Imitating Art: Between the Method and the Madness

“Why do you wear black all the time?” Medvedenko asks.

“I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy,” replies Masha.

These familiar lines that open “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov may feel a little stiff and melodramatic out of context, but there is truth in them. This classic nineteenth century drama set on a Russian country estate explores universal themes that transcend time and place, such as love, fame and regret. So, the fact I resonate with Masha’s malaise is not surprising. I have always adored Chekhov. I remember recreating many iconic moments during my thespian days at Northwestern—cavorting through waist-high snow in the bitter sub-zero cold.

“This is just so Chekhovian!” we’d announce between the method and the madness.

It’s been decades since then, but the poignant words possess a different kind of relevance today. Mourning is draining. And most days, I am merely surviving. That said, I know that mere survival is not sustainable. It’s not living, but I think I’ve lived there most of my life. Gratefully, there have been countless glimmers of joy and grace along the way, but I think it’s time to recalibrate—to find new and durable meaning, since the worst of all nightmares has happened.

Is that what my grief is trying to tell me?

When I ask grief that question outright, the short answer is this: “Well, Elaine, this totally sucks, and you are completely screwed.” However, if I sit with it a bit and get curious, I discover some nuances and layers. Though the pain of losing my brilliant and complicated 26-year-old son Elliot Everett Wright far exceeds all other losses in my life combined,  I find it also acts as a kind of an accelerant, like a flammable substance CSI might detect in the ashes after a horrific fire. Grief is a ubiquitous, unstable chemical compound that can ignite seemingly innocuous psychological debris in a heartbeat. The spontaneous combustion of new griefs inflaming ancient wounds makes carrying the most unbearable of all losses even more painful.

And while we are pondering incendiary substances, I am reminded of the potent odor of turpentine spirits that would hang in the air and seep into every surface of our suburban house growing up. My mother, Ann Cushing Gantz, a passionate artist who was profoundly frustrated by the fickle art world, liked to repurpose B&M Baked Bean jars to soak her paint-caked brushes. The small, amber-brown containers covered every table, every shelf and ledge in her cluttered studio over the garage—messy and mesmerizing, like an overgrown garden of potted pigment. I can’t think of my mother without catching a whiff of that bittersweet aroma—stringent at times, but strangely appealing. Anything can trigger a grief pang, even years later. And every loss is its own.

Like putting out fire with gasoline, my efforts to quell grief’s urgency simply don’t work very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its grave context. At first, I thought Elliot’s loss had its own private room in my broken heart, but I think compartmentalizing it increases the internal friction. I wish I could find a way to disengage it from the rest of the root system. I don’t want to go under like someone hanging on to a bag of rocks in the middle of a pit of quicksand. 

My grief is shouting at me—but so is everything else. All the experts say I need to feel the ache of this unimaginable loss to find a way to carry it, along with the rest of the baggage I seem to have brought to this place of fresh awareness. I will never reverse the agony of losing my precious Elliot and the relationship we might have had, but one day, I may be able to soften the sharpness of his absence—if I create a space for forgiveness and empathy for myself and the other players in my drama.

“Forgive to live,” Grief says. “But never forget.”

 I guess I’m just not sure what to do next.  

“At this rate, it may combust into a blaze you  cannot extinguish,” Grief warns.

It’s an inside job, as I say so often—getting grounded in the now and establishing healthy techniques to soothe my fractured nervous system. I am no longer that frightened little girl who grew up in an atmosphere of confusion, resentment and secrets. So I need to stop trying so hard to fix things that aren’t mine to fix. It’s all bigger than I can ever imagine—a mystery beyond naming. That is where I need to live.

So now, I’m remembering a different Masha from another Chekhov play:

This Masha says, “I’ll go. . . . I’ve got the blues today, I’m feeling glum, so don’t you mind what I say [laughing through her tears]. We’ll talk some other time . . .

Perhaps, I’ll adopt the countenance of  this Masha—from Act I of “The Three Sisters.” Laughing through her tears. Acknowledging the hurt but finding a way to laugh. She might be on to something. Recently, I read an article recently in The Atlantic that said the expression of seemingly incongruent emotions can actually help moderate intense feelings—tears of joy, smiles of sadness, etc.

“Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions,” asserts Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragón. “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well,” 

Well, Masha, for now, I’m going with that . . . laughing through my tears, and we’ll talk some other time, my dear.

Grieving from the Inside Out

“Grief is universal, but every person’s grief is unique,”  says grief counselor David Kessler.

This duality is potent, especially in recent days. The collective grief that surrounds us now is overwhelming—the weight of mounting COVID casualties, the ongoing horror of senseless police violence, and the alarming escalation of gun massacres in this country. Along with the enormity of these disturbing realities, so many of us also carry the achingly personal losses that seem to cling to us like cobwebs in a dank, gloomy basement.

Grief is an ambient constant.

Having lost my oldest son, Elliot, and many family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is always changing, deepening, expanding, and contracting, but it is always there. It morphs and shifts into different flavors of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and despair, but gradually, I am becoming more aware of my most salient triggers. Slowly but surely, I am integrating effective self-management techniques—like grounding, breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and counseling. Still, grief is inextricably attached to my being—insistent, obnoxious and endlessly dogmatic. There is no escape, no place to hide, no satisfying its demands. Not even in sleep. There is no pill nor spirit.

Grief is relentless and narcissistic.

Grief both shrouds and accentuates the stubborn presence of loss. Grief is everywhere and in everything, like the trauma bond of an abusive relationship. You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. Grief changes all of your relationships—at times isolating you from your friends, family, and the community you need to heal. You are a different person in a toxic relationship and in the dance of grief. You often find yourself reassuring others you are OK—when you are not. You may even try to run away or distract yourself, but grief is persistent and undaunted. Wherever you go, there you are. And the dark truth is that part of you does not want to let go, because at least, the pain is connection.

Grief is not just something inside that you have to work through.

Grief is also on the outside, always next to you. It’s beside you, behind you, in front of you, over you, under you—hovering like a long shadow, even in the dark. Some say losing a child is like losing a limb. You can survive it, but you must relearn how to do everything. However, I think it’s also like gaining a limb you don’t want—an extra arm or leg you must constantly contend with, manage, or even hide. And it’s always in your way, awkward, and obstructive. You must relearn everything, but you still cannot escape it.

Do you acknowledge it immediately when meeting someone? Or do you pretend it’s not there, which can draw even more unspoken attention to it? How do you live with such an abnormality? There are no easy answers, and it’s a confusing question in a culture that minimizes and compartmentalizes grief to avoid its discomfort. So, how do you find meaning in life? Do mundane tasks even matter at all when the worst has already happened? But that’s where compassion is essential—individually and collectively. Things like meeting a deadline at work of separating out the recycling may not seem to matter much in a universe tainted by unbearable loss, but we must keep going.

And more important, we must be intentional about caring for each other, showing up, and creating a space for mattering. For me, regardless of how I conceptualize it, the gravity of grief informs every interaction, every experience, every conversation. Hopefully, over time, I will become more accustomed to its presence. I know I must find a way to accommodate grief if I am going to function in the world.

Yes, I am different now, and I work every day to accept this journey.

Grief will always be part of me, just as my love for my son Elliot will be. And grief will always be a layer between me and everything else. Whether a thin, hyaline veil or an imposing brick wall, at times it’s murky black and at others, sparklingly light. The light is the precious part, the awful glimmer of grief. That’s what illuminates the gold, the gleaming memories of a lifetime that will never die.

Together we can do our best to soften the fear, the anxiety, the alienation, and the pain—inside and out.

The 3 Cs of Grief

The gravity of grief is exhausting. I am talking about the micro and the macro of it—the micro being the weight of my own personal confederacy of  losses, and the macro, the gestalt of the world in crisis—the pandemic, isolation, climate change, social injustice, QAnon, Texas’ incompetent leadership, gun violence, the pain of lost children at the U.S. border seeking sanctuary, and the list goes on. Lately, I feel like I have hit a wall, a saturation point that has tarnished all my silver linings.

Most days, I find this perpetual state like a heavy weighted blanket, paradoxically as agitating as it is confining. (That might be my CPTSD talking.) But let’s face it—if you are human, you are dealing with crappy stuff. It’s part of the package, and the last year, two or four, have been tough for all of us. Grief is ubiquitous. Grief is insistent. Grief is oppressive. Grief is obstinate. Grief is transformative. It changes who we are because it changes the way we rub against the world. And yet, it is also one of the most potent reminders of our inherent humanness. As so many smart people have posited, we grieve to the degree we love. So, for those of us who suffer most, grief is never going away, but it may morph. And the exact way it morphs is as individual as a snowflake.  

That’s why addressing and processing grief head-on is essential.  I feel like I have a PhD in the subject by now, but that’s why I talk about so much. It’s what I feel called to do. My meaning. David Kessler, a gentle grief guru, says so eloquently:

Grief must be witnessed. Something profound happens when others see and hear and acknowledge our grief. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Conversely, something goes wrong when it remains unseen.

Profound and true, because the vulnerability of being witnessed authentically is what  restores your sense of wholeness and safety—even if it’s just for a nanosecond. And with a continuous queue of compassionate witnesses, we begin to truly transform and reach a place where we can carry the weight of the  grief burden—and eventually, carry on. We feel carried by the whole, and we realize we need community to heal.

Truly, acknowledging and validating grief is the most gracious gift you can give a broken heart. It opens up a space to breathe and thereby connect. It is the definition of grace, and regardless of your faith proclivities, grace is the place where we encounter the divine. There are no magic words required. You don’t even have to apologize. You really don’t need to say you are sorry for my loss or anything like that. This might be a new catchphrase or hashtag. Grief means never having to say your sorry. Just say you are present, and you cannot begin to comprehend the gravity of my loss. “There are no words. I am here.” That’s it. I consider those who can sit in silence or simply walk alongside me to be my angels on earth.

Still, grief in our culture is tricky because it’s the elephant in room—which translates into instant awkwardness. We don’t have the language for loss. We have never developed the interpersonal grief muscle, but why? Loss is universal, and being seen is the most potent balm. It’s just the closeness, context, and confluence of the loss (or losses) than can tip the scales, adding even more weight. Perhaps these are the three Cs of grief?

Closeness. This is nature or depth of the relationship. Though grief is not a competitive sport, there is particularly devastating wallop losing a child packs. It’s out of order and  life altering—even setting all other aspects aside. No matter how complicated the connection might have been, losing a child is like losing an appendage. You can technically go on living, but you have to relearn how to do everything.  In losing my spectacular and sometimes frustrating Elliot, I find the love and pain often conflate (another C). That intensifies the ache that erupts in these startling moments when I am unable to breathe or stop the sobs. Indeed, context is also a vexing conundrum. (Another C or two.)

Context. This refers to the particulars of your life at the time of the death and after. These factors are inescapable. The context has felt like a tightening vice around my experience. Elliot had found his groove. He had just scratched the surface of his potential. Tragic on so many levels. I just can’t bear it, so I  just keep moving. I try to muster empathy for myself, but it’s a challenge. I am training myself to acknowledge the tough feelings and release them. I’m kind of an emotional nomad—living on the edge and trying not to dwell in the stagnate stew underneath for any length of time. I feel so detached and untethered. Thank God, I have my moments of precious connection with friends but nothing durable. Some days, maintaining the “I’m OK” exterior is so exhausting I just mentally vamp. Tread water. Barely. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I can do. Yet something about this bifurcation in the isolation of my silent, compact office in front of three computer screens makes it even more debilitating.          

Confluence.  The pieces of me, the factors that have come together in this life now—after Elliot. As a single mom of a 24-year-old son, I must constantly remind myself to give my Ian the space he needs to forge his own path. That’s both difficult and easy.  Beautiful and desolate. Fulfilling and draining. I feel I am performing over the center ring without a net, flying the airplane without a parachute—when all I really want is a safe place to land. Emphasis on “safe.”

I know I need to find a way to be in the world. Half of me feels like it no longer operates in sync with the rest of me—the definition of yin and yang. Numb, heavy, confused and anxious. Time is sluggish and accelerating—all at the same time. Perhaps it’s the lumbering repetitiveness of COVID existence—sorrow, grief and isolation make an unappetizing cocktail.  I have lost that unconscious optimistic autopilot that helped me know I would be OK; I would figure it out one day. But now, everything is hard, feels off center and precarious in this context of fear and uncertainty  It’s hard to flex the over-functioning muscle that’s always been my default coping mechanism. I guess my grief therapist would say that’s progress, but I say it’s harrowing. Definitely accounts got the vacuousness, the feeling of perpetual flimsiness. And the futility of this awful, new normal existence.

I am constantly aware of the vast, dank abyss I teeter over. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I am a half, maybe even a third of a person now. Am I missing the part that died with Elliot? Will my heart regenerate. Will my soul? I want the comfort and connection others can bring and simultaneously want to be with alone. I have no interest in banter, but it used to be my fuel, my raison d’etre. Still, I am grateful for so much—an extraordinary son, caring friends, my writing, a new job that challenges me, and a lovely roof over my head.

I am different now.

And maybe, there are more than 3 Cs—maybe five, six of seven. They all apply at one time or another, but the most important one is not a C at all. It’s a G—grace. Cherishing those transcendent moments that remind me I am part of something much bigger than my own rumination.

I must keep clearing the space to let in the light.