The Grief Manual: Spellbinding

Great Horned Owl, Seattle Audubon,

Unexpected stops at stations of calm

When is it not selfish to start feeling better after someone you loved dies? Is it ever? Are we doing disservice to the person who died when we willingly allow the rays of lightness in, when we start to peel back the waxed paper off the metaphorical windowpanes? I know the bright heat of the yawning wound of loss cools, but the loss is always there.

More and more, though, in the prolonged period of these months of grieving the loss of my sister, Hannah, it feels like I’m tethering two worlds. Neither feels exactly right. One is the airy world that continues to exist and function, rolling through spring and unfurling into summer with all the delight of warm weather and sunny skies, but it’s without Hannah. The other is the joyless, melancholy place that is the obliteration of the world in which Hannah was here; the place where I decry life’s senselessness and inscrutable meaning and purpose. When I feel happiness in that lighter world or when I feel happiness and don’t immediately refer back to Hannah’s absence, I experience a mental card flip or sliding doors opening back on the world that is destitute without Hannah. It’s an internal, snapping reminder that any future happiness should be couched in woe. I’m saying to myself, “She died, and you’re feeling good? How dare you.”

I know Hannah wouldn’t have wanted us to collapse into a wretched heap without her, foregoing the vitality and spark of sunny days, warm weather and silliness. Still, when happiness creeps in, when the degree of normalcy returns, it feels both good and then also cooling, deeply disturbing and guilt-inducing. I’m afraid that if I let serenity in, it will be at the expense of remembering Hannah, which is totally ludicrous. It’s an impossibility that I would forget Hannah. I now frequently think back to being in high school and telling my friends that my sister changed my world entirely. She was only 4 or 6 at the time, and I knew her presence in my life had made me less selfish, more open-minded, more caring. I would be less developed without her.

In her birth, life and her death, she seared herself so deeply inside of me, I feel physically and psychically branded with her. Indeed, I inked my ribs with the same five tattoos she had on her fingers, inscribing on the skin outside my heart with characters that were the same as hers, except for a waning moon where hers was waxing. The horns of our crescent moons would meet to form a nearly full one, with an almond-shaped gap in the middle: the empty intersection where we are not together here, or maybe the sheathed seed of possibility of where we can be together in the future. Still, there is guilt about feeling comfortable now. Still, it feels that moving forward is somehow moving on, a gross iniquity to Hannah. I am worried what it means about my soul, what it means about my humanity, what it indicates to my grieving parents if they see me not crying or outwardly, expressly sad.

These stations of calm started about two month ago, when I began to feel the reentry of some semblance of peace. These were little moments where I was overwhelmed with what felt like a quasi-mystic trance but what was actually the beginnings of reincorporating short bits of true happiness. It was a reprieve, like disembarking from the speeding train that had been flashing the landscape to me in a running, bleeding, unfocused continuous film strip. I stepped outside that railcar, down the corrugated stairs to the flat, still platform, quietly awaiting the connection for the next leg, standing in the warm sun with the cross breeze blowing directly on me.

Guarded recovery

It’s a strange recovery process from the death of someone you fiercely loved, like flattened villi reestablishing themselves as a healthier gut is reconstructed. The body begins to repair, but the slowly dissipating feeling of internal bedlam that had become so familiar is like a secondary loss because you are shifted again, and even a fragment of stability feels perversely disorienting because the last change — the death — was so unmooring. Plus, after sudden death or the death of anyone who is so close and important to you, there is a hyper-vigilance to the potential threats of the world around you. Your body and mind go into a state of, “What’s next?” I pick up phone calls immediately and in greater panic after Hannah died, expecting perhaps a trilogy of bad news: someone else’s sudden death, more random pain (nevermind that I already always think of a comedian who years ago said, ‘Calling is the new dropping by unexpected’, after texting had become prevalent). I am on alert, scanning through the cross-shaped Archimedes arrowslit of my own castle curtain wall lest I be caught so off-guard again.

In the aftermath of Hannah’s sudden, violent death, I searched to land on and inhabit any islands of emotional equilibrium, in whatever form they would take — be it unsorted sadness or numbness. So, these new moments of sudden, rushing pleasant calm were — and still can be — dissonant to the great grief I also hold and am processing. I know the grief is there, obviously, but because I am not actively soliciting or seeking out the peace, the abrupt feeling of being cloaked in temporary tranquility is like discovering I have been drugged with something that both feels good and that I want to shake out. Maybe I fear the come-down.

An alternative is to steel against any pleasure and go deep, deep into the grief, the black, still abyss like a wide tunnel into infinity below our feet. Who among us hasn’t wanted to jump into that dark place on occasion, especially when beset with agony? Who among us hasn’t taken some steps into that? But, I must learn and relearn how to live with Hannah being dead, how to reincorporate into the world again as a sister whose sister is dead. Daily, we must steel ourselves against those ominous passages that grief can take us, alone, walking us further and further from those we loved and those we love. We must white-knuckle the railing that stands between us and the canyon of interminable grief.

Growing in grief doesn’t mean that every morning isn’t still like Groundhog Day, when you are sharply recalled again to the exact moment you learned you were bereft. In some ways, time does make grief easier, but in a lot of ways, grief is a protean thing, morphing and changing — attacking when, where and how you won’t expect it.

Yesterday, I started sobbing when my daughter and I were in a Lot-Less Closeouts store after I saw a cute plastic doll that had long blond pig-tails and white and pink bunny ears, something Hannah would have loved. It got to a point where I couldn’t scan that side of the aisle, because if I even glanced at the bunny-eared doll, I would start crying. It felt a little ridiculous, but that’s grief. Today, a random and not-sad song on my playlist came through the car’s speakers as I was driving to the airport, and I started crying like someone had just told me Hannah died. Reminding. Maybe grief evolves like the broken physical parts of our bodies, slowly, in starts and stops — getting better, getting reinjured, healing through that — and, still, if the barometric pressure drops against the earth as it does our bodies, we feel the rain that will come tomorrow in our suddenly aching-again knee.

Perhaps grief is very much the mind’s way of remembering trauma. As much as it is uncomfortable to be wearing sunglasses in the toy aisle of a lower Manhattan discount store on a Monday or sobbing in traffic in your car on the BQE at 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday — or maybe that’s the best place to be crying — Hannah stays present, present, present, and for that, I am thankful. We form new memories together, of how Hannah and I interact after her death. It’s not all sad. It includes kaleidoscope skies and beaches and cresting smiles, but it’s still new memories formed because of her loss, and that heartbreaking knowledge, too, is welded to every new memory.

Double-tragedy: Falling into grief

After great tragedy happens, we look for answers to ‘Why does life coldly extinguish and devour what we love?’ There are a million avenues we explore, some more “productive”, some more “corrosive.” None are exactly “right” or “correct.” We are blindly feeling our way through. We seek to confront or to numb or both or somewhere in between — looking to religion (our own or others), numerology, cards, turns of weather or nature for some sign, some panacea, some relief for our pain.

If all I had to accomplish was to wrestle and wrangle my grief about Hannah, I couldn’t buy enough lifetimes to do so. The reality is that griefs are compounded and stand close to each other, so one wound may open others, and new wounds will come. We grieve the past and future deaths of others, lost jobs, lost relationships, lost friendships, the loss of our childhood; we decry loss in our bodies that turn, break, sag and burn against us.

I have a beloved friend who was also deeply struck by a similar tragedy, and their story is a painful example of ways in which grief can become irreconcilable, a chronic, open wound. It’s relevant to the story that my friend had a problematic relationship with alcohol prior to the death of their loved one. After a near-tragedy a few years ago, my friend had given up drinking for a while before starting again with “just one drink”, but this is a person for whom alcohol truly sinks its talons in at one drink. Once their loved one died, they took ferociously to the bottle.

So often, walking in the multitudes of our many-sized and many-aged griefs can be isolating. Drinking, even among others, can be isolating, and depression that accompanies both is certainly isolating. My friend’s family was briefly able to break through to my friend in a quasi-intervention after the loved one died, begging my friend to cool the drinking, to come back to them, to grieve next to and with them, to be loved by them, but soon my friend was drinking as heavily again. Drinking — and here, we mean alcoholism — combined with the inherent silos of profound grief can make a person impenetrable; they are lost to you further down the emotional rapids, paddling alone. No amount of swimming can bring you to them; the banks of this river are impossible to make a way through. And, you are exhausted in the restlessness of your own convulsing grief.

This is a family in grieving, in double, in triplicate, in innumerable griefs. In the worst moments of my friend’s drinking, which both amplifies and chokes my friend’s grief, my friend becomes a wisp of a presence in their family’s life: saying little and interacting as through scratched, fogged plexiglass. My friend can be belligerent to reason and to conversations about the prosaic necessities of life — bills to be paid, planning for the life that continues even though they may want to check out. And, let me make clear: there have been are many, many moments after Hannah’s death when I have wanted to check out, when I desperately beg for the world to return to its normal route where Hannah is alive, when the simple impossibility of that slaps me again in the face and makes me scream. But the unholy marriage of excessive, daily drinking and profound grief births a new shell of a person of removed countenance whose painfully limited interactions can feel like pique for those still beating hearts where the dead loved one’s is not.

Though we talked about my friend’s drinking during their grief, and though there were soft promises of quitting drinking when some or another marker was passed, simply: the coping mechanism that served them for decades before this loss wasn’t going to change. They’d had an exceptionally close relationship with their loved one that featured a component of hanging out and drinking together, so continuing to drink also returned them to the blessed bright spots of the fun of their relationship and the memory of the loved one. But, the excessive drinking suppresses their ability to move or develop into the grief and takes them with swift, firm hand into the deepest bowels of black depression. If my friend confronts their demons, my friend now faces all the initial wrecking mental and physical trauma of losing numbing alcohol and gaining grief in all its striking, fresh power. Everything about this is brutal.

The death of someone you love is searing, traumatic and shatteringly depressing. Everyone’s grief takes its personal path and time. And, still, the levels of spreading sadness of caustic, unchecked loss here is incomprehensible. My friend’s loved one is gone — a tragedy in and of itself — leaving a bereaved and heartbroken family, and as the insidious disease of alcoholism drowns my friend, the raft continues to flip over my friend and on their family, leaving them scrambling for safety. My dear friend — my raucous, well-read, funny, kind-hearted friend — is the canary in that metaphorical grief mine, that place so fraught with danger, with threats both invisible and visible.

We are navigating a world where death is built-in to its model, where we can’t obviate tragedy and loss but instead are offered the consolation prize to make something of what and who remains through the small moments with those we love who are still here with us. We do this — if we choose to — until we, too, die, and then others take up those tasks. This is the only circle we know of the miraculous, golden, rapturous, oppressive mirage that is our life here.

Hannah’s death and her resonance in the way people fiercely love her still impresses into me the importance of appreciating our short duration here. Hannah — of anyone I knew or know — spread herself and her wild light through the fleeting puffs of beauty she saw in people, cultivated in nature and created in experiences. I can’t know why we’re here. I can’t know why Hannah died so suddenly. I can’t know why my parents can’t see their youngest daughter to her adulthood — in all its color, glamour, boredom, heartbreak, excitement, sorrow, laughter and life.

I’ve said before that my father says when he has a hard day that he calls on Hannah; we call on the dead to carry us into and to wake us back up for the world of the living. It’s not easy or simple. It doesn’t come without great effort and sacrifice. We must fight to not entomb ourselves in own watery fortresses, and we must wave the flag to others when we feel we cannot carry on. We must so ardently guard against sowing the seeds of flagrant destruction that strike those we love, that spoil friendships, that threaten the small mustard seed of gratitude we must gently palm into the still fragrant, still alive earth. And, I don’t yet know how to do this with my friend, but I also know that when they have gone too far out and are in harm’s way, in spite of our own griefs and fears, we must grab the dirtied, bloodied canvas shirtsleeves of our fellow fighters and pull them back into the foxholes with us, so they can be protected and rest to fight with us again.

Bits of Transcendence

It’s easier to get so scattered when the world powerfully, negatively upends what you thought was the path. I am rooting for the pieces to explain what has happened to Hannah through randomly assembled fragments of ideas, religions, art and objects. Things like the confirmation Bible studies I barely remember at my Episcopal church, walks in nature trying to commune with Thoreau-like thinking (“Our life is frittered away by detail”), the music of Miles Davis and Moondog (that Viking musical savant who lived on 6th Avenue and then later in a handmade thatched house upstate), the surreal arrangements of my friend’s paintings of women, my dilettante knowledge of Buddhism and the table of crystals at my mother’s friend’s house.

This constellation faith — a belief that there must be something to explain life, to find where Hannah is present — comes from believing there must be purpose in the multitude of colors of flowers, animal creations, in the ways highways run like arteries, the way you look down on all the tiny cars and houses from the sky and think, “Each of these contains entire lives.” Those crystals at my mother’s friends house, together with pouring rain outside, lukewarm maple tea, the security of my young daughter playing happily upstairs and some tarot cards then strangely brought me a lick of calm two months ago, the first since my sister died. It was a short but sustained feeling of comfort, joy, abundant generosity and, even, briefly, euphoria. The stations of calm that have rushed over me since then have felt exactly the same as the first one, as though calm-since-Hannah-died is an entirely new composite emotion that is available increasingly but still without my being able to predict or call upon it. That joy still sits within internal torment over whether it is okay to feel good knowing that Hannah is dead. Because, I still don’t know.

The number, colder emotions I felt in the early throes of grieving Hannah reminded me of the physically coldest I’ve ever been. It was the night before I visited Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. I had three layers of socks on, all my layers of clothes on and was under every sheet and blanket I could find. In the morning, we hiked the 3,750 Steps of Repentance, following an adolescent, flip flop-clad Bedouin guide. With my group huffing and puffing, I wondered with each step what I was repenting for. What are the monsters within and around us? What is forgiveness of ourselves and others? How can we score out anger and jealousy? What do we do with our bad thoughts and unkind actions? Why do bad things randomly happen? At the top of the mountain, we reached a view of wave-like peaks undulating around us in stopped-motion. I had gone from bitterly cold, a cold without respite that kept me awake almost the entire night, to the heat of the sun, the warmth of accomplishment of finishing a small journey and an endless brown vista of choppy mountaintops cascading as far as the eye could see. Still, I had the lingering taste that questioned what had brought me there and for what I was or should be penitent, the same way grief lingers inside me now and colors the other emotions around it.

Last week, my mother, father, daughter and I spontaneously went for ice cream at the stand across from the dairy cattle farm which makes homemade ice cream. The last time we did this together, it was last summer with Hannah. Afterwards, in the blooming dusk, we took the backway home and drove to the development at the top of the mountain behind my parents’ house. Here, in this place, there used to stand an old farmhouse and farmland where, 25 years ago, my friends and I camped out in the fields and also entered the abandoned farmhouse through the basement at dusk. We walked among the past inhabitants’ dusty remnants before losing the nerve to climb up the stairs to the main floor as countless other teens and high schoolers older than we had done. Years ago now, that land was sold and developed with big yawning houses draped around circular driveways facing mountains up to Hartford and, to the left, as far as Massachusetts. Winding around the interior roads of that development last week, peeking through the trees to the long views, my father told me he used to drive up there to talk to me on his cell phone when that was the best spot for service. We would talk for hours. I remember the phone I had then, I remember the apartment in the Village where I had those conversations, where my young sister would periodically come visit me. After driving around the development, we drove to the next hill over with a sliver of a view of my parents’ house, past sweeping fields of panicle heads flowing upwards towards the top of the hill. I wanted to drive forever in the dusk, to hold forever to these normal moments undergirded by wonder, by something nearly otherworldly. Holding onto stepping over the footsteps of my family, of myself, of my sister.

The longing, the dirge

The day after my sister died, I went alone to a funeral home to plan the transfer of my sister’s body from the medical examiner’s office, the most personal of duties cloaked in a business transaction. The suffocating reality of what I was doing so rotely — I went through pricing and negotiations like I was tracking and transferring a package — hit me when I came back to the parking lot. I got in my car and screamed. I screamed a sound I have never heard from myself. The scream of a banshee, except I was not the Irish fairy presaging death, I was marking death. Irish lore (and there is a lot of Irish in our family) maintained that every family has a banshee. Maybe I was its historical precedent, the funerial keener. Globally, there have been and are still professional mourners who will enact the death wail. Perhaps we need to cry out to release something for ourselves and for our dead loved ones. To call to them and for them, to arrange for others to do it if we cannot do it ourselves. Banshees are said to be derived from the common barn owl, with its heart-shaped face and white under-plumage, its cloak of concealment at night, and its high-pitched shriek like the tearing off of something essential.

Grief is sometimes a netting and sometimes a veil, a shroud. Two months ago, in the early morning of my parents’ house, I asked for a sign from Hannah. Not a begging plea for an answer but a small moment in my mind of saying, “Hannah, show me a sign, please.” Later that morning, as I drove back alone down my parent’s long dirt road, sitting in the middle of the road was a Great Horned Owl. It was the same type of owl that I had seen and had been one foot away from (as part of a nature program) at the hotel I stayed at in Phoenix the first week after Hannah died. That owl had imprinted on its handler and would rest on his leather-gloved hand without a harness, flying out and always coming back without the need of a tethering, trapping leash. That same type of owl in the driveway flew up into a tree next to the car with its back to me and its swiveling, lazy-Susan-head turning around to look at me from each side. I got out of the car and went to where it was sitting, maybe 10 feet up in the tree, as it continued to watch me and I it. It was the strangest moment of calm, like the whole world was stopping and things that were out of place and absurd were possible. Was it a sign from Hannah? A coincidence? Was I reading meaning where there was none?

Maybe it’s personally misleading to healing to believe in spirits or ghosts, old folk lore or signs in nature. But then, there’s nothing to disabuse us of these little moments of glory, which frankly are glorious even absent any larger connection. They are beautiful in a way Hannah would see as beautiful, and perhaps that is the only meaningful connection that needs to be tied to them. At night, when my daughter and I stay at my parents’ house, we hear the Great Horned Owls, with their curious calls of: “Who? Who? Who.”

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