The Grief Manual: Orientation

I used to be half-in/half-out about what happens after we die. Are there spirits? Is there a place? Is there anything? But, seven months after she has died, the more I am forgetting the exact touch of my sister Hannah’s hand and the precise features of her face, the more she remodels into spirit form. Her physical body has been annihilated: it is sitting as literal dust in a bag atop my parents’ sitting room bookcase. So, my remaining mental image of her blends and bleeds into something mushier, warmer and more diffuse. Not one in many decades for brick-and-mortar religious practice, I give my liturgical thanks and praise in the morning now to Hannah. I pray to and think about her throughout the day, and when the day’s close comes, I thank her again.

What is religion if not constituted around devotion to an invisible, omniscient entity or entities? Hannah is not my religion, but her spirit — or my envisioning of her new, radial presence — is my solace, my support and my relief.

She is dead, and yet, I can feel her. I can see her in my periphery. Two weeks ago, while watching the truck pull at the annual Labor Day fair — sitting on the top bleacher my daughter dragged me up to, with my parents a few rows below us — not only could I feel Hannah, I clearly saw what she was wearing: shorty black cut-offs and a stylized, funky amalgam of citified farm-wear.

What do the mind and body of the living do to interpret or absorb death? Maybe I just imagined her in some interpretation of the photo that was taken a few years ago when she attended the same fair with my parents. Maybe I was there that time and took that picture? I can’t even remember that. My sputtering synapses continue to try to make way for the idea that I have a sister — but where is she? She has become invisible, and it’s hard to know whether this new embodiment — this new manifestation of her spirit — in my mind is the result of great creativity making due with the fading scraps of memory, some sort of mental delusion or the presence of something real and true from the parts of life and experience that we cannot lasso down, make sense of, understand or prove.

The Snake — Ouroboros

Last night, following our nighttime books while I was putting my young daughter to bed after the day’s fun and momentous events in which she thrilled herself — and me — when she swam for the first time on her own, she started sobbing for Hannah. She now sleeps with the white, black and blue ribbed stuffed snake that Hannah won for her when we three and our Dad (my daughter’s grandfather) took a cold, rainy June trip to the beach and ended up at Misquamicut’s Atlantic Beach arcade last year. Hannah had surprised me then on that bleary, drizzling, grey-brown day when we were the only ones in the arcade that abutted the beach. She said she could win my daughter the stuffed snake she’d asked for by playing the basketball hoop-shoot arcade game. She made virtually every shot. I watched — wide-eyed — as her winning red tickets ran out from the slot under the basketballs and rolled onto the floor, folding and curling over themselves as Hannah again and again tossed the ball in the hoop. I didn’t know you were so good, I exclaimed, and she told me it was a secret talent.

That moment introduced me to my adult sister in a way I hadn’t known her before — as someone who houses greater things than I could know. I knew all about her makeup prowess, her charm, how gregarious she could be, what a good writer she was, but her untold other talents were wrapped up inside her, and I was beginning to watch them materialize and reveal. It wasn’t just a trick skill or a little flair I had missed, to me it represented all the great packed potential that would continue to offer itself to the light for Hannah and for those around her as she neared and then breached 30 years old. That age hurdle is what I — and my parents — had always imagined would open untold success and grounding to her. Hannah never worried me. Regardless to what she did, I knew she would always be just fine. She had a velocity that was propelling her forward to the stability and footing that blesses all of us as we come to our thirties and later decades — that I knew would be particularly abundant for Hannah. That she is dead now — and just a year before she turned 30 — is as much a vulgar surprise to her as it is to me, my family and her friends. What happens with all that packed-in potential? That energy must go somewhere, and so it sweats and weeps out and soaks all of us around her who need her so and still.

As my daughter held that same snake prize which she wraps around her legs and arms at bedtime, she cried telling me she had also cried when she saw White Fang recently because the wolf is separated forever from his mother, and that reminded her of Hannah. My daughter was separated from Hannah. She told me she felt Hannah was there with her when she was swimming yesterday, and she also felt Hannah in her classroom next to her in her second week of first grade. But, feeling or imagining is one thing, and she sobbed that she would never see Hannah again. She sobbed about the pain. I held her head and her arms while she sobbed and I sobbed, and then my daughter would stop and say — and we would sort of laugh — “What if we never stop crying?” And, I didn’t have the answer for her. I wanted her to be soothed and to fall asleep and not to be exhausted for school today, but I felt the same hurt — was incredulous at the same pain — and all I could say was, “I know it hurts.” I couldn’t say — though I thought about saying it — “It will get better” or “Don’t worry about it”, because it won’t get better exactly because Hannah will never come back. We will live forever with these cut up, aching hearts. Loss doesn’t get filled in, exactly.

It is such a thing I never thought I would have to process for my child, holding a five year old in my arms who is sobbing like a woman, as I — the woman, the mother — sobbed myself, our tears intermingling, our faces and arms wet. What is the right and proper thing to do as a parent? Was it to tell her ‘everything will be all right’? Was it to distract her from her pain? She told me she knew Hannah was never coming back, and she was so sad because of it. She has never loved anyone as much as Hannah, and no one has ever loved her like Hannah, she told me. I know how that feels. She remembered how Hannah always played with her — cut up and made paper bunnies — and she missed Hannah so much. I held her and squeezed her and petted her arms, as I felt the distance between us where there was such profound loss, and I told her, “No, Hannah’s not coming back, but I promise you, I promise you, you will be okay.” That I know.

Because “okay” is relative. Okay is the state of our lives so filled with disappointment and upset, so fraught with frustration, so littered with pain and death. Okay is also the state of my daughter and I hiking with Hannah’s dog, Roxy, up to Heublein Tower, as I hear my daughter tell herself, “You can do it. Don’t give up”, when she has marched us up but is still afraid of hiking the steep, shale-strewn path to the sharp, high edge of a higher hill. She tells herself to persevere, and she does. Okay is the state of acceptance — if not forgiveness — but not resignation. Okay is the state where wonderful, significant moments of growth and development and occasion mark our lives and our acceleration in them as we move through them. Okay is as much a mother and daughter holding each other in the darkening evening over the loss of Hannah as it is today’s clear morning where we woke up with smiles, and my daughter said to me with bright countenance, “We cried a lot last night. Did you think we weren’t going to stop?” Okay is walking in and through loss again and again knowing that there is no solution except the belief that each breath we take and each time we hold each other’s hands demonstrates the simple virtue and goodness of this life that can otherwise be so tumultuous and unfair.

For, no life is spared from pain, and to attest otherwise to my daughter would be to sell myself untruths. It’s not fair to scald a young child with the unvarnished coldness that can be the most devastating aspects of being human, but it is also unfair to tell a child that life will always offer itself up perfect to her. She is too smart to see through that when she tells me that she loves and misses Hannah and knows that she is never coming back and is so sad because of it.

The Truth

My daughter tells me she both believes and adamantly doesn’t believe that Hannah continues. We talk about how Hannah is contained in every living thing we see and in the air we feel around us, but then my daughter will declare, apropos of nothing, “Hannah is dead.” And, she is. Both things can be true, but that’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quotation about “the test of first-rate intelligence”, which is allowing two conflicting ideas to harbor in your mind simultaneously without you exploding or freezing. But, where is intelligence (which is in the mind) in dire suffering (which is in the heart and in the body)? Where is rational empiricism as we excavate where we go after we die or if there are layers of time, space and energy that swirl around us right now that we can’t see but that exist as real as the tips of our fingers? We parse through the thin, transparent layers of our own time and experience and what we can feel and imagine, and it’s like walking through bolts of organza, suspended in air and draped all around us, like a heavenly upside-down maze. But, there’s no exit. The reward, perversely, as far as I can see from my own experience, is in the moment.

What we can’t know decisively is what the world really looks like and what reality and finality are. I do know that emotional and psychic pain are harder to process than a cut knee or a wounded nose because we can’t see it, though I’ve felt heartbreak in my body as sure as when I was wacked in the chest with a ball playing soccer and had the wind knocked out of me. I wish I could put betadine and cortisone on my heartbreak and my daughter’s heartbreak as we process it and try to heal. If not that, sometimes I wish I could just tie up heartbreak, store it on the top shelf at the back of the closet and move on. But, emotions, like family relationships, like love and like life are about evolution and repair. They permeate every part of us and leak when we don’t attend to them until we recognize what can change and what will stay the same — in ourselves and in the world and the people around us — and then we grow, understanding the boundaries and possibilities of our growth and continuation amidst loss.

When my daughter asks about whether Hannah is truly a spirit or where she is now, she demands, “Tell me the truth!”, and I tell her I don’t know the truth, but I know what I believe or perhaps what I wish to be true. Do I do her a disservice or lie to her when I say Hannah is a spirit, that Hannah looks down on or at us now or that Hannah is contained in the ether that makes up everything around us? I believe the same — about Hannah and all our dead relatives, friends and pets — inasmuch as sometimes I worry that it is simply my imagination or my mind that concocts Hannah in this way and in this realm because I can’t let her go. A few weeks ago, I cried at the idea that Hannah’s spirit would move on. I can’t have her spirit leave; I can’t deal with that second death. I can’t have you leave me, I said to her — to myself — and to the quiet nothing as I drove my car alone down the road, listening to the whir of the wheels against the pavement as the air caught in the car’s zinc and galvanized steel body. That is the same car where my daughter and I had danced and sang a few weeks before, strapped to our seats, as we drove through the green, verdant-summer back roads with the windows down, playing Bobby Womack loudly on repeat. Those are the same roads we had driven with Hannah and the same roads Hannah drove alone or with Roxy or with her friends.

Belief

For some, their belief makes this fight and recovery clearer or better supported. There is a definitive, absolute purpose and path as granted and mapped by an overarching entity or being(s) who guide(s) all pathways, either with benevolence, retribution or a kind of tender amusement. From the age of two when I asked my then-lapsed Catholic parents for religion, wanting to go to church, I have grown into more heterodox ways of understanding the world, weighing what or if I believe and consuming faiths omnivorously, with a heavy dollop of skepticism for anything that seems too extreme, too outre, too requiring of blinded, unquestioning devotion. I’ve joked that the only time God answered my prayer was when I was 11 years old. I owed the town library a book so overdue the librarian threatened to remove my civic privileges of being able to borrow books again. I searched my room top-to-bottom and then, in absolute capitulation, got down on my knees, put my elbows on the bed’s edge, cupped my palms together and prayed for the return of the book. As I prayed and prayed hard, I put my head on the edge of the bed, and looking down to the floor, with face angled towards the far-left corner, I saw my library book, jammed under the dresser.

I crave that same immediacy as I ask what happened to Hannah, where she is and how she is. In circumstances like these, even with a devoted, guided faith, doubt and unknowing creep or flood in. All I know is that I don’t know, except sometimes I can feel. I pray to Hannah because she was real, and I knew her, and now that she is gone — which I have trouble processing — it feels there is still a line that keeps us entwined and talking.

But it can be insurmountably hard to stem the tide of anxiety and devastation over what we have lost. In those moments, it feels like a suffocating loss of breath where neck blends into chin, and the dark pools of your eyes become the only perceptibly human part of your blank, distorted head. The rest is the blurriness of your face, your image and your idea of yourself. The unknowing and sadness spreads to even the known, tangible things, which are as impermanent as everything else.

I walked down the hallway past Hannah’s bedroom, and I started to cry because I had forgotten — or not considered — that I would wear out all of Hannah’s clothes that she gave me or I “borrowed” and that I have accumulated since she died. What the hell am I going to do when her stuff breaks down and there is nothing more but embers and scraps of the physical parts of her? Where can I access Hannah then? I now commune with her in her closet, with the last pieces of her wardrobe that are secreted like historically valuable dresses in a museum collection. They house her scent, which is fading faster than I can keep up with the processing that she is really gone. I went to her closet and wrapped her black Baja jacket under my arms and around my back. I buried my head in the neck of the hanging sweater and forced the idea that it was her, holding me. But my smell comingled with hers, and her smell was drifting away. I was tumbling and feeling both silly and righteous as I gripped an empty, old sweater hanging on the rack of a closet filled with the residual detritus of a life and also filled with a diminishing but still fragrant musk that feels like all the possibility of a life still sitting there, waiting to be harnessed and unleashed.

The Wake of Loss

Interpreting, understanding and processing Hannah’s death has been like that: feeling both pointed and directed and totally lost; feeling sure and irresolute; religious and skeptical. In the broad wake of Hannah’s death, I’ve had dance parties in my kitchen with my daughter, recovering moments of joy, appreciation and laughter even though the world around me never stopped bombing me with chaos. But also since Hannah died, relationships have fractured and splintered as people who loved her spun off and circled in their own orbits. Some of the ties between us have become too tenuous, stressed and fragile, like an old game of string telephone where the cord is too long and too frayed. Other relationships have been renewed and strengthened. That is resurrection. I have felt anger, doubt and peace. I have harnessed my intuition and then ignored it. I have worked, and I have cried. And over and again, forgetting I’ve said it each time, I’ve said, “Hannah is the key”, knowing that truer words have not been spoken, and that I still don’t know exactly what that means, except for a peripheral understanding that it has to do with the way she unconditionally loved.

Death is not only for boxes and coffins. Death is cutting off one thing to make way for other things. We live in a contrary world of possibility that is not a zero-sum game but that is also not unlimited. We live in a cyclical world of births and endings. Hannah’s death is a tragedy; it is an abomination. But, we must take the seeded soil she has left for us and grow ourselves and her spirit more brightly, loudly and vibrantly — for her, and for us. We must shed tears — and allow ourselves to laugh while we are weeping — but we also must live and live and live. We must start over. We must stay.

I feel Hannah so strongly. I guess whether she is a memory or a spirit, it doesn’t really matter. She was constituted to me when she was born — as my daughter was — and she has been and is being reconstituted to me, to my daughter, and to those who love her, since she has died.

When faced with unbelievable loss, I’ve begun to realize that I can turn into the dark warren of upset, or I can face what has happened and instead come to a new — a renewed — understanding of myself and the world around me. Psychics and heralders of “The Secret” will tell you that there is a path for you, one that you can manifest by calling what you want to be attracted to you. I want to say that’s loaded, but why not? It’s not going to be the path of least resistance. It’s not going to be littered with praise or material reward — at least not all the time. It’s not going to be steady progress or without seemingly interminable hold periods, where you wait and wait and wait and…nothing. Or nothing, yet. But that doesn’t obviate our purpose or nullify our focus on continuing forward.

That is the essence of Hannah’s spirit for me. My belief in her spirit is my belief in the warm surround of someone or something that in turn believes in you and continues to support your steps as you walk forward, co-shouldering all the hurts accumulating from your lifetime and shepherding your belief — however muted it feels at times — that there is tiny purpose in your presence and in your life — exactly because you found and find profound purpose in the lives of those around you.

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