What Death Leaves Behind

“I mourned her uncomplicatedly and absolutely.” ~ Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

I hope I die first.

I’ve loved Steve for such a long time. I don’t dwell on thoughts of death, and maybe it’s just a weird, self-flagellating tic, but sometimes I find myself thinking about what his absence might feel like. I imagine the gigantic crater of it, the brutality of the grief of losing this person I long ago invited to take up residence in me, the possibility – the probability – of being undone by it. Then I try to imagine what it would feel like to get up and go on in that new reality.

“The thing is – nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.” ~ Pat Kavanagh

Deep grief feels like an entity pulsating with its own life force. A sadness so total it throws you backward and knocks you nearly senseless. And there you are, curled protectively into a ball against it, hearing the noise of your own heartbeat pounding in your ears, eyes squeezed closed, willing it away while it instead crouches over you breathing acrid and hot in your face and licking your cheek in the most appalling way so there’s no question it is in charge.

It can leave people barely functioning emotionally and physically. Did you know it’s possible to have grief-induced seizures? I didn’t either, until last year when I read Leslie Jamison’s “Empathy Exams” essay and learned about conversion disorders, where a health problem that starts as a mental or emotional crisis — a scary or stressful incident — converts to a physical problem. It’s an amazing essay, which can be found in her book of the same name.

I’ve read a number of fantastic books this year. Levels of Life by Julian Barnes was one. It was savage and gorgeous, such a stunner I had to read it twice. The book is about a few things – the advent of aeronautics in 1800s Europe, attempts at photography from those balloons, but most poignantly it’s about Barnes’ overwhelming grief after his wife of three decades, Pat Kavanagh, died in 2008 shortly after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Grief, like love, is almost impossible to describe adequately or well.

“I asked if he could describe the pain. He looked at me, his eyes watered at the memory, and he remained silent; he couldn’t find words which came close to being useful.”

Maybe it’s because every grief experience encompasses territory that is both universal and unique. Yet Barnes manages to get within shouting distance of it with his heartrending prose. It’s the most beautiful writing on love and grief I’ve read. Though if you’ve never experienced deep grief, even the clearest, most elegant conveyance may still only land like an undetonated ordinance dropped from great height. You’ll feel the impact of it, but not in the same way that having experienced deep loss otherwise allows that bunker buster to penetrate deep into you and blow everything up and out.

For example, there’s this…

You ask yourself: to what extent in this turmoil of missing am I missing her, or missing the life we had together, or missing what it was in her that made me more myself, or missing simple companionship, or (not so simple) love, or all or any overlapping bits of each? You ask yourself: what happiness is there in just the memory of happiness? And how in any case might that work, given that happiness has only ever consisted of something shared? Solitary happiness – it sounds like a contradiction in terms, an implausible contraption that will never get off the ground.

And this…

Initially, you continue doing what you used to do with her, out of familiarity, love, the need for a pattern. Soon, you realise the trap you are in: caught between repeating what you did with her, but without her, and so missing her; or doing new things, things you never did with her, and so missing her differently. You feel sharply the loss of shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short cuts, in-jokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes – all those obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider.

All couples, even the most bohemian, build up patterns in their lives together, and these patterns have an annual cycle. So Year One is like a negative image of the year you have been used to. Instead of being studded with events, it is now studded with non-events: Christmas, your birthday, her birthday, anniversary of the day you met, wedding anniversary. And these are overlaid with new anniversaries: of the day fear arrived, the day she first fell, the day she went into hospital, the day she came out of hospital, the day she died, the day she was buried.

You think that Year Two can’t be worse than Year One, and imagine yourself prepared for it. You think you have met all the different sorts of pain you will be asked to bear, and that after this there will only be repetition. But why should repetition mean less pain? Those first repetitions invite you to contemplate all the repetitions to come in future years. Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not grief?

And this…

Grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function: one day means no more than the next, so why have they been picked out and given separate names? It also reconfigures space. You have a new geography, mapped by a new cartography. You seem to be taking your bearings from one of those seventeenth-century maps which feature the Desert of Loss, the (windless) Lake of Indifference, the (dried-up) River of Desolation, the Bog of Self-Pity, and the (subterranean) Caverns of memory.

We’ve reached a strange place and time in our culture, reluctant to face the banal fact of death. We avoid talking about it honestly, describe it in euphemisms that devalue it, and try mightily to blunt the force of its effects. So it was a beautiful and sad thing to read Levels of Life and let Julian Barnes’ words sink down into me without defending against them.

About Chris DeVinney

Me in a nutshell: mom, writer, former lobbyist, wife, volunteer, lover of music and art, massive fan of traveling, and something of a smart ass. A typical INTJ, I quietly observe anyone and anything that comes into my orbit, squirreling away material for future essays. These days I spend my time writing about whatever interests me (both professionally and personally) and trying to strike the balance between taking care of kids/family/house/pets and me. Occasionally I nail it, hang on to it briefly, and then scramble back toward the center when the tipping starts again. I know, it’s a common story.
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2 Responses to What Death Leaves Behind

  1. Evie says:

    What a beautiful comentary on death and grief Chris. Thank you

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