“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” claims Elizabeth Bishop in her famous poem One Art.
What she quietly neglects to share is that there are no prizes for the mastery of grief and loss. I once heard someone describe Joan Didion, one of my favorite authors, as “the high priestess of grief.” I remember thinking to myself, “what a dubious title! Would anyone really want that ‘honor?'” And after developing my own little corner of expertise in the art of loss, I have learned that having mastered the art of loss, in the ways that would inspire Bishop to write poems about, still leaves one entirely naked in the face of it. There is no excellence in grief. All that the mastery of grief affords you is a recognition that you have been here before. You recognize this space. Its rhythms feel familiar to you, but that familiarity does not shelter you from their impact.
In the ears of some, ‘grief’ is a term of art that exclusively refers to death. Yet, as my community navigates the effects of the symptoms of loss, I wonder whether grief might be a relevant concept for non-fatal losses too: the loss of a job, a cherished relationship, a dream, a particular vision of life. Or even to that memory of loss that still strikes years after the funeral, after the initial cycle of grief is complete and you have walked along the path to healing. And if one were to embrace this expanded conception of grief, then my world is aching with loss right now.
That is one of my newest lessons in grief: It comes in patterns. I’m not sure if we construct these patterns out of a need to make sense of the non-sensical, or if experiencing loss prompts us to be more aware of the losses others have suffered, but it feels as though we are hurting collectively right now… as a community, nursing everything from funerals to broken feet and broken hearts. We are wobbling alongside each other as we move slowly from numbness to anger to acceptance — to the rest of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ typology of grief. Perhaps we make up typologies because we feel a need for them — we need the reassurance that “this” is intelligible, that someone else has been through it, and that there are recognizable stages that we will, almost inevitably, move through — that there is a logic to this madness that appears non-linear and our experience, too, falls within it.
I try to recall the last non-aching memory, the last time I was standing on two feet and nothing hurt, the last time my world felt at balance and at peace. I know it was not too long ago, and yet I cannot picture it. Pain makes it hard to remember there ever was a period without it.
We revert to our earlier wounded selves when grieving. I had to learn lessons of loss at a very young age, and then again really learn them during my senior year of college. They are crystallized in a single memory: Me sitting on top of a washing machine in the basement of Adams House. In the washer were the clothes I was going to pack for the funeral and across from it, against a dryer, was my friend Cooper, silent, not uttering what all of us were thinking then: Why is this happening again? How much loss can one life sustain? It has been years since that moment. The funeral came and went, I graduated, I moved to Washington DC for a brief second, I moved to Egypt, and then Uganda, and then Sudan, and then Colombia, and then and then and then, and somewhere along the lines I learned that life can sustain a lot of loss. Just as we might think we have run out of resilience, we stumble upon a depository of strength of whose existence we were previously unaware. We carry on, and there is an exhilaration that kicks in — a sheer exhilaration to be able to pull ourselves out of bed and face the world another day.Since that moment atop the washer in the basement of Adams, there have been moments of healing and moments of grief– mine, that of others, the memory of grief, new losses.
Every time, every single time loss pays me a visit, I revert to that girl. I become my 20-year-old self, sitting on top of scrunched up dryer sheets in a room too hot and too humid, bracing herself for impact.The numbness sets in soon after. There is an unexpected mental clarity to loss, propelled forward by the inability to generate any more emotion. As I cycle through those motions again, I do it with the confidence that I have been here before, on top of the washer. I am no stranger to the numbness. I sit atop the washer in my head now, confident that the feelings will come again.
Even when surrounded by conflict practitioners who reflect on loss of human life on a regular basis, I realize that we do not quite know how to talk about grief. We do not know how to sit with the discomfort of someone else’s helplessness or tears. At times in the past month, I have felt an unreasonable–and entirely self-imposed–responsibility to reassure everyone who seeks to help that I am okay. I find myself comforting those who wish to comfort me. Every time I tell the story of ‘what happened’, I feel its weight on me. As a researcher and humanitarian practitioner in conflict areas, I have read countless books on the retraumatization that may occur when victims or survivors of violence recount stories of trauma. My circumstances are different and so is the scale of my pain, but I feel compelled to print T-shirts to save myself yet another retelling of the story. It does not feel fair to me to expect others to magically intuit what kind of compassionate care would resonate with me in my moments of pain and grief — so I am trying to articulate my needs and it boils down to this: I need to feel whole. I need to feel agency, in moments when seemingly, in the face of the universe’s sense of humor, I have none. I need that semblance of normalcy.
I am, at heart, an unbridled optimist, but I have no sunniness to supply at the moment.
Fundamentally, this has been a time of reflecting on permission: giving myself permission to say I am not okay when asked, to share that which hurts instead of the reassurance that it will not hurt a month or a year from now.
My instinct is to feel guilty — guilty for absorbing so much of this world’s goodness, for not being able to immediately reciprocate these massive feats of kindness. And, in the same breath, I try to quieten the guilt and replace it with gratitude.
These are my lessons: We have no obligation to be graceful in grief or patient with pain. We may forget what comfort and stability felt like, what anticipation looks like, what mindful presence really is — because that is how grief functions: it erases our ability to experience an array of emotions, it rearranges our internal worlds into an incoherent narrative. We may not be able to muster optimism. We may feel a need to comfort those who seek to comfort us. We may bump up against our own limits, physical and emotional, in ways that invite endless frustration. But the biggest lesson of them all has been this: to shed the guilt, to let the gratitude inspire humility, to let love flood everything.