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The public and private face of grief

Last Sunday in New York, the afternoon was cool and gray, wet from the rain and perfect for a nap. I’ve just returned from a travel whirlwind and am still heavy and hazy with plane delays. But I dragged myself from my apartment to the 92NY Cultural Center on the Upper East Side to hear a public conversation about grief between two writers, Chimamanda Adichie and Zain Asher, who have written books about the experience of losing a father. their. The auditorium filled up, and I watched a diverse group of men and women run into the room and take their seats.

I’m not surprised that such a topic can attract so many people. Everyone, at some point in their life, will lose someone and experience grief first. There will be a phone call, or the doctor’s face reading before she speaks, or deep silence in the weeks and months after the visits stop; Scenes of empty bed, empty chair, text messages or old photos. We will lose parents, or children, siblings, or spouses, partners, friends, favorite aunts or uncles, grandparents, co-workers, the Queen.

And each of us will have our own unique experience of it. Even those who are asked to share their pain publicly have to find a private way to endure it.

Unfortunately, grief is always a relevant topic, because somewhere someone always takes death and its consequences into account. It is a difficult thing to talk about or write about, mainly because it is a difficult thing to learn to live. There are no rules for grieving, and we treat it as if it were timetables and manuals, often embarrassing ourselves and others by failing to conform to imaginary and false social standards. this.

No wonder there are so many works of art depicting sadness. Some works stand out more than others, such as Van Gogh’s 1890 painting “At Eternity’s Gate,” or Howardena Pindell’s 1988 collage, “Autobiography: Water / Ancestors / Middle Paragraph/ Family ghosts”. But it is Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “Dead in the Sick Room” that I still think of because of the way it suggests the isolation of grief even when shared by a community, and the fact that grief Sadness is handled differently by everyone. The painting shows how the Munch family deals with the death of their sister, Sophie.

With her back to the viewer, Sophie is depicted sitting in a chair across from an empty bed. According to Munch, it was her last request, to sit in the chair where she had died. The other six members of the family are all dressed in navy blue, a somber ensemble that unites them in this shared experience. But they turned their backs on each other, each seemingly lost in their own world. One of the most painful aspects of grief is its ability to isolate you from everyone and everything else. It’s as if death not only robs you of a loved one, but also imprisons you in an unfathomable sadness, even for those grieving beside you.

Though beautifully painted 75 years before Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross devised her initial five stages of grief, Munch’s painting brings to mind her work. The bearded old man prayed before the child, and the woman propped up Sophie with one hand and the other outstretched, possibly as a symbol of rejection or bargaining. The red-faced man by the cracked door to the left of the canvas might be angry. The young man at the foot of the bed faced the chair and the couple looked helpless, just watching, perhaps still in shock. The girl sitting in the front with her head lowered may be depressed. The young woman standing facing forward, with her back to the scene, can be accepted.

Anger, depression, paralysis of helplessness, all can exist in one person at the same time. There is no staged order of mourning. Grief can divide us into many selves, some of which we can hardly recognize. However, when we get to see all these different people in the room of the picture dealing with death, and grieving in their specific ways, it seems to be an invitation to the viewer to learn how to be present. present without judgment in advance of all the diverse and unpredictable ways we have to do this.

It’s been almost 20 years since I lost my biological father. And yet, before the event at 92NY, when I tried to read Adichie’s pamphlet Notes on Grief, I couldn’t finish page 12 before it felt like a heavy weight was pressing down on my stomach, my breathing was fast and my heart was racing, and I could feel tears starting to flow. I got through not because of her own loss, but because of me. I had to put the book away.

I think when deep grief comes, it’s simply about wanting you, for better or worse, and you finally figure out how to live together. The grieving journeys with each of us are unique and unpredictable, entering our lives without invitation, and changing things without asking. But it is something we have all suffered or will do.

I don’t know how far I would go to say that grief can have a silver lining, even if it can somehow lead some of us to live generous, honest, selfless lives. or more benevolent. Those are all good, yes, but I don’t think grief in itself is a good thing to experience. I think that’s just part of the challenge of being human, and one of the costs of being able to love beautifully. But I think it has to be acknowledged and lived in. And I wonder if the more we can practice speaking out loud the bold, unrelenting, and unerring of grief, the more we can endure together and imagine together something out of the ordinary. painful ways it can search us so much.

enuma.okoro@ft.com; @enumaokoro

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