The Grief Manual: Finding the Time

Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878): Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

On grief: Where is the time?

I have been mentally boxing up griefs. Big and little columnar crates labeled and compartmentalized, like “death of sister grief.” Each intact, separate and unpacked, a moving truck full of taped-up heartbreak. There is great stress from feeling like I haven’t had the time to process each next grief, let alone any that preceded it. One grief comes and before I can swallow it — or even be fully aware of its reverberating and penetrating impact on my life — I am kicked through another grief. It’s the White Rabbit of grief processing: “’I’m late, I’m late!’”

I’ve felt lately a kind of rising, vibrating anxiety at not having the “time” to process grief, as though there were a way I could measure out time carefully and cure myself. How can I address the abject grief of my sister, Hannah’s, death if I haven’t found or had time to process the griefs that came before and after it? And it feels already so late, so late; it’s been nearly 4 months since she died.

A part of me feels a sense of “get on with it”, inasmuch as I know — or have read, or have heard, or have been told — that grief changes and morphs and maneuvers itself, and the permanence of death and the inexorable roll forward of time without the person you love becomes a compounder to grief. You acclimate to the idea of their physical death, but new griefs become the absence of new memories being made. The more time hums on, the more Hannah becomes the perfect image of herself in my mind. And, she was really great and wholly loving in real life. In death, she becomes stronger and more omnipresent but also more strongly two-dimensional, as the annoyances and the frustrations and the negative emotions peel away to allow my mind to create a more luminous, more perfect creature — a mental composite of the angel on the shoulder. As lovely as that sounds, the death of the complete person in all her complexity, the angularity of her life and personality (as befits us all) is another death, and the cruelty is the realization that the perfect person and all her support is profoundly destabilizing. Because it’s imagined and not real. It’s stagnant.

In the throes of my fluttering upset, I had a vision of tiny me’s folded up — like a diagram of the fetus in utero — inside each of my falling tears. When those tears land and break, each tiny self is suddenly unfurled and launched off a sprinter’s starting block and perpetually running forward in frame-by-frame motion like one of those first films, Muybridge’s Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, towards somewhere. Where? Particulates of enwombed grief broken open and forced into fast but prosaic movement, that endlessly late Rabbit. The White Rabbit of grief, herald of the King and Queen of Hearts: the messenger, the contradicter, the process lubricator, the reader, perhaps the arbitrator. A bit aimed, a bit aimless, like anguish, like anger. Lewis Carroll said that his Queen of Hearts, perverting her affectionate surname by doling out capricious and cruel punishment, was “a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion — a blind and aimless Fury.”

Certainly, I can’t wrestle Hannah into the future. She won’t help my daughter learn to apply makeup or dance or teach her fierce but whimsical free-spiritedness. We won’t continue to grow into our sisterly friendship as two people whose 10-year age difference is further and further evaporated by collective adulthood. She won’t anymore be an easy companion to summer beaches or co-conspirator at family events. When we thought something was incredibly funny, we always said to each other, “I’m dead” — something so funny we no longer had words or breath from the laughing. Colloquialisms like that feel weirdly prophetic now. I imagine her saying “That’s ridiculous; it’s just something everyone says”, but I don’t know. The person who’s saying that is in part my mental fabrication as I groove and groove again the same old package of memories, growing stale and petrified.

In the end of Alice in Wonderland, Alice, shape-shifter herself, becomes “full size” again. She flouts the Queen, won’t ‘hold her tongue’, and calls the Queen by her true identity: “’nothing but a pack of cards!”’ When I physically tried to fold myself into my imagined embryonic tear-position self, I found my arms and legs long and extended, energy and strength running along them and shooting out. Shape-shifter myself, I am no longer a child; I am not that broken. So, am I shrunken and packed inside each of my tears, shedding little bits of my self, becoming someone else and still me at the same time?

After Alice rebukes the Queen, she awakes on her older sister’s lap, and even the cards aren’t real, they’re just leaves on her face. Everything is an illusion and not. Though Alice awakes in “fright” and “anger”, in a few moments she thinks “what a wonderful dream it had been.” A bundle of fluid contradictions. That’s memory, that’s perspective: fleeting, moving, changing. Susceptible to both ossification and profound adaptability.

Changing how you see grief

As I start navigating unexpectedly through a whirlpool of past griefs — including way past — the legacy griefs carry the same laden, familiar emotion of the current griefs. Maybe there is a way to unpack grief not in succession, not chronologically, but in a continuum. That grief — or any strong (and unwelcomed?) emotion — is in fact more like moving water. Past griefs are not separate and distinct or boxed up from their present or future counterparts. There may be a way to touch or feel that allows me to open and walk into and with all of them.

I don’t believe that better comporting myself with my body and my emotional breath will diminish the sharp accent of Hannah’s death on my life, like a hairpin curve now dug out and ground into my entire timeline. But, I do think that there may be a window into seeing grief and established grief. There may be a way to lift your head out of those dark, running rapids to paddle past and present grief simultaneously.

It is tantalizing to think that we can systematically unpack and process one awful emotion or experience after another, until we have reached a point in which we are at peace with our past and engaged to disarm future blows. But, that’s a false idea. It’s a torment. It’s the son of Zeus himself, Tantalus, punished in Hades by the gods in part for attempting to bring elements of heaven — immortality — to the mortal. His punishment was eternally standing in water that rushed to his lips but drained before he could drink and fruit above his head that elevated just before he could take a bite. The idea that we can unpack, seize, understand and then neutralize past and future death, pain, sorrow or fear is an illusion. It’s the idea of taking something from heaven and experiencing it on this mortal plain. The Red Queen instructs Alice, “’My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere, you must run twice as fast as that.’” An impossibility, a fool’s errand.

When Alice awakes and is comforted by her older sister, she tells her sister her adventures, and her sister falls into her own dreams and then into the middle-space of dream/reality, where the former is more magical and exquisite (called “Wonderland” for a reason) but is also an uncomplication of childhood. Her sister realizes all of Alice’s — and then her sister’s — imaginings were just lyrical embellishments of the “dull reality” around them. The “simple sorrows” and “simple joys” are owned by children, though Alice’s sister imagines a future in which Alice, “would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood […]” It’s not lost on me that Alice’s sister sees her younger sister as forever able to access her childhood and the imaginative possibilities therein when my own younger sister in her young death will forever be able to access her youth.

Perhaps processing grief in a more flexible, tenable way (I don’t want to say “productive”) requires the ability to tread different worlds at the same time: real and imaginary, past and present. To see wonderous things in the mundane, joyful things in the sorrowful. To translate annoyances or commonalities into worlds in which you can be awed, frightened, curious and, ultimately, to tame those feelings, emerging with a sense that even the most wretched moments or mercurial people are capable of being stood up to, confronted, diffused, sympathized with and made brilliant and shareable. What her older sister envisions in Alice’s adulthood is empathy, or even beyond empathy, fellowship with the younger emotional self who has less packed-in life, but who maybe for that can feel and experience life more purely, more fluidly.

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