A coworker found out yesterday that her grandmother had died. She never met the woman who gave birth to her own mother--Hawaii was too far for family vacations, except one trip that the same mother made a few years back, but by herself. Grandmother was a voice on the telephone, but also a presence, hovering somewhere in the background. How do you comfort someone, when you and they are not even sure of the nature of their grief?
It was the honey butter that reminded me of Grandpa, but I thought perhaps there were some similarities between my startled discovery of his absence and my coworker's news. After all, though I met my grandparents, they lived out in Michigan, and we only saw them on holiday trips or a week every summer when we piled into the car or later into a motorhome and traveled west. When my seven year-old self cried over Grandma's death, she didn't really know what she was mourning, and maybe they were really just the confused tears of a child witnessing her stoic father weep for the first time. Grandpa was a bit different--he was in his late 80s, tired and ready, though by some stroke of familial care and fortune allowed to be home all the way to the end. I had known him a bit better, had even known him well enough to feel uncomfortable about some elements of his worldview, but didn't cry for him. I was relieved for his sake, that he should not be in pain any more. Perhaps if I had felt his absence more keenly, I would have closed the link by cauterization. Instead, it takes an effort to remember that he's not alive, somewhere at the other end of a telephone call or a long day's drive from Pennsylvania to Lapeer.
We celebrate the uniqueness of the individual, but as Wolterstorff noted in Lament for a Son, so too our every grief has its own unique quality (he ties it to the inscape of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which, in its turn, has its roots in the haecceity of medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus). Perhaps this is simply reflective of the complicated forms that different relationships can take, coupled with our emotional preparedness for the final moment. Sometimes we are even surprised by grief: Sufjan Stevens wrote his recent album Carrie & Lowell as a response to the death of a mother he barely knew, a mother whose schizophrenia and alcoholism left her a remote and difficult figure, but whose passing catalyzed a personal crisis.
It seems like it's most often the distant ones that catch us off guard. We do not doubt that we have the right to grieve for, say, the grandparent who provided our parents with childcare when we were young. But so many times we find that we have a conceptual grasp of familial roles that have been filled by people who are only vague, shadowy characters in our expanding universe of relational ties. When they die, we grieve for the loss of a might-have-been, and less so for the person we barely knew, for their actual being-in-the-world. And this is a grief that need not solely accompany death: for the most part, I feel as if my mother, with her peculiar blend of aggression and paranoia, is not worthy to be called "mother," even if she is psychologically and physically continuous with the individual who gave birth to me and raised me. In that complicated rendering of a human relationship, I have found poignant and at times piercing traces of the same grief for the might-have-been--and I suspect that when she does die, she will be among my surprises, her death a more painful experience for the alienation and the lack of resolution that surround that connection and its severance.
But now I've ventured into the macabre and uncomfortable territory of positing the death of one who is living, rather than speaking of the death of one who has died, and I am not entirely sure what I'm trying to say. Perhaps no more than that in all the literature on loss and in all the poems in all the world, there will never be one that can capture either that breathless moment that I felt this morning or the mute sympathy of yesterday afternoon. And thus the paradoxical language of the poet Masters, who uses words to ask:
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
We are voiceless in the presence of realities--
We cannot speak.