By some strange coincidence, in the six months preceding my aunt’s death I worked my way through three seminal grief narratives. I have half-joked to friends that I was studying up without knowing it, in preparation for what was to come.
But there really is no preparing. The best thing the grief narratives have done is give me a sense of the unpredictability of the whole process. I have, in these stories, a sort of map and guide for this often confusing, non-linear process, and I am recognizing parts of myself in women I’ve never met, whose stories of loss do not mirror mine in any obvious way.
In Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala describes in vivid detail how her loved ones seemed to grow closer as time passed, rather than fading, as almost all narratives of grief suggest. One month in, I am not sure yet if my aunt will begin to fade from me. What I do know is that her death is fading. Upon first hearing of the loss of someone you love, you are flooded with the details of their death: when, how, was there pain, for how long, where are they now. That’s not gone; I still have questions about these things, and my mind still cannot accept that the woman I saw happy, healthy and dancing at our wedding in December could’ve suffered so much that her body could’ve given in so completely in seven short months.
But that isn’t what occupies most of my time. I spend most of time remembering her life, calling to memory the textures and contours of who she was to me. I want to talk to others who loved her and understand who she was to them. I want to take these fragments of knowledge and piece together a whole, a complete picture, one I wasn’t able to see when she was alive.
Joan Didion chronicles the loss of her daughter (a very short time after the loss of her husband) in Blue Nights. Critics bemoaned what they read as a lack of focus in this book, particularly in comparison with the clarity of The Year of Magical Thinking, which detailed the year following her husband’s death.
Blue Nights meanders and doesn’t focus on the subjects readers might expect. Instead of dwelling on the circumstances of her daughter’s death (as upsetting as they are), Didion shares the story of a person who, having lost more than most in a short space of time, is coming face to face with the raw and deep fact of their own mortality. We’re all going to die; we all know that. But losing someone who’s been a part of your story, and of your understanding of who you are, brings a visceral understanding of that.
My mother is one of four sisters. She said to me that she is having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that there are now three. “Three doesn’t sound right to me,” she said. “It’s not like there is now one person who is gone. It’s a gap like I can’t describe.” There were four sisters. This is who my mom is. Now there are three. There will one day be none. I consider that fact, turn it over in my head. I have a brother and sister. There are three of us. Will my brother one day say that he has only one sister? Will my sister say she has only a brother?
Of course, Blue Nights could not have been a complete linear account of the death of her daughter. When Didion lost her child, she lost her entire family, the parts that make up her story. Who is she now? Who will she be without the unit, and when she is gone, what will remain of her, of all of them?
For all of our interpretations of the self as the soul, when it comes down to it, our lives are overwhelmingly physical. Our struggle with mortality in the face of a loved one’s death is indicative of our very limited grasp of the self without the body, without the usual indicators of life. If there’s no there there, then what remains?
Like Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, I have found myself indulging in some fanciful cognitive tricks and twists to try to explain my aunt’s absence and keep her with me. I’ve imagined my aunt’s spirit and presence in countless banal ways: the weird gust of wind, the odd door that slams without any apparent force. It’s all embarrassingly textbook and not creative. But I know that my framework is limited by my understanding of the self, the there that is now there in ways that I can understand.
A friend who is much wiser than me explained that she doesn’t imagine heaven as an actual place but rather as the person taking up residence in your heart forever. It means letting go of any illusion that the person you knew was ever in existence independent from your interpretation of them.
In life, we see people as they are, but that is often not easily separated from who we are. In death, when nothing else remains, all that is left is our vision of the deceased. This is what I’m coming to understand as ‘the soul’ or ‘the spirit’: the state when there is nothing between you, who you see, and how you see them.
My aunt and I hadn’t been close in a long while. There was no acrimony, just the effects of living in separate countries and my growing up away from her. In what I saw as a life cobbled together from two culture and countries, she was in the background, and I didn’t spend a great deal of time contemplating our relationship. Now it’s all I do. Can I retrace those steps and reclaim her as my own? Can I claim that she in my heart now, even after I didn’t bother to claim her when she was still here in ways I could fully understand?
Oh, god, the guilt. The horrible, relentless guilt. I am laid bare by it, I am destroyed by it. I tell people about my aunt and I find a defensiveness creeping in. I rush too quickly to explain why I am so destroyed by the death of an aunt I barely spoke to in the last seven to eight years. What do my tears offer her now that a phone call or a text message could not have offered her in life? What good am I doing her with my weeping and caterwauling?
I return to Didion once again. Blue Nights is, in part, a meditation on the nature of family, and the identity of her daughter, who was adopted. At some point in her life, her daughter encountered her birth parents, and her siblings. It was an encounter that brought more questions than it did answers for both mother and daughter. Did Quintana belong more with the people with whom she obviously shared genetics, or did she belong with the parents she’d known all her life, whose world she tried to belong in, even though it held very few places for a child?
Until my aunt died, I had taken it as a given, as a foundational principle about myself, that I was nothing like my family. I love them. I always have, I always will. But, like all loves, it is not without its share of pain and ambivalence. I am not sure where I thought I belonged instead, but I know I didn’t feel I belonged with them. My aunt’s death has called into question that arrogant certainty. I am the sum of more parts than I know, whether or not I choose to acknowledge them. And having lost someone crucial to the sum, I feel compelled to ask what I could’ve done to honor this truth when she was still here.
“Was I terrible niece?” I ask my husband, “Did my aunt know I loved her?” It would not have made a material difference to the facts of her death if I had picked up the phone to say hi every once in a while. It will not bring her back now to wish I had done this. But I know on some level, it would’ve meant something to her. There’s no explaining away that truth and the attendant guilt.
I think the heart of Blue Nights for me is that these questions – about whether or not you did enough to honor the importance of your family member while they were still here, about whether or not you were clear that you belonged to them and they to you – are questions that can’t be answered but that you will be wrestling with until you yourself are gone. That is grief.
Just before my aunt died, I’d started reading Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World. In it, Rapp describes learning that her infant son, Ronan (or Zoat, as they affectionately call him) is going to die of Tay-Sachs, the genetic disease. I keep returning gingerly to this book. The other day, my mom started to talk to me about my aunt’s HIV status and how she dealt with it. She was in denial, it seems. She didn’t want to tell anyone, especially not her sisters and her children. As much as I am no longer stuck in the circumstances of her death, I am still, in many ways, stuck trying to understand the meaning of the illness that took her away. It was not something I dwelled on when she was alive. I never asked her or my mother or my cousins what it was like for her to live with this diagnosis.
“She didn’t want to be sick with that,” my mom told me. Of course. In as much as we now know that HIV does not necessarily equal death, it is still scary to live with it. Much like Rapp describes, the diagnosis takes up residence in your life in a way that those who don’t know can’t know. And it changes the way you look at and experience time.
Tied in with my feelings of guilt are my feelings of regret that I couldn’t have offered more support to my aunt so she didn’t feel like she had to live with this on her own. To really live with an illness like that means more than just the mechanics of being alive. Those around you have a responsibility to understand it and create a world for you where the diagnosis is a part of all of their lives as well as yours, and time has changed for us all and not just for you.
Did my aunt have that? I can’t ask my mom. She has lost her baby sister and she is grieving in her own way. I don’t want to impose my grief on her on top of everything else. Frankly, I am afraid of the answer. The little my mother has said about it so far is enough to tell me.
As I work my way through Rapp (sometimes, I am engrossed, I can barely put it down, other times, I am crying so hard my chest hurts and I just can’t read another word), I am learning: this is how illness becomes a part of the story, a part of your story, this is how you make it ok, even when death is now foreseeable.
“Grief,” Didion writes, “turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” That is the first truth I returned to after my aunt died. Six months after I’d read through Wave, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, I must admit I thought I knew. I thought I was ready. Didion was right. I didn’t, I wasn’t. But the irony is that these narratives, these maps carefully and beautifully put together by women who’ve gone before, help me feel less lost.
Both Rapp and Deraniyagala touch on the importance of the story: we survive, we remain so we can tell the story of what we’ve lost, who we’ve lost. The story matters for the way it honors those we’ve lost, and the way it tells those of us who will someday lose loved ones that no matter how singular and lonely the pain is, we really aren’t alone.
So I’ll keep reading. And writing. In this way I can say that my aunt’s life mattered, that she was loved. I didn’t do enough to tell her that while she was here, but charting this loss, mapping out the void that exists where she once did, goes some way towards revering who she was in the world. By plotting out my own grief narrative, I am taking the moments I failed to take when my aunt was here to show how much she means to me.