The Grief Manual: Boredom

The tedium of trauma

Where do we go from here? Now 17 weeks, now 120 days, now 4 months. A sticky feeling of getting tacked back to the date of my sister’s death on Friday, February 15th, like gum on the bottom of my shoe perpetually pulling me back, reminding me of the Looney Toons’ Box Office Bunny cartoon, minus the silliness and the dancing.

There’s now a principally defining moment in my adult life that demarcates the end of a certain future — a senior adulthood — I had thought was axiomatic: I had a sister, Hannah, and we would grow old together, laughing. Go ahead and cue the Cable Value home shopping network accidental-blooper video of Harold the host falling with the segmented ladder he’s shilling. “Oh, God! Harold, are you ok?”, his co-host cries out, laughing, after he tumbles into the ladder, having not secured it properly, and man and scaffold strike down to the floor together. Hannah and I watched that ad infinitum over the years and at almost every holiday in celebration of absurdity, crying tears from laughing. (Footnote: Harold’s okay, save for maybe wounded pride).

4 months, one-third of 2019. I’ve been told that the first year after someone’s death is the hardest, but there is or there comes a loneliness and self-consciousness about grief. Wondering: when does spectator fatigue emerge; when do others get bored with this story? Is it here already, maybe a few months ago? Are people tacitly thinking: “Come on, it’s sad, but move on already”? Maybe those of us in the cauldron of grief are thinking that exactly, as our lives frenetically recalibrate, the winding wheel of some software program perpetually stuck in “update” and we, glancing at it over and again in chronically strange finger-crossed hope that it will finish, rewrite and work.

When does the innate human propensity to be empathetic get overridden by everyone’s increasingly anemic attention-spans and all our separate lives and worries? At my daughter’s school, they posted “What is empathy?” on the main door, with a picture of two outlined figures with bright outsized red heart-shapes in their chests, standing on top of text that says, “Feeling someone’s feelings in your own heart.” Forever? As loudly?

In the non-profit and healthcare worlds, they talk about compassion fatigue. It is the “vicarious trauma” discussed in the 1995 Charles Figley-edited book about the mitigating empathy which emerges self-protectively in those who address physical and mental trauma in others. Those caretakers are the reflexive victims of stress overload from what they see and treat. That promiscuous trauma, reflecting in the distorted mirror of an amusement park’s haunted house. We grow long and wide in seeing ourselves and our experiences reflected back to us, seemingly becoming other people and becoming entangled with those who walk or stand behind, beside, in front of us.

Grief is about me, a feeling I feel, a feeling others who love Hannah feel. A state we’re in, maybe like a room we’re locked in. But, this is really about Hannah. Too much focus on grief feels like it loses Hannah for the heavily weighted feeling that someone sliced a pie-shaped wedge out of me, and no one can fill it. It can’t be filled exactly and completely by one-thousand fun people or hundreds of nice people, or a million irreverent people. It can only be filled by her, the impossible. We, her family and friends, are expected to just go on and on with this hole, because that’s what so many others have done with their heartbreaks. That’s what friends and colleagues do, though the inner turmoil and sadness is thick, dark. We, the splintered living, breathing, walking collateral damage. Let me refocus again: this is really about Hannah. And, when I sharpen that focus, it seems to somewhat defray my grief as it’s refracted through the lens of the light of my sister.

This is about Hannah

Some — though not Zen Buddhists — may consider it a fault, but the best thing about Hannah was how much she lived in the present. She was unencumbered by the dial spinning on her 401k, unattached to an immutable career-plan, unhooked to the traditional clock. Though American, she was more European that way: for both herself and those around her, she didn’t believe “what someone did” or what they’d amassed defined them or made them particularly (or not) interesting.

She didn’t rush through things, anything; trying to get her out of the house in 30 minutes without prior notice was a feat. But, when she focused, she did so completely. Her presence was enough. When she was with you, she was unreservedly with you. She had an almost unbelievable rolodex of people she knew, and from toddlerhood, she had a nearly super-human ability to meet, identify with, charm and make friends with a variety of people, agnostic of where they came from, what they did, or who they were.

She was tall, blond (or black-haired, or red-haired), stunning and a bit wild in dress and accoutrement. But her heart was where it’s at. Her soul was deep, her kindness unending. She was complimentary the way only exceptionally beautiful people can be complimentary, which is to say, magnanimously, humbly and seemingly unaware of the true extent of her own luminescence and the magnitude of her effect on people. She liked how she looked and how she could play with identity and reception. But, if I think she suffered from how she looked it was because some pedestalled her or, conversely, struck her down for her base physicality, not even allowing time for the significance of what she said or did. Hannah’s naturally loving temperament undergirding that meant those who loved her felt as I did about her, totally adoring, absolutely lucky to have met her, somewhat protective.

Hannah combined beauty, sociability, conviviality, gentle affection and kindness for others to stunning effect. Instead of some notion of being “married well and early”, Hannah drove her own path. She was the youngest person ever to be named as regional manager for a national clothing store chain, but she didn’t want the 9–5 and instead embarked on numerous other types of jobs, including aesthetician, bartender, make-up artist, retail, building a house-cleaning business, and on and on. A job was a job; a place to interact with people, a place to make money, potentially a place to have fun, but not necessarily a place to be self-defined.

Hannah: embodied

If the body is a temple, hers was hieroglyphed. Over the years, she amassed extensive tattoos, though when I walk down the street and see so many like her, perhaps it is the mainstream now. Hannah was 10 years younger than I and further afield from The Official Preppy Handbook I grew up in the shadow of, which was housed in many homes I know almost more biblically than satirically. Today, tattoos are nearly loosed of their former dirty biker, counterculture or military meanings. People freely get tattoos, inscribing critical moments of their life-journey on their bodies, marking events like imprinting commemoration or fortitude into their skin. Hannah and others, walking around with bodies telling stories in pictures like those symbols cast across the temples of Cairo or the petroglyphs in the Wadi Rum desert. The way images represent ritual, meaning.

I think of the causeway between Khufu’s Great Pyramid in Cairo, connecting the valley temple to the mortuary temple, where an ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s ka (spiritual double, life force) was nurtured after death. The causeway ceilings were painted to resemble the bright stars against a cobalt sky. The sky: the celestial tattoo on Hannah’s right arm covering up a first tattoo of the hoop and feathers of a dreamcatcher. Heaven and Earth; Flesh and Spirit; Life and Afterlife, the land of the two fields. Where is Hannah?

I think of those nine interconnected parts of the ancient Egyptian soul, and that, after death, the ka and the ba (personality) were entombed together in the evenings and could separate in the daylight. The ba, that little bird-like piece of the soul, then could fly back alone to where the person had lived during their lifetime, tethering the living and the dead, like the bright cardinals that have been visiting my parents’ gardens suddenly and only just after Hannah died. The ka needed to be fed after death — from hieroglyphs of food, from offerings — to remain vital for the ba to return to it each evening. The “Hannah shelf” in my home is my center for all things that remind me and my daughter of her, items she touched, the little cut of her hair. The ka, was believed to be created by the god Khnum — the God of the Nile, the builder, the fertility god — who fashioned children on his potter’s wheel out of clay and breathed into them their ka and placed them inside their mother’s womb. That mortal body made of earth dies, returning to the soil, humus; the ka, the ba and the other parts of the soul don’t.

I think of Hannah’s tattoos. In some ways, up to her very last tattoo inked not two months before she died, I like to think the ideas of them can be guides for protection after her death. The sky, the stars, the moon, the dreamcatcher and her final tattoo which was the female Kirigaya Kazuto/Kirito of the Reki Kawahara light novels, whose weapons are black and mint green swords and who maintains equanimity in spite of grievous circumstances. A strong, independent identity; a fighter. Hannah. Her name the same after death. The Egyptian cartouche, an oval on a stand now so like an upright headstone to me, was used for name identification on a tomb and was critical for the ba and ka to find their way back to their tomb. We’re calling Hannah’s name so that she continues to have a place, so her spirit can find its way back to us.

Hannah, Hannah. Hannah who liked nice cars, old cars, cool cars, who liked good makeup, fancy skin lotions, high shoes, beaches, the sun. We can talk about what a clotheshorse and how notoriously messy she was, with a car that looked more like a clothing rack gone sideways and a collection of clothing and shoes that would be weeded extensively and donated biannually followed by a commensurate regrowth over the next 6 months, repeating the same cycle. But, all this is kind of just stuff. Trying to describe Hannah is like trying to describe a feeling, like trying to describe the purpled, aqua starlit aurora borealis-like sky as it was etched on her right arm: words can’t trap it and bring it down to earth. We have memories and stories, but more of what we have is the feelings between us. Funny, sharp, sweet.

Dreams and awakening

Last night, I had a dream I was in little shop with tables filled with glittering crystals, overwhelmed by appealing, abundant tchotchkes. I was looking for something, maybe jewelry. I saw a bunch of amber colored crystal wands, one of which I wanted as a gift for my sister. But, as I touched it, I said to the store owner, “Oh, but she’s dead.” Until that moment, Hannah was reasonably alive and still here in my dream and in my mind. It is a revelation I have in the daylight as well. When I have the quick thought to call or text her, to go with her somewhere, to ask her something, to show her something funny, then strikes the cold and sudden recall that she is dead. It’s a tiny internal hammer that smashes down the short-circuit illusion that she is still here in the flesh. It is a strange thing, this languid awakening into finality. I don’t know if I want all those old synapses to stop firing. It hurts completely when I remember again she is dead, but for those few microseconds when I forget, the world is normal again in its old reliably dis-functional but hopeful way.

Prolonged worries can be almost like dreams, or nightmares. I had forgotten all about an anxiety I had about Hannah when she was born until I suddenly remembered it again last week. For the first year of Hannah’s life, I was terrified she would die from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), the sudden and unknown reason infants die, which typically kills infants before they are 1 year old. I must have read an article in Parents Magazine that my mother or one of her many friends who had also just had a baby had, and it seared in my mind as a threat to my sister alone. Every nap Hannah had or every put down to sleep for the night was met in my mind with the potential for her death. As a 10 year old (and long after), I felt both sisterly and maternal towards my tiny charge. I remember how internally I sighed with great relief when Hannah passed her first birthday, as though she had been unshackled from near-in harm. I had harbored this terror alone; it’s something I never told anyone.

The mind is bewildered in its attempt to make sense of something so out of order. Was my young fear a premonition, some childlike ability to hear the dog whistle decades later? No, of course not. I’m not sure there is anything truly foretold. My friend’s mother experienced tragic fire in her childhood which burned down her house and sacred multigenerational family heirlooms. Through the rest of her life, she always admonished, “Everything burns”, as though to say, ‘Don’t get too attached to material things. They will flame and incinerate, and you will hold the ash of what they were.’ Everything is temporal; nothing material can be too sacred. Which is why it was so tragic that at the footend of her life, my friend’s mother was victim to a second fire which destroyed much of the body of her life’s artwork. My friend, her daughter, rushed to save water-logged, sooted canvases from a smoldering barn and place them on the grass under the wide arms of an old tree in the sunlight of an otherwise clear, blue day.

Everything burns, children die. Even when things are new, even when days are cloudless, there is a certain but indeterminate end. I don’t know why our minds can’t make more room for this acceptance, this allowance. We know it intrinsically, but it is no less shocking when it happens. It continues to be abrasive, confusing and unsettling long after the end of some life, some path, some effort has happened. It’s confusing to us and to those around us, as we mirror each other and our experiences. We see the past and the future foretold in each other’s lives: our children will die, our parents will die, the things we own will slowly fray, break, burn and — along with us — disintegrate.

Maybe there is some strange gift in this instead. I can’t alight on it exactly, but it reminds me of how I feel when I finish The Gift of the Magi, slightly squeaky and uncomfortable but faced with something honest. The sentiment and the love in the gift-giving of the couple in the story are pure, though the interceding realities of life make their gestures and sacrifices bittersweet. She is left with shorn locks for his gift of the jeweled, shell hair combs. He sold his pocket watch to buy them, and she sold her hair for her gift of the pocket watch chain which is now useless to him. You wonder why it can’t just work out better, and I try to see ways through that the two gift-givers could have just held on — or talked to each other — so the things that were prized weren’t given away for the other’s happiness. In the end, they must be happy with the gesture, and not the thing. In the end, I must be happy with the memories of Hannah, but I am without Hannah here. Nothing material can be so sacred.

What we are and what we do

In the end, we are literally fragments of all that comprises each other and everything around us. The same dirt, the same clay, and the same elements in the earth and in the air making up exactly what we are in person. That should (re)frame some consolation in that Hannah is now nowhere and everywhere. Intellectually, maybe it does, but in my heart, in my big, red, open heart, I still ache. Red, like those hearts in the empathy diagram at my daughter’s school. Red, like the blooming flowers in my mother’s garden, like the cardinal that visits daily. A piece of my sister or some random effect? Maybe both.

Daily, we make small decisions that underly and build for our future, choices that overtly or inadvertently result in outcomes that are insidious, innocuous or positive. We can’t know definitively how until the future is upon us. We attend a finale, we accept an invitation, we cross the street. Sometimes, we cross the Rubicon fully aware that we are violating how everything is and stepping into unchartered territory; sometimes it feels like we are being thrown or lead across it, following someone or something else’s decision.

Thousands of years ago, Julius Caesar — leading his troops — debated crossing that stream. Perhaps he was agonized by the knowledge that in order to move forward, he had to risk insubordination, or perhaps he foresaw this as the last hurdle to true power. Either way, he took his troops and crossed the Rubicon in violation of the Roman Republic’s laws, then faced a few years of civil war and ultimately claimed imperial rule over the Roman Empire. Hannah’s death feels like that sometimes: violating an underwritten order (the “natural order”) of birth and death, and we, those troops on the other side, are rendered irrevocably changed and now spitting in a war with grief. Does that mean there’s ever a hope that our outcome will be to reign supreme over our emotions? Absolutely not. It means that we cannot go back.

When she was alive, Hannah and I always held hands, our fingers interlinked. After she died, I reached into the coffin to put my hands over her hands; that was how I knew it was her. I needed to feel her hands. Her soft, fresh face, suddenly now unmarked by wrinkles and the fears, sorrows and laughter of the living, seemed to lie to me. It looked like her, but it could be a phantasm, a mask. Her hands I knew instead by another sense, not by sight. There was barely light under the closed crown of the coffin, so I slid my hands further into the dark, feeling her right hand overlaying her left. This is what grief is like. It is unknowing; it is searching; it is shadowy; it is rooting for completion, for an end. It is also supple memory, hyper-reality, laughter and small reveries. It is the light and the darkness of the days and nights that continue; it is the multiple facets of our souls continuing on.

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