When I was an undergraduate, I volunteered with a youth outreach program at a local high school. One of “our kids,” a sophomore boy named Nile, lost his father to cancer halfway through the year. Two other youth leaders and I visited Nile at home one evening to offer support. I was just twenty and hadn’t yet lost a close family member. Still, I thought I knew what to expect when we visited Nile.
Nile’s mother answered the door, collected, calm, not even looking like she’d been weeping. How could someone who’d just lost her husband be so calm and cheerful?
“Yes, oh, come in,” she said. “So good to have you. Can I get you anything? Nile’s in his room. Just down the hall, second door on the right.”
There were no flowers set around the living room we passed through, no disarray in the house. On a side table was a facedown paperback copy of On Death and Dying. I recognized the title because I had studied Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief in my Psych 101 class. Had Nile’s cheerful mother read the book already, while her husband was dying? Was she through all the stages? Didn’t she still grieve?
The hallway was lined with photos, and I wondered which were of Nile’s father. Nile’s bedroom door stood open.
“Hey guys, come in,” Nile said. He sat on the bed with his back against the headboard, a pillow on his lap, a book on the pillow. We stood around his small room. I wish I could remember what we talked about. Not his father. Not his grief. Not any of the things I’d rehearsed before the visit. I remember only that our conversation wasn’t awkward, that Nile seemed the same as ever, joking, laughing. Our presence didn’t launch him into tears. Nile didn’t even look like he’d been crying.
Nothing was as I’d expected.
I looked around the room at the desk stacked with schoolbooks, at the still boyish bedspread, at Nile kneading the pillow as he joked with us. And on the floor beside the bed was a wastebasket, mounded to overflowing with crumpled tissues.
How can I write what I felt? I had knocked on Nile’s door expecting a cliché, expecting flowers and cards, shaky hugs and tears. But Nile’s grief was not public, not a thing to be shared with his youth leader. I had come prepared with words of solace. I thought I could bring some kind of comfort to a hurting kid.
Instead, I saw a wastebasket full of crumpled tissues and for the first time, I felt another’s grief. I experienced empathy.
Nile was fifteen when he lost his father. At twenty, I had not yet filled a basket with evidence of my tears. I’d read Kubler-Ross, knew what the textbooks said about grief. But who can describe a feeling? How can words evoke empathy?
It wasn’t words that pierced me. I was moved by the physical remnants of invisible grief.
Attempts to describe grief may focus on abstract descriptions: pain, sorrow, ache, hopelessness, tears. The description only starts to have some heat when we pull it down into the realm of the concrete. The sorrow comes in waves, I might say. I am overtaken by weeping. These descriptions may well be clichés, but they are less abstract because they incorporate evocative, active, physical phrases. Instead of sorrow floating around out there in the ether of abstraction, I’ve given the sorrow the form of waves, of a predator chasing down its prey.
Four years ago, on the last day of the school year, a little girl named Cecilia from my daughter’s fifth-grade class was murdered by her psychotic mother. In the days following Cecilia’s death, my daughter Jessica assembled a shrine on her dresser. She worried that mothers might at any moment murder their children. She asked me about mental illness and safety and children dying violently.
I can’t describe fear or grief. But I can tell you about my daughter Jessica. I can take what’s abstract and give it form in the concrete.
Ten years ago, Steve Dehner’s family was in a car wreck in which his thirteen-year-old son died. In the essay, “What a Stone Weighs,” Dehner writes of fresh grief that, “felt like our hearts cut from inside of us, broken, crushed … the awful, swirling haze of grief over a son lost and a daughter yet in a coma.”
Dehner’s artful simile and evocative description of grief are striking—but the passage in “What a Stone Weighs” that moves me most deeply is what Dehner writes about the “lightened” grief he and his wife feel ten years after the wreck, when they finally lay the headstone at their son’s grave and reflect on the events of ten years prior.
We remembered the simple but beautiful wooden casket a friend had made, Paul’s youth leader at church, and how Paul’s friends had gathered together to write messages on the inside of the cover: words of love and sorrow and farewell.
Though our grief has lightened over years, it’s still heavy, hard, sharp around the edges, and insoluble against the years of our remaining lifetimes. As in the setting of the stone, our heartache becomes a lighter, a bearable sorrow, as heaven heals us.
Planted in the dirt and grass, the marker is surrounded by the life of the ancient hills draped with bean-rows and vineyards, evergreens and yearly-renewed flora —life that stubbornly goes on, indifferent to death or graves, to past pains and sorrows. Grief can look like this: it moves slowly, and some days not at all, as life and the world go on their way.
The melding together of the abstract and the concrete is what gives this passage weight and depth. The first paragraph places before us a handmade wooden casket, solid and real, along with the tangible image of friends gathered around the casket, writing words that will be sealed into the grave with this boy to express a grief that will remain in the land of the living.
Grief is amorphous, abstract, difficult to invoke on the page. Dehner uses the physical in his descriptions and metaphors. He describes grief in concrete terms: heavy, sharp around the edges, insoluble even over the years of a lifetime.
When you sit down to write about deep emotions, make sure to ground those emotions in the physical world. Go ahead, describe, if you can, the swirling haze of denial, the sharpness of despair, the impossible vacuum of loneliness. To describe the abstract—love, grief, disappointment, affection—you’ll often find yourself borrowing the language of the concrete.
Look closer. Pay attention to what’s on the walls, what’s in the wastebasket, what’s written inside the casket, what’s draping the hills. Take the abstraction of grief and pull it down into the physical world of the concrete.
Lisa Ohlen Harris teaches Advanced Memoir & Personal Essay for Creative Nonfiction Foundation. She is the author of The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving and the Middle East memoir, Through the Veil. Visit Lisa’s website at www.lisaohlenharris.com