Unpublishable: A Letter On Grief

Ashley Bethard


“A Letter on Grief” is, in fact, a letter to my brother. Or rather, a hybrid poem/letter/nonfiction piece I wrote in response to his death. 
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?).  


A Letter On Grief

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

But familiarity


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 not.

There’s nothing righteous about living grief

Nothing privileged

Nothing precious.



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

By hand

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

At all.


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 logic

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.

He said,

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

Like stones

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

Is going


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

An echo

A sigh

A wail.



Sometimes grief

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


And again

And again.



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

Until now.

Even still

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

Past backyards

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

Purely magical?


We are merely sentient containers

Running on borrowed energy

How goddamn miraculous

Is that.