My father would have turned sixty-eight yesterday. I do not know how to celebrate him now that he is gone, although I know he would smack me if he saw me brooding. But I cannot help replaying his birthday last year when we sat in a Wisconsin steakhouse one month after his lung transplant. After ten months spent waiting for the phone to ring and remaining within a thirty-minute radius of a hospital in an unfamiliar city, we had completed our mission: he had a new lung. I remember how proud he was to be in public without his hoses, cables, and oxygen tank. How the doctors said he would live for a very long time. Three months later he died of septic shock. I’ve been replaying many things this year. His last hours. The touch of his hand as the machine flatlined. The things I should have said and done (although I’m told it’s more constructive to say wish instead of should). The dark questions of mortality and meaning in an irrational universe. And I still have not accepted the death of my mother, who died seven years ago.
But what does it mean to accept death? Is such a thing possible? Perhaps there is a problem with our language, particularly for the agnostic and the atheist. The rupture of tradition and the break from ritual has been patched with bloodless words like acceptance and mindfulness, with clinical approaches like Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, and prescriptive notions of “moving forward” and “pushing through” — as if there is someplace to go. Instead I retreat into philosophy, seeking consolation in widescreen meditations on the nature of souls and the mind, such as Will Durant’s channeling of Spinoza: “Our minds are the fitful flashes of an eternal light.”
Writing about grief does not feel fashionable in the digital age, in this schizophrenic landscape of relentless cheerleading and cynical handwringing. Discussing death seems like a clunky and messy thing to do. But I can think of no other subject these days. Each time I pick up a pen, I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s admonition that “the only worthwhile subject is man’s relationship with god.” And what is grief but the process of squaring loss with faith? Of looking god in the eye, per Voltaire: Either god can prevent suffering and he will not, or he wishes to prevent it but he cannot. I doubt I am up to this task. But I hope the notes, meditations, and references in these essays might offer somebody some small measure of reassurance.
But why should I write about my grief? It is not special. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a Gothic tale that crystallized our desire to deny death before it was transformed into schlocky films and sugary cereal—the young scientist mourns the death of his mother. He describes his inability to comprehend her disappearance: “It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she, whom we saw every day, and whose very existence appeared a part of our own, can have departed forever — that the brightness of beloved eye can have been extinguished, and the sound of a voice so familiar, and dear to the ear, can be hushed, never more to be heard.”
The shock of nevermore. The pacing of hallways as if grief were an interlude, as if we might enter a room and see the departed returned, sitting in a favorite chair. I remember the mad urge to dial my mother’s number in the weeks and months after her funeral, to tell her all about this terrible thing that happened. Walking to the car this morning, a shift in the light left me convinced I needed to pick up my father from physical therapy.
“These are the reflections of the first days,” Shelley writes, “but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences.” Bitterness is the right word. As if gnawing at this wound might somehow bring back the ones I love. But Shelley offers a jolt of perspective: “Yet from whom has not that rude hand rent away some dear connection? and why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel? The time at length arrives when grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity; and the smile that plays upon the lips, although it may be deemed a sacrilege, is not banished. My mother was dead, but we had still duties which we ought to perform; we must continue our course with the rest, and learn to think ourselves fortunate, whilst one remains whom the spoiler has not seized.”
This is the maddening characteristic of grief: although it is experienced by everyone, it remains fiercely personal and isolating. Only we are aware of the spaces missing from our lives: the sound of a loved one’s feet padding down the hall; the pursed lip or arched brow; the heat and storms and history pulsing beneath the way they said good morning. Yet it is also an emotion shared by anyone who has lived and loved long enough. We do not discuss this as much as we should.
After receiving a lung and transforming himself into a grand old man, my father slipped suddenly from this world.
Grief can arrive on a gust of wind, a glimpse at a calendar, or a half-heard snippet of conversation on the street.
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.”