There’s nothing new to say about grief. I’m convinced that it’s all been said in every way possible. And yet we live in a time of inescapable grief.
Two weeks ago, my beloved aunt unexpectedly passed away. Last Saturday, I attended her funeral. I took a train down, thirteen hours to Raleigh. When my mother called to tell me that her sister was dying, her voice sounded hollow. She stuck to the medical facts of the matter. She said had waited so long to tell me because she didn’t know how. When I cried, she said she didn’t want me to be upset.
I’ve turned to adrienne maree brown’s “Letting Go: Wisdom from Our Grief” for comfort more times than I can count. They describe these past two years as “grief on grief, on top of grief, filled with grief, shaped by grief, held by grieving people”—and this was before Buffalo, and before Alito’s draft opinion, and before the next new wave of COVID and uncountable other grief-making tragedies. “We know we must get good at grief,” brown says, “because change—both the kind we want and the kind we dread—requires a letting go.”
In Charles Yu’s sci-fi short story “Standard Loneliness Package,” the rich buy their way out of grief. For a few hundred dollars, the wealthy can have someone else take over their consciousness for a little while so that they don’t have to go through a funeral, or a deathbed visit, or a break-up. A grandfather on his deathbed looks into the eyes of his grandson, only he is actually looking into the eyes of a minimum wage worker in the new age equivalent of a call center.
Indeed, grief often requires professional help. The art of professional mourning is called moirologia. Since ancient times, moirologists from cultures all over the globe have guided loved ones through their grief, giving voice to a pain that is difficult to express. In Mani, Greece, where professional mourners have played a role in the funeral ceremonies of residents since ancient times, grieving women stand, alongside the closest female relative of the deceased, and wail, unceasingly, in turn, as they tell the deceased’s life story.
Around the world, professional mourning traditions vary, from singing to chanting to playing instruments. In her project, “Laments from Quarantine,” artist Taryn Simon describes each professional mourning ritual as “a cacophony.” A professional mourner from Venezuela sits with a striped cloth hood over her face, intermittently crying and chanting. A Yazidi man in France plays the flute and sings. A man from Chongqing, China, sings along to a prerecorded instrumental track, and two women from Azerbaijan chant and rhythmically clap their hands against their thighs. They all discuss the difficulties the pandemic has presented in properly mourning.
Similarly, in her essay, “Notes on Grief,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, notes, as she explores her grief over her father’s death, how the morgue in her hometown and other places filled up because things couldn’t be done properly during the pandemic. Her brother had to bribe the mortuary every week to ensure that their father’s body would be kept well-preserved until the funeral could finally take place.
I dislike the term “celebration of life.” The dead may celebrate, but we have no reason to do so. To grieve someone is to honor them by your sorrow. We instinctively try to overcome or suppress or move on from grief, but it is easier to sit with it when you think of it as a responsibility, something owed to your loved one. In Mani, a moment of silence, absent wailing or storytelling amid the day-long ritual, is considered a bad omen for the dead.
The first thing I thought about when my mother told me my aunt was dying was a picture I took of her at Christmas dinner in 2019. She was wearing a purple satin blouse, her hair in tight curls almost to her shoulders, holding a fan of playing cards in her hand, as she stared stoically at the camera. I remember how perfect the shot was, how regal she looked. I remember thinking about framing it and sending it to her, about photoshopping it to make it look like a painting. But at some point, I forgot that I had even taken it, and now I can’t find it at all.
This isn’t an admonition to hug your loved ones while you still can, or to call your mom more, or to stop putting off that thing you wanted to do or say. There will always be one more thing you never got around to.
What Yu’s story fails to consider is that grief is not an event you can plan for. You can’t predict when you will feel it. You might feel nothing at the funeral and be overwhelmed the next day. Maybe months down the line you look at something purple, your aunt’s favorite color, and break down in the middle of a Michael’s.
When you’re young, grief is tangible. You can quantify exactly what you’re losing. I was three when my grandfather died and I remember, him sitting in his usual chair, with tubes crisscrossed all over him, an IV, an oxygen tank, and perhaps more. When my parents told me I couldn’t sit on his lap, I was inconsolable. I had an inkling then, or perhaps later, in the memory of it, of permanence—that I would never sit in his lap again.
Growing up, a funeral was, perhaps, the most reliable way to see my family members. My grandfather had six brothers and sisters. My grandmother had two brothers. My mother had, in addition to her own mother, many surrogate mothers, and aunts. I went to so many funerals during my preteen years that, once, while my mother was taking my friend and me on a Spring Break college tour, we ended up having to stop by my great uncle’s funeral on the way.
I never really knew these people. I observed the sadness of others and felt guilty that I did not feel more. My grief was limited to the knowledge that I had never known them and would never have the chance to. I was never prepared then for what I would feel now. Three decades is a long time to know someone. Even if you only see them occasionally, they’re a permanent fixture in your life. In their absence, the world is diminished.
The curse of adulthood is the illusion of permanence. As one TikToker puts it, we constantly forget we are tethered to time. Every loss is a brutal reminder of future losses, of more and even more unbearable grief. My mother still remembers when my aunt, twelve years her senior, used to pick her up when she was just a baby and dance with her. ”My family lives into their eighties and nineties,” she keeps saying. She has five other siblings. Grief begets grief.
What I’ve lost: a second mother, the best bid whist partner, the keeper of our family stories, an infinite number of possible futures in which I finally pick up the phone and call as often as I should.
They say the last sense to go is hearing. I came down just before Mother’s Day to see my aunt before she passed. She lay in a hospital bed, turned on her side, eyes vacant, arms tucked beneath her pillow. My mother asked me what I wanted to say. I told her about my life in New York, that I was happy, and that I loved her. But I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t want to say anything that would force either of us to confront a reality that didn’t yet exist. Not I’ll miss you. As we left, I had to resist saying, “I’ll see you soon.”
It’s hard to process my aunt’s passing even now because, since I’ve been an adult, we’ve been separated by a thousand miles and, yet, she’s always been just a phone call away. Of course, this is true for most of the people we love. Unless we share a household or a workplace, we think about each other far more than we see each other. Once a week, once a month, once a year.
The people we love live mostly in our minds, and in my mind, my aunt is still there, sitting at her dining room table in her purple dress, shuffling the deck of cards, and I am on the other side of the door, ready to walk in, arms open.