Last Sunday in New York, the afternoon was cool and grey, damp from rain and perfect for napping. I had just returned from a whirlwind of travel and was still heavy-boned and hazy-headed with jet lag. But I dragged myself from my apartment to the 92NY cultural centre 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 fathers. The auditorium was full, and I watched as a diverse group of men and women sauntered into the room and took their seats.
It wasn’t surprising to me that such a topic could lure so many people. Everyone, at some point in life, will lose someone and experience grief first-hand. There will be the phone call, or the reading of the doctor’s face before she even speaks, or the deep silence in the weeks and months after the visits stop; the sight of the empty bed, the empty chair, the old text messages or photographs. We will lose a parent, or a child, a sibling, or a spouse, a partner, a friend, a favourite aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a colleague, a Queen.
And every one of us will have our own unique experience of it. Even those required to share their grief publicly must also find ways to endure it privately.
Grief, unfortunately, is always a relevant topic, because somewhere someone is always reckoning with death and its aftermath. It is a hard thing to talk or write about, primarily because it is a hard thing with which to learn to live. There are no rules to grief, and yet we treat it as though it has a timetable and an instruction manual, often shaming ourselves and others for not adhering to these imaginary and false societal standards.
It is no surprise that there are many works of art that depict sorrow. Some more striking than others, such as the 1890 painting “At Eternity’s Gate” by Van Gogh, or Howardena Pindell’s 1988 collage work, “Autobiography: Water/Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts”. But it is Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “Death in the Sickroom” that I keep thinking of because of how it suggests both the isolation of grief even when shared by a community, and the fact that grief is processed 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 depicted sitting in a chair facing an empty bed. Supposedly according to Munch, it was her last request, to sit in the chair, where she died. The six other family members are all dressed in navy blue, a sombre uniform unifying them in this shared experience. But they are turned away from one another, 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 though death has not only taken the loved one, but has also imprisoned you in a sorrow that can feel impenetrable, even by those who grieve alongside you.
Though painted a good 75 years before Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross devised her original five stages of grief, Munch’s painting brings her work to mind. The old bearded man praying before the child, and the woman with one hand on Sophie’s chair and one hand extended out, could be symbolic of denial or bargaining. The red-faced man by the cracked door on the left of the canvas could be anger. The young man at the foot of the bed facing the chair and the couple appears helpless, just watching, perhaps still in shock. The seated girl in the foreground with her head hung low could be depression. The young woman standing facing forward, her back to the scene, could be acceptance.
The anger, the depression, the helpless paralysis, can all exist in a person simultaneously. There is no staged order to mourning. Grief can split us into multiple selves, some of which we may struggle to even recognise. And yet, just as we get to view all these different people in the room of the painting processing death, and grieving in their particular ways, it almost seems an invitation to the viewer to learn to be present without judgment to all the varied and unpredictable ways we have of doing this.
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 Grief, I could not get past page 12 before it felt like a heavy weight were dropping into my stomach, my breath shortening, and my heart quickening, and I could feel tears starting to form. I was overcome not for her own loss, but still for mine. I had to put the book away.
I think when deep grief comes, it simply weds itself to you, for better or for worse, and you figure out eventually how to live together. Grief journeys with each of us uniquely and unpredictably, moving into our lives without invitation, and shifting things without asking. But it is something all of us have endured or will.
I do not know that I would go as far as to say that grief can have a silver lining, even if it somehow might lead some of us to live more generously, honestly, altruistically or compassionately. Those things are good, yes, but I do not think grief in and of itself is a good thing to experience. I think it is merely part of the challenge of being human, and one of the costs of the beautiful ability to love. But I do think that it must be acknowledged and lived into. And I wonder if the more we can practise naming aloud the audacity, the relentlessness and the unruliness of grief, the more we might be able to bear together, and imagine together something beyond the painful ways it can ransack us of so much.
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