Living In Between
Folks, I’m telling you / Birthing is hard / and dying is mean — / so get yourself a little loving in between. — Langston Hughes, “Advice”
This blog grapples with death and loss, but mostly on the “in between,” otherwise known as “living.” At first I procrastinated on launching it, telling myself that: A) people don’t want to read about death and B) who made me such an authority on death anyway? Then I reminded myself that C) for us the living, the left behind if you will, death requires us to (sometimes radically) change, so we need to help ourselves and each other through this life after death; and D) I’m not writing an advice column for crying out loud, just groping along like everyone else, and neither living nor dying should be suffered alone — see (A).
That said, how do we live with loss? We embrace it, along with its gifts. By “gifts,” I don’t mean the Pollyanna, silver lining, “it was meant to be” stuff. I mean doing the hard work of feeling, perceiving, remembering, even if we don’t know what the hell is happening to us or what we are supposed to learn. And by the way, we don’t need direct experience with death to benefit from struggling with loss: “We all experience different levels of dying throughout our lives — the process of living guarantees it….If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying….As our lives roll into the ordinary…we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live.” Matthew Sanford writes of this hard-earned insight in his memoir Waking, where he “seeks to appreciate and believe” in his experience of surviving the car crash that killed his father and sister and left him a quadriplegic at age 13.
“Appreciate and believe”? Many of us would not want to go near a book about such appalling loss. But we also whistle in the graveyard, rubber-neck on the freeway: we want to know how a successful comic like Robin Williams could take his own life, and wonder if Michael Brown’s Ferguson, Missouri community will find justice in the wake of his death at the hands of a policeman. I devoured the memoir Wave, desperate to find out how Sonali Deraniyagala could survive the loss of her family in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Answer: she dove straight into her memories and wrote a book about them. “By knowing them again, by gathering threads of our life, I am much less fractured. I am also less confused….I can recover myself better when I dare let in their light.” This is appreciating and believing in life: to strive for wholeness within and with others, despite the fact that something is missing. Look again, Sonali says, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.
All this hard work of surviving life calls for humor and laughter where we can find it too: “The best jokes deliver a hard truth easily,” as Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes of Dave Chapelle in The Believer magazine. It’s no coincidence our most famous comics are often Jewish or African American. We remember by laughing, and laughter eases the burden of remembering, like the time when our friend Hans visited us two days after our baby daughter’s stillbirth and I laughed at his story of fixing his bum shoulder with a drunken fall off his back deck. His story didn’t contain a hard truth, but it showed us how to move forward through pain: by doing our best to make the story better.