letting myself feel all of it. I’m writing through it. I’m forging through even when I feel like it’s breaking me and I’m left in shards on the floor.
My own personal experience tells me that violence disrupts our balance, creates a feeling of vertigo, the sense that everything clear about our morality, our ethics and about our worldview is spinning out of orbit so fast we can barely keep up. For most of us, art is the only way to arrest the speed of disintegration, to step back and get a hold of the fragments. Like when you break a vase and take a step back. We see at once the detail of pieces and the whole vase. Slowly we bend, pick up the first piece and consider it. This is witness. ~Chris Abani essay
I’m looking down at the vase. I’m not those shards. I’m the witness, marveling at the pieces, creating something more beautiful from what’s left…or at least trying to.