Three scenes about grief

I went with friends to see the new Avengers movie, an action film that spends much of its screentime showing how its superheroes deal with grief and survivor guilt in the wake of a cataclysmic event they could not prevent. Afterward, we ate fried chicken and enumerated all the plot holes we could think of. But the heroic saga had landed its emotional blows well, and the conversations turned to sadder topics: mourned pets, ailing relatives, grieving neighbors. We talked about how we talk about sadness with one another, or don’t talk about it.

I felt unmoored by the conversation, which made it appear that I share less of myself with my friends than I think I do. It’s true that I curate, but I don’t think I keep my feelings hidden: it’s just that if there’s something heavy on my mind that I want to share, I am more comfortable setting limits on it, preparing my interlocuter, making the transmission of my emotional state easier for them and for me. Can I talk through something with you? I’ll say, or Can I vent for a minute? I like to set a time limit, if only internally; I usually have a subject change ready.

“I don’t know that I’m recommending this,” I said slowly, after explaining my emotional containment strategy. My friends laughed; I leapt at the chance to make it a joke. “You mean the coping mechanisms I developed as a teenager don’t need to be updated?”

“You had them as a teenager,” said a friend; I may have imagined the at least.

My team is working on a campaign to promote a master’s degree program by featuring alumni who turned their thesis projects to personal or professional gain. We scheduled a video interview with an alumna who had written a memoir about her father’s violent death when she was a child. Learning to tell the story of her grief became a step on her journey to becoming a state representative; her childhood trauma motivates her public service and connects her to constituents who depend on state support in the wake of their own losses.

Her serene frankness and poise impressed me, and not just because she’d become substantially more confident since her thesis presentation video, which I’d watched to prepare for our interview. Like her, I lost a parent young–though she had been much younger, and the circumstances were very different. Like her, I keep an audio file of my father’s outgoing voicemail message, a 10-second clip that sounds so rich and alive that it’s not often I can bear to hear it. But her ability to turn the chasm of loss into a bridge astonishes me. I am almost thirty-eight years old. I have lived in Philadelphia for almost 14 years. There are friends I have made during that time that I count among my nearest and dearest, but who likely don’t know much about my father or his death or my life at that time.

We needed a tagline to end the interview, and I had drafted a short list: I am the master of writing through grief, I am the master of healing through memoir, etc. I read them off to her to see if one would create a spark. At the end, I added another line spontaneously: I am the master of telling my true story.

“That’s the one,” said the alumna and her thesis advisor at once, and we asked her to repeat the line for the cameras. In the video recording, she is smiling as she says it.

Twenty years ago, my father died.
My father died when I was a senior in high school.

These are simple stories. Sad, but concise and firmly past tense. These are the versions of this story I usually tell when asked, which isn’t often–mostly when reporting my medical history or getting to know a new therapist.

Twenty years ago, my father went into the woods to set up a deer stand. It broke, and he fell and was immobilized. 30 hours later he was found, awake although his organs were shutting down from hypothermia. For a few days, he remained conscious. He made some jokes and dispensed some advice, all of which is permanently engraved in my memory. Then he fell into a coma for six months.

Coma patients in movies look peaceful, asleep. My father’s coma was a traumatic experience and his body reacted in traumatic ways. For awhile, my father’s body retained water until he swelled up twice his normal size, skin tight and clammy. Later, drained of the water, he shrank. He developed Parkinson’s, so his thin arms would seize and pull against the bed restraints. During visiting hours, we would undo the restraints and hold his hands as he seized. His abdomen began to swell again; it was revealed that the tube that fed into his stomach had leaked. Then he caught an infectious disease that was going around the hospital; we wore gowns and masks to visit him. Then he died.

This story is not elegant. It is brutal. It is also part of who I am. I carry these memories with me all the time; they are never very far from me, especially when I am in or near a hospital. (I live one block from a hospital.)

The brutal story is true, but I hesitate to say that it is more true than the other. It reduces my father’s humanity to a list of symptoms, a tally of events that might simply have been bad luck had they not occurred in relentless sequence. He is more alive in the 10-second voicemail message.

When my father was in the hospital, our days were structured around our twenty-minute visits with him two or three times a day. My mother took me to school in the morning and went on to the hospital alone. My brother picked me up from school in the afternoon so we could sit in the waiting room with our mother until visiting hours. In the waiting room I wrote essays and poems for class and filled out college applications and answered the communal waiting room phone. I learned the art of the update: bad news first followed by a dose of optimism, the situation hasn’t improved but we are here together, we are holding up. I learned the power of distraction, the routines of long-term stress management.

This story is also true, but I am suspicious of the way it offers the kind of resolution we’ve come to expect when someone opens up their personal anguish for display. It was bad, but now you’re okay. (Or, depending on how you feel about me: it was bad; that explains you.) You’re an Avenger and you saved the day; the cost was high but the emotional payoff is a rush. It sure works on me in the movie theater. In the light of day, it’s full of holes: life is not a character arc, and my family’s suffering is not my origin story.

It is part of my story, though. Maybe you do need to know it to know me.


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