Friday 4 September 2020

The Attraction of Grief


Left: "People Waiting" by John Hooper. Source: 

Right: "The Rummage Sale" by Miller Brittain. Source: National Gallery of Canada: 

In our deepest grief, we unclench fully. For most of us, there are very few times in our lives when we reach this level of softening. I don’t need to describe the feeling further because you already know it. It consumes you. Some of us seek out grief for this very quality, which can be addictive. Growing up on Canada’s east coast, I’ve long been familiar with the stereotype of Maritimers reading the obituaries section of the newspaper before anything else. Road crews there still cease working and doff their hats when a funeral procession passes. These are only tiny tastes of a substance that can’t be bottled.

You know real grief, and it knows you.

All around my home town of Saint John, New Brunswick, you’ll find the statues of John Hooper and paintings of Miller Brittain. Both artists depict people in a way that’s best summarized by the word thick. The human figure is broad, flattened. It’s hard to find softness in them. But if you study the thickness closely, you’ll see that these people look as though they’re made of clay. 
In softness, there’s malleability. An opening of possibility that’s hard to recognize. Because in that moment of deepest grief, all we want is to feel better. But the grief comes back. It’ll keep coming back until he hear what it’s trying to tell us. 
Grief, loss, mourning. It exists to soften us. And it’s in this softening that we can become anything. It hurtles us into the openness of experience in a way we spend our lives trying to avoid. Because openness is scary. It’s the source of our deepest anxieties. We work very, very hard to force closure upon the world. We resent the people around us, even the ones we love most, for disrupting this closure, for having the gall to possess minds of their own. 
We resent them until we lose them. Then we soften. 
There’s a lot to grieve in New Brunswick. It’s not surprising that many people respond by trying to harden. The choice between softening and survival isn’t a particularly difficult one. There’s a luxury to softening. Like a hermit crab, you need a sheltered place to leave your shell. Otherwise the sun’ll cook you. 
We need to create this space for each other. And that’s the hardest part. It’s difficult sometimes not to covet the grief of others, to gaze jealously on it, accuse mourners of milking it, of being exhibitionists. 

We forget that it’s only in our softest state that we can become anything. This is what grief is trying to tell us. And it’ll never stop until we listen.