About a year ago, I wrote my first Attentive Body blog post: an article about how to handle getting whacked by life. A few days after I completed it, my mother died. And suddenly my post seemed very tame.
Its message is still valid; it was perhaps just a little neater than life actually is. Now I want to write the messy version. Because lately, death seems unusually present, both in the headlines and in the lives of the people around me. (Of course this is an illusion. Death never stops – it just hits more or less close to home.) So this is for the people who have lost their companions, friends, parents, children; for the people missing David Bowie and Harper Lee, Michel Delpech and Pierre Boulez, Lemmy and Alan Rickman; for anyone in mourning who may consciously or unconsciously believe there is a proper way to do it. Pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself, and beware the grief police.
In the days, weeks, and months following my mother’s death, I tried to take my own advice about riding the punch and staying in the uncomfortable place. But I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be to let myself feel ugly, tired, heavy, lost. My needs and emotions warped and ricocheted daily, sometimes hourly. I debated whether I should be active (don’t wallow!) or give in to more minimalist desires (no food, just sleep please). Was it improper to go to work? Was it ok to talk about it with people? How much? Even with my colleagues who, like me, are trained in the art of letting the body do what it needs to do and living whatever the moment presents – even with them I felt myself tempering my replies, as though saying the “wrong thing” would mean I had fundamentally misunderstood something about my profession. I hedged. I developed a few phrases that I repeated. “It’s intense,” I would say. “But I’m ok.” I was not ok, but how many times can you say it? How long is it ok to not be ok?
In those confused spring months I read Joan Didion, unwitting goddess of grief, whose guileless descriptions of her own losses resonated with my experience. The attempt to make sense of it, to fathom the unfathomable: that you will never see this person again, that whatever was not resolved with them never will be, that whatever you live from now on will be lived without them. And: the waves coming up from my feet, the pinching in the lower part of my lungs that made it difficult to breathe, the pressure like a stone in my throat, heat and water in my eyes.
“Society polices grief,” writes bereavement scholar Dennis Klass in the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, of which I also read a good deal. “It controls and instructs the bereaved about how to think, feel, and behave. All societies have rules about how the emotions of grief are to be displayed and handled.” On top of the actual grief, there are expectations about grieving, most of them cultural or religious. How would I be expected to mourn my mother?
In Bali I should swallow my tears.
In Egypt I should weep long and loud.
In Japan I should buck up and not make anyone uncomfortable.
In China I should hire someone to wail.
In Tibet I should chant every day for 49 days and look for a lotus in her ashes.
Among the Maorie I should stay close to her cold body and speak to her.
In New Jersey I should wear black and look at her body as it lay in a box and take a long slow drive to the cemetery where I would pick my way carefully among the ice and mud to lay a flower against her grave as if in a dream. Then in the Lighthouse Restaurant on Broadway I should eat food without an appetite and drink wine and raise a glass with my relatives as they share their memories of her.
Being from New Jersey, this is exactly what I did.
Then one day, in the shower, I was once again contemplating the do’s and don’ts of grieving, when I noticed that I’d gone into the bubble of my thoughts and had not been feeling the water on my skin. I suddenly saw this thing of “how to grieve,” and it made me angry. So I stopped. I let go of everything I was squeezing. I breathed. I cried. And I got even angrier, and the anger pulsed up in a great rush and relief: there was no proper way to grieve, and therefore no improper one. I could collect and compare other people’s experiences, but to use them as some kind of yardstick was a big mistake. There is no yardstick for grief, nor measure, no compass but one’s own.
Death left me standing in the shower breathing deeply and saying, I can react however the fuck I want.
And the second thought, perhaps an obvious one, was, Why wait for death to do whatever the fuck you want?
We do so much to ignore it. But facing death – the pain of someone else’s, and the fear of your own – can lead to the greatest freedom. Death is your Get Out of Jail Free card. Because until it happens to you, you still have a chance to live, to look at what you’ve done and who you’ve been, and to not waste the time you have left. Don’t turn away, as Rumi says: “Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”