I learned a valuable lesson in grief last year.
Shortly after the shootings at Sandy Hook in December, my wife and I were horrified to learn that our friends' daughter, Avielle, was among the schoolchildren who had been killed. A few days after the tragedy, seeking a reprieve from our relentless sorrow, my wife and I went Christmas shopping at Anthropologie at Otay Lakes Town Center. Big mistake.
The holiday music and festive cheer inside the beautifully designed store was so out of sync with the way we felt that we momentarily broke down. Shoppers slipped around us and avoided our section of the store while we sobbed. When the moment passed, and it always passes, we resumed shopping, a little freaked out by the spectacle we'd become.
Of course, our friends in Sandy Hook have endured much, much worse. In addition to the loss of their child, they've been called puppets by the gun lobby and crisis actors by conspiracy loons. At a time when they've been at their most vulnerable, they've been attacked.
Artist and writer Karen Green can relate. Her book, Bough Down, published by Siglio, is an elegy for her husband, the much-loved writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008.
Green, a visual artist who works in a variety of media, has come under fire by the kooks and cranks who troll online comments sections of popular portals and websites. Green writes, "Strangers feel free to email: Nobody knew you before your husband took his life."
Green turns this cruel and callous dagger into a hallucinatory riff that drains the barb of its venom and turns it into something revelatory. In Bough Down, she blends striking miniature collages with dreams, vignettes and recollections distorted by the unreliability of her memories and addled by the drugs her doctor urges her to call meds.
It is a work concerned not so much with tragedy but its aftermath, an intense period when one's senses are heightened, laughter erupts through tears and every impression leaves a mark: "I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound."
This is precisely the kind of worry that makes people uncomfortable. Bring it up too often and the worrier will get that "We're concerned about you" look that leads to late-night phone calls, increased dosages, a reality ravined. It's easier to submit to the pharmacological voodoo that is 21st-century mental healthcare, which seldom works and fails to address the fundamental problem: that which others would prefer to be left unsaid cannot be unthought.
Green, thankfully, has other options. By expressing her grief through words and images, she transmutes the experience into art. The results are nothing short of shattering.
"Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart's chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of its cavity."
With cutting prose ("It's hard to remember tender things tenderly") and haunting imagery, Bough Down is a palimpsest of sorrow. It is a portrait seen through a funeral veil, a fragmented collage of a past that wasn't what it seemed and a future that never will be.
"Sentences have been highlighted just to demolish me when I find them. I will find them for years."
When her husband died, Green's loss was compounded by the adoring fans who clamored for answers and shaped what they could get into a narrative that assuaged the loss of the books they would never get to read. In Bough Down, Green takes the grief back and makes it indelibly her own.
"The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe."
When we mourn, we mine our memories for answers and dig up nuggets of truth and fantasy, a counterfactual mixture from which we seek solace and find still more sorrow. This is difficult to do publicly, but to nurture grief in private, in the empty canyons of our heart, is an invitation to madness.
The lesson I learned in Anthropologie, and that Bough Down has reaffirmed, is that we should never be ashamed to grieve. We cannot treat grief as a problem to be fixed, a malady to be treated. Grief is a tribute that must be paid so that the memories of those who have been taken from us can once again bring joy.