The adventure that is grief
Every Valentine’s Day Day, my brother would text me, “Fuck Valentine’s but Happy V-Day, sis.” I woke up almost expecting the text. It’s not that I don’t remember that he’s gone, it’s that I’ve been writing so much about him and who we were, that I feel him close. So very close.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my grief and how I’ve been coping with it, sitting in it, talking about it and writing about it, being in and with it. I’ve been tested and asked, my grief challenged, often indirectly. Silence speaks. It yells. It screams. Not acknowledging or ignoring my grief, making it obvious that it makes you uncomfortable, asking how I’m doing but when the topic veers to that place that makes you cringe, a quick exit occurs, you tune out, you change the topic, you pretend to be listening. I can tell you’re not. I can’t tune it out though. I’ve pulled up a chair and am sitting in my grief. And, yes, I’ve been wondering why. I’ve been wondering why from the day it happened, from the moment I got the call at 2:30 in the morning on June 24th, I fled into the page. That day, I wrote and wrote and wrote, and grew frustrated when the writing didn’t make sense. It was like staccato, clave with no rhythm. When a friend told me, “Maybe grief isn’t supposed to make sense. That’s why jazz fucked up the world, it was the grief of a people,” then I knew I had to keep writing and it didn’t matter if it didn’t make sense. And I’ve done so much of that. So much writing and living and reliving and letting myself grieve, like I never have before. Something said, “Feel this, V, feel it and write it, because if you don’t, this shit could destroy you.”
I know the only way out is in. It’s all I’ve ever done, sat in story. In the ones I told myself when I was just that six year old girl, body laid out on a high branch in the plum tree in our backyard, my scab riddled skinny legs dangling. As a little girl, I sat in the stories I told myself. The thing about story is that it can and will impale you. It has to. There is no other way.
But why? After so long of running away from these griefs. After so long of surviving by pretending, disassociating, running away from what haunted me, why now? Why with this intensity? Why do I refuse to turn away from it, from the mirror, from this grief that sometimes consumes me so I am left shaking and praying for reprieve. “Dios mio, quitame esto.”
This is how ashe works.
The other day, I came across a TEDxBrighton Talk by Dr. Geoff Warburton, “The Adventure of Grief.” After suffering loss in his life that debilitated him, he spent twenty five years searching for the answer to the question: What makes some people thrive after loss?
We’re told to move on, to get over it. Our grief is dismissed. We’re told in so many ways to keep that shit to ourselves. No one wants a poor me misfit around. No one wants to hear about how bad it hurts, how much you miss him, how some days it’s hard to see beauty so you force yourself to go out to nature, where you’ve always managed to find it, until now. And there are days where you are consumed by it, by the beauty of life in all its majesty. The rollercoaster is shocking and no one prepares you for it. The rage, the sorrow, the anger, the what-the-fuck-I-think-I’m-going-crazy. And because people are uncomfortable with the intensity (shit, you were intense before grief), they leave you to it. Grief is so very isolating. And, yes, I know this is no one’s problem but mine but that’s not really the point here.
Warburton explains through the stories of his own grandmothers who handled loss very differently, and from working with AIDS victims in the early days of the epidemic, that what he’s discovered is this: embracing your emotions after loss is a way to keep you alive and functioning. It’s in feeling it all, all of the hate and anger, the emotional and physical pain, the rage, the terror, the feeling of being torn to pieces and even the feeling that you may be crazy. We may end up in an emotional abyss, Warburton says. And maybe we need to feel that abyss, we need to be swallowed by it, not to focus or act on it, but to let it be the fuel to our lives and our living.
Maybe, in that abyss, you feel like part of you is dying. Maybe a part of you needs to die. I think of my brother, that tremendous loss. I think about how a part of me died with him. The part that thought he’d always be there, who imagined him at the book party for A Dim Capacity for Wings, who thought he’d be the one who’d walk me down the aisle when I finally do get married. The one who would cry with me when Vasialys graduated from college. Who would drive across country with me when I move to California. Who would come along with us when I took Vasia on a college tour in the summer before her senior year. That part of me who imagined him reading my books while sitting on a rocker on my front porch, that part of me has been dying for years. I knew he would die before me, not because he was older but because he was pushing himself to the grave with all those drugs and that reckless living. Somewhere inside me, I knew. It’s why I couldn’t watch him kill himself that last year. He’d gotten so bad. So out of control.
Warbuton says that if we close off the experience of that abyss, we block off vitality, the access to compassion and peace. We block off access to who we really are and the energy that’s going to take you forward, propel you forward.
“In the silence of the abyss, you find your liberation…even if you lost the love of your life.”
I knew this. I’ve felt it. It’s why I’m doing this work, why I’m writing these stories and marveling over my grief, staring at it for hours, turning it over and around and upside down, staring, examining it like a scientist does mold in a petri dish, a specimen under a microscope.
“We have to embrace the abyss to connect to the flow of life.”
At one point, Warburton talks about his brother, who died in a car accident years ago. He chokes up as he remembers him and recalls the guilt he feels over surviving. I felt this tremendous camaraderie with this man. He’s saying, it’s okay to miss them. It’s okay to feel loss and everything that comes with it. Feel that shit so you can move on and live. Live fully and beautifully. And living doesn’t mean you won’t feel that pang of fuck-this-is-so-hard sometimes. And sometimes you’ll get choked up. That’s okay too. That’s part of the living.
I imagined what my brother would tell me at that moment. I heard him, I heard him so loud and so clear, I could feel his breath on my cheek, “Live, sis, live.”
“We honor the dead more by living well.”
“Yes, pa. I will live well for the both of us.” I write this with tears clouding my vision. I’m choking up, but there’s this sense of lightness, of fullness, and, yes, I dare say, peace.
Warburton says that grief can be an illuminated experience, if we let it. Loss can in fact be a live adventure.
And that’s just it, we gotta let it. We gotta feel it all to get there (here?). We gotta be willing to go into the abyss of what frightens us: ourselves.
Mami learned sadness from her abuelita Tinita, the woman who raised her. When abuelita’s son Juan Carlos disappeared, abuelita was never the same. She went looking for him, walking for hours through the barrios of La Ceiba, while dragging my mom by her little hand, but she never found him. Mom was just a little girl then but she remembers how sad abuelita was. She’d catch her crying, leaning over the fugón, flipping tortillas, but she’d wave mom off when she asked, “Que te pasa abuelita?” She heard her muffled sobs at night, when abuelita thought everyone was asleep, the pitch black darkness the only witness to her sorrow. She was never the same again. Grief hovered over her. Lurked in the corners. Sat next to her where she sat, crouched in a corner, always lurking, waiting.
It’s from Tinita that mom learned sadness.
Mom named my brother after her lost uncle: Juan Carlos.
I think about how the women in my family have handled sadness. How I’ve handled it in the past. How I’m handling it now and what I’m teaching my daughter.
My baby girl is struggling with her own grief. The recent deaths in my family (including my cousin in Honduras who was murdered in a home invasion in early January in La Ceiba, Honduras, his name was also Juan Carlos) have brought mortality to the front of her mind. She’s struggled over the past few weeks when it’s time to visit her dad on his weekends. Last night, she had a break, crying, she said, “I’m trying but it’s so hard mommy.” My nine year old asked if she could meditate yesterday morning. I gave her a guided meditation on fear and last night she quoted it. She said, “In the meditation you gave me, it said that there’s a wall of fear we all face. I’m in the wall of fear and I can’t get out.” She confessed last week that she’s terrified that something’s going to happen to me. “I’m scared, mommy, I don’t want anything to happen to you.” Her frown was so deep it looked like someone had pushed a hook into the corners and was dragging them down. My heart broke for her.
My baby girl has watched me grieve. I’ve cried in front of her. I’ve let her hold me when I’m sobbing. One day, late last year, she held me while I broke and she whisper-sang a song in my ear that I’ve been singing to her since she was just a little bean in my belly, “You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes off of you…”
When I was a child, no one told me that it was okay to talk about what I was feeling. No one taught me that sadness is a part of life and it’s okay to feel it and be with it. When I saw my girl cry yesterday, I knew I had to keep her home with me. See, her emotional health is just as important as her physical health, and if I don’t send her to her dad’s house when she has a fever, I can’t send her when she’s crying, telling me, “I wanna be with you, mom.”
Yesterday I realized that baby girl is learning about grief through me. She’s learning to talk about it and be with it, even if it makes other people uncomfortable, including me. It’s difficult to see our kids suffer. It’s our job to help them through it.
She’s scared for her mama. I have to reassure her that mama’s here. I can’t guarantee that mama will be here always, but I can show her that her mama’s here right now.
On the cruise I emptied my bank account to take my mom on, mom told me about a dream she had when my brother was just an infant. She had the dream numerous times, she said, and she remembers it in detail, especially the terror of it and how she’d wake up sweating and searching for her son.
In the dream, “Carlos se me resbalaba. Yo veía que se me iba asi resbalando.” Mom shows me with her hands how she saw her son skidding away out of her reach, her hand is pointed and her arm is straight from her shoulder to her fingertips, like when you imitate a soaring plane. She says she ran after him but could never catch him. “Yo corría y no lo agarraba.” He kept skidding away, like he was on a slope coated with ice.
Mom remembered this dream at the end, when she realized she couldn’t save her son. She always wanted to protect him, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t save him from himself.
This grief has changed me in ways I’m still discovering. I cry easier these days. Just as much out of joy than out of sadness. I say I love you more often. I spend more time alone, learning the beat of my heart and who I am at my core. I’m working on me, on loving me, on the ways that I self-sabotage and don’t love myself. I’m working on my tendency to self-deprecate. It’s a process, but this much I know: loss can help you learn how to live more fully if you let it. I’m letting it.