Grief never ends because love never ends

Alexander Chee
Dec 14, 2018 · 6 min read
Illustration: Shira Inbar

TThe last few years, I’ve become a commuter, though I suppose I always was in some attenuated way. My current commute ranges widely. Sometimes, it is just the 25 minutes it takes me to drive from my apartment in Vermont to my classroom in New Hampshire and back again. As my husband still works in New York, sometimes it is the five hours I travel to him, on the bus. And then I have been traveling more than ever, touring for my new book, and teaching writing in far flung places, either exotic or mundane — Florence, Italy or Portland, Oregon, for example — and everywhere I go, I take my tiny suitcase that rolls and a shoulder bag balanced on top of it. I usually carry too many things and my knees are paying the price.

What I describe, though, started after the election. I would be simply going along with my day, and then I would just stop. I would usually be listening to the news on the radio, or looking at tweets after turning off the ignition in my car. I would find myself just sitting there, unable to commute any further. A tiredness so deep I could scarcely believe it.

Who do you think is going to carry you, I began to tease myself. For months, I wondered why, but then one night this fall, I had a memory of when I would be tired but not quite asleep at the end of a car trip, and I would pretend to be asleep so my father would carry me out of the car and into the house. I enjoyed it so much, the silent tender contact. It was my dad I was waiting for, gone these 38 years, and me, still being the boy wishing for him to show up and carry me to bed.

I was surprised to find myself caught in old grief because I had, have, so much new grief, still unmet. Losses going back over the last few years, people I feel I have not had time to mourn. The friend who died the night of the election, thinking Hillary Clinton would be president, or the friend who succumbed to his addiction, at last — I had once helped him through a night like the one he didn’t survive. Or the family member who took his life, feeling as if the god he’d prayed to his whole life had stopped speaking to him. This isn’t even all of them, and it isn’t even all I need to grieve.

I always knew those in power would rather kill the world than share power or give it up but it is still stark to recall the dead: those who died in Puerto Rico, their survivors still waiting for help; the migrant children separated at the border from their parents, made to travel in Halloween masks to disguise them, representing themselves in court as young as two years old, dying without medical care after sleeping in cages, and their families killed on their return by those they fled. They weren’t exaggerating about fleeing for their lives. The veterans who have taken their own lives, at home now, and outnumbering those fallen in a war that has lasted longer than some of their lives, and those they were sent to kill. There’s the research for an AIDS cure, entirely halted by the government last week because it uses fetal tissue. There’s the Yemeni genocide victims, the Myanmar genocide victims, and the Syrian ones. And there’s a horrific repetitiveness to it all, as if it all comes out of the same kit of evil, passed around between governments, and glimpsed at when I read about the authoritarians in other countries and sometimes, for a moment, think I’m reading the news about the ones here at home.

“I am trying to save my ability to respond,” a friend said the other day at lunch. She was explaining her own reluctance to do more than read headlines. I wondered if that was even what had happened to me. I wondered if being unable to read the news was already an inability to respond. I didn’t say anything, though, because for some people, staying alive is their form of resistance, and it has to be enough, even as we have to do more. But I have recently concluded: I save my ability to respond by responding.

How are you doing, people ask me, and for the last few years I’ll say, I feel like a bowling ball in the wind. Or as one friend observed, after I said this, a hurricane. I feel like a stone skipping across an ocean of grief that is also me. I used to love taking pictures of the clouds, for example, but I don’t as much anymore, increasingly certain that their size and splendor is the result of the evaporating ice at the poles. I am still haunted by the morning in 2007 when I woke to find it 50 degrees in late December in Massachusetts, and averted my eyes at the weak new mosquitoes plastered to the humid walls and door of my apartment’s foyer. They, like me, were certain something was increasingly wrong.

I have a friend who posts a lot about crying. It has at times annoyed or even enraged me but I tried hard not to react, aware the size of my reaction meant it was my problem — something about it threatened me. I want to stop and cry, I want someone else to carry me upstairs, I want time I don’t have and a person who won’t return, and meanwhile there is me, and this country I live in, a country I would never have agreed to move to.

How do you grieve, then? When there’s no time, when climate departure is as close as 12 years away, and the only thing scientists have been wrong about, thus far, is that the disaster is closer, not further, than we’d thought. How do you grieve, when all the energy you have is devoted to keeping you standing upright? We have our ceremonies for the dead, this I know. My friend who died on election night, she had once given me a set of salts — salt enough for years. She gave them to me in 2011, and a few months ago, I found myself at the bottom of what I thought was the end. But it wasn’t. I had the impulse to hold on to the salt, to not use it. A tear crept into my eye to find myself so close to this end and missing her. And so I have been thinking about the idea of grief — the word — as inadequate. Maybe what I need is not to lose myself in grief but to find myself in grieving, to live in the verb of it: grieve. To admit my grieving into my life, so I can grieve and live and keep those I’ve lost alongside those still here, even as I go forward into each new day.

I write this on the night I am off to celebrate the last novel of a friend who died the year before. This novel is a little like that salt — I didn’t know he had one more book to give us until it came in the mail. I think the dead always find their way back to us somehow, just never the way we expect. Maybe the only answer I need for now is to just keep moving forward, whether with tears or smiles, and to keep giving what I have and letting the future decide how it arrives, and to whom. Maybe that’s all we can do. All I know is that grief never ends because love never ends. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

Alexander Chee

Written by

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

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