A Benediction for Mourning

Some infinities are bigger than other infinities

As virtuous men pass mildly away
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“No his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity of our love.
-“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne

I’ve been running through a catalog of deaths in my head, all the ones I’ve known and seen in my short time on earth. Death as in physical death, when someone’s heart stops beating, and death as in absence, when someone is no longer in your life. We suffer these little deaths every day.

Around me, I see buried sorrows and hints of sadness, blatant joys and feigned buoyancy. I see fidgety fingers and anxious, worn faces. Melancholia disguises itself as exhaustion, gloom as anger. But rarely do I see grief—publicly, unashamedly, explicitly. I know of its existence, but do not hear it, do not know it, except my own, which I hold inside my mouth, like a foreign object.

Grief is often pitied rather than welcomed, or honored. Mourning, after all, is a rite, a cultural complex of behaviors that follow death. Wearing black. Fasting. Post-mortem portraits. The Victorians, in particular, had intricate mourning rituals that fixated on memorializing the dead, which included stopping clocks at the time of a death, wearing locks of hair from the deceased, and marking one’s house with badges of mourning: closed piano lids, drawn blinds, black crepe draped on mantles. Their death rates were so high and life expectancies so short that these rituals were sacrosanct, a way of making life a prayer for the dead, and these rituals were observed and codified the way people nowadays observe and codify their morning coffee routines, as if their life depended on it. But frequency doesn’t make death any less challenging, and ritual doesn’t make it any less confusing, disgusting, or horrifying.

Death is a certainty, and the anticipation of death, or the fear of it, worms its way into how we conduct ourselves and how we love each other—every single day. Despite death’s hovering—and its inevitability and constancy and inescapability—no one has taught me how to mourn, which is the passage that the deceased leave for the living. Instead I am witness to these forms: withdrawal, shock, numbing, distraction, escape. American psychology has categorized grief as if it were a science: there is “normal grief”—grief that is “eventually lessened as a person readjusts to their loss, and “abnormal grief,” or “complicated grief,” which is then sub-divided into five categories: chronic, delayed, disenfranchised, exaggerated, and sudden. The four phases of grief are: numbness; searching and yearning; disorganization and despair; and reorganization and recovery; which are accompanied by four tasks “that need to be accomplished in order for mourning to be completed,” sterile, dry, prescriptive measures for coping with loss. It is easy to say: “work through the pain” and “emotionally relocate the decease and move on,” as if were were the machines in an assembly line that had buttons corresponding to our functions and switches we could turn on and off. And you would think that the psychologist who studied and analyzed grief and made these pronouncements would have understood, by the very complexity which he/she faced by even attempting to confront the living aftermath of death, that any easy solution, any simple categorization, any silly pronouncement at all would be not only an affront to anyone who has had to pick up all the broken glass of death, but also proof that the psychologist either never dealt with grief or was dealing with it “abnormally.” To the emotive, simplification of emotions feels like an offense. False understanding, a terrible insult.

Where is the phase of grief in which you try to make sense of it all? And making sense can be as sorrowful as it is joyful, as comforting as it is infuriating. I have no examples to follow for how to mourn, so I thrust myself into grief by investigating the sorrows of my memory, the sadnesses that have been transcribed into word, the deaths that have passed before me; I search through the archives of books and stories and music that other people have made in the wake of death. I think to myself, maybe they can guide me. They’ve done it before. Sometimes finding the ache of past tragedy, or fictional tragedy, or someone else’s tragedy, makes dealing with my own easier. It is possible, but not necessarily beneficial, to deflect heartache by mourning old losses. How strange and wonderful and morbid: to use the stale pain of the past as a salve, the way dentists apply a pasty topical anesthesia to your gums before injecting you with novocaine—the real anesthestic. Numbing yourself to lessen the pain of really numbing yourself, which I suppose makes it all the more bearable, somehow.

I read “Cold Pastoral” again, the short story published post-mortem by Yale graduate Marina Keegan (this is her post-mortem portrait, I supposed), who died in the summer of 2012 from a freak car accident. The story is eerie, given the circumstances of its publishing: a girl finds and reads the diary of her lover, who has just killed himself. The whole story is a series of ordinary moments in her life after his death, death being a pivot in the lives of the conscious, the way it saran-wraps the mundane, muffles, distorts, gnaws. Death inflicts so many other deaths; our hearts were not meant to love in absence. Claire, the protagonist of “Cold Pastoral,” must not only grapple with absence but also the insecurities and uncertainties that death reveal (through his diary, the unspoken confessions of the psyche)—they were always there, we just see them more clearly in the wake of tragedy.

I comb through old emails, finding the saddest news people have sent me. One subject line reads “Tragedy.” It is from June of 2010, an email from my dad that reads, “Joann, Richard just passed away from heart failure. Please call Taipei.” In a hotel room in Japan, I beckon my mom over to read this email—there is no way I can speak those words to her, of her brother’s death. He was found on the streets outside of a bar in Taiwan. Cardiac arrest. By the time he was brought to the hospital, it was too late. I do not have the courage to be death’s messenger. Sometimes we have no choice.

In April of 2012, a month before we graduate, an email arrives in my inbox with the subject “Sad news.” It is a “tragic passing,” reads the email, of a dear friend, who, we find out later in whispered word, hanged herself in her closet, in the middle of the night. “There was no foul play,” the email reassures, with no specifics. The vague language is supposed to be a comfort? It is insensitive to be specific about death, so we leave the grief shrouded in the box it came in, and we just carry that box around with us, unsure of what’s in it, terrified to open it, but unwilling to let it go. That weekend, I walk up and down the Charles River, bleary-eyed, swollen, mostly with confusion. I ask why, over and over again. Death is a permanent disappearing act, and don’t we all long for permanence, eternity? Two years later, I don’t know what to do with her contact information, which is still in my phone. Deleting her feels like a betrayal; keeping her feels silly, useless. Forgetting seems to be the most tragic act of all. Preserving the dead is preserving the self. We don’t want to forget, but mostly we don’t want to be forgotten.

I recently finished reading The Fault in Our Stars, a young-adult novel about two teens, who fall in love, both cancer patients, both on the uncertain precipice of death. It is poignant and complex, a book more about questions than answers. The novel also presents a meta-narrative in which the two teens travel to Amsterdam to find the sequel to their favorite book, which they can both relate to, because the book, An Imperial Affliction, is about a young girl with cancer. They want to know what happens to the characters left behind after she dies. This desperation for clarity grips them, even though the reason they like the book in the first place is because it portrays death accurately: “You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence.”And despite the sweetness of nostalgia (a side-effect of cancer they say, a side-effect of dying), Hazel says this more than once: “You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect,” a fact that horrifies me, because in the wake of grief, I think to myself, “All I have are words. At least I have words.” Throughout the book, you see so many articulations of grief: the grief that takes hold in anticipation of death, the grief that nonetheless shocks and strangles despite its anticipation, the grief that does not change you, but reveal you, says Hazel’s father. There are many ways of coping: Hazel’s mother devotes her every waking moment to her sick daughter; Hazel’s father just cries; Peter Van Houten drinks and yells. Perhaps the most courageous act of coping is also the most irreverent and least reluctant: Augustus, who has picked out his own burial spot and death suit, holds a pre-funeral funeral for himself, so he can hear the eulogies given for him. “Funerals, I decided, are for the living,” narrates Hazel. The imminence of death urges an examination of life, as do the simple and stark differences between the living and the dead: “I knew that time would not pass for me differently than it would for him—that I, like everyone in that room, would go on accumulating loves and losses while he would not. And for me, that was the final and truly unbearable tragedy: like all the innumerable dead, he’d once and for all been demoted from haunted to haunter.”

There’s an account found in the second volume of Edward Eyre’s Journal of Expeditions, in which the nineteenth century English explorer witnesses a death wail by the women of an indigenous Australian peoples called the Nar-wij-jerook tribe. In the aftermath of violence between two tribes, the women coat their heads with lime, approach the area where the deceased lay and begin wailing loudly, while lacerating themselves—their thighs, backs, and breasts—with pieces of glass and shell. Blood spills amidst these moans. The codification of grief—even if in such a horrifying and public display—is honest and unashamed; a way of accepting, not mastering death; of acknowledging, not denying grief; feeling sorrow, instead of pretending everything is ok. Senselessly throwing yourself into an unintelligible void is okay. Trying to stand still, or to be unmoved, is okay too. No matter what, death is not soluble. It does not just dissolve into nothing. It is a choke, a bone lodged in your throat, the disaster you weren’t awake for, the scream whose echoes mercilessly resound. Death is not silent. We will continue to bury bodies, but we will never bury death itself.

“They came on a cargo boat, locked in mourning up to their necks because of Bayardo San Roman’s misfortunes, and with their hair hanging loose in grief. Before stepping onto land, they took off their shoes and went barefoot through the streets up to the hilltop in the burning dust of noon, pulling out strands of hair by the roots and wailing loudly with such high-pitched shrieks that they seemed to be shouts of joy. I watched them pass from Magdalena Oliver’s balcony, and I remember thinking that distress like theirs could only be put on in order to hide other, greater shames.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Originally posted on the author’s blog.

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