The Grief Manual: Remembrance

Together and alone

I sit now on the other side of the thorny thicket of the first winter holiday season without my sister and in the cold, unsteady but gently learning hands of a new year and a new decade. That this year is 2020 is not lost on me. 20/20 is hindsight, clarity of vision and hopefully the accompanying foresight gained from reflecting back on what has transpired, lest we are doomed to repeat what we have not learned or understood.

In this new year, we will notch the first anniversary of my sister, Hannah’s, death where we should have celebrated her venture into her third decade. We will lean backwards to mark the ashen concrete wall behind us with a deep strike, casting our distance from an ephemeral lifetime (as though it could ever last enough) in the substantial, discernible form of an initiatory tally mark. Eleven months on, my sister’s manner of death is still undetermined. But, even if she had died in a car crash, it couldn’t answer the ugly riddle of why her life was snuffed out prematurely. Where is this truth in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Does it sit in “Safety needs” or in and among “Love and belonging”?

Those of us who are left behind — so soon to depart ourselves — then are left to wonder what constitutes the basis of our collective liturgy when we lose the constituents of our congregation that define it. Our choir is deprived of the partner we share the hymnal with or the soloing tenor or soprano. We ask ourselves who will hold the music, keep us in sync and in tempo, turn to smile at us, sing those parts where we cannot and whether we can or should try to find a replacement. We listen as the lilt and tones of our chorus change, and even dulcet melodies sound dissonant in the absence of the familiar voice we’ve known. The buttresses of our personal foundations crack and crumble, like so many detonated explosives at the base of those people and truths we believed constructed the world around us — that world pressed on us and which we pressed upon ourselves.

Death’s caustic strike and then deep bow leading us into grief is our great equalizer. No matter how it comes or to whom it manifests itself, loss will run thick through our lives. At points, we will lose those we love, careers, who we believed ourselves to be or how we desired others to see us, relationships, friendships and homes and places we knew. Knowing of another’s shared loss can be the portal for us to unclothe our tightly knitted pains and put forth our own traumas, as though grief is an acid reflux we choke down alone that is only coated when we stand together and call by name our shared experiences in their many varied forms.

But, if we are not alone in our collective traumas, then why do I often feel so damned alone? Sometimes I find myself suddenly crying silently for Hannah while washing dishes in my sink, and recently I was overwhelmed on the way to the post office by an abrupt sob on the street corner. I was caught by grief’s steel-toed boot kicking me in the back. I physically bent over from its emotional force, thankful to be momentarily protected from someone else’s view by stone entryway pillars opening on a small park.

I continue to grapple both with feelings that my grief is overlong and simultaneously that my sister will just step — blithely, ignorantly unawares of how the time since her absence has rolling-pinned us — onto the subway car or through my parents’ side door. I swear I would not be surprised. And, yet, she has not come back. It’s because I’m still tottering around here, Hannah, thinking: What joys and sorrows were we yet to experience, both together and alone? What more did you have to give and what more did I need from you? How would we have aged further and grown less sturdy together, as our hair grayed and our bones began their slow creep into decay? What fun would we have had as adults and then old ladies together, finding irreverent humor in the sacred and profane?

In other moments, I am becoming strangely used to her being gone. That makes me feel sad, afraid and guilty, like a petulant child in the middle of a tantrum who throws down the very thing they were demanding, their overwhelming anger having morphed into a kind of self-flagellating disregard. Or perhaps this begrudging acceptance is laying down my arms and submitting to the confines and impotence of my new reality and the inability to make change where change — or reset — is wanted most.

“Remember death”

In my first job out of college, I hung a yellow post-it on my work computer with the line from Virgil: “Death says, ‘Live, for I am coming.’” It was probably more precocious than prescient.

I had always silently told myself nothing that bad or dramatic would ever happen to my family. Even so, I don’t know that I heeded Virgil’s words so well over the ensuing decades. In places, I stepped aside from good relationships and entered dysfunctional ones. I didn’t respect or hold close enough those who truly loved or looked out for me. I took for granted that my family’s life would ease on by — with its normal familial ups and downs — because I felt we were, on the whole, impermeable to the “truly, absurdly tragic” things. I thought that to myself sometimes as a kind of mocking mantra: we were just a kind of Teflon. But where Teflon doesn’t allow crusty food to stick and stay on it, it eventually gives you cancer anyway. I suppose my private self-reassurance was a kind of mis-contextualizing Keynes’ “In the long-run we are all dead”: we’ll get by relatively unscathed in the present but suffer the fate we all do in the end, a seemingly better trade-off.

That kind of malicious and simple hubris is probably why I should have heeded that Roman poet’s words more. That only “major” wounds — however I could define that — really hurt was a bizarre thought to rest my hat on, and to this day, I’m not sure why that idea flitted around my head since my childhood. Perhaps my growing conception of my family coincided with the increasingly extreme new cycle that cultivated and released the juggernaut of violent crime, child abductions, 24/7-true-crime-shock-news television. Maybe I was hoping I could steel myself from ills by believing we were boringly armored. The truth is we were — and are — beset like everyone else by our share of minor and major ills: the various ‘isms, brutal illnesses, chronic physical pains, depressions, petty infighting, jealousies, relationship fractures, untimely deaths, uncertainties, guilts, sadness and unremedied longings.

But, I’d be lying if I said that, even if I thought we were “relatively” protected, I then woke up every day, even at the more tender age of 22, and took for certain Virgil’s admonition by being grateful for each breath and step. If I had known my younger and only sister would be dead before 30, would I have held her more and told her I loved her more? Of course. Would I have tried to force her schedule and mine open to visit with her more? Without a doubt. But, when I look back on our communications, it is not that we didn’t talk a lot or tell each other how much we loved and were devoted to each other. The fault I find is not in what was said but in how I didn’t allow that to saturate me enough. In the wake of Hannah’s death, I try to do that more each day with those I love, but I’m still not sure we fully can when we’re so subjective on something. It’s like the virtual inability to witness weight or other gradual physical changes in someone you see every day: you are too close for perspective or benchmarking and to truly take in the size and shape of something — especially something as intangible as love.

Regardless, I didn’t fully marinate in the unconditional love I had always received from my sister, and now I can only hope she knew the unlimited depths of my love for her. The grief I feel for her stems not just from the fact that she is gone but from how I only realized in hindsight — 20/20, if you will excuse that — that of the very few true loves (god, we’re lucky if we have one) in our lives, Hannah was one of mine. And, the miraculous thing about Hannah is that she was unique enough to have been that person for others, too.

The ultimate balance of our lives — from the accountant under the green translucent eyeshade who tallies our life at its end — is not in its many accumulations of degrees on the wall, plaques and awards or dollars in the bank (though no one ever scoffed at tons of those), but in the deep legacy we lead in other people’s lives. Hannah could be dogmatic. She could be overly dramatic. She dawdled in determining her career path. She could be dismissive of responsibility and flighty. She could be manipulative or careless. Like all of us. But, she was deeply, deeply loving. She was loving to the core sense of who people are, even when some of those people otherwise seemed to be scoundrels. She could laser focus on the little soul at the heart of each of us, beating so desperately to be loved, understood and appreciated. For every way in which we strive to leave a mark on this world, Hannah lived. I do not believe she saw death coming. Instead, I believe she was imbued from childhood with a desire to see people. Maybe in order to be seen herself, I don’t know. I do know that she gave a purity of love that is not just seen by her sister who misses her with something like a loss of limb but by many others.

But then, I may have hung closer to an understanding of the multidimensional truths of our lives than I thought. My phone screensaver for over a decade has been a pretty ivory and emerald memento mori rosary bead from the early sixteenth century that features lovers holding each other’s arms on one side and a singular, skeletal worm- and lizard-laden death on the other, clutching only his own hands together. Virgil’s caution and pressure made hand-held: the last bead on the rosary to reflect on our always double-sided gift. Unsheathe our skin, and our lonely, hollow skull lies beneath.

My entire childhood, I feared the top of the stairs of our old farmhouse, which was reached by rounding the angled bottom stairs of the quarter-turn staircase and walking straight up the rest of the steep stairs to the landing, framed by a huge double-hung window looking out to the long lawn and the woods beyond. I always envisioned cloaked death standing ominously at the top of the stairs, backlit by whatever moonlight shone through the window behind him and standing in front of the door to the first upstairs bedroom that had been mine, then my brothers and finally, my sister’s. When alone and babysitting for my brother and sister, I would implore or coax one of them to follow me to the hallway, so I could quickly turn on the light to hide the image of top-of-the-stairs death. Then I ran with terrified speed both upstairs to get whatever I needed from one of our bedrooms and downstairs again. That image of death wasn’t fearsome because he seemed cruel or like he would chase me but instead because of the certainty of his patience and consistent waiting: the equanimity of someone who fully knows the inevitable. He represented all the unknowing and ending in the world. I suppose he still does.

Swimming in change

There are little generosities and frightening anxieties that emerge after life shakes you hard and awake by taking something precious from you, like in my daughter’s dream last week in which she was underwater and couldn’t swim to the surface to breath. “Did you drown?”, I asked her. “No, I didn’t die”, she said, “It was hard to breathe but I didn’t die.” Over the holiday weeks, we had cried together about the painfulness of an emptier season. With tears in her eyes, my daughter came to me and said, “It’s really hard without Hannah this Christmas.” We cried together about how much we miss Hannah and how much we love each other. Because the imprint of death is still relatively fresh around us, that which remains is more openly cherished.

On New Year’s Day, my daughter and I walked through the clear, bright, snowy woods behind my father’s barn with Hannah’s dog, following fresh animal tracks, looking for something. I held my daughter’s hand as we maneuvered a vibrant little stream through snow-covered, shaggy moss-carpeted rocks. There was bear urine, maybe, and deer droppings and pink and blue surveyor tape markers sketching a jagged invisible line through our walk, delineating the end of this open, nearly unadulterated forest — and whispering what is to come: land and trees that will be reformatted to compliment the new development that sprung up on two-hundred-year-old farmland.

In the more than two decades my parents have owned this house, I’d never walked in the woods behind the barn, never ventured past the meditating buddha festooned with Mardi Gras beads, rooted to the ground with long granite skewers behind him, sitting atop an ancient child’s gravestone. He seems passively omniscient: a concrete Mona Lisa who can see us from any angle we approach him. As we walked deeper in the mostly barren woods, over white ground interspersed with long, naked trees, I took in the striking little peripheral dots of red winter berries. I was sad to think I was only just getting to know and be thankful for this little piece of woodland solace in a rapidly developing spot that would be changed and taken away. Everything is fleeting. It’s a fallacy that truth, time and space are fixed, unbendable and somehow knowable. They are as fluid as water, momentarily suspended and crystallized as snow beneath my feet.

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