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  • Ciaran Pierce

A God Named “Grief”: Reliving My Grandfather’s Death Through Literature

The day your grandfather dies comes. No one parts for you. No crowds, and no lips. The page is less forgiving; the pen—godless. The letters, with their many words, ask to stay put between the lines. After all, there is no good in staining a field of emptiness with ink if you cannot make the body come back. If you cannot slide skin back onto bones. Or plant a field with hair that does not fall. Or rearrange a heart so that it sings well this time, the beat found, metronome perched behind shelves of ribs. —An excerpt from my journal, September 11, 2023




Claude Monet, Camille Monet on Her Deathbed (1879)


I received the message that my grandfather had died while en route to my final lecture of the day: Comparative World Literature 215 – From Cradle to Crypt: Representations of the Lifespan. I smile now at the irony of this, and while I don’t share any beliefs in a universe that operates on cruelty or goodness, I cannot, in good character, deny that this life has a remarkable sense of humor. 


I remember little of the lecture itself—only that as I sat there, cornered on all sides by students, my professor’s voice resounding with a familiar kindness, I could feel so near me a just-born revelation: that a new world had been entrusted to me, this one another human lighter than the first. 


It was September. The days were longer then. Flanks of sunlight fell onto the backs of heads. Shoe marks studded the linoleum floor. I wanted to weep. We were discussing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, a coming-of-age story set in post-colonial Nigeria, as told through fourteen-year-old Kambili, a girl escaping a domineering father. There’s a quote I love in particular, taken from a scene in which the protagonist has just witnessed her grandfather’s lifeless body, the result of a death by natural causes. She writes, “Then I heard Amaka’s sobbing. It was loud and throaty; she laughed the way she cried. She had not learned the art of silent crying.” The art of silent crying


We tell ourselves, at all costs, to maintain composure. Our incessant need for order—and for peace—surpasses our instinct for expression. Grieving, too, is an art, and doing it well means doing it quietly, the evidence tucked beneath the covers, tears bottled up with clenched fists. And yet we never teach ourselves how to grieve properly because no such thing exists. How do you teach what has no substance, no predictability, no ideal ratio of sadness to numbness? How do you bring order to a tragically disordered thing? It isn’t possible. 




Saied Dai, In the Shadows (Undated)


“I am ashamed

I never had the words

to carry a friend from her death

to the stars 

correctly.”


“I will not eat or drink

until I stagger into the earth

with grief.”

 —Joy Harjo, “The Creation Story” & “Emergence”


Still, a part of me wished I knew what to do at that moment. I didn’t cry—no, that came weeks after, and all at once. I didn’t pray. I kept to myself, bedridden, the room lit by a single candle flame. I thought about the protocol unfolding as I lay there: nurses planting signatures above dotted lines, phone calls arranging his body’s next destination. I thought about my grandmother and the loneliness that would soon nestle into her, a home of twigs and bottle caps protruding from her eyes. Only to be flooded with eventual tears. 




Rea Kolarova, Solstice (2021)


It was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go that comforted me in those first hours, a dystopian novel about three childhood friends who learn they’ve been raised for slaughter. Predestined to die before they reach middle age, the characters spend the greater half of the story racing time, trying to live well-made lives, only to realize (after it’s too late) the futility of their pursuits. 


“I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel, world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.”

—Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go


I’ve grown fonder of the story over time, rereading and reliving their fates. I imagine that, like them, my grandpa begged his God, under his breath, to postpone his leaving. The difference is that I cannot revive him by returning to page 1, where he’s still a child in a field of kicked-up dirt, ignorant of the terrors to come. I cannot give him his body back—the old one, fresh and supple. Or his mind. I have no such magic. 


You have transformed into my loss.

—Noelle Kocot, “The Peace That So Lovingly Descends”


The last time I saw him was a month prior. I held his hand beside my grandmother, the two of us standing over him, obeying silence. And although she denied it, I knew I wouldn’t see him again. I had come to say goodbye. He was alive, yes, but only by definition. How she detested this so adamantly I can only attribute to her own condition, because as he lay there motionless, the debris of his body confronting failure after failure, she, too, carried a disease, the core of which had already corroded her life. Unconditional love. 


“We try to preserve life—even when we know it has no chance of enduring its body. We feed it, keep it comfortable, bathe it, medicate it, caress it, even sing to it. We tend to these basic functions not because we are brave or selfless but because, like breath, it is the most fundamental act of our species: to sustain the body until time leaves it behind.” 

—Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous




John Dugdale, The Artist’s Mother (1999)


She didn’t see what lay in front of her. He couldn’t sound out words anymore. He was nonverbal. Instead of using spoken language, he compromised by contorting his face in response to questions, widening his mouth and eyes to indicate emotions which I couldn’t differentiate between happiness or suffering. Tufts of hair grew in patches on his head. Purple hues rose to the surface of his discolored feet. All signs of one thing: the body was failing, and it would not yield. It had long been rejecting its written law, as once designed upon conception, refusing to carry out its intended functions. Perhaps she believed that, with enough love, she could amend this truth. 


“My love for him could not save him. His love for life could not save him. It was the first time that I truly knew he was going to die. He was suffering physical torment no man should endure.” 

—Patti Smith, Just Kids


In the end, it all sort of fell apart, his body, each piece and fixture. Which is to say: it did what it was made to do all along. The hands that held me at birth. The lips that called my name across fields. The arms, wingspan wide and feathered, that held gently. All of these things—not gone, just reduced to their smallest, frailest forms. To soul and bone. 




Francesca Woodman, House #3, Providence, Rhode Island (1976)


Since his passing, a poem by Jericho Brown has taken me by obsession. I’ve since learned it by heart. Titled “Another Elegy,” it reads:


“To believe in God is to love

What none can see. Let a lover go,

Let him walk out with the good 

Spoons or die 

Without a signature, and so much 

Remains for scrubbing, for a polish

Cleaner than devotion. Tonight, 

God is one spot, and you,

You must be one blind nun. You


Wipe, you rub, but love won’t move.”


Brown compares the act of loving to the act of religious worship, a fitting contrast, seeing as both require devotion to thrive. Here, the nun is the lover; God is the beloved. Her devotion to him (which is love, really) afflicts her with unwavering loyalty. 


But what happens when God leaves and she’s left to the pews, blinded and sorry, kneeling before the crucifix? What happens when he does not answer her prayers?—the god soon-to-be-named “Grief.” What becomes of her devotion, then, if not erasable, if not movable? And what if worship is to her as erosion is to rivers? 


This is grief: to be so incurably devoted to another living thing that, even in their absence, love refuses to rise and leave the bones. To scrub, to wipe, to bleach, to demolish; and to move nothing. 




William Gedney, Student Facing the Corner, St. Joseph's School for the Deaf (1960)


“But I am not ready to die yet

Nor am I ready to leave the room

In which we made love last night.”

—Joy Harjo, “I Am Not Ready To Die Yet”


We fail to recognize the inadequacy of the word “loss” in our contemplations of death. It implies a pure extraction, a sudden dematerialization from the physical world. Why, then, did my grandfather grow heavier with his leaving? Why did my memory of him dress itself in a weight akin to owning a second body? I cannot say. 


There. And then not there. A body. And then a corpse. Pallbearers, three on each side, carrying it forward.


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