Unpublishable: A Letter On Grief
He died in 2016 from a heroin-fentanyl overdose at the age of 27. I publicly performed this piece in June 2017 at an event I hosted called “Never Sent,” which focused on art/writing/letters never sent. My work has been focused on the experience and performance of grief, lately. It is a trying yet interesting and illuminating place to be. People are afraid of it, but everyone experiences it. I got tired of feeling like I needed to hide it.
I have submitted to two places — one sent a kindly rejection. Another publication showed interest, then ghosted me entirely (which is…ironic?).
Here’s a thing about grief:
I feel death a lot closer now.
My brain is one giant, dumb echo
As it tries to process
to move past syllables and disjointed words
To get out of underwater mumble, slow distortion, garbled voices
To get to sentences.
“One day can change everything”
is just one of the cliches
That runs on a loop in my head.
I fear I can’t process grief authentically,
I’m as slow and dumb as everyone else
And hoping there’s something magical about it
Something profound about loss.
That says something about what we value —
Not other people, exactly
The reassurance that things can remain the same.
As much as we say we want change
Sameness seems to be the thing
We’re really fighting for.
I wanted to believe there’s some divine magic in being human
Or at least how I, human, see the world.
There’s nothing righteous about living grief
I assigned myself the role of detective
One who could collect enough facts
Make enough lists
Piece them together into something that made sense
Something that spoke to a bigger truth
More important than me
More important than us.
In the few days after you died
I went through your things
And wrote a list
Of every prescription drug found in your room.
The name. The dosage. The frequency.
Clonazepam. Duloxetine. Gabapentin. Bupropion. Naltrexone. Risperidone. Amitriptyline.
Exotic words from a language I don’t speak
Each one holding some impossible promise.
I wanted to create some sort of narrative to it
But turns out there was no logic
I can’t tell if I’m disappointed
Because I wanted it to be more complicated
Or more simple than what it actually is.
What if the answer is just “neither”?
I just wanted something to move the needle on understanding
Instead of being in this same stuck spot one year later.
Several of your journal entries begin normally,
A list of the day’s intended minutiae:
Making coffee, taking your meds,
Cleaning your apartment, phone calls to make,
Laundry to do.
Tasks familiar to all.
It’s like you were writing yourself
Back to normalcy
To working order,
Trying to impose some structure
Out of the chaos engulfing you.
I exchanged emails with a man you knew
He said you smoked weed together.
He was one of the only people who would talk to me
So I kept asking the same questions:
What did you see?
What did you know?
His answers were short and unhelpful.
I tried another tactic. I said,
It seems like no one will share anything
Because everyone is afraid of implicating themselves.
He said, I understand.
I wanted to say, No you fucking don’t. You couldn’t possibly understand.
But then he said something that was like hearing your voice from the dead.
The only thing that he ever told me was he hated being free. Said he preferred prison.
I had to call our mother
To tell her you died.
She wasn’t responding to my texts or calls
So I had to call the nursing home where she worked
And have the nurse’s desk page her.
What’s going on, she asked immediately.
I told her to sit down.
She said Just tell me.
I said are you sitting down.
She said no, just tell me
As if the refusal to sit
Was some sort of protection
From what was coming.
I told her you were dead.
Our own mother.
I listened to her gasp
And let out a trembling ohhh
Right before the wail that turned my bones to rubber.
And while I hate this moment —
It’s one of my most-hated moments,
Which includes the time we got in a fight as kids
And I called 911 on you and hung up
Because you wouldn’t let me use your paint color —
And while I hate this moment,
Everything about this moment,
I didn’t hate you.
But I wanted to.
I feel guilty writing that
And at the same time I’m ashamed of my guilt
Because it’s not acceptable
For people to be honest
about what grief really feels like.
We feel like we don’t have full rights to the loss,
Like it’s not really ours
Like it’s something from someone else
We’re supposed to pack away
And hide in an attic somewhere.
Our father texts me randomly sometimes
To ask if I remember
The color of your eyes
Or if the letter from the Easter Bunny
That he and mom wrote to us one year
Was ever found in your things.
Yes, I say, yes.
I want to say more
But somehow it’s impossible to talk about you.
We all want to, but don’t know how.
When my parents and I are together,
it hurts too much
And we regard one another
As a reminder of what is lost.
Once I told our mother, in a mess of tears,
That looking in the mirror
Was a reminder that I am here
And you are not.
That when I looked in a mirror
I wanted to cry
I felt guilty for being alive.
She said nothing
But she wiped my tears
And pressed my head to her chest
Pushed her face into my hair
And rocked me like I was a child.
We’re three bloody, seething masses
Pulsing and throbbing at each other
Blinking some kind of extraterrestrial morse code
That no one can read.
I’m still reeling.
One year later, it doesn’t hurt less. Sometimes it hurts more.
I still feel new
When I walk out the door in the morning
And the sun smacks me in the face.
I still feel open
Exposed to the elements
Like skin ripped off too soon.
The days pile up
Or bodies —
Each one a new death
A fresh loss.
I have dreams where you’re still alive
And when I wake up confused
I feel guilty thinking I’d give away a lot of my happiness
For that to be true.
Here’s a thing about grief:
Everyone tells you not to blame yourself
But you will anyway.
Here’s a thing about grief:
You start looking at things
Like they’re about to lose their color —
With desperation, with preeminent pangs of pain,
The presentiment of loss
Like it will all go
Is about to go
Right in front of you.
In the months after you died
I read as many books on grief and loss
As I could stand.
It was the only thing I could stomach
The only thing I felt had significant weight
That wasn’t indulgent
In its own lightness.
I wanted these books to be guideposts —
Trail markers in a new country
A record of those who came before
And how they went on,
Proof that they made it out of the dark,
Out of the swamp.
Instead, they were symbols —
Cryptic totems all written in a different language,
I cannot translate.
People talk about grief in cycles. In phases.
It’s a cunning way for words to camouflage messiness, to be tidy.
It’s deceptive. Too clean.
To place a map over what is foreign, inhospitable territory.
But here’s a thing about grief: it looks alike for no one.
My map is different from yours.
After you died I lost language too
My voice rang hollow without a tongue
Feels like a padded room.
Here’s a thing about grief:
It makes it almost impossible
To remember anything else.
My mind is stuck in your apartment:
It is grief as place
And I am trapped.
Your vases of shriveled flowers,
fallen petals at the base.
A half-full cup of cold coffee.
A bowl of mostly-eaten vegetable soup,
A lone green bean floating there.
Like any moment, you’d walk in the door
And ask us what the hell we were doing there.
When I try to remember
Other times, happy times
From our childhood,
I end up in the apartment you died in
I had a list of things
I promised myself I’d do
If you died.
I’ve done none of them.
Which is to say that
The fear of losing you to death so soon
Is something I had considered
For a long time
but still don’t really accept.
I have not truly been alone with my grief
I don’t know what to do with it.
I haven’t driven across the country alone,
Trying to find you in new expanses of sky
Or searched for your familiarity
In a stranger’s face.
I said I’d go someplace quiet
Where the voices don’t exist,
Real or ghosts.
I want a space I can yell into
And hear an echo back.
I’ve been thinking a lot
About what happens to our energy
When we die.
The law of conservation
Says energy cannot be created or destroyed
So in some way
Everything on this earth
In this universe
Has already existed forever.
In the days after your death
I walked a trail that used to be a railway line
It cut its way through the country
Like a track mark
Intersecting with winding backroads
Through tall maples.
There was a butterfly that followed me
And I desperately wanted to believe it was you.
I guess this is the idea of reincarnation:
Our energy self-recycling
Dissipating once our heart stops
Flowing out of us
And into something else.
Regardless of what you believe
How can you say that is not
We are merely sentient containers
Running on borrowed energy
How goddamn miraculous