was three years old, the youngest of three, when my father passed away in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. I have no recollection of him. Any remainders are memories of memories, or stories my family has told me. For much of my life his story has been a sort of lucid fairy-tale; something that happened in a dreamy otherworld. Something that happened to everybody else—but not me.
As a result, my father’s death has long been strangely removed from my interest in my own history and identity. But of late, I’ve become somewhat perversely interested in death, perhaps about the finality of it, but also about our collective knowledge of what death feels like and as a way to think of my own mortality, the fallibility of my own memories and narratives, and my guilt of being so unfeeling about his death. So I’m trying now: to find out and map out those events of my father’s death before they slip away entirely. Mostly I think I’m trying to regain, having lost it, a sense of my own identity.
I asked my mother to describe for me the days and nights surrounding my father’s passing. I could see it pained her, and I felt incredible guilt when I saw she realized that I was likely to use her words and memories as writing material. But she told me anyway.
The details are simple enough. It was not a violent death; it was a quick one. My father contracted viral hemorrhagic fever of unknown origin. The doctors didn’t know what to make of it for the first few days, and so between diagnosis and death there was only two days. The rapid escalation of the illness and the suddenness of his death unsurprisingly left a deep impact on his young widow and my brother and sister, ten and eight years old at the time. It was an impact that can easily be described as tragic, even if I never saw it that way.
I struggle to understand a great many things. Mostly I don’t understand what could have made my family the way it is. There used to be one way of thinking about my father’s death—as a curio in a thrift shop that I inspected with disinterest. And now there’s this other way: I’m fascinated by it, which I hate being because it means that I was wrong for all those years that I bristled and raged when kids made me feel I was missing something because I didn’t have a father and only a mother.
Perhaps it’s because, for me death has often been synonymous with tragedy: tragedy as something heightened, hard to grasp, and earth-shattering; tragedy perhaps even in the theatrical sense as something that brings upon long periods of unspeakable sorrow for some purpose. Still, although I know I’ve blithely ignored the subject for so long, simultaneously I’ve felt a sense of being the odd one out without even knowing it. I had never actually shared in the collective trauma my family went through.
At seven, obsessed with Roald Dahl, I read The BFG, and delighted in the ‘snozzcumbers’ and ‘frobscottle’ that accompanied the eponymous kindly giant: the supplier of dreams, and holder of ideas that people from Panama taste like hats. It was only much later, when I was a teenager, that I read that Dahl wrote The BFG in the wake of the death of his daughter Olivia of measles.
Devastated, Dahl threw himself into writing and charity work. When I reread The BFG when I was older I couldn’t help but see it as Dahl’s fantasy of his daughter’s afterlife. After all, the protagonist, Sophie, had no family, lived in an orphanage, befriended the BFG, and went on living as his companion presumably forever, saving the world from giants who eat children. I saw it as wish-fulfillment: a happy ending for his beloved daughter in the care of a gentle, eccentric, and imaginative paternal figure.
The beautiful tragedy that emerges from The BFG is in the context outside of the book, in the realm of literary analysis. I thought: that’s tragedy. Not my story. Parents losing children has always been firmly in the pantheon of great tragedies. Children losing parents they don’t remember isn’t. I don’t mean to trivialize it. The loss of a child is confounding because it seems rare and uniquely unfair, but also because one suspects any possible metaphors or comparisons will sound trite.
After all: what can be said about death that hasn’t been said many times before? So I started to read. I had some sense that I should start with ancient philosophers—and I did, and continued in chronological order. But after a while, it all became a bit haphazard. I deluded myself for as long as I could that I was weeding out the banal. I read, and I read, and I read.
Obviously, understanding death—even one so close to me—is not a small thought experiment. Almost everyone who has ever written seems to have written something about death, and the history of philosophy on death goes as far back as humanity itself. Shockingly little has changed. Embedded within the history of ancient philosophy are our contemporary ideas of death.
In the Roman Empire of Antiquity, there’s almost nothing known about a woman named Marcia who was alive during the reign of Caligula. Nothing that is except what is known through the philosopher Seneca’s famous letter to her, the De Consolatione Ad Marciam (The Consolation of Marcia). The details are simple. Marcia’s son Metilius died just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday. Marcia’s grief persisted for at least three years. After three years passed, her grief was the same. Seneca told her that “even time, Nature’s great healer, that allays even our more grievous sorrows, in your case only has lost its power.”
Why was Marcia in mourning for so long? Seneca’s a famous Stoic, and so his letter is both a Stoic tract, and really very ordinary. For the Stoics, death can of course be rare and unusual but that doesn’t mean it’s tragic. It’s completely ordinary. In fact, it’s trivial.
How is this meant to be a consolation? The treatise on Marcia—one Seneca claims he writes because of “the evidence of the greatness of [Marcia’s] mind” that allows him to ‘put aside’ the matter of her gender—treats her grief with the utmost condescension. The loss of her son is a wound; “easy to heal” when fresh but which must be “cauterized and, opened up to the very bottom” when turned into an infection. The death of Metilius must be treated as one might treat a wound: clinically, eschewing the utility or inevitability of human frailty or sadness, rejecting even the existence of grief as immoral.”
Your deepest offence will be your age,” writes Seneca to Marcia in the event that her grief continues unabated. Why was it so offensive? Apparently, what Seneca wanted was for Marcia to speak of her son only to extol his existence. Never mind that her son was dead and thus, even by Seneca’s own logic, could not benefit in any earthly pleasure from being exalted. It was the right thing to do just to be mentioned. These were the rights of Metilius the Dead. And for Marcia the Living there was this: “Do not, I pray you, covet that most perverse distinction—that of being considered the most unhappy of women!”
There, in the final word of that sentence, is the nub of most conceptions about grief—not just Seneca’s. Grief, after all, is often thought of as the opposite of interiority. Public expressions of grief, in other words, are the domain of copious tears, and loud wailing. It is, in other words, the domain we culturally ascribe to women. In this light, there is little that is dated about Seneca’s words. ‘Strength’ and ‘moving on’—what we see so often in men— are in his estimation and ours today, too, the appropriate forms of grief. Just as there seemed to be some statute of limitations on a mother’s grief in 40 CE, there seems to be a statute of limitations on expressions of grief today. If you’ve ever been acquainted with photographs of funerals after bombings, you may have noticed that what is pictured most often is the ‘spectacle’ of grieving women. The photos themselves evoke sympathy, but only momentarily—it is assumed, or hoped, that the awful spectacle will not be the same some unspecified time later. In the long run, we demand the display of strength from those who express grief because we demand it of ourselves collectively. We use ‘strength’ selectively as a way to fortify ourselves against the tide of future misfortune, to inure ourselves. If only the successful eradication of grief were a vaccine against future unhappiness.
Still, though you may be able remove the appearance of grief, you cannot get rid of grief itself, nor the emotional labor to stanch it. Even if you can somehow identify the ‘emotional’ populace that has had to put a mask on grief you cannot ensure that grief isn’t felt on a visceral level. People ‘seem’ to mourn for a long time despite being totally prepared for the death of a loved one after a prolonged illness. I’ve seen people ‘seem’ to mourn hardly at all despite a lack of preparation.
I know this because when I was four years old, my mother took no time at all. Mere months after my father passed, she moved with her three children to Lahore, a city she barely knew, and by all evidence, threw herself into our rearing and her teaching career as a single, working mother. Those are my earliest memories. What I remember is a stoic mother.
This is also, of course, my own comfortable narrative. It bears little resemblance to my mother’s memories. By her account, she grieved deeply, and still does. So did my brother and sister. She says I must be doing it too—now. I don’t believe so. My own grief, if its grief at all, is something abstract. It’s like solidarity borne of an emptiness, accompanied only with a sadness for others. Then again, perhaps it’s a failure of imagination.
Barbara is on her way to identify her father’s corpse in the middle of the night. She is the eldest of the three Weston daughters in Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County, and Beverly Weston, the patriarch, has just drowned himself. Just the day earlier, Barbara has questions for her mother, the caustic, scathing Violet Weston about what happened the day before her father disappeared. They exchange unkind words. The daughter gets the better of her mother who is drugged-up on a cocktail of prescription pills, before ultimately relenting and consoling her. “You know where I think he is?” Barbara muses. “I think he got out on the boat, steered it to a nice spot, somewhere in the shade, close to shore…and he’s fishing, and reading, and drinking, and if the mood strikes him, maybe even writing a little. I think he’s safe. And I think he’ll walk through that door…any time.” Barbara is lying, of course. Even before the Sheriff calls on the house, Barbara tells her husband that her father is dead.
Where does Barbara get her certainty and strength? She is separated from her husband who is likely to never return, her relationship with her mother is bitter and physically violent, she has an awful relationship with her own daughter, and she’s hardly close to either of her sisters, Ivy and Karen. A key theme throughout the play is that, to her own surprise, Barbara inherits the most of her mother: a hardness, and a propensity for shocking violence. But then Barbara makes her way to the lake where her father’s body has been discovered, and she starts to come undone. She ruminates, digresses, reminisces about the Sheriff who was her prom date in high school. “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed,” she says, as if to herself. And then—just as she pulls herself together, she turns to her daughter. “Listen to me: Die after me, all right? I don’t care what else you do, where you go, how you screw up your life, just…survive.”
But in truth: a more terrifying, subsumed fear exists amongst the Weston family. Death in August: Osage County is somewhat of a friendly presence: it is a reprieve from the living. The living Westons, most of all Violet but also Violet’s sister and Barbara herself, are always sniffing to rip each other apart. In the aftermath of a terrifying funeral dinner, the ‘weaker’ members of the pack are slowly dispatched, wounded and depleted. The play is so brutal in fact, that it’s hard not to believe that Letts is striving for the entirety of his play to live up to an opening dialogue—the one and only scene featuring Beverly Weston, quoting T.S. Eliot: “Life is very long.” The greatest tragedy in August: Osage County is not that one of them died. It is that any of them lived at all.
Contempt for life is not uncommon in philosophical skepticism. The famously melancholic Renaissance skeptic Montaigne noted in his essay “To philosophize is to learn how to die” that when he became ill he felt contempt for life, and that senescence seemed to be harsher than dying when young. “Nature leads us by the hand down a gentle slope; little by little, step by step, she engulfs us in that pitiful state and breaks us in, so that we feel no jolt when youth dies in us, although in essence and in truth that is a harsher death than the total extinction of a languishing life as old age dies.” For Montaigne, death was natural—even beautiful.
There is reason to be greatly skeptical of this too, and in fact I am more than a little enraged by it even as I recognize I have known this conception of death my whole life. By Montaigne’s own account, he lived a luxurious life free from desperate wants—but at the Weston dinner table, there are no such tranquil lives. For many, life is just perpetually unjust.
There’s this fundamental contradiction in me right now. I read Montaigne and August: Osage County at a brief interlude in my life: a time when I attempted suicide myself. I was recovering from—grieving, really—a broken engagement. I was miserable in graduate school; tired of disappointing relationships and faraway friendships, of failing to overcome the anger that runs through my family like a tidal wave, of failing to guard myself against attacks on my sexuality from my family. Of failing, writ large. I’m afraid to say I don’t feel entirely out of the woods yet.
I’m beginning to think that feeling like the odd one out in my family has made me feel like I was dispensable. I’m trying to open this curio that is my father, even though the opening really means is the opening of old wounds. What I really want is a solution to my present problems. Some part of me envies my father: he whose death seemed so tragic to everyone else seems to me the kindest way to die of all.
That suicide is associated with selfishness is a tremendously unfair burden. Life can feel too long for some miseries, and there is never a seer warning us of what is to come. It’s such an unfair burden, in fact, that we almost always seem entirely content with people living with crippling depression just as long as it never veers into suicidal ideation.
So what my struggle became was: how does one have certainty? And as I thought of this, the first writer I was reminded of was Virginia Woolf. The woman who wrote the plangent yet energetic feminist tract A Room of One’s Own was the same woman who wrote with complete certainty in her suicide note that “I shan’t recover this time… So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
In her story The Death of the Moth, Woolf wrote of death both as strange and familiar, both strong and indifferent:
“The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange.”
Woolf seems to me that rare, clear-eyed observer of her own death. Like Montaigne, I believe she saw it as approaching beauty. Maybe she even saw it as a rupture from female life: an act of agency.
When I re-read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours recently (in which Woolf is also a character, albeit greatly dissipated), the character of Laura Brown hit me hardest. Brown, a pregnant housewife in 1949 with a young son, does not know how to be a mother, how to be a wife, how to be this perfect thing. Her crisis forces her to see death as the best option. The tragedy here seems to be collective; that of white women of a certain class: the mid-century, postwar, cloistered suburban wives for whom things were soon to shift—but they didn’t know that then. Years later, in 1999, Laura Brown resurfaces. Her son, Richard, a celebrated poet dying of AIDS, has committed suicide. Richard’s old friend Clarissa welcomes Brown into her home, and thinks:
“So Laura Brown, the woman who tried to die and failed at it, the woman who fled her family, is alive when all the others, all those who struggled to survive in her wake, have passed away. She is alive now, after her ex-husband has been carried off to liver cancer, after her daughter has been killed by a drunk driver. She is alive after Richard has jumped from a window onto a bed of broken glass.”
Those three sentences alone make my heart skip a beat. Laura Brown—the member of the family who most wanted to die—was the only one who had found a way to live. Death in suicide, too, is confounding. How can anyone ever comprehensively sketch the thinking of anybody other than themselves? Had I succeeded—nobody would have ever understood why. No note would ever have been enough. I had no control over anything except whether I woke up or not.
How could anyone ever understand your death—when no one else has ever been you?
The tearful youngest sister, Karen, in August: Osage County says in the denouement of her arc in the play: “I’m no angel myself. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of… I may even have to do some things I’m not proud of again. ‘Cause life just puts you in a corner that way.”
Like Karen, being the youngest in the family has meant many things. Borne of anger, our fights had the uncanny ability to open up unexpected fears and secrets like an ugly wellspring, reminding us that something had led us here. Primarily, for too much of my life I have felt like my role was to play the mediator in bitter family fights I was largely puzzled by because I did not understand their origin. I related to Karen’s instinct to batten down the hatches, to abandon out of a fear of abandonment. Surely, life itself is the real tragedy. Haven’t we already lived through too much to bear? Haven’t we already made too many mistakes?
If all that sounds like pure nihilism, I think it’s because the paradoxical aspects of modernity sit side-by-side, and are rarely put into conversation. Somehow—we hold both ideas of miraculous, beautiful life by way of modern science and problematic, gendered, ancient ideas about the meaninglessness of life and death. How did this notion that life and death are natural, and thus beautiful, gain so much currency anyway? Far too many people are killed in wars, but few call war beautiful. People often believe war is righteous, however—but that is a pleasure all of its own. Beauty in life is like the asymptotic curve. Not only can we not reach our destination, we hold ourselves back because we don’t want to. And if beauty was what humans were after all along, how do they confront the truth of war, pain, injustice, when all are conditions of a lack of beauty?
Whatever the answer is: humans demonstrably confront these truths all the time. Grief is a poor proxy for death and dying. It has to be. It forms the process for those surrounding the dying, but surely it cannot be the feeling of death itself because grief, rage, sorrow are not emotions solely as consequences of death. We can approach the subject of grief after death with equanimity, with skepticism. But injustice, the cause of so many deaths, renders less skepticism. I do—and people should!—feel profound anger about the injustice of black and brown people gunned down by law enforcement. I do—and people should!—feel rage about the persecution of minorities, about torture, about the treatment of immigrants as sub-human, about the injury, loss, and dismemberment in wars today and throughout history.
Let me attempt one proof that humans confront painful truths that sound nihilist all the time—and even derive utility from them. For one, grief and injustice have often been preserved over immensely long time scales. Grief often does not abate at all, perhaps because of injustice. And maybe it shouldn’t. One can feel the injustice of deaths embedded in historical memory; of genocides too remote to have physically touched our lives, of ethnic cleansing, of slavery, of apartheid, the deaths of lives so far from us in time and space that it is the collective sorrow they passed to their descendants and those descendants to their own who feel it in a diluted way, but still somewhere-in-their-bones. Humans perpetuate these memories of injustices long-ago all the time. And I suspect it’s because humans assume that if only grief caused by injustice can be preserved, then maybe revenge, or redress, can reverse it. If we can avenge, we can be whole again. We can achieve the purpose of tragedy in the Shakespearean sense: catharsis.
This too, is cruel, even if true. Like grief, injustice must also be a poor proxy for death, otherwise we’re merely projecting on all those who died with clear-eyed soberness. It is survivors who mourn. Injustice just tilts the scale further toward contradiction. Both for the personal and the political, unjust deaths polarize people or bring them together; often, they do both. They are spoken of as if they are collective sorrows, the grief of nations, the grief of peoples. But even so, it’s hard to believe that grief can ever be truly uniform: an equally-apportioned resource.
In her essay ‘Dying Together’ from The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat recounts finding out about the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010 while in a supermarket in Miami’s Little Haiti. Danticat—who lost many loved ones in the earthquake—openly confesses to using writing as a way to make sense of death. In Haiti, the death and grief was ‘en masse’. She compares the experience of finding out about the dying en masse in Haiti to watching the people who jumped from the towers on 9/11. “Public terrors become personalized,” Danticat writes, shifting ground from the communal and public to the personal and private. “Those of us who saw the jumpers that day, either live at the scene or on television screens, saw a sky raining lives. Those of us who were from countries that have been, in their own way, on the edge of destruction, could now be counselors to our previously sheltered friends, but only barely. For no matter how much we immerse ourselves in communal grief, we all still carry our own private losses within us.”
Danticat is writing about deaths of an immensely different scale, but her words also make me think that my conviction in my family’s ‘shared experience’ of my father’s death was the equivalent of forcing a square peg in a round hole; insisting on coherence where there was none. If even our most communal and shared experiences of death are too privately cognized, it’s unlikely death contains within it any generalizability.
But if there is only one generalization allowed to us, to me—I choose then the generalization of the historical injustice that almost everyone on Planet Earth has been made to carry contradictory beliefs and staunch ideas about death, and they’re making life harder to live. It’s made my life hard to live.
Sad as it is—two thousand years after the most enduring philosophies on death, the closest humans are to understanding how it feels to die is through studying activity in the central nervous system of those who have experienced near-death experiences. And if neurons firing in a part of the brain in obscure patterns is as far as we have gotten—we may as well keep philosophizing. We may as well exercise the little agency we have in shaping the narrative arc of the life and death of us.
If to philosophize is truly to learn how to die, few have done it better than James Baldwin. In Baldwin’s collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name, he discusses death multiple times, but nowhere as strikingly as in the essay ‘The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy’, the ‘looking’ illustrated through his encounters with Norman Mailer. Baldwin writes:
“There is a difference, though, between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines that he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose. Or, perhaps I ought to put it another way: the things that most white people imagine they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. It was this commodity precisely which I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death.”
Injustice, Baldwin argues, instills knowledge about death within the mind of the black boy so as to live—knowledge ‘on pain of death’. The ‘storm of life’ is universal of course—Baldwin would never have argued otherwise—but it is a different storm in a different state of being. His encounters with Mailer were shaped indelibly by this knowledge, because “the really ghastly thing about trying to convey to a white man the reality of the Negro experience has nothing whatever to do with the fact of color, but has to do with this man’s relationship to his own life. He will face in your life only what he is willing to face in his.”
What I find most astonishing about Baldwin is that he confronts injustice as truthfully as he does his own ambitions. I, too, have that desire that gives my life meaning: my ambition. I’ve been talking to my oldest friends recently, trying to suss out who I used to be before I made such a mess of things and the thing they almost remind me of is how ambitious I’ve always been. The things I’ve always wanted. “You’ve always wanted to write a book!”, they say, “You’ve always wanted to be great, not just good.” And they’re right. That part has not left me.
All that seems awfully contradictory to be contained in one person, but it’s hard to suss out why. Why can’t grief and ambition and fear and ‘on pain of death’ all live simultaneously in one person? After all, grief really is the slipperiest of ideas—and death perhaps only partially less so because we know it when it happens biologically: the cessation of the heartbeat, the lack of brain activity, the setting in of rigor mortis. It feels like cheating somewhat to say that I must have passively created all narratives about my family’s experience by stitching together the memories of my childhood and filtering them through what was transmitted to me culturally—but I’m not sure what else it could be. Besides, knowing even that is knowing nothing at all. After all, I have no recollection of when I first cognized ancient Stoic edicts: like all things, they likely accreted through bland repetition, the stuff of passive cultural transmission. Somehow, I have also accreted mirror images of those ideas.
I feel now, inside of me, the character of my father gaining substance through what he meant to his family, through what his death set in motion. But I can no more grieve his absence now than I did when I was a child. I don’t even know how to sincerely wish for his return, something I recognize from other losses in my life as the most consistent element of grief.
To be this steeped in doubt, I do need things to hold on to. What I know is this: the death of my father feels substantively different to deaths that occurred when I was older. When I was fifteen, a close friend passed away. She and I had the sort of combative relationship that, had we time, may have matured into a far deeper, closer relationship. She died because of a prescription drug overdose. It has never been entirely clear whether it was planned or accidental. Owing to the taboos of suicide, nobody ever talked about it.
Fifteen is an awfully strange age to lose a friend. There were so few friendships I had at fifteen that were not embryonic but that I also recall feeling deeply about for the first time. At fifteen, the death of a friend was the farthest it could possibly be from expected, or trivial. It took myself and my friends—the best I have—no short time to deal with it. Thankfully, with time, her death has faded away with our childhoods, and so has the grief. It’s now something that happened to us—once upon a time.
I’ve been talking to those friends about it recently, and over the phone—with us so far away from each other—I can tell I haven’t felt this close to them in a long time. We all seem to appreciate now that at that age, death was like the sound of a loud, persistent clanging. The death of others, I feel, deepens not in its understanding but in its inevitability, the older you get. Now and then, there’s a certain din, and it gets louder and quieter, but it’s always there. It follows you around in newspapers, through your family and friends, through your work: accidents, mysterious abductions, police killings, disease diagnoses, suicide; family, friends, colleagues, pets, acquaintances, beloved activists, elderly writers. You may become more adept at looking at what one is doing following the death of a loved one, and maybe even what they need, but mostly, it’s your ears getting attuned to the noise.
Knowing that now, I can forgive myself for my lifelong failure to see that my father’s death also happened to me. But a state of doubt doesn’t seem to ever go away. I think that’s how it should be.
My mother surprises me with a new story. When my father was alive, a friend of my parents lost her four-year old son in a traffic accident. Her husband succumbed, just two years later, to cancer. My mother remembers asking her friend unthinkingly which death gave her more sorrow. Her friend did not begrudge her the question. It seemed she had been starved for something beyond trite consolations. She replied that when her son died, she never thought she had the capacity to live on, but somehow she had found her sea legs. The death of her husband, however, was like the floor disappearing from beneath her feet, despite the fact that his illness was prolonged, and his death not unexpected.
I muse aloud to my mother: perhaps they were only able to grieve together. Perhaps, without her husband, my mother’s friend had lost her closest life raft. No sooner has the thought escaped my mouth that I realize how trite it is. Death is final, but what conclusion could we draw from this chaos? For some losses, we will just never be old enough.