It’s spring. It’s spring and everywhere I hear discussions of spring break. Everywhere, I hear discussions of spring break and the remake of Into the Woods. It was the first day of spring break and I was watching Into the Woods when I heard my friend B was missing. On the last day, with perfect symmetry, I was trying to watch the second act when I heard she’d been found.
Or maybe that’s not quite how the facts lined up. It’s been decades. But when you tell a story like this you want the facts to line up. Not just as a writer trying to explain how it was, but as a human trying to remember it. You want to tell it like it really is a story, words marching in order, this happened and then that happened. So you speculate. We know she was out running. We know she got into his car. He says he didn’t have a gun.
Make it line up. Tell us what she was wearing, that her blonde hair was in a ponytail, that she had just entered a painting into the school art show. Tell us what he said, what she thought.
I can’t do that for you. More, I won’t.
Grief is not a pink pillbox hat. It’s not a weeping woman reaching into a casket, a child standing perfectly still by his mother, a wrought-iron fence drowning in bouquets. Grief exists in its own continuum, a mosaic of eulogies and curses.
Writing about the dead is dangerous; we want to shatter that mosaic, sort the pieces by color and shape, insert ourselves into the story as heroes or gods, imagining the thoughts of the dying, the motives of murderers or the inexorable creep of cancer. And that kind of writing is seductive, promising an ordered world, a world in which grief is an exotic night-blooming flower.
Grief is not a flower or even a field of flowers, unless it is. Unless the sight of a poppy can drive you to your knees in the street, because grief is unkind and grief has no dignity.
Murder mysteries, crime procedurals, all the books and movies are soothing, calming. They promise an ordered world in which real grief has no place. Shadow puppets perform, again and again, their precise rituals promising that the darkness is elsewhere, that there can be an end, closure, roll credits.
Do not judge your grief by the shadows it casts and don’t wait for the credits to roll. Grief is not a puppet. It is a jagged stone, a sharp-edged tooth waiting to cut you. It may, in time, wear down; or you may discover suddenly that there are new fractures in a surface you thought smoothed by the passage of days.
Your grief is yours and no-one else’s and it is not a neat story, it doesn’t have a plot arc and falling action and a denouement. There are days when the color blue is too much to bear. Resist the temptation to paint over those jagged edges, to tell the story from the perspective of the dead, or worse, the others grieving. No-one has the whole story, ever, and death is no different that way.
If you speak of the dead, this is how you tell it: I mourn.