Register Monday | June 18 | 2018
Abundant Grief

Abundant Grief

Sometimes, those in mourning need fewer choices, not more.

Illustration by Oleg Borodin.

One afternoon, a few days before Christmas, a man I’ve never met pulled over onto the soft shoulder of a highway, got out of his car and walked in front of a Kenworth eighteen-wheeler.

I knew so little about this man. In fact, I had deliberately refused to know him. I knew only that, when he was alive, he said he was in love with my closest friend. That he called and emailed her so many times about this love, refused to stop even when asked repeatedly, became so desperate that she had to change her phone number and the locks on her apartment. His final social-media entry was an ominous message of blame. Then he acted on a threat that had loomed for months, one I had wrongly, now guiltily, ignored.

“Committed suicide,” “took his own life,” “passed away”—I’ve since learned the words we choose to palatably articulate these kinds of things. News outlets reported that the highway had to be shut down as the result of an “accident,” another word people choose when they are afraid to discuss the thing at hand.

My friend learned of this man’s death from two plain-clothes police officers, in the boardroom of our workplace, on the evening of our office Christmas party. Once the police had made sure she was not alone, she applied MAC Brave Red lipstick in the fluorescent-lit office bathroom and attended the party anyway. “I want normal,” she said, and proceeded, albeit shakily, as if nothing had happened. I remember the absurdity of the carolers singing on the staircase and all the twinkling holiday cheer, me refilling her plastic cup with Chardonnay and her paper plate with the food she barely touched. I remember an overwhelming feeling of protection, of being tied to her by a man I’d never met who now lay cold and mangled in a distant morgue.

I spent the following days with her almost exclusively, reading her the news reports and making her phone calls and writing her emails, sharing her bed and her meals and her drinks. I thought of her constantly, and when I lay beside her I dreamed of her in broken sleep. It was as if something ugly and damaging had been excised from inside her, and we clung together, soaked in the gory remnants.

In the exhaustion that overcame us, it occurred to me that I had never before been so close to such raw grief. The family announced plans for a memorial and received casseroles, flowers and condolences, but my friend mourned alone. Death, of course, is rarely welcome, but some losses are easier to bear than others. In this man’s suicide and the fraught blame that surrounded it, I saw only a question: “Why?” Why did he step in front of a truck? Who was ultimately at fault? Who did the man in the morgue blame? Who did his family blame? The unresolved questions flowed through my friend like a debilitating current.

Grief craves direction, yet it is impossible to control. It tests our trust in systems and our belief in things we rely on, like justice and order. In its grip we surrender completely, often depending on loved ones to make even our most basic decisions for us. The choice to do so can, paradoxically, be emboldening. When we act as care-givers, we often tell the grieving to do whatever they need to do; we excuse them from daily obligations, ordering them to go home from work and stare at a wall while we run their errands and encourage their passivity. Yet sometimes the grieving don’t want to be left to rest—they want their actions explicitly dictated. There is a desire for limited menus and no options.

For days following the suicide, I played a constant game of restricting my friend’s choices. Because I didn’t have an answer for why the man walked onto the highway, I instead built a scaffold of support in tiny increments, dealing with minutes instead of days. I created an architecture in which she could live for a time, a place to give in instead of giving up. Hand me the base need, I said to her, and I’ll make the choice for you. I chose for her to go to an anonymous bar on Bay Street, drink a bottle of Duggan’s and eat a beet salad. I chose for her to go to the mall and buy a purse she didn’t need. I chose for her to go to work, and when she couldn’t face the meaningless paperwork anymore, I chose for her to go home and watch episodic television and drink maple whiskey. I chose these things not because they were the healthy or right things to do, but because my choosing them for her was healthy and right.

At the tail end of the experience, at a time when things started to return to “normal,” I read a line in Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories that stated, “Some grief cannot be touched.” Indeed, my friend’s grief was untouchable. But that didn’t mean it should be abandoned to passivity—it needed to be led with specific suggestion. It needed to be kicked at, not coddled or baked casseroles. I began to believe strongly in the removal of choice as a way of living, and I saw opportunities for it all around me. I became obsessed with the “can’t” and “not allowed” of life. I ordered a weekly delivery of organic fruits and vegetables and cooked whatever arrived. I imposed pointless rules on when I could read or write or sleep. It was soothing, the reliability of it all—the knowledge that we can insert systems of deliberate control, that we can create false limitations in order to combat our circumstances and work through the confusion of abundance.

Contemporary society is crippled by limitless choice. Studies suggest a direct correlation between an increase in our means and the options available to us, and a decrease in our contentment. In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that eliminating our options reduces our anxiety, and while his thesis is specific to consumer consumption, it easily carries through other aspects of our lives. “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy,” he states. “Nonetheless…we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

While we live in a culture that equates freedom with choice, we are a species that takes well to schedules and rules, often with unquestioning acceptance. We seem to believe that, without structure, we would descend into primal chaos. When film or television provides us with an apocalypse scenario in which all rules evaporate, it typically depicts destruction and carnage—man inexplicably turning on man. Our craving to be ruled even creeps into our most private moments; some of us engage in the various incarnations of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism), often as a healing act. “There is nothing better than knowing the suffering can stop, than knowing you must endure but if you no longer wish to do so, you don’t have to,” says writer Roxane Gay of consensual sexual submission. “There is nothing better than knowing you have some control in a situation that feels so far beyond your control.”

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we need people in our lives who will tell us what to do, in extreme circumstances or otherwise. Law-makers, religious leaders, managers, partners, lovers, friends—we need directives and dictation, etiquette and guidelines, because without them we admit to an inconceivable meaninglessness.

External limitation helps us to let go in a way that abundance never could. It lets us be more in tune with our needs and wants, and more authentic with others and ourselves. It keeps us, in a word, safe. And knowing the limits of another is a true art, a delicate, impenetrable line drawn around them to protect and empower. “I can give you the ‘in,’” my friend said to me. “I know you won’t hurt me with it. You know my limits.”

Writing itself—writing this—is an act of that same control. It carves the story of a suicide out of emotional disarray, imposing the limitations of language to make sense of what happened. Building a structure, and letting go within it, will never bring solace to those gutted by loss, but it will armour us when we cannot be exposed, and it will allow us to endure the world until we can walk upright again.