This Week in Grief

Grief und Adjust

It’s been a weird seven days or so.

I’d been dreading Wednesday (May 15th) for a while now, but for me it came six days early and continues on.

May 15th of this year would’ve been my grandfather’s 82nd birthday had he not died of dementia on January 29th, 2012. A lot of people have dead grandfathers, but in my case I spent eleven years living in the same house with mine. He essentially became the father I so desperately needed after mine took off.

But the heaviness of his birthday missed came early for me when a former Vancouver-based writer (who travelled in the same writing circles as myself when I lived there) published a stellar, and gut-wrenching essay on The Rumpus about losing her little brother. Nikki Reimer’s brother passed away less than a month after I lost my old man, and her reaction has been to grieve him while documenting that process digitally.

Then early in the morning (or late at night, depending on your perspective) Thursday, word hit social media a dear friend of many of my friends—an acquaintance of mine—passed away at 29. I used to work as a stagehand for numerous music festivals with this guy and talked with him at a few house parties. In the early hours after his death was announced, a tumblr was created so his friends could contribute pictures, share memories and compile playlists of his favorite music.

The accumulation of digital tributes of both of these young men leaves me wondering what exactly my grief of my grandfather’s death looks like. Sure, I’ve posted pictures of him online, or marked his birthday or death anniversary in Facebook status updates. But unfortunately for my family and for my grandfather, I’m a writer. My grief takes the form of copious (as of yet) unpublished essay manuscripts and hours spent trying to discern a compelling narrative arc to his life story.

The famous Joan Didion quote seems appropriate here: “Writers are always selling someone out.”

To talk about my grief—to reflect accurately why it feels like a death almost sixteen months ago still feels like someone kicked me in the teeth just yesterday—I’ll have to describe my grandfather at his worst during his final weeks. I’ll have to describe how when he was finally able to speak to me after being admitted to a geriatric psych ward, he sounded uncharacteristically desperate on the phone. With his voice hoarse and cracking, he cried, “Boy, sweetheart, am I glad to hear from you! They told me I’d never hear from you again!”

I’ll have to describe the hard fall of someone so strong.

Unfortunately for my old man, he was a painfully private person. Even more unfortunate for him, in the context of memoir, he’s a compelling character—paradoxical and a gold mine for quotes. He’s a complete Midwestern, “meat and potatoes man” stereotype, but with a rebellious streak and a cool experience or two under his belt (he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers during the cleanup of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens). But now I’m stuck with the possibility that discussing him—his weaknesses, struggles and all that entailed—would not necessarily be what he’d wish for. I’m stuck with the possibility that he’d say, “hey kid—don’t cry over me. Don’t spend all your time writing about me. I wasn’t all that interesting.” Maybe he’d even be flat out pissed off.

Or is his story and the impact of his death not really a story about him at all? It might just be a story about the death of what he represented—how his death is more about the death of concepts he was a symbol for in my life—things like safety, stability and protection.

Maybe his death, and the story of my grief that surrounds me on all sides even still, is about the global feeling we all feel of being adrift from loss. But more specifically it might be about the death of the things we hold as fundamental to our sense of the world and our wellbeing.

I should probably say something hopeful about how the death of these people we know (my grandfather, Nikki’s brother, the friend of many of my friends) and the death of the things they represented in each of our lives, are things we have to transcend. I should probably say something like we have to restructure these metaphors and symbols they completed until they work for us again, or integrate new people into them. Maybe I should say we should ultimately find these symbols, these traits, in ourselves.

And when I can write those things and genuinely believe them, I’ll be sure to do so. I’ll really try.

2 thoughts on “This Week in Grief

  1. Spectacular piece. Your thoughts and the Joan Didion quote reminded me of an essay I’m pretty sure was by Annie Dillard. She explained that when we write about our memories, we’re losing the real thing, and it becomes what we’ve written instead. Which is different, and shaped, and often public. It’s almost as if we lose these beloved people all over again when we compose the story of our intertwined lives. And yet, we still do it, I would argue, out of that love. Their contribution to our whole that we share is worth repeating. Worth losing again.

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  2. Thanks for emotionally gripping post on grief, Emily. I know the feeling of puzzling out those memories–how to come to terms with what happened to your grandfather towards the end and what he would have wanted–and wondering whether you’re dwelling on those stories in a way that the grandparent would not have wanted. You’ve probably read Didion’s two books on the subject. I think she’s a master of strongly delineating some of the ambivalent thought processes of grief.

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