AVATAR OF GRIEF
Early in our relationship, Christoph and I took a short winter vacation to Negril, Jamaica. We found a promotional deal at a resort that was right on the beach, although still under construction. Outside our door the endless white sand beckoned, bordered by the aqua waters of the Caribbean Sea. We bounced along the beach to reggae music blaring from the outdoor bars, stopping for an occasional rum punch or Piña Colada. Aromas of meat pies mingled with the skunky scent of ganga. I fingered colorful strands of beaded seashells and batik wraps sold by vendors along the shore. A trio stopped by our beach blanket to perform a harmonious rendition of “Under the Boardwalk” on a beat-up guitar, cracked stand-up bass and percussion egg shakers, all of which looked like they had recently washed up on shore. We loved the band’s spirit and beckoned them to our blanket every day. We immersed ourselves in waves of turquoise sea, reggae music, ganga and love.
On one of our beach walks, we noticed a small shack with carved wooden figures arrayed in the storefront window. The door was open, so we wandered in. The art gallery was filled from floor to ceiling with primitive-looking wood carvings of animals and human figures bearing enigmatic expressions. With his discerning sculptor’s eye, Christoph selected three carvings from among the assemblage: a long-eared rabbit poised to leap; a Black angel in a light brown robe, with a cap of white hair and body-length wings emerging from his scapulae, and a tall, lean woman, looking forlorn, her hands tucked into the pockets of her knee-length black skirt. She had sad, dark eyes, and lips pressed together, the corners of her mouth turned down. She was a human representation of sorrow, an avatar of grief. I placed her on my dresser, unaware that she was a portent of what I would someday become.
When Jonah died, I made no attempt to deny, become angry or bargain over his death. I was raw, but not depressed. I simply accepted it, bypassing the other four predicted stages of grief. Jonah’s death left me with a new, indelible identity––I now belonged the vast human tribe of mourners. When I considered how I appeared to others, the words of Psalm 40 came to mind: “Here I am. I have come with the scroll of the book that is written upon me.” The story of loss had become the story of my life. With inconsolable sorrow permanently etched on my face, I recognized my affinity with the Jamaican carving that had stood on my dresser for so many years.
Some who had witnessed my path over the years told me that I was an inspiration. Steeped in heartbreak, I found this confusing. It seemed like such an odd choice of words. What could I inspire others to do? What encouragement could I possibly give them? I wondered what others saw as I stumbled along. Like other mourners, I hungered for role models to show me how to carry on without being crushed by overpowering loss. I never found any. I saw this as the unfortunate consequence of our culture’s refusal to accept death as an inextricable part of life. Although death was inevitable, people invariably seemed stunned by its untimely arrival. It shifted our interior and exterior landscapes in ways that we had never anticipated. We hadn’t been prepared to be so fundamentally altered. Like other mourners, I persevered with the essential tasks of daily life as I bore the staggering weight of mortality. When the time came, we all learned how to do this. We moved forward, always slightly out of step in a world where time moved along too quickly, and where others were still inexplicably concerned with trivial pursuits like accolades and possessions. All that mattered was time with those whom we loved and would someday lose.
Sometimes I felt as if I were reduced to a personification of my loss. I didn’t understand that my forthright acceptance of my child’s death had transformed me into an unwitting role model for how to bear a grief which was, by all accounts, unbearable. As others sought me out, I recognized that I had the capacity to stand with other mourners in a way that many were unwilling or unable to do. I was drawn to the wounds of loss, which I saw all around me, like stigmata. I felt called to bear witness to the suffering of those who were burdened with illness and grief. I wanted to help them find a way to heal. I recognized a new purpose in the role that had been thrust upon me. Demonstrating the strength to embrace my sorrow, I had become a broken-hearted warrior, one who could carry the grief of others.
I recently paid a shiva call to a friend who lost her husband after a valiant four-year battle with colon cancer. As soon as she saw me enter her living room, she burst out in tears. I sat down beside her on the couch and held her as she sobbed into my shoulder. When she lifted her tear-stained face to me, it was my grief that she addressed, rather than her own.
“I lost my husband, but you lost your son,” she cried.
I stroked her hair. Yes, I lost my son. My grief would forever be a benchmark against which other grief would be measured. Watching me bear my grief over the loss of my son, she knew that she would bear her own. My life had taken on an unforeseen but ineluctable purpose: I had become a living, breathing Avatar of Grief.