Last Sunday in New York, the afternoon was cool and gray, damp from the rain and suitable for a siesta. I had just returned from a whirlwind of travels and still had heavy bones and a cloudy head from jet lag. But I dragged myself from my apartment at the 92NY cultural center on the Upper East Side to listen to a public conversation about grief between two writers, Chimamanda Adichie and Zain Asher, who had written books about the experience of losing their dad. The auditorium was full and I saw a motley group of men and women enter the room and take their seats.
It was not surprising for me that such a subject could attract so many people. Everyone, at some point in their life, will lose someone and experience grief firsthand. There will be the phone call, or the reading of the doctor’s face before she even speaks, or the deep silence weeks and months after the visits stop; the sight of the empty bed, the empty chair, the old text messages or photos. We will lose a parent, or a child, a brother or a sister, or a spouse, a partner, a friend, a favorite aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a colleague, a queen.
And each of us will make it a unique experience. Even those who are required to share their grief publicly must also find ways to bear it privately.
Grief, unfortunately, is still a relevant topic, because somewhere someone still deals with death and its consequences. It’s a hard thing to talk about or write about, mainly because it’s a hard thing to learn to live with. There are no rules for grief, and yet we treat it like it has a timeline and an instruction manual, often shaming ourselves and others for not adhering to these societal norms. imaginary and false.
It’s no surprise that there are many works of art that depict pain. Some more striking than others, like Van Gogh’s 1890 painting “At Eternity’s Gate,” or Howardena Pindell’s 1988 collage work, “Autobiography: Water/Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts.” But it’s Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “Death in the Sick Room” that I keep thinking about because it suggests both the isolation of mourning, even when shared by a community, and the fact that grief is handled differently by everyone. The painting shows how Munch’s family dealt with the death of his older sister, Sophie.
Turned away from the viewer, Sophie is shown seated on a chair facing an empty bed. Supposedly according to Munch, this was her last request, to sit on the chair, where she died. The other six family members are all dressed in navy blue, a dark uniform uniting them in this shared experience. But they are turned away from each other, each seemingly lost in their own world. One of the most painful aspects of grief is its ability to isolate you from everyone and everything else. As if death has not only taken away your loved one, but also imprisoned you in a grief that can seem impenetrable even to those who mourn beside you.
Although it was painted well 75 years before Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross devised her original Five Stages of Grieving, Munch’s painting is reminiscent of her work. The bearded old man praying in front of the child, and the woman with one hand on Sophie’s chair and an outstretched hand, could symbolize denial or bargaining. The red-faced man near the cracked door to the left of the web could be angry. The young man at the foot of the bed facing the chair and the couple seems helpless, just watching, perhaps still in shock. The girl sitting in the foreground with her head down could be depression. The young woman standing facing forward, with her back to the stage, could be an acceptance.
Anger, depression, helpless paralysis can all exist simultaneously in a person. There is no scenic order to mourning. Grief can split us into multiple selves, some of which may even be hard to recognize. And yet, just as we see all these different people in the room of the painting dealing with death and mourning in their own particular way, it almost seems like an invitation for the viewer to learn to be present without judgment to all the varied and unpredictable events. ways we have to do it.
It’s been almost 20 years since I lost my own father. And yet, before the event at 92NY, when I tried to read Adichie’s slim book Notes on bereavement, I couldn’t get past page 12 before I felt like a heavy weight was dropping into my stomach, my breath was shortening and my heart was racing, and I could feel tears starting to form. I was upset not for his own loss, but still for mine. I had to put the book away.
I think when deep grief comes, it just marries you, for better or for worse, and you end up figuring out how to live together. Grief walks with each of us in unique and unpredictable ways, creeping into our lives without invitation and changing things without asking. But it’s something we’ve all been through or are all going to be through.
I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that grief can have a silver lining, even if it could somehow lead some of us to live more generously, honestly, selflessly, or with compassion. Those things are good, yes, but I don’t think grief in and of itself is a good thing to experience. I think that’s just part of the challenge of being human and one of the costs of the beautiful capacity to love. But I think you have to recognize it and live it. And I wonder if the more we can practice naming out loud the boldness, the relentlessness and the undisciplinedness of grief, the more we might be able to bear together and imagine together something beyond the painful ways of which he can plunder us so much.
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