When I rejoined Facebook last month its algorithms immediately encouraged me to befriend my father. There he is with seven mutual friends, wearing his fishing hat, sunglasses, and rugged grin—a snapshot I took on the bayou one Sunday afternoon when we ate sandwiches and puttered around Lake Salvador while he pretended to fish. Last week I clicked his name and saw strangers wishing him a happy birthday even though he’s been dead for nine months. His digital life continues, a ghost in the machine. For a moment I considered becoming friends with him, perhaps the most tragic of digital gestures. There are probably ways to alert Facebook to his death and shutter his account, but I do not want to remove the traces of him that remain.
Then it comes. The sighing and lip-biting, the hollow gut feeling like I might float away or fade to black. The impulse to run although there is nowhere to go. I pace. I wait, trusting this will pass. They say grief comes in waves, a cliché that sounds benign until you’ve slid into its troughs. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes these waves as “paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”
Waves have rhythm. Grief does not. Its currents oscillate at random, triggered not only by photographs, memories, and empty rooms but the mysterious and unseen machinations of the subconscious mind. Grief can arrive on a gust of wind, a glimpse at a calendar, or a half-heard snippet of conversation on the street. The way somebody pronounces February. And the paroxysms begin, the fear of tipping over. The flutter in the belly as if something vital is coming unbound, an untethering from the world. Sometimes people notice. Usually they do not. If somebody asks what is the matter, I shake my head and smile. Shrug it off. Change the subject.
Nobody wants to hear about dead parents, about my failings as a caregiver, or my encounter with the void, how it must feel like the monitor flat-lining at the hospital, an endless dial tone. Didion again: “People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as ‘dwelling on it’. We understand the aversion most of us have to ‘dwelling on it’. Visible mourning reminds us of death which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation.” Perhaps more to the point, there is that haunting line from The Little Prince when the pilot fails to comfort the child: It is such a secret place, the land of tears.
But what interests me, what I try to keep my eye on when each new wave arrives, is that we are even lifted out of the trough, that grief does not simply drown us. What is this impulse? This phenomenon was best described by Samuel Beckett—I can’t go on, I’ll go on—and it can be as subtle as a muscle tremor or it might feel like leaping across a canyon. But sooner or later the wave passes. For a while, anyway.
Perhaps a biological imperative allows each wave to ebb, something hardwired in the brain. Our psyches are such elaborate mazes of defensive architecture, cluttered with gates and snares that prevent us from looking directly upon our pain for too long. The brain does its best to distract us from the most difficult memories before they can take shape and bare their teeth. But cracks emerge nonetheless. Last month I made an appointment with a grief counselor and there was much talk of walls and buried emotions, the complex engineering of the mind. When I mentioned that I found comfort in philosophy, that I craved some kind of faith and felt nostalgic for the rituals of the past, she smiled politely. “That’s interesting,” she said. “But I don’t think philosophy and faith will be relevant to our work here.”
Then what are they for? “The fear of death is the beginning of philosophy,” wrote Will Durant. “And the final cause of religion.”
In Cambridge Ancient History Vol. VII, C. F. Angus describes the new task of philosophers in the confusion that followed the death of Alexander: “Philosophy is no longer the pillar of fire going before a few intrepid seekers after truth: it is rather an ambulance following in the wake of the struggle for existence and picking up the weak and wounded.” Here is the shift from the starry-eyed metaphysics of the ancients to the guarded tactics of the cynics, skeptics, and stoics who sought protection from a chaotic world. “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage,” said Seneca, and this emphasis on endurance as a virtue would become the proving ground for the otherworldliness of religion.
Philosophy has been an ambulance for me this year. I do not claim to understand much of it, but the widescreen language of Spinoza, Voltaire, and Schopenhauer have provided reassurance by offering a connection to a larger whole. My attraction is largely tonal: I am drawn to this grammar which describes grief as a major chord in the music of the spheres, the harmonics of the cosmos. Bertrand Russell disagrees: “I cannot accept this; I think that particular events are what they are, and do not become different by absorption into a whole.” But he admits that “Spinoza’s principle of thinking about the whole, or at any rate about larger matters than your own grief, is a useful one. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.” It is this primitive urge to think about the impossible whole which fascinates me.
But this is a story about ashes. My mother’s ashes float somewhere in the sea after I drove across the nation seven years ago, undid the twist tie on the plastic bag, and poured her into the Pacific because she’d always wanted to see the ocean. My father’s ashes sat for months in a plastic box inside a velveteen bag tucked in the back corner of his old army trunk, waiting for me to follow his instructions, which couldn’t have been simpler: “When I die, just toss my ashes in the nearest body of water,” he said. “Even if it’s a puddle.”
I do not have any superstitions about my father’s remains. I know that he is gone, that the velveteen bag contains only powdered bones. (Despite the funeral industry’s preferred portmanteau of ‘cremains’, we tend to refer to them as ‘ashes’; perhaps this keeps our dead close to the magic of fire.) And yet I have delayed putting his ashes in the water. Why? Because I am not ready, I told myself. I want clarity. I need closure. But these things are myths. My desire for ritual eventually led me to the interstate for a pilgrimage through service plazas and sodium lights: this is how I mourn.
I drove to the bottom of Louisiana, my first trip down those bayou roads without my father. At the small wooden dock where we had launched his boat, I watched two old men drink beer and fish, their laughter ricocheting across the still waters, and I thought of the times we fished together. In Michigan when I was small. On the bayou in his last years. In Wisconsin with his oxygen tank. I tipped the black plastic box over the water and poured out half of its contents. His ashes curled through the bayou in a cosmic pattern that conjured nebulae and galaxies, a reassuring image that I kept pinned to my mind as I pointed the car north and drove twelve hundred miles to deliver the rest of his remains to Saginaw Bay, where my grandfather rests. I listened to philosophy while I drove, finding comfort in these instructions from Epictetus: Never say something is lost, only that it is returned.
In Michigan I walked to the end of the pier and stood in the grey wind, perhaps hoping to summon a cinematic moment of insight. It did not come. Climbing down the damp rocks, I poured the remains of my father into the bay, where I imagined his ashes running from the lakes and bayous into the ocean where he will find my mother.
Driving home, I experienced no revelations and felt no resolution. Yet I felt more at ease with the unpredictable waves of grief for my parents. Let them come when they will, for they sometimes bring glimpses of transcendence that have no vocabulary. “No doubt the spirit and energy of the world is what is acting in us, as the sea is what rises in every little wave,” wrote George Santayana. “But it passes through us; and, cry out as we may, it will move on. Our privilege is to have perceived it as it moved.”
Perhaps it does not matter what shape our faith or rituals take; what matters is the urge — however dim or fleeting — to believe in something greater: the desire to escape the trough.
Each time I pick up a pen these days, I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s admonition that “the only worthwhile subject is man’s relationship with god.”
After receiving a lung and transforming himself into a grand old man, my father slipped suddenly from this world.
When the body rebels, the mind realizes it’s been preoccupied with the wrong things. A Greek word for the inflammation of the lung, Hippocrates described it as “the illness named by the ancients.”