The Grief Manual: Turning, Slowly

Courtesy: Mary Tomolonius

My sister, Hannah, died nine months ago. I am immeasurably changed, but, then, how else would I be? Grief, like time, is always moving. It ambles forward or sideways in its thick, plodding way. Just as decay is inscribed into the building plan of everything fresh, grief — that black, heavy-petaled flower — breaks down and loses its vibrant effects over time. But, then grief reseeds and blooms again.

It’s not as though grief reserves itself for those unfortunate few — those beset with bad luck and empty pockets — or maybe those seemingly deserved few — those ungrateful, vicious, hateful — among us. Ultimately, in all of our lives, grief is agnostic and universal as it rips through with the initial spasmatic, destructive energy of the Tasmanian Devil and lingers with its reverberative aftershocks like Whirling Dervishes, with their tall, felt sikke hats, so protective seeming, like a thimble, but instead signifying the burial of the self.

Grief is embodied like in the moving form of the Sufi dervish, head tilted. Turning, turning. Spinning, spinning. Slowly, slowly. Saying: God, God, God. Right hand facing upwards and left hand cast downwards, like in the Taoist bagua — the eight trigrams — with its three long lines stacked atop each other — heaven — and its three lines broken and split in two — earth. Sometime last year, I copied that bagua by my own hand, with a ruler or a book to make the lines straight and an old black permanent marker, and I placed it inside and above my front door. I don’t even know now if I set it right. I had read to place it so heaven would come down to earth, or vice versa, and then a few months after my sister died, I looked at it and took it down.

Sometimes it feels like I could have taken a different step, and the world would have changed. Maybe the bagua was upside down. I could have given Hannah my house. I could have steeled her away. I could have interrupted the life of a strong, forthright woman who was making her way — in her own way — and stood in between the proverbial scythe of that man in the cumbersome hood that protects and obscures his eyes and face, that Grim Reaper, sowing this sacred soul and depositing darkness and sadness.

But imagining myself as a god or that powerful or that important is so singularly selfish. Life just moves. We cultivate the illusion of control over dates and times, relationships, chance and opportunity and over the cumulative prosperity of our friendships, children, loves, homes, jobs, reputations and all the ephemera we stack around us that strips away so fast when we tumble down in the moment when our lives fracture as he tells us, “She is dead.” Or he is dead. Or they are dead. Or however and whenever death greets us or mauls us or whatever it’s called when we face it head on. For we don’t face it on its side or with the covers pulled to our nose; however we are positioned, it comes and stares right into the blackest part of our eyes — the darkest root of who and how we are. And whether this world is an illusion, a fabrication, a collection of synapses blinking, shooting, missing or hitting, a grand design, a dream, a God-created vision — whether it is any of that or all of it — or none of that — it’s built fundamentally on two things: life and death. It’s built on ending and beginning.

And, I know that, and I still have dreams in which Hannah dies and there are new little babies all around, and I wake up, sad at the strange dream, and I remember again she has died for real in this life. I still see her dancing when my daughter dances frenetically and with great humor and accent. I still hear her voice — innocent, funny and wry — when I pet her dog and when I tell her dog how much I love her — I truly love her — because I have no vessel in which to place the love that is specifically meant for Hannah.

Not that love isn’t intermingled, but there are certain specialized feelings and memories that fit only one person or one being. They translate on the half or not at all when you attempt to put them someplace else. Roxy, the dog, looks at me with her warm, amber-chestnut eyes, and I don’t know if she understands or thinks I’m crazy or if she sees some of Hannah — her person — in me, when I say, “Roxy, I love you.” I say it emphatically and over and over again, as though if she can hear me then we can reincarnate Hannah next to us with all the loose, restless, uncontained, homeless love for Hannah we have in us.

Animals are funny that way with their long, questioning looks and their physical language we can’t understand exactly. Just before the vet took her from my arms to euthanize her, as I held her like a baby swaddled in a long yellow blanket, Shadow, our then-dying 22 year-old cat, scratched me under my right eye, leaving four hot, long, red marks, like she was saying, “Remember me.”

Returning

Remember me. Remember me. In the pointed brilliance of this mid-Fall, in the seeding dusk as laden, pink skies lumbered from around the corners, I drove up and down the hills alone and finally found myself pulling into the funeral home I had visited two days after Hannah died. I had gone there to arrange getting her body back from the medical examiner. I drove back over the parking spot where I had screamed in my car after I had met with the funeral director. I had been so formal and administrative in questioning him for pricing and funeral coordination, and I had gotten in the car in the parking lot and unleashed a death shriek.

I drove over that spot in the same way my daughter had returned to the place where she and I had both fallen as we ran gaily up the hill to the park a few years ago. The cement sidewalk had ripped the skin off my knuckles and road-rashed the long, left side of my daughter’s face. Days after it happened, my daughter had walked uneasily back to that spot, took a moment and then jumped over the sidewalk where she’d face-planted to stomp over the place of pointed pain and to reclaim part of herself. She wrested ownership back where ownership had been wrested from her by the misfooting of random chance.

I remember the moment when we had fallen. I suddenly knew it was happening, and in the time-arrested space of an accident, I looked back at my daughter, whose hand I was still holding, and I realized as I was falling that I wouldn’t be able to save her from the fall. Understanding she was about to hit the ground on her face and watching it in slow-motion staccato while helpless to protect her was the pain I remembered each time I wrapped my fingers in bandages for weeks after we fell. Even after my fingers healed, the wounds left red marks I thought would never disappear. They are so faint now that no one else would be able to recognize I had ever been hurt, but those microseconds of being unable to help my daughter are as vivid and acidic in my stomach and mouth as the first moment I felt them.

Hidden

This is the utter strangeness of grief. You don’t walk around forever with clothing torn at the place where your heart is, if you perform kriah at all. Post-grief, you look to all the world perhaps older or more tired, but your psychic gash is covered. The world seems to revolve so slowly some days that words drawl out of your mouth — if they come out at all — and all the exclamations of your words and texts fall away. Maybe you only produce basic, anemic communications, but then you’ll still laugh at dirty jokes or dumb memes. You can binge watch your way through one series after another and forget what you even saw, but then that makes you just like the rest of us. The great worlds and prisms of pain you house inside your person are simply invisible to the woman giving you the croissant or the man passing you on the street, or maybe, too, to your family and friends. For they, too, secret degrees and stages of the same inside themselves.

While waiting at the register at the grocery store, I looked around at the people standing in line, bagging groceries or pushing their carts, and a small, tender feeling alighted inside me as I stood inside at dusk on a damp, drizzly day. Then I started to cry, and I realized that warm feeling was the soft rise and rush of excitement when you expect to see someone you love. I had been looking around at the children, the old people, the cashiers, the shoppers darting out the store to get home for dinner. I had been searching for Hannah. She, who will never come back. She, who will never be in the aisle grabbing something while my daughter and I wait for her at checkout. She, who will never come round the corner to stand in the line next to me and put her arm around my waist and laugh.

Living with the dead

But life moves and moves. We are misplaced in grief, so rocked off our footing. My best childhood friend told me that eight years after her mother died, she reached a place she had hoped to but didn’t think she’d ever enter with her grief. I don’t know what that place looks like because I am not there. It’s hard for me to even imagine that; the time to heal these wounds seems so interminably long. I am still wrapping them in gauze.

I went back to my sister’s room last weekend, and it had been painted from sky blue to taupe, like the color of the heavens again come down to earth tones. I opened the door, noticed the change and folded in half like someone kicked me in the stomach, taking all the air out of me. What am I feeling? We can’t keep empty, unused spaces like mausoleums for her, and yet, like when her car was sold after she died, when the physical things she touched or lived in leave or change, sometimes I feel a part of her ripping out of me again, or maybe, like Shadow, clawing inside me: “Don’t forget me” — or maybe I am scratching myself: “Don’t forget her.”

It’s not that I ache around all day, unable to function as things that Hannah touched depart, get sold or decompose. And, anyway, who would want the world to stop after they die? But, I’ve had to put a hand to myself to prevent fetishizing the residual physical stuff of what she left behind. I’ve had to periodically take off her jewelry and go days and weeks and months without wearing it so as not to create implicit talismans in what is just stuff that lies around us. But, I don’t know what’s right. So many find comfort in touching, wearing or smelling the paraphernalia we are left with after the body of someone we love breaks down. We psychically imbue a silver chain with the protective power of an amulet, just like I stuff my love for Hannah down into her dog. Reverence and fetish are so close to each other. I wish we lived with the dead better or that my sentimentalism didn’t mash with some home-brewed interpretation of the Shinto idea of the tsukumogami awakening my sister’s spirit that I now see housed in everything she touched.

But, maybe it’s helpful to track my turning and evolving grief as time turns on the remaining physical icons of my sister. I take one of Hannah’s sweaters and a few of her shirts that have grown tired down from my closet and put them in the donate pile, and I slowly loose a finger from a vice-grip on what was once — and still is — hers. In a paradoxical way, as I take small steps, I move further from the physical and closer to the spiritual. Still soaking in my arcing grief for Hannah, I walk closer to the place of her full, requited spirit and, also, to compassion for her mortality, for my own and for that of those around us.

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