Sometimes death reminds me of language. As soon as I learn a new word it suddenly pops up in conversation, in a book, or on my favorite show; it’s literally everywhere. Death feels like that. A friend takes their own life and suddenly the headlines are all about suicide, plot lines follow a suicide, people I barely know die by suicide.
Or is death always there? Have people always been using that word and have dozens of people taken their own lives and I just didn’t notice?
We understand death for the first time
when he puts his hand upon one whom we love.
~Madame de Stael
A suicide in August, another in September, and then this month a death that rocked me, followed by another that came without fanfare. The aftermath of these deaths, and actually any death, is confusing. How do we grieve? Do we grieve? Who has the right to grieve? Who decides? None of these answers are clear to me, the only thing I truly know is that the grief I felt for each of these deaths tore through me with a serrated blade, no sooner would I think that I had slogged through the worst of the confusion and despair then the blade would pull through in the other direction. Trying to give into it felt selfish, but trying to suppress it was futile.
A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.
~Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
I tried logging off my computer to keep from seeing more reflections about the person, even though I was grateful for the memories, each one seemed to pull the wound open again. Later came speculation, which made me angry. How dare they? Which, of course, how dare I, right? We each get to do this and some may find solace in questing to place blame somewhere, even if it did seem like spitting on a grave to me.
For me, three babies were brought into the world by his hands, but only after he had seen me through the highs and lows of pregnancy. He listened to me, laughed with me, furrowed his brow, cocked his head and asked me what I wanted. He shook Sean’s hand, he kissed my cheek, he sewed me up, he told me I did beautifully, and he waved hello in passing.
None of the stories are ours alone, nor do the losses belong exclusively to anyone. Every death is a shape-changing plume that blows through more houses than any of us know. How many lives do we touch? How many touch ours? How do we balance the keen slice of loss with the relatively minor role in a life? Or can we honor the pain that comes as genuine? Can loving an addict mean that the loss of any addict grazes that heart? Does the distance of celebrity make the mourning of that person any less significant?
Grieving is messy business. I think you rarely grieve for only one person. Saying a permanent goodbye to someone you’ve known and loved triggers a memory of all the others you’ve lost. It’s like they’re all called out on the stage again, taking their place in line, holding hands, the full cast of the beloved, stepping forward for their encore bows a second, third, and fourth time. Side by side, the line splits in the center to make space for the newly departed, and together dipping their heads, skipping forward, their farewell bows perfectly synchronized. There you are in the audience, clutching a tissue and fighting back tears for each and every one of them, all over again.
This morning Maggie’s post reminded me again of the unpredictable and inescapable journey of loss. You can duck and weave to no end. It will seep into your being like woodsmoke, thick in each breath but invisible, and with it will come memories and emotions beyond your control.
The leaves of memory seemed to make
A mournful rustling in the dark.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Wherever you are, whoever you are mourning, wishing you time and space to remember and to heal.