That Thought’s Return

Content Warning: Suicide

—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more … 

The trick, it turns out, is not to think about it—about how it was for him, and especially about how it ended for him. I can manage it if I keep my mind busy: “O the mind,” as Hopkins says, “mind has mountains.” The trick is to smother those thoughts, or to overwhelm them: to fill in the space that they would otherwise occupy, and thus keep back from the “cliffs of fall,” from hurtling back into that place of horror and shock and the desperate wish to undo it all—the impossible, unreasonable, but inescapable feeling that I should have been able to comfort him, to hold him, to save him. Every grief has its own particular pangs, I know. That this death was deliberate and desired sometimes makes the pangs sharper to me, even as I hold firm to my belief in his right to make that choice and to my gratitude that when he left us, it was, as he told us, with a heart full of love.

mugI am trying. I have read my first new book, now: Lauren Groff’s Matrix. It was a good choice—unusual, unworldly, written in prose direct enough that my wavering concentration wasn’t too much of a problem. I might write a proper post about it in a while. I have been doing some work on my sabbatical project—mostly just reviewing the materials I had gathered and the notes and drafts I had begun last summer, to remind myself how interested and even excited I was about my book idea. I still am, I think: there are flickers, and they feel hopeful, if faint. In between these efforts I watch a lot of TV, a lot of it familiar, some of it new but low-key enough, trivial enough, that I don’t have to risk investing in it emotionally. All of this works to muffle the other thoughts, until it doesn’t. The house is so full of reminders; all I have to do is look up and there are the pictures of his joyful little baby face; there’s the piano he played unlike anyone else, the music just flowing out of his fingers; there’s his old desk; there’s his phone, which I saw so often in his hand. My office on campus is no safer, I realized today, stopping in briefly to grab some books (trying to stoke the embers of my research): more memories, more pictures, the mug he had made for me a few years ago for Christmas.

Sometimes I don’t want to try to be beguiled out of my grief, either, and that seems right, so soon after—it’s right to remember and to mourn, to let the thought return.


As a side note, or perhaps a kind of apologia, someone on Twitter recently shared this image of a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty. I found it very powerful and I hope he won’t mind my sharing it again here. I worry, especially because I’m writing about something as fraught and difficult as suicide, that my words might themselves be wounding, but others’ words of both grief and comfort continue to help me and so for now I will continue to write what I feel.


Firsts, After

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix. (Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers)

There have been a lot of firsts for us since Owen died, new things we have had to say or do because of his death. As the days begin to stretch, slowly but inexorably, into weeks, now we have to face doing things we always used to do, but for the first time after his death. There aren’t any rules to govern when to do most of these: how soon is too soon, how long is too long to put them off. We don’t have any rituals to give us a timeline: our beliefs about life and death, which are in other respects enough for us, give us no guidance here.

Necessity has made some decisions for us: prescriptions have to be refilled, we need to eat, our booster shots were already scheduled. Steve and Maddie are starting classes again, which also, for better and for worse, generates immediate demands to be met. It’s the inessentials that puzzle me right now, the small but constant things that made up the fabric of my life before and that I know will once again be integral to it—but when? but how?

I have already written my first blog post, after—and my second, and now my third—but they are about Owen, about my loss and grief. (It turns out this is one of the only things I want to do. Writing feels safer than speaking; it is also how I have always sorted out my thoughts and feelings. I also feel uneasy about it, though: is it inappropriate to write here? How often, when writing about other people’s writing about grief, have I wondered why they took such private feelings public?) Eventually, I will write my first blog post after his death that is about something I’ve read—eventually, I will read my first book, after. (What will it be?) At some point I will rejoin the stream of conversation that is Twitter, to talk about the usual things, not about Owen—about the things everyone else is still talking about. (What a ruthless indicator Twitter is of how quickly everything moves on; while I find it painful right now, from the sad sidelines, there is perhaps some prospective reassurance in its continuity.) These are such trivial things to do, which is one reason I can’t bring myself to do them now, but the first time I do them, after, whenever that is, they will feel significant. How will I know when it is the right time—what will make the difference?

Maybe nothing will: maybe there is only the time, not the right time. In the absence of rules or protocols or schedules for mourning (which, I am realizing, is entangled with but not identical to grief), there’s really only trial and error. A small example. We have now watched our first episode of Jeopardy since Owen died, a nightly pandemic ritual he often joined us for after he moved back home in November; even though he didn’t really enjoy the show himself, he was willing to hang out with us, which was nice. It felt strange and wrong and haunted to do it, but either we were never going to watch Jeopardy again, or at some point we were going to have to get through the oddity of doing something so completely familiar in this still unfamiliar world, for the first time.

Normalcy is an emotional precipice for me right now: it’s still too common and too painful to look up from the stove or the keyboard or the TV and feel the new reality flash upon me all over again, with all the intensity of breaking news. In this terrible aftermath of our loss, I think in those moments, how can we bother with ordinary life? Yet the writer who means the most to me is eloquent about the beauty of “commonplace things” and I believe she is right. I’ve also been thinking about what I wrote last year about Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, about its affirmation “that if something was worth doing before a crisis, it remains worth doing.” I believe this too, though it is hard to feel its truth right now. At some point, then, maybe even today, I will try to do some work. Oddly, the book I was reviewing—am reviewing—for the TLS is Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation. (How hypothetical his arguments seemed to me only two weeks ago; now I can test for myself his claims about the healing power of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.) At some point I will pick up my research and carry on with the writing that this sabbatical was meant for: I will download a PDF and take some notes—such a mundane task, unless it’s for the first time, after.