The death of someone you love can feel like a water park of looping sadness and dissatisfaction, featuring myriad tunnels and chutes for cascading loss. It’s not just the death of the one you love, it’s the loss crackled through those left behind. Painfully, death doesn’t always knit the survivors back together. Shared grief is not magic glue. It can’t rapidly mend years of slowly worked fractures and hurt feelings. It is not the steel bridge of new relationships.
In a perfect and eminently fun world, we’d start off or renew our friendships and relationships on rollercoasters or skydiving together, triggering the phenylethylamine hormone so our hearts beat faster and we flood with euphoria. In the imperfect world, we link hands through grief and then may separate, instead of walking around future obstacles together, still hand-in-hand, conjoined. It’s not an assigned fault to anyone, it’s just a lingering tacked-on sadness.
We search for reprieve and salvation so quickly after someone we love dies, clinging to the scent of our loved one. It often is the initial connective tissue that suddenly fastens people together who didn’t know each other well or at all before but who now share the agony of mourning the same dead person. People may whisper, side-eyed, the stories of close friends or relatives becoming romantically involved with their dead loved one’s widow so soon after the funeral. Many of those relationships unravel over time. There is no true substitute for the one who is gone. I’m not putting a cold hand to love found in strange times or unexpected places, but generally, sharing immediate comfort in the arms of someone who also held the loved one may be as much of a distraction as soaking in drugs or alcohol, it stings to numb the pain, but grief, like water, will find its way in to be dealt with fully eventually. Grief can be tapped down or ignored, but it lies in patient wait, growing larger and incurring interest, taking up more of the screen until we become suddenly crippled by an organ infected, a back thrown out, unexplained rashes. What we suppress emotionally: building and secreting through our body, flooding us.
The week after my sister, Hannah, died, I sat in the funeral pew and took the hands of my pregnant best friend — now sitting in the place where my dead sister had sat — and of my first and now last sibling. Our hands bound together, our emotions and love running through and between us. Having not held my brother’s hand since he was a small child, I felt years of sibling strife and misgivings, strange jealousies and misunderstandings begin to thaw and then rapidly melt. Could this be the calving of the iceberg; chunks of time and betrayals falling off and shaping something both independent and new? Love, that funny, necessary, ineffable emotion, supplanting in its graceful, twirling, white-hot, pure light every other now-feeble emotion. Every hurting memory and furiously said word, now made silly, pliable, inert.
We can desperately want, but we can’t expect others to take up the baton for our lost love one. I can’t task someone else — Hannah’s friends, my friends, my family, my only living sibling — with the burden of being my sister who is gone. At the same moment, I can’t expect Hannah’s death to catalyze change in entrenched relationships, to add or subtract parts of personalities, to imbue someone else with Hannah’s same delight in the inane, same wide-cupped palms, same open heart. That ask risks impugning or demeaning the gifts of their own unique persons, the certain light they bring to the table. I wouldn’t want them expecting that of me. But, god, sometimes I wish I could transplant Hannah in others, and I am sure others hold out that secret hope, too. Loss is loss. It can’t be sopped up with the living; that’s not fair.
Sometimes — even though we hope against hope for some flashy silver lining — the death of the one we love is, for us, just the completed action of death. It doesn’t revolutionize remainder relationships, doesn’t seal up our own emotional leakages or our imperfect ways of being and interacting. We are wildly changed, but we are also still who we always were. And, now, we are in mourning.
Grief is almost independent of the rest of life. Death both changes everything and changes one thing while the world ticks flatly on, the same way it always has. It’s an incredibly out of place, depersonalized feeling, as though we’re standing on a platform watching ourselves and the action around us continue to whiz on: cars sail by so fast their red taillights bleed into each other as red lines, calendar pages flutter away, garbage piles, weeds grow and overgrow. We stand, unmarked by the movement of the present, encased in walled-off grief.
Even so, communing with other people is so helpful, especially those with whom we can share the buoyant memories of our now dead loved one and the frustrations of the present, but grief puts each of us in our own spiritual wilderness. We are a communal species. We need the touch, affection and voices of those around us, but we also must raise our arms against the thicket of grief as we forge that path alone. No one can make us better — can heal us — except ourselves, and counterintuitively, we have no sustenance — no nourishment — to keep us fueled through these personal journeys without the fuel of fellowship and tenderness from those we love and who care for us. For eventually, the sharp line between ourselves and the rest of the world — that of our grief — will be rubbed and rubbed by us until it fades into an entry into our place with the rest of the living, and we will be repaired.
The (false) stand ins
I first met one of Hannah’s best friends at Hannah’s funeral party, and at certain moments, with her ebony hair, dress, particular mannerisms and the lilt of her voice, I was catching bits of Hannah in her, or perhaps being shown the her-in-Hannah. When we hugged, she felt like Hannah. When we later texted, her emoji language and the tempo of her writing was so much like Hannah’s. It was intoxicating to feel parts of Hannah so proudly still alive or maybe the parts of her that Hannah had rejoiced in, absorbed and reflected back. That alone is joyful, that we carry and stoke the bright pieces of Hannah within us, as we were within her.
Though, after I’d met Hannah’s friend, I warned myself not to make her the stand-in for my sister. Hannah’s friend contains her own unique joys, hopes, quirks and virtues. I don’t want to violate or snuff-out who she is in my desperation to reclaim and find Hannah. I don’t want to risk not getting to know her friend in all her loveliness and complexity. I want to celebrate the newness of a person and friend who was — and is — good, kind, faithful and loving to my sister and who channels those attributes throughout her interactions with friends and strangers. For the rest of my life, I will meet new people and catch the light of people I know well, and it’s incumbent upon me to recognize that Hannah’s wonderful qualities are not hers alone. They are hers in that those qualities, in sum, are her multifaceted complexion, but the best parts of who Hannah is are those qualities that simply constitute good people. I can trace those, like the breadcrumb trail, to people I want to be with, to qualities I want to nurse within myself.
If my relationship with Hannah was more about the body and the spirit, my relationship with my brother is more cerebral. It’s about the mind-mind-mind! and less about the healing journey, the tattooed soul. I wish it were different, especially now, when I so need Hannah’s non-judgmental, blanket-like love for both of us, the adult children who remain. The hard accent of Hannah’s absence makes my brother’s and my relationship feel more dulled, chasmed. Because, fundamentally, we are not separate of mind, body and spirit. It’s Metropolis: Hannah, the necessary heart mediator between our hands and our heads.
If I’m generous, perhaps this is the only kind of relationship that we can support right now. Everyone processes grief in their own timeline, in their own enclosed space. Sometimes I think I am wanting a kind of thing, a kind of feeling and sentiment, that might not be possible. Yes, I am wanting Hannah, and to ask this of my brother is unfair. That request fundamentally denies him and who he is. But, still, I have better hopes that we can eventually escape some fixed notion of our relationship, moving from rigidity and distinction, and I see that breaking through the wide arms of Hannah’s benevolence, the voice of healing. I don’t want to fetishize my sister, to create such adulation and reverence that she becomes super-human. But, others have told me that when they think, “I can’t do this” or “I don’t have the strength” or “How can I start this?”, they call upon Hannah, almost like a deity. So, Hannah, I want to bridge the whole person.
Head Hand Heart Soul
In Metropolis, the 1927 movie from the Thea von Harbou novel, the city — like a body, maybe like a segmented relationship — is hermetically divided into three parts: the rich, modern and idealized above-ground “Wonder City of the Future”, that eponymous city of capitalists (the head, the mind); the subterranean city of virtually enslaved factory workers (the hands, the body); and, the machines in between those two spaces, invented by the capitalists and powered by the workers for the benefit of those in Metropolis, including the Heart Machine, the mechanical pulse of the city. The Heart Machine is the false heart — maybe the ego. It’s the system that keeps the rigid mind and the upset, ignored body from authentically and equitably interacting.
At the end of the film, spurred by a soulless robot who was created from the mind and instruction of the city planner and his inventor, the workers destroy the Heart Machine. Their underground dwellings flood, threatening their children and forcing the workers above ground. It’s the dysfunctional system again: the compartmentalized mind, emotions and body. The body, searching to be righted, unwittingly attacks itself and floods itself with pain, like Pirene, that Greek nymph — daughter of a river god and mother of children from Poseidon, the god of the sea — whose endless stream of tears for her dead child transmorphed her into a spring of water. The body potentially endangers itself and its future, pushing everything up to the surface, forcing all parts of the entity to interact with each other. The body wants equity and flowing communication with its parts. It is holistic survival, at whatever cost. The body of the city, the corporeal body, the body in grief, the relationship body.
Metropolis’s true catalyst for positive change is Maria, a worker and peacemaker who portends a mediator — later revealed as the city planner’s son, Freder — to solve the workers’ ills. Though referred to as the heart, Freder is more the spirit and soul of this body. It is Maria, like the ventricles of the heart, who sets and keeps in motion this mediation between the capitalists and the workers, the head and hands. Without Freder falling for and in love with Maria, he would never course through the two worlds of head and hands, ultimately succeeding in truly uniting them. Maria and Freder, the heart and the soul, are a symbiotic unit and essential to the ultimate functional interconnectedness of the mind and the body.
Maybe not all of life is some allegory from a tremendously produced German Expressionist silent film. I can’t help but feel, though, the human emotional experience at its base is our common language. We can and need to speak the same because we share the experiences of love, need, desire, joy, fear and grief, those emotions that moved the workers and ultimately, the capitalists. Perhaps the spirit of Hannah’s personality, those core qualities she embodied so legitimately, is the aqueduct we need to relubricate the channels where our bodies are parched and tired, where our minds are unyielding and where our relationships are mechanistic and on auto-pilot. I don’t know how to get that started or how to ask for it, exactly. Could it be that the channels are already there, and we just need to open ourselves to them? Maybe there’s something hidden just under the surface, waiting to be restored.
Enchanted time and hidden things
For all its abrupt sadness, the enwombed period of time right after death, especially sudden death, feels slightly enchanted. You haven’t yet processed what is happening, and time feels unreal. It feels rife with the promise that something magical could happen. It felt like my sister could walk through the side door again, could talk to me in the shower, could flip time back on itself and unstitch it. Time is endlessly slow then. It is entirely different from how we think of time when we’re rushing through the morning, or impatiently waiting with palm on the horn in traffic. It’s not like waiting in line, taking a test or even watching a movie. It’s this languorous dripping, like the soft beat, beat of the second hand on a dulled and dying clock. It’s someone gently drumming half time of your heartbeat on your chest. Time marks itself almost independent of itself, as though it misrepresents itself for those nearest to grief.
In the shadow of magnificent grief, time is almost harnessed, tamed. It’s Pegasus, the ancient Greek winged horse who liked to drink from the fountain of Pirene, who is bridled and tamed by the hero Bellerephon through the help of Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. It’s the Unicorn in Captivity from “The Unicorn Tapestries”, hanging at The Met Cloisters. The Met says that image may represent the “beloved tamed”, but a contented taming. The unicorn, Pegasus: powerful, mythical, independent, precious. These wild, otherwise evasive creatures, now subdued — but not broken — by love and trust. Hannah, my loving sister, who would not be tied down or forced to walk where she did not want to go and who was fiercely loyal to those she loved. Time adjusts, trusting and allowing us to walk slowly back from the edge of the River Styx to the land of the living.
When I was very young, as young or younger than my daughter, I saw the Unicorn in Captivity tapestry in an art book for children, and like a lasso around me, I, too was captivated. I’m not sure why it is so evocative or almost haunting, maybe it’s because of the very idea that this striking animal could leave, could easily jump the fence, but doesn’t. That unicorn tapestry has stayed with me as one of the loveliest images I know. The unicorn I fell under the spell of sits nearly tranquil but with dancing tail and proud, strong horn, encircled in a pleasant fence only slightly larger than the steed’s length. The setting is a lush, dark, verdant forest opening that suggests wonderous other creatures may be waiting off the edges of the weaving. Anything could happen, and if nothing else does, this unicorn embodies all the magic we may ever need to see.
Those tapestries also have a mysterious and imprecise origin story and meaning; they remain compelling to many people even these hundreds of years later. With all the technology and the fast, new content in the world, people young and old enter the dim, dusky rooms of The Cloisters’ seven tapestries and become wide-eyed and excited. These tapestries were restored in 1998 and then rehung. When their linen backings were removed during restoration, they exposed previously concealed tapestry undersides that were vibrant, near perfect mirror images of the fronts. These backs had not been washed out by centuries of fading sun or touch. After restoration, protective backs were reattached, shutting in and re-containing the wonder.
When you are as young as I was when I first saw the tapestry, the world appears wide open with possibility and the potential for magic. Perhaps the image that struck me then remains bewitching not just because of the enigmatic history or the craft of the weaving but because it evokes a kind of continued possibility that there are fertile undiscovered miracles still out there. Not just magical beasts but awing parts of things we may encounter right in front of us: seeing my daughter break out in dance in the kitchen (and thanking that she got her rhythm from Hannah and not me); hearing Hannah’s voice in her friend’s voice; happening on the Summerstage opera at an impromptu picnic in the park; stitching together a frayed relationship with new thread, with a more honest and open understanding.
Hannah’s death has revealed to me so much of our relationship. We so rarely get that objective clarity in our relationships until a moment like this. Then, people say, it’s too late. It’s a one-sided look; it’s the static image from my perspective. I don’t doubt Hannah’s take would be similar to mine, but by the fact of her death, I can’t see the other side. I think of those exposed and restored tapestries, with near perfect undersides so carefully woven, again hanging at The Cloisters and enjoying the light in the eyes of new and old visitors, being energized with all the movement around them and also slowly continuing to fade and age with the passage of time. I think of how this is the inverse of where Hannah and I are now. The vibrant foundation of our relationship, so early in the days of the blossoming into an adult friendship, is covered. But, we don’t have the luxury of graying and further stretching out into who we are together, as our fibers tug and ease over time. The unicorn tamed: the love that weaves together but allows space to not be trapped.
After Hannah’s funeral, time returned to its more normal cadence. I wanted it to continue in its ponderous way, so I could take in and keep Hannah more completely, so that every notched day was not a day further away from the last time we had touched her, laughed with her or spoken to her. We were Odysseus’s Penelope at the moment her servant betrayed her secret maneuver to evade remarriage. Penelope, who had managed to weave a funeral shroud daily for years as a ruse to keep vicious and greedy suitors at bay, and Penelope, who every evening took her hands and unwove the threads to start again in the morning. We were tricked by the perceived bending of time, and we had to come up with a new way to buy time. But, therein lies the rub. There is no trick, no deception, no means of evading the inevitable forever. We must face time. We must face loss. We must face grief.
Eighty years ago, The Cloisters were created as a new and distinct building using five medieval abbeys imported from Europe. The stone stairs of The Cloisters are deeply and smoothly grooved out in the middle where many hundreds or a thousand years of footsteps have worn down the stone over time, reshaping it. Visitors today continue to wear down those same steps. In effect, that place has been reshaped two times at least, not including all the iterations from the original cloisters. Feelings and strong feelings such as grief are like that: they get pressed into the body and worked the same way. Where they were once sharp, they get buffed down as we travel over them with the inevitable passage of time.
Fittingly, The Cloisters were assembled from deeply historic monastic places of contemplative prayer. Places where man-made architectural symmetry married protective channels that allowed visions of nature and creation without exposure to rain, snow or beating sun. There is magic in time spent in quiet reflection. There is magic in the reassembly of things old and taken apart. There is magic in art and images that resonate through our lives. There is magic in the possibility that newness can always reveal itself to us, even through things that feel stale or calloused. There is magic in the gift of my sister’s relationship and magic because, if there is magic in all those other places, then that gift does not and cannot die with her body.