Edgar Degas, The Orchestra at the Opera (1870), Musée d’Orsay

The anger inside grief

Things were difficult before my sister died. In a moment of deep frustration, I’d sat on my sofa, thrown my arms open and said to the universe, “Do your best”, and three months later, my sister was dead. It was a horrific coincidence, but one that nonetheless in weaker moments feels like some awful portending.

It’s 100% solipsistic to think a single sentence from me has that kind of deranged ability, like I could cascade this loss across so many people from one single embittered plea, but grief has a way of searching for meaning and reason that is not always rational, right or helpful. The single thing we want in all the world cannot be resurrected. In Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia (1917), he puts melancholia (depression) down to “hostility” rerouted inward to the self. But mourning is not depression, at least according to Freud: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty”, but “[…] when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.” But when? And does he truly believe that we won’t continue to be pierced at expected and unexpected moments throughout the rest of our lives as the person we love is not standing next to us, audibly speaking with us? To say nothing of transgenerational trauma that passes from our wounded genes to the next line.

Grief is not linear and not fully shareable. For all of us who loved my sister, Hannah, though we talk to each other, we each spin around in our distinct pools of pain. In some conversations, it feels we can bore a tunnel through to penetrate that and share our grief collectively. At other times, it feels we are further away, unreachable, untouchable. Sometimes, I feel crushed and sweating under the universe’s thumb and like that pain has turned rotten, rancid.

What is the role of anger to grief in encircling our little nugget of a soul? There’s nurturing love in grief as we revert to happy memories, but there is also profound loss, anger. I am furious. I am terrified. Those times, it feels like climbing up shale — splintering, fragmented — nails digging in and breaking off, and the world underneath is fragile, fractured, gray and slipping. When I held my hands out and said ‘do your best’ and my sister was dead. Feeling humbled, crippled, wasted.

I like the idea that there is some single-stream source we can all align with, some universality that wraps us all together, making something worthwhile. But, so many I talk to recently, apropos of nothing, seem to say some version of the same thing: “It is so hard”; “This is so difficult right now”; “Why or how can I go on this way?”; “How can I get out of this situation?” And, then, for these same people, little green shoots appear, little positive sparks that bring hope, and that is the manna source that is gently feeding us so we continue on our paths. I am talking about people who knew Hannah and those who did not. I am talking about my family and those I know ever so peripherally. Periods in life can feel like 40-years of Exodus. Must we keep walking through the desert but be provided with just enough sustenance for each day — any more than we need “melting away” or rotting, so that we can eventually be delivered from bondage into promise? Again, but when?

Walking on wounded, hallowed ground

My daughter loves all animals, and in addition to wanting a snake, a toad, a guinea pig and a dog, she wants a horse. After endless accounts from her of what the horse looks like and where we’ll keep it, I figured I would get her two horseback riding lessons to disabuse her of the fantasy of the horse. Because when you ride a horse, you have to tack up and untack the horse. You must take care of the horse before, during and after your ride. I thought my young child would see the attendant responsibility, work and time as cold water on the light fantasy of some red pony. What happened instead was a beatific smile; my daughter in rapture when she rode. Instead of feeling the preparation and clean up was a burden, the joy of riding a horse spilled over and into all parts of the process; the stable prep felt as intrinsically important to the process as the actual riding. She felt closer to the horse and proud of her ability to be the temporary guardian to her wish and joy.

Now, months of lessons later (years of relative time for those who have more decades on this earth), that feeling has not abated for her. I have thought a lot about the lesson of her lesson(s), about the rigor of the work necessary to make the things we love continue to work and the larger allegory to lifetimes. Perhaps, importantly for this anecdote, it is relevant to note that she rides in the same ring — the same barn — where less than two years ago, two dozen horses died due to smoke inhalation from a fire resulting from an old electrical outlet.

The very nature of her new learning — and her new joy — occurs over the footpaths of both generations of prior learnings and of near-in and significant death. It’s not something I knew about beforehand or think about so actively when I accompany her as she rides outside on beautiful emergent spring days, but it is something that happened. It seems nearly miraculous that such a short time later, there is no visible sign of the trauma baked into the floors or the walls or the space or the people who work, live and ride there. Which is maybe because there is just trauma everywhere.

We all must process minor and major trauma in daily step with the joys and banalities of our life. It’s something I think about markedly when I walk past the African Burial Ground National Monument on Duane Street, which was uncovered in 1991 as a result of construction of a new federal building in lower Manhattan. That cemetery had been marked on old maps, but time, people and inexorable construction had forgotten it. Perhaps some tens of thousands of slaves were ultimately buried over almost 7 acres, most of them in wooden coffins with heads facing west (https://www.nps.gov/afbg/index.htm). Barred from using church graveyards, a Dutch woman (and slave-owner herself) — and subsequent generations of her family — permitted African slaves to bury their dead on her property. A little over 200 years ago, that land was then sold and covered with dirt to level it. Buildings, houses, streets and pathways were built over the graveyard. We are physically, psychically, genealogically treading over trauma, over death, over fear, over pain. Every day.

Trauma questions & deliberate imperfections, intentional flaws

How do we disentangle current, past and historical grief? How do we give reverence and respect to that which came before us while adequately and concertedly working to not make the same mistakes again? How do we continue to love and remember those we love who died and move forward without anchoring ourselves by the ankle to drown in our own grief?

Is particular and long-dated grief some kind of psychic tendonitis — keep running and you risk certain flat-footedness — or is it just the long, long evacuation into that new place of yourself and your place with others? “Pain is gain” has been debunked, I think. We would stop exercising with excessive pain in the body, or we should. Why should we treat our psychic selves any differently? But, maybe that’s Freud’s point: there is a difference from exogenous and endogenous pain. There is a difference from the pain meant to be directed outwards and instead (mis)directed inwards and the pain that results from events completely outside ourselves. Mourning can be so many things, as Freud notes, “the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” The profound loss of a person, a place, a belief, posits a different kind of timeline, a different type of rehabilitation schedule. The feelings may be the same as melancholia, but the process is different, the outcome is different.

Those horses at the equestrian school barn were buried, the barn refurbished and made safer. Slavery was abolished, and space, honor and identity were given to the burial ground and those whose lives constitute it. We correct how and where we can, but imperfectly, and those imperfections soak through. Where is our salvation?

My father used to say that when building churches, they would build-in an intentional mistake, like one of the balusters under the banister turned upside down to show that ‘only God is perfect.’ Some Navajo weavers practice the same, making a single, perhaps undetectable but known mistaken stitch as ‘only the Great Spirit is perfect.’ The Navajo idea of ch’ihónít’I is the road/path/spirit pathway; I heard one Navajo weaver describe it as ‘the path beyond happiness.’ It’s the Mahayana Buddhist-derived Japanese idea of wabi-sabi: beauty, imperfection and transience in the stuff of the world around us. Religions and cultures constantly try to remind us through construction of holy temples, rugs, pottery, the ephemera of how we are or aspire to be scattered around us, that all that we make is — and thus, we, ourselves, are — evanescent and flawed.

In life, we will be delighted and saddened, thrilled and thrown. There is no life so sacrosanct that it can be completely delivered from pain. Instead, we cultivate redemption through the daily footsteps through trauma, through imperfection, through events and circumstances that decidedly feel like unmeasured and unmediated punishment, and through small and still gifts of wonder. It is in the gold that laces up broken pottery (kintsugi), re-pairing a damaged thing into greater vision, creating more value out of reverence for the spirit, the divinity (kami) of things that are useful. Saying quietly but decidedly, “All things are useful.”

In the broken and reconstituted pottery, in the forced mistakes, we also bind up and interweave our stubborn anger, regret and fear. Nothing is so perfect as that which we cannot know, and nothing is so hopeless as to be wholesale tossed away.

Shared lives

Last sunny Sunday afternoon, my daughter had her ballet recital. In an elementary school auditorium, parents, children and friends collapsed into one body, collectively celebrating the moment of our children and all the children onstage with the same enthusiasm, applause and joy. One large auditorium was breathing together in the same light. Each individual striving or woe and, in the lowered lights, even our physical outlines, attenuated for the focus of single reverence on young ballerinas/os.

My father said some people can skip along the beach during mourning, but for us, for others, our constitution doesn’t allow that. We must instead trenchantly probe our grief. That is exhausting. But all the while, life continues to roll, children continue to grow. My father sat so quietly next to us on the other side of my mother at the recital, I thought he’d fallen asleep. When we talked later, he said he was watching silently and in part reliving my sister and his memories of her youth and concerts. It was the bittersweet experience of the same but different padding over recent and raw grief. Yet, the shared joy we in that room held for that performance was also palpably resonating a week later. Maybe it was distraction, maybe it was lite balm, but it reaffirmed the ability to make new memories — and good memories — over grief. It helps that it was exactly the kind of performance and pomp Hannah would have loved and cooed over. She was not there and there, as is the new place of her in our lives.

It is remarkable how much people are alike and what common experiences we share in our tender celebrations and searing sorrows. I hadn’t thought much about how many people I knew who have lost a sibling before Hannah died (it was sad but less relevant to me then), but after she died, I realized I know handfuls of people who have experienced the same. Friends whom I’ve known for a long time suddenly revealed that they, too, had lost a sibling. What griefs we carry inside of us, so often rolled up.

Knowing we share so much doesn’t make grief more bearable or catalyze it. In some ways, the thought that all of us are together makes it duller; in my attempts to resuscitate my sister in the spirit if I can’t in the flesh, I don’t want Hannah to fade into that collective, amorphous pool of grief. But, that’s a needless worry, a silly false anxiety. There is more promise in the knowledge that all of us walk daily in and with some kind of fresh, calloused or scarred grief and anger, and yet we can also house new joys, new celebrations, new people in our lives. I can access that promise when I think about Hannah, when I hear the Beach Boys’ (whom she loved) “Don’t Worry, Baby”, when the sun is warm, when I laugh with a friend, when I remember Hannah’s spirit. I can feel the relief of calm wash over me.