Fragile Rat

Sharlotte walked into the A.A. meeting just as the Arizona sunset was throwing peach and orange colors on the walls of the cheap commercial space. A loose, dingy white T-shirt barely concealed the inner tube of weight she’d gained from a cocktail of psychotropics. Her thin, unwashed hair looked like an animal pelt pasted onto her scalp. Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.

I was barely weeks into a life without wine in my hand. A mutual friend introduced us and within weeks I was taking her to art openings and she was bringing me to burlesque performances. She’d come to my apartment door on these nights, dolled up, smiling with perfect lipstick like a lady ready to party, hoisting a 12-pack of Coke Zero that we’d devour like our last supper. We’d play Scrabble or swap life stories and she’d laugh, tossing her head back and her mouth opening wide so her deep laughter punctuated the air. We counted our days clean and went to meetings. We counted our weeks clean and went to meetings. They helped me get through prolonged unemployment and the humility of staying on a friend’s proverbial couch. They helped Sharlotte face one sucker punch after another, the latest of which she told me about over dinner at a Thai restaurant.

Sipping a Diet Coke, she sunk back into the corner of the maroon booth. “My shrink says it’s PTSD. That’s why I still can’t work. And now on top of it my other doctor’s telling me I have colitis.”

The next week at our favorite coffee shop, her voice shaky, face sans makeup, she had more news. “My shrink says I might never return to work. She even told me to start filing papers to get disability.” She gripped her latte cup. “This isn’t how life’s supposed to go. I’m an over-achiever. I’ve always bounced back. My god, I want a drink.” Instead she devoured a pastry. By the time our lattes were near the bottom of the thick brown paper cups, her eyes were scanning her milieu. Back and forth, back and forth. A tiger pacing its cage. She picked up her purse, said, “I have to go,” and bolted from the café.

*     *     *

We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us.

As we counted our months clean, we noticed the zealotry of many recovering addicts, the stuff that’s earned A.A. the moniker of a cult. Specialized language and symbols are like secret handshakes and code words. Hours once spent drinking turn into hours spent talking about not drinking, continuing to place alcohol front and center in members’ lives. Some members find themselves “hiding in meetings,” attending meetings rather than joining the rest of life, terrified of alcohol’s ubiquity, clutching to that safe zone as if it’s some inoculation against relapse. I think about other groups who face a terrifying potential return like cancer survivors. Do cancer survivors in remission spend as many hours or days or months thinking about the disease’s likely return? Do they reside in survivor support groups like addicts do the Anonymous meetings? Do they let the potential return dictate major decisions? A cancer survivor knows her remission could change course at any moment. She knows she’s not in control. She can go in and out of remission just as a criminal can weave in and out of prison. Recidivism. In and out of the bars like V. or Tastee did in Orange Is the New Black. Though they had a choice. When you look at it through characters like those, it looks like they’re unwilling to live straight, like they’re racing right back to what put them in the joint. Then there’s Brooks from Shawshank Redemption. In him, a kind and gentle man, is someone so accustomed to life inside that anything outside seems cold, the light too harsh, the pressure too crushing. What could he do? Live in the halfway-house community for the short rest of his life? For his decision that takes place on the beam he’s carved his name into anyone can feel compassion. The addict, though, empathizes with Brooks. We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us too. If we learn to weather that shit storm, we don’t become one of the seventy percent who relapse by day ninety. Or the ninety percent who do so within four years.

We take new steps every day toward a healthier life. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years, and hopefully learn about ourselves. Self-awareness appears in my mind like a lighthouse. A baby blue beacon of a thing with a Shaker roof, three or four stories high. Instead of overlooking the cold, rocky shores of an isolated coastal town, though, it scans my psychic landscape, ready to strike at the first sign of thirsty thoughts. It’ll be there, scanning, for the rest of my life.

*     *     *

The blue beacon was just beginning to form when my sponsor took me on a sober women’s weekend retreat in the mountains of Prescott. I’d signed up for it two months before, back when the sunlight of sobriety still hurt my eyes. My sponsor, Denise, was like a kid looking forward to summer camp as she drove us out of the bloody heat and sepia-colored desert of the Phoenix valley north to a national forest. Sharlotte and I, by this autumn weekend, had grown cocky in our burgeoning sobriety. She had exercised her free will to stop attending recovery meetings en toto while I kept going, though to diminishing returns. Now I just looked forward to moist, green mountain soil, the smell of pine trees and ponds, and the cool mountain air on lone walks through the woods. When Denise caught onto my plans, eye piercing me beneath her dripping dishwater blonde hair after the first morning shower, I bid farewell to my plans like a child to her favorite toy. She instead extolled the virtue of this annual excursion. A hundred or so women from all over the Southwest met here to celebrate and support each other’s recovery from overeating, sex, gambling, histrionic behavior, drugs, alcohol. In the national forest campgrounds there were real wood cabins with bunk beds and tractor rides and zip lining. And if I was feeling down or doubtful, there were 24-hour meetings for small groups or one-on-ones in the chapel. It wasn’t time for solitude, Denise said. It was time to enjoy the sober sisterhood.

Liquefy it. Put it in cups and drink the Kumbaya Kool-Aid. It tasted like saccharine.

I followed her around from sober celebration to sober celebration, feeling less acolyte, more show pony. In the auditorium we sat in two putty brown, poorly padded, metal chairs typical of VFW halls and church basements to watch a play written and performed by my sober sisters. On stage they used props made of construction paper, tape and markers, along with a few books commonly found in meetings, to recreate a scene seen every day in sober groups across the planet. Some played the role of long-sober people, some were new, and others were struggling to remember why to remain sober. “Find your higher power. It doesn’t have to be God; it can be this chair.” “Embrace the suck.” The audience, scattered in small clusters among the seven or eight rows of chairs, nodded. Mmm hmmm. Uh huh. Southern gospel style.

Later came freeze-dried eggs and other institutional foods over breakfast with some friends Denise had known for most of her thirteen years in the program. They caught up. I listened.

“We had been friends for years! But they assumed that since I wasn’t going to meetings I was back to drinking or drugging,” one said. She gulped from a large plastic mug commemorating last year’s retreat.

“Right. No one even called me when they heard I had my baby. They sure loved to help during my pregnancy—but stop going to meetings and where are they then?” another said. She shook her long, wavy brown hair, forking up another bite of plastic food.

Denise sat there silent, face bent toward her plate. Could she detect my declining interest?

Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.

After the retreat, Denise backed out of lunch plans and left my calls and texts unanswered. I stopped going to meetings. They’d given me a good start in sobriety, but I alone had made wine a central part of my life; I would learn to eradicate it. Even when the shit storms come. Such as the time I finally landed a job, only to watch it disappear after four days. Still I did not drink. With the next oncoming storm, things weren’t as easy. I rode my scooter through it across the December Phoenix rush hour to take care of a computer problem that no, after all, the warranty didn’t cover. The people surrounding me in the mall and at traffic lights were laughing and smiling and singing in a festive holiday spirit, but Santa had put fire where my heart should’ve been, and didn’t it sound like a grand idea to pour wine all over it? I pictured myself pulling up to the neighborhood liquor store where I used to go, picking up a bottle or two, and walking up to the cashier, a young guy who didn’t know to tell me no. That’s where my fantasy reached the end of the tether. Instead, I drove back home through the rain, poured a fat glass of Diet Coke, and drank it on the cement square of my friend’s porch, looking out at the darkness, and belting out frustrated Living Colour lyric after frustrated Living Colour lyric through my headphones. Within twenty minutes of exposing my out-of-sight neighbors to a voice that would win no contests, the rage unclenched its claws. It dissipated like a hangover until the storm passed, leaving me spent, sober, relieved.

That’s the kind of stuff that drew such a powerful connection between Sharlotte and me. We were both learning what to do with life instead of drinking at it. We didn’t need meetings; we had each other. Until one day, her texts came closer and closer, almost palpable obstacles her mind was throwing in sobriety’s way.

“I’m a mess,” she wrote. It had been a week of similar texts. “I’m having a shitty day.” “Waiting for my shrink to return my call.” “I’m wiped out.” Her typing that Thursday grew increasingly illegible as the evening progressed. I walked out to the patio, cooled by the late evening desert. I dialed her up, keeping my voice calm.

In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water.

“Hey there. Whatcha doin’?”

She sounded like she had a porterhouse steak for a tongue. “I’m drunk.”

I slumped into my patio chair, fired up a cigarette.

“I hope you don’t hate me now.”

“Silly girl, I don’t hate you.”

“No matter how hard I work to overcome my PTSD, it might just stick around. What if it does? What if this shit never goes away?”

“It really will get better,” I said, the beginning of a string of platitudes. “I understand.” “Of course I still love you.” I wanted to add some levity, tease her by saying, “Next time you want to drink, call me up. I’ll drink with you,” but what if she called my bluff—and did call me? What if after driving over there I didn’t convince her to put the bottle down but joined her instead? Is my beacon sturdy enough to scan for that? Is relapse contagious?

To slow those thoughts growing out of control I tried to switch to her, to put myself in her shoes. Relief rang through her voice. Ah, what a cost, that relief. She’d have a helluva hangover the next morning. She’d be shaky and sensitive and guilty. Guilty in Technicolor layers. Guilty long after the nausea and headache and crying. I could empathize with those hangovers, having had thousands of them. But I hadn’t yet had one from this side of Rat Park.

Rat Park was the name of an addiction study done in the late 1970s. In it, psychologist Bruce Alexander and his colleagues Robert Coambes and Patricia Hadaway developed a veritable Shangri-La for rats: two hundred square feet for a colony of thirty-two rats, heated comfortably, cushy with cedar shavings, colorful balls, wheels, and other playthings. In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water. The comfy rats in Rat Park drank sixteen times less of the morphine-laced water than the caged rats, preferring plain water. When the researchers added an agent to the morphine water, mitigating the morphine’s effects yet retaining the sucrose sweetness, even the Rat Park inhabitants drank it.

Continuing their experiment, Alexander et al. turned a third group of rats into the Skid Row image of addicts, giving them nothing but morphine to drink until they were sufficiently entrenched in addiction. The scientists then divided them equally between a simple cage and Rat Park. Then they gave them a choice: morphine water or plain water. The caged group lapped up the drugged stuff. The Rat Park group, however, went less and less to it. “The implications,” Lauren Slater wrote in Opening Skinner’s Box, were that “addictions in progress are not inexorable.” Addicts choosing to sustain their addictions are in fact “quite subject to free will.”

*     *     *

Relapse is rarely the knee-jerk reaction portrayed in Hollywood. There’s a long process back to lifting a glass or placing a bet or shagging a stranger in a public bathroom. Research looks at it in three major stages: emotional, mental, physical. The emotional trigger can be a bad day at work—or even a great one. Take Gary, for instance. He’d been sober a dozen years before his relapse.

“My girlfriend asked when we first started dating, ‘You can’t ever drink? Not even a little drink with me?’ I told her no, but then when I thought about it I figured I could handle a drink or two. That wouldn’t make me the raging alcoholic I was before. But it did. Within weeks I was back to drinking like I’d never quit,” he said.

Half a dozen years into sobriety, Denise succumbed. Having come down with a flu while on holiday with family, she simply wanted some sleep. It came. With help from a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream. She didn’t get drunk. She didn’t fall back into a drinking routine. She considers it a relapse, though. That solitary shot scared her enough to break her two-year hiatus from meetings, back to those people who had stopped talking to her, back to people who welcomed her back unequivocally. Seven years later that shot still gives her nightmares.

Her experience was exactly the kind of touchstone I needed in my fear of relapse by proxy. It was her tough love that fortified my resolve, strengthening it like steel against fear.

“Listen, you’re going to see people fall all around you for the rest of your life. You have to be prepared to walk over the bodies,” Denise said over sandwiches and salads after a meeting. “People are going to disappoint you by picking up a drink again. People you know will go to jail or die.”

Well, Sharlotte hadn’t continued drinking. And she never tested my resolve or called my bluff. The lines of communication grew dusty. No more art exhibits. No more burlesque shows. Maybe she thought less of me for returning to meetings after my paroxysm of relapse fear. She definitely thought my distance looked like judgment, even when we were together. Who could fault her for that? Sometimes the line between empathy and sympathy is gossamer. Sometimes it’s wide as a river. Sometimes it crushes friendships, and sometimes it changes your life. For now I could only stay on the side of sympathy, my blue lighthouse scanning my psyche in the Shangri-La of sobriety.

Maybe one day the beacon of sobriety will lead her this way, away from the bars of cages. I hope I’m still here to welcome her.


Special Guest Judge, Erin Aubry Kaplan

“With humor, heart and urgency, “Fragile Rat” describes the modern travails of addiction—and love—in language that’s honest, propulsive, and never cliched.”

– Erin Aubry Kaplan, is author of I Heart Obama (2016), and the collection of essays and reportage, Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispaches From a Black Journalista. She has written about African-American political, economic, and cultural issues since 1992, and is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly,, Ms., and Essence.

Nicole ReberNichole L. Reber digs every day of sobriety and has reached new highs in life because of it. She hopes her essay shows a different side of addiction/recovery than the norm. Her nonfiction and literary criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy, Fanzine, PANK Magazine, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She writes a monthly blog series about Indigenous World Literature and Contemporary Asian Literature for Ploughshares. In addition to some awards, she holds an MFA from DePaul University.

She’s Out of My Life

My obsession with Michael Jackson began the day he died. Before then, I owned a handful of his albums and clawed my arms in the air like a “Thriller” zombie at dance parties, but so did millions of other people. On June 25, 2009, I was working in the office of a museum in Seattle, when I overheard the muffled gasp of a woman sitting on the other side of my cubicle wall. She circulated an email to the eight people sitting around us, with a link. TMZ told us the news. The internet crashed. I made note of the way I was sitting alone behind dirty-beige fabric walls, when it occurred to me that someone might ask one day.

Several years earlier, I learned of James Brown’s death on the radio, while driving around Vancouver, British Columbia. His music enshrouded my car almost instantly, as people driving beside me rolled down their windows and turned up their stereos. Between the vehicles, one song faded out as the next faded in, creating a collective soundtrack that we passed between one another. We’re the people, we’re just like the birds and the bees, we’d rather die on our feet than live on our kneesHe’s lost in the wilderness, he’s lost in the bitterness, he’s lost lost… Somber and dragged out, the waves of sound mirrored the rhythm of long exhales broken by fleeting sobs—the sensation of the suppressed cry that can feel like the only option we have when grieving in public places.

In my office, I found myself wanting to do something similar for Michael Jackson. A few people came out of their cubes and gathered in the aisles. I unplugged the headphones from my iPod and played “Billie Jean” aloud in the center of the room. Everyone listened for a minute or so before returning to their desks, maybe overtaken by sadness or just by disinterest. I stood there with the iPod in the outstretched palm of my hand until the song played all the way through, in case anyone was still listening.

The next day, I heard that another museum had put together a display in memoriam, so I left work early and arrived just before they closed. In the center of an otherwise dark empty hallway, a spotlight rested on a white sequined glove and the shimmering black jacket Jackson had paired with the moonwalk during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, when he so famously lip-synched to “Billie Jean” in 1983 on TV. The jacket had belonged to his mother. I pictured him wearing it as he practiced the dance in the family kitchen the day before the performance. I wondered if he chose that jacket knowing his mother’s black sequins would be what he wore the moment his life changed. And, I wondered if she wished she could have it back now.

*     *     *

When I was growing up in the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time listening to a copied cassette tape of Thriller that my mother made using a CD she checked out from the library. I don’t remember loving the album at the time, despite playing it over and over again. I also don’t remember ever listening to it with my mom. In the year following her death from cancer when I was nine, I quietly collected things that belonged to her as I happened upon them in places around our house. When I found a few of her cassettes left beside the stereo, I took the ones by artists whose names I knew: Gloria Estefan, Carly Simon, and Michael Jackson. The other two tapes were originals from the store, with pictures of the singers on their covers. Thriller just had the track list written in red pen in my mother’s handwriting. When I found these things untouched, I considered them my belongings as if they were from an inheritance she didn’t have time to leave.

I convinced myself I was being fashionable by wearing the enormous shirts, but when I see photographs from that time in my life, I can see how absurd they must have appeared to everyone else, draped over my narrow fourth-grade frame like a bulbous sheet.

At some point during that year, in a more deliberate way, I also started collecting her t-shirts. Most were souvenirs from family vacations we had taken together, or from places where she and my father traveled before I was born, like Aruba and Bermuda. They had palm tree silhouettes and neon fish and destination names printed in a relaxed script that curled like the handwriting of postcards written from the beach. She mostly wore them to sleep or work out, maybe because they didn’t fit what I now consider her eighties-mom aesthetic (cable knit sweaters, high-wasted pants, and boat shoes, all in earth tones). I wore them with matching neon leggings and black Reebok high tops that I first spotted on the feet of the hipper-looking ladies in her aerobics class.

At the time I convinced myself I was being fashionable by wearing the enormous shirts, but when I see photographs from that time in my life, I can see how absurd they must have appeared to everyone else, draped over my narrow fourth-grade frame like a bulbous sheet. The way I looked doesn’t even evoke that sweetness one might expect from seeing a daughter wearing her mother’s clothes. We both had similar brown hair and eyes whose blueness shifted depending on the time of day, but coupled with my permed bangs and general unkempt state, I mostly just looked like a kid who didn’t know how to dress herself.

I know I was unaware of how strange I must have looked because that time marked my aversion to doing anything that would attract attention. Finding myself within a life that had become hard to recognize as my own, I became determined to impose some normalcy upon it. My solution was to act as closely as I could to the way I remembered myself being before my mom died. Her funeral was on a Thursday. I insisted on going back to school the following Monday. I dreaded being watched by everyone when I was pulled out of math class every week to see the school counselor—a person whose office the old version of myself would have never expected to enter. Above all else, I never wanted anyone except my father and sister to see me cry. But somehow, wearing my mother’s clothes seemed like a completely normal thing to do.

*     *     *

He became an internet sensation by creating a real-life version of the music video for “Beat It,” in which Jackson lies in bed, distressed by gang conflict, until he puts a stop to it using snapping fingers, hip thrusts, and a blazing, red jacket. This worked. People in Baltimore stopped yelling and fighting in the streets to watch. A Michael Jackson impersonator somehow made sense of the senseless death in their city.

When riots broke out in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police in 2015, a man named Dmitri Reeves dressed up like Michael Jackson and tried to combat the violence bleeding through his city by moonwalking. He became an internet sensation by creating a real-life version of the music video for “Beat It,” in which Jackson lies in bed, distressed by gang conflict, until he puts a stop to it using snapping fingers, hip thrusts, and a blazing, red jacket. This worked. People in Baltimore stopped yelling and fighting in the streets to watch. A Michael Jackson impersonator somehow made sense of the senseless death in their city.

I knew about Dmitri Reeves because people kept sending me links to the video in a barrage of emails, Facebook posts, and text messages. I understand how obsessions are a way of knowing a person, but so many people forwarded me this link that I had to wonder if they thought I needed it, too.

Some may have known I had taken a Michael Jackson dance class recently. In the six years since his death, I had intermittently been drawn to activities most would associate with die-hard fans. One of Seattle’s most famous drag queens, named Waxy Moon, led the dance class. He wasn’t in drag while he taught, and he looked nothing like Michael, except for his thinness. Waxy’s limbs were long and lanky, his head shorn and shiny. The only perceivable hairs on his body were the brown tufts of a mustache and eyebrows dabbed above his lips and eyes. My mother had enrolled me in dance classes for all of my childhood, beginning when I was three years old, so the process of following dance instructions was engrained in my body; I even could pull off the moonwalk reasonably well. But, the best part of class always came at the beginning of each lesson, when Waxy performed the dance we were about to learn. His feet’s seamless glides and staccato kicks and dramatic pauses were so sharp and slick and true, I simply stood there, mesmerized, like the people in the streets of Baltimore, watching Dmitri Reeves.

*     *     *

Mastery of dance is an essential skill for all Michael Jackson impersonators. The Michael Jackson impersonator said to be the best is Navi. Originally from Trinidad, he began impersonating Michael during the star’s more modest moment of success, between Off the Wall’s release in 1979 and the avalanche of fame induced by Thriller, in 1982. This already makes Navi seem more authentic than the average, post-success, possibly cash-motivated impersonator.

Similar to Michael Jackson’s popularity explosion following the Motown 25 performance, Navi also experienced an overnight increase in demand for his talents following Jackson’s death. In an interview, he recounted, “Before June 25, 2009, I was a Michael Jackson impersonator. I still am, but post-June 25, it exploded. I became this substitute for people, a comfort for Jackson fans because the world wasn’t ready to let go of him.” [1] Before I read this, I never had the desire to see an impersonator show. Did it really work that way? It was hard not to see this kind of substitution of a new Michael for the old one as an insult, like replacing a dead pet with the same kind of animal the next day. We are quick to judge people’s mourning habits, including our own. An amount of time is expected to pass before any form of replacement should happen. But will enough time ever pass? Navi’s fans felt no need to wait.

*     *     *

The Michael Jackson impersonator show I saw at the Stratosphere casino in Las Vegas was called “MJ Live: Michael Jackson Tribute Concert.” Jalles Franca, a dancer from Brazil who moved to Vegas when he was sixteen, opened the performance by telling the audience how he lived for us, which I believed after reading his bio. His first MJ gig was at the recreation of Studio 54 that lived inside the MGM Grand Casino during the 1990s—a fitting backstory, given Michael’s own history at the real Studio 54 in New York. My favorite photograph of Jackson shows him sitting in one of the club’s booths, outfitted in a polyester shirt and a globe Afro, young and laughing, when he was only pleasantly famous. It looks like the version of him that Michael sometimes seemed to want back after he became older and paler and relentlessly recognized.

Jalles Franca probably would not be mistaken for Michael Jackson on the street or anywhere he is not in costume. He did not appear to have gone beneath the knife to make his face truer to Michael’s hyper-chiseled contours. He was also svelte without seeming emaciated, the way Michael was, towards the end. Franca’s shoulders were robust, his nose was narrow but strong, and, despite never having seen Michael Jackson in person, I got the sense that he was noticeably shorter than the King of Pop.

I realized how little these discrepancies mattered when, a few songs into the show, an usher tapped my shoulder and asked, “Do you want to move closer to the stage?”

I rose immediately and gestured toward the front of the stage to my friend Sarah, who hadn’t been particularly disappointed when we found our original seats to be a row of folding chairs at the back of the theater. She dutifully stood, and we followed the usher from row SS, past the scalloped inner rows of booths, to what looked like (what I hoped all along would be) row A. As we approached the foot of the stage, it started to become difficult to contain myself. I turned to Sarah, who was following behind me and mouthed, “Can you believe this?” She smiled with hesitancy, looking unsure of whether these new seats were something she actually wanted.

I am usually the person to slouch into an auditorium’s shadows when a performance involves selecting someone from the audience to come on stage, but as we were reseated in the front row, I had the sudden compulsion to make Jalles Franca aware of my presence. I wanted him to know there was a female younger than age 50 sitting right in front of him, should he need someone to bring up the way Michael did when he sang ballads like “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” I had visions of myself impersonating a Michael Jackson concert fan: putting my hands to my cheeks, to my chest, screaming, “Oh my God, oh my God…” over and over again in the orgiastic ecstasy I recalled seeing girls explode into just before fainting during footage from the 1992 Dangerous tour I watched on DVD.

I wasn’t brought up on stage during the show, but sitting in front meant I could record an unobstructed Instagram video of “Billie Jean” that I admit to having watched more than a few times since. Franca’s staging imitated the Motown 25 performance: he wore the fedora, the bulging white socks, the shiny penny loafers, the sequined coat. Everything on stage was dark except for a single spotlight that followed him as he paced back and forth, jumped in the air, and slipped across the stage into the climaxing moonwalk. The silhouetted image that I captured on my phone highlights the clothes while obscuring the man. When I squint hard enough, I can almost believe I’m watching Michael.

*     *     *

The closest I have ever been to the real Michael Jackson was when I stood outside the wall of the mausoleum in which he is interred, in Glendale, California, around the same time I was taking the dance class. The exact location of his body is supposedly unknown, but a Google search revealed a handful of questionable MJ fan websites that all pointed to the same corner of Forest Lawn Cemetery’s Great Mausoleum, called Holly Terrace. A stained glass window showing the ascension of Jesus marked the corner for non-family members like myself, who were relegated to the building’s exterior for our visitations.

Forest Lawn Cemetery is full of impersonations of other objects. A stained glass version of da Vinci’s The Last Supper looks down upon visitors inside the Great Mausoleum. A full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s David and a mosaic version of John Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration of Independence also live on the premises. The Great Mausoleum itself is modeled after a building from the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, in Genoa, Italy.

En route to finding Michael’s final resting place, I happened upon the massive Declaration of Independence, hovering over a field of tombstones. As I walked closer, I could see how the mosaic’s tiled men had more of the round, brightness of cartoons from the 1980s than the original painting, which made the regal, disembodied voice that suddenly boomed down from the empty air only slightly less bizarre: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” Startled, it took me a moment to recognize the recorded reading of the actual Declaration. While I expected theatrics from a cemetery in L.A., a talking, fake painting took the relationship between death and spectacle to an entirely new place. It also made me like this cemetery even more.

Forest Lawn was unlike the traditional, Catholic cemetery several blocks from our house in suburban Chicago, where my mother was buried. My father always made my sister and me pick out flowers to leave at her tombstone, which I despised having to do every few weeks in the years following her death. I was convinced she would never see these flowers. But more concerning was the fear that someone I knew would see me standing in the cemetery and think that I wasn’t actually okay.

When I arrived at the Great Mausoleum, no one else was around. There were no piles of stuffed animals or notes telling Michael how we missed him. The only hints suggesting I was in the right place were a couple of bouquets wrapped in plastic and a pot of yellow mums that had been pushed to the side of the building, near the Holly Terrace sign. I stared into the decaying pot of mums, unsure of what I should do now that I was there. The compulsion to go through the motions of my past cemetery experiences crept into my consciousness: observe the tombstone (or the building corner, in this case) and be reverent. But, standing beside the looming mausoleum, I felt as out of place and awkward as I did when I was a kid, breathing and walking around among objects this dead person on the other side of the wall would never see. Who were these Davids and disembodied voices and mums really for—the person who had brought them, Michael Jackson, or me, the person standing there, trying to understand what it means to mourn the people we have and have not known?

*     *     *

About one year later, when I walked into the Michael Jackson Fan Festival at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, I knew I had come to the right place. Less a festival than an exhibit of his costumes and belongings, presiding over the entrance was the ten-foot statue of Michael used for his HIStory album cover, outfitted in aviator sunglasses and a military-inspired suit. The detritus of his career fanned out behind him, filling a massive hall of the casino’s convention center. A rainbow assortment of sequined gloves, a Moonwalker game consul that once lived at the Neverland Ranch, a trophy case-like assemblage of his Certified Platinum plaques and MTV Music Video Award moon men were all there, to be “enjoyed for as long as I liked,” according to the man who took my thirty-five dollars at the door. The one hundred or so people who arrived before us were wandering between all of these things, photographing one another making peace signs and zombie-arms. Some also dressed up as various iterations of Michael: a Thriller-Michael in full-body, red pleather; early-90s-Michael in jeans and loafers and a white armband; late-breaking-Michael with long, wavy, black hair and severe eyeliner.

I barely knew the person who came with me to the Michael Jackson Fan Festival. We worked at the same museum but hadn’t before found reasons to be friends. When I first learned of the Fan Festival’s existence, I posted a link about it on Facebook expecting a few “Likes” from people who relished my Michael Jackson obsession. But, Joice, who looked about five or ten years older than me but, as I learned on our trip, was actually about twenty-five years older, left a comment: “Are you really going to this? Can I come with you?”

As an African-American woman who had grown up in North Carolina, Joice had a long history with Michael Jackson. She had seen him perform over the course of her whole life, as the Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and solo on the Bad tour. On one occasion, she stood close enough to the stage for a dollop of his Jheri curl cream to land directly in her screaming mouth, as she told me proudly during our walk to the festival. I admitted my obsession’s more recent origins with the shame of a fraud being detected by the expert. But Joice’s face remained bright, still beaming even, when she responded, “That is fascinating.”  I then knew there would be no judgment at the Michael Jackson Fan Festival.

After we arrived and circled behind the HIStory statue, we found ourselves walking across a set of square tiles that flashed in a random sequence, imitating the music video set for “Billie Jean.” Focused on an exhibit of jackets just past the dance floor, I almost didn’t realize Joice had stayed behind, crouched atop one of the squares and sobbing. When I approached her, she began waving me away and said, “It’s just that my grandmother always took me to those concerts, and now I can’t stop thinking of her. Go on, I’ll catch up with you. Really, please, go on.”

I walked towards a row of mannequins dressed in Michael Jackson’s costumes from the Dangerous tour. It seemed like I should know what to do—how to help her grieve or get beyond grieving, or at least console her, but none of those things seemed like what she wanted. So I waited beside a golden hologram jacket, until she approached me, sighed and nodded her head towards the rest of the Fan Festival. We moved on to a spaceship set from the music video for “Scream.” We took turns photographing each other through the ship’s broken window, contorting our faces into Michael’s wrenching, pained expressions.

*     *     *

“She’s Out of My Life” is a song that Quincy Jones could not record without Michael Jackson physically crying before the song’s end. Originally planned for Frank Sinatra to sing, Jones gave the track to Jackson when he was nineteen years old for Off the Wall. “She’s Out of My Life” embodies Jackson’s much-lauded ability to sing about sophisticated notions of love and loss as if he were older than his actual age. The piercing sorrow that echoes through his voice on the Jackson 5’s cover of Smoky Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” had an earlier, similar affect. Despite Jones’s attempt to get a recording without the sobs, the song’s ability to become something more than a sappy ballad resides in their presence.

I disliked “She’s Out of My Life” for a long time. It reminded me of the like-mindedly slow-paced, dramatic ballad “Human Nature” that I fast-forwarded through when I listened to my mom’s copy of Thriller. I hated the way the high notes of these songs hung in the air unnaturally long before fading. I hated the desperation embedded in their pleading repetitions. And most of all I hated the saccharine heartfelt lyrics, like “If they say, why, why/Tell ‘em that it’s human nature” and “…Kept my love for her locked deep inside/And it cuts like a knife/She’s out of my life.”

I may have softened since that time. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself turning “Human Nature” up as loudly as possible when it comes on the car radio so I can physically feel the reverberations of the “Why, why” that I used to find so intolerable. “She’s Out of My Life” still feels difficult to like. When listening to the full Off the Wall album, I experience a tinge of dread when I know it’s the next track. But then the sliver of Michael’s voice opens the song like a hand parting the stage curtains. He may or may not have lost someone important by the time the song landed in his repertoire, but when he sings its lines, he becomes an audible extension of those of us who have. “She’s out of my life” is the very first and the very last lyric of the song. The forgettable clichés in between repeat over and over again, wrapping around themselves in circular repetitions and echoes. The only respite is the final, almost-withheld sob that ends the song.

Almost no one has ever asked me if I miss my mother, maybe because I was so young the last time I saw her. Or because loss when you’re young is different from loss when you’re older. It is the difference between hearing Smoky Robinson sing, “Who’s Lovin’ You” when he was twenty and hearing Michael Jackson sing it when he was eleven. Quincy Jones didn’t need to hear Frank Sinatra sing “She’s Out of My Life” at age sixty-four once he’d heard nineteen-year-old Michael sing it. Maybe not knowing the person you lost is worse, and that is why I hear so much in Michael Jackson’s perfect, young vocal chords when they stand tall and aligned like pallbearers, grasping their shiny box before dropping it into the darkness.

[1] Pisner, Noah. “Navi.” The Believer. Oct. 2013. Print.

Erin LangnerErin Langner earned her MA in Museology at the University of Washington and her BA in Humanities from the University of Colorado. Her art criticism and essays have appeared in Hyperallergic, ARTnews, The Stranger, and ARCADE, among other publications. In 2010, she was selected by Peter Plagens for the Creative Capitol/Warhol Foundation Art Writing Workshop. She lives in Seattle, WA, where she is at work on an essay collection inspired by her experiences visiting the Las Vegas Strip over the last decade.

Dress the Mouse in Black

Grief is a mouse in the house. Unless it’s taken outside now and then, it will nibble a person away and leave an empty husk behind. No one survives death, of course, but some do not survive grief.

I discovered this when my wife Evelyn unexpectedly died of a heart attack in her forties. I had never lost anyone close and didn’t know how to grieve.

Death is hidden from us in mainstream America. We seldom see dead people or mourners, and have come to expect that everyone, except for the unfortunate few, will live to a ripe old age. This expectation didn’t use to be the norm.

Our great-grandparents grew up in a world where death was a companion, and families averaged eight children with the hope that half of them would survive childhood. People died from pneumonia, polio, and a host of other diseases and maladies that are successfully treated today. Grief was visible on the streets, and every family knew death. We forget events like the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed thirty million people around the world, and that dead bodies were stacked in streetcars of American cities.

One hundred years ago, mourners wore black clothes or black armbands in public so that people could come up and offer condolences as they did their shopping. Black wreaths were placed on the front doors of homes, so everyone would know that someone had died. Generations still lived under one roof, and children saw the progression of life as grandparents grew into the brittleness of old age and died.

Now we pay strangers to take care of family members who are dying. Deaths happen away from home, in hospitals or nursing facilities, and funeral houses take care of the bodies. We hide our grief from others—the crying and rage, the incoherent ramblings, the depression—worried that people might think we’re not strong or that our faith is weak, especially when our mourning lasts longer than a week.

We don’t pay attention to death until it forces us to. Then the “For Sale” sign goes up in the neighborhood, and we wonder who is moving away. If we check the obituaries, we realize that people are dying all around us, and we have scarcely noticed.

We regard every early death as the result of something going wrong. When a child dies, we think it’s a great injustice. When the evening news reports a fatal car accident, we act as if this were an unusual event. When a woman in her thirties dies from an inoperable brain tumor, we don’t know how this could have happened.

In a study called “Grief Mythology and the Invention of a Modern American Tradition,” Gary Laderman says that at the end of the nineteenth century in Victorian America, people openly showed their sorrow, but when modern medicine developed between the two world wars, perceptions shifted. The clinical view of life took over, and it reasoned that since death was a natural event, people should take a moment for sadness and then move on. Like getting tackled hard in football, you were expected to shake it off and get back in the game, even though you had suffered a concussion and weren’t really sure where you were or what you were supposed to do.

The rapid advances in medicine, like the development of penicillin and the smallpox vaccine, took away many of the causes of early death, like the tetanus that killed Henry David Thoreau’s brother when he cut himself shaving. With each new medical discovery, people lived longer. People who expected to die in their sixties were now lasting into their seventies, then into their eighties, and we began to think there might not be a top limit to human life, and we could almost live forever, swapping out organs and joints as they wore out. Death changed from being an accepted, although sad, part of life to being a failure of medicine. Some doctor wasn’t doing his or her job.

In regards to grief, I thought that if I left it alone, it would heal on its own with time. It didn’t. Grief won’t go away until we deal with it. If we ignore it, it will pull us down into depression. If we fight against it, we will be bitter for the rest of our lives. If we don’t work with grief and let it flow through us like a river, our energy and hope will stagnate into a pool of green-gray slime. Grief helps us make the necessary changes so that we can let go and smile again.

In American communities with northern European backgrounds, like the German-American one I grew up in, death observances tend to be stoic, while those from southern Europe, like Italian-American, tend to be more emotionally expressive. In New Orleans it’s common to have a Dixieland band lead the funeral procession with dancing and celebratory music. In Chinese-American communities in San Francisco, firecrackers and drums are used to scare away malevolent spirits.

When death occurs, the bulk of our attention focuses on the person who died. There is the casket or urn, a service of some sort where the dead is remembered with mostly kind words, and the burial, internment, or scattering of ashes in a beautiful location outdoors. Other than sending a condolence card and flowers, there are few rituals or traditions to help survivors grieve or guide them in rebalancing a suddenly unhinged life. Those who are grieving get compassion’s leftovers.

After the body is in its final resting place, mourners in my Midwestern community gather for a potluck of casseroles and gelatin desserts. They say a few words to the family, then return to their busy lives. At this point the gap between those who grieve and those who do not begins to grow. A few friends will stay close for the first month or two, bringing meals and helping with chores around the house; then they depart, and survivors are left on their own.

*     *     *

While death hasn’t changed over the centuries, we have forgotten how to deal with it in healthy ways. How well people recover from grief depends on a number of elements, like their belief in an afterlife, the support they receive from their community, and how honestly they are willing to face their sorrow.

Every cultural and religious group has beliefs about what happens when people die, and there are many similarities. Believing that the deceased is in a better place helps lessen the impact of death, no matter what that heaven is envisioned to be like. Some think the afterlife will be a place where they will reunite with all their loved ones, including pets, or that it’s a vast temple with singing going on all the time. Others anticipate a vast intermingling of spirits with a great cosmic awareness. The Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, imagined that heaven would be an enormous library. This would excite me, but not my wife who is now finding out.

Common elements include: judgment, where the life of the dead is put on trial, and passage into heaven is either allowed or denied; the setting aside of specific days to remember and pray for the deceased; and feeling that one can still communicate with the dead, at least for a short period of time, meaning that our relationships do not end but continue on in a different form.

The focus on making it to the next world may be why some of us don’t take grief seriously. If this world is viewed as a way station, a temporary stop before we arrive at where we really want to be, then whatever we go through here is temporary, including grief and social injustice. This is a theology that works well for those who have money and aren’t suffering.

On top of that, many of the world’s religions encourage their followers to live as people who are dead: “Be in the world like a traveler, and reckon yourself as of the dead.” –Mohammad. “The world is impermanent. One should constantly remember death.” –Sri Ramakrishna. “Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about birth and death.” –Takeda Shingen. “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”  –St. Paul. These directions say that suffering in this world is to be expected, so endure them and get back to work.

Tribal societies worked out their systems for dealing with death centuries ago—what to do with the body, how to comfort those who are grieving, and how to provide communal support for the surviving family.

In a paper on the grief traditions of four Native American tribes, Darlene Johnson says the Sioux maintain rituals for the tribe’s public expression of grief, and to make sure that the deceased’s family is taken care of. By custom, the deceased’s possessions are distributed to friends, not the family. The Sioux believe in the afterlife and pray to the grandfathers for guidance.

The Sioux view life as a circle where everything on earth is connected. As buffalo grow up eating the grass of the prairies, and then are eaten by humans for nourishment, so the Sioux feel that humans are part of this. The Sioux wrap the deceased in a robe and put the body in a cottonwood tree where the birds and small animals feed on it. As the body falls apart, it drops to the ground where it nourishes the grass that feeds the buffalo, and the circle of life is completed. These tribal traditions began eroding when elements of Christianity were blended in.

This blending of traditions is one reason why grief has become a forgotten art in America. As community identities were diluted by the desire to fit into life in a modern city, the ethnic, cultural, and social differences were smoothed out, including the rituals that people used to call on to maintain balance during life’s struggles. The result is that people have lost touch with the grief wisdom of their great-grandparents.

Beyond the commonalities, Johnson notes there are variations among Native Americans. Some tribes refuse to mention the deceased’s name, fearful that the person’s spirit will latch on and haunt them, while other tribes speak of the dead with reverence, feeling that the deceased are nearby, listening to what we are saying, and it would be rude to ignore them. The Hopi believe that contact with the dead brings physical pollution, so they ritually purify several people to handle the body. Some tribes cut their hair as a physical sign of mourning.

Practices in world religions vary as well. The Maori of New Zealand hold a public funeral when someone dies, because each person is considered as belonging to the tribe, not to the family, and everyone is expected to wail with grief at the community’s public time of mourning. In Africa, there are tribes that believe that the spirit of a person who dies can be reborn in a descendent.

In Hinduism, ancestors are honored, and the idea of reincarnation weighs heavily. If people live a good life, they go on to the next higher level. If they live a selfish life, they come back as lower beings. Because Evelyn suffered with ailments for years while she took care of others, I think she would go on. But my wishes for her may not be fit criteria for what actually happens.

In many cultures, it’s common for a surviving spouse to die within months of the partner’s death, unable or unwilling to continue on alone, especially after a long marriage. This makes psychological sense, because if two people believe they are made one by marriage, then living without one’s other half is too painful, both emotionally and physically. Doctors say that the stress of living without one’s spouse can weaken the muscles of the heart, and people die of what we lightly toss off as a broken heart. My grandmother had been with grandpa for over sixty years. After he died, she managed to last a full year, but she was stubborn.

The Hindu tradition of Sati takes this marital devotion a step further for a variety of reasons, some social and some financial. In it, a widow commits suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre—reminiscent of what Clytemnestra was supposed to do in Greek mythology. She didn’t because she had plans for revenge for her husband’s murder. Although Sati has been outlawed since 1829, it still happens today.

The Parsis of India, like the Hopi of the American Southwest, consider dead bodies to be impure. They do not bury or cremate the deceased, because to do so would pollute the sacred elements of earth, air, water, fire, and ether. Instead, they take the bodies of their dead to a Tower of Silence that is open to the sky, and vultures come down and dispose of the remains. Sikhs hold special readings for seven or ten-day periods.

Ancient Egypt, taking a different tack, took care to preserve bodies in preparation for what would be needed in the next world. Those who could afford the services were elaborately embalmed, with all the interior organs removed except the heart, which was considered the core of a person. The brain, deemed unimportant, was diced up and pulled out through the nose. The poor were buried in hot, dry sand that naturally embalmed their remains. Egyptians felt that after death, one’s soul was escorted into the hall of judgment for a decision by Osiris. If the person had shown enough compassion, the heart was processed into eternity.

In Buddhism, especially the Tibetan version, there is a forty-nine-day journey between this life and the next, during which time the dead person is presented with three openings to the next life and either recognizes them and goes through, or does not. The journey is called the Bardo of Becoming, and those who get stuck here without making the transition to the new place become ghosts.

Tibetans believe that grievers can help the dead by praying for them during the first twenty-one days after death. The focus of the prayers is two-fold: asking the Bodhisattva of Compassion to help the dead, and encouraging the dead to seek and accept the light. Praying can be done anytime, but it is believed to be particularly effective in the place and on the day of the week that the person died. Like the Parsis and the Sioux, Tibetan Buddhists leave their dead out in the open for recycling, although they first cut the body into smaller pieces.

For the first week, and then on the death date each month, I lit candles each night to guide Evelyn through the darkness to wherever she was going, and to bring me hope.

China has a number of native religions as well as world religions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. My brother Kurt witnessed the funeral procession of one tradition where family members wailed loudly until they reached the gravesite. Then the widow ritually tried to throw herself into the grave while other mourners ritually held her back. In another tradition, there was no public display of emotion, just quiet reverence.

In regards to grief, I thought that if I left it alone, it would heal on its own with time. It didn’t. Grief won’t go away until we deal with it. If we ignore it, it will pull us down into depression. If we fight against it, we will be bitter for the rest of our lives. If we don’t work with grief and let it flow through us like a river, our energy and hope will stagnate into a pool of green-gray slime. Grief helps us make the necessary changes so that we can let go and smile again.

In the Japanese culture, with its mixture of Buddhist, Shinto, and folk beliefs, the bulk of grief work is focused in the first forty-nine days when the living express their sorrow, and the community provides support. If grieving is not yet finished, as when the death was due to an act of violence, then more time is allowed. Rituals are conducted during this period to help the dead get to their new place. When this period ends, the household altar becomes the place to honor the dead and where the living can talk to the ancestors and receive guidance. Japanese Buddhists hold a monthly Shotsuki memorial service, and each year the summer Bon festival celebrates all who have died.

In Western Christianity, tension exists between feeling joy that the dead person has gone on to heaven, his or her ultimate goal, and feeling sorrow over our loss. Christians believe that each person has an immortal soul that does not end with this life. Roman Catholics say a mass for the deceased to help them get into heaven. They also believe in purgatory, a stopover on the way to heaven where the dead atone for their sins before being allowed in. Protestants do not believe in this.

For mainstream Christian denominations in the Midwest, other than a potluck meal after the funeral service, there isn’t much that is organized for grievers. The exceptions are megachurches that are large enough to have an ongoing fellowship group for grievers and individual congregations that hold quarterly or yearly focus groups for those who have lost loved ones.

Celtic Christians have traditionally used wakes to: celebrate the dead person, give a good sendoff to the next life, and help the living accept what has happened. Elderly women of the neighborhood would come in, wash the body, and lay it in a room for mourners to offer a prayer and say a few words of condolence to the family. In another room the deceased’s life was remembered through stories, song, and drink. The Celts also believe in cross-world communication with the dead, especially during Samhain at the end of October, when the barrier between this world and the next world thins to a veil and people can see and hear each other.

Communal Christian groups that have sustained their cultures, like the Amish and Old World Mennonites, have done better at maintaining their grief rituals. In the Amish community, grieving families are seldom left alone for the first two or three weeks, according to Steven Nolt of Goshen College, writing in the Indianapolis Star after the shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in 2006. During these weeks there are daily visitors, as well as visits every Sunday for the next year.

The Amish know that events happen in life they can’t control, but they trust God to watch over them. This belief allows them to accept death when it comes and to forgive people who have caused the death of their loved ones, even the deaths of children, instead of feeling anger or having thoughts of revenge. After this tragedy, one father said of the shooters that they must have been suffering terribly to do something this horrific.

Muslims observe communal mourning for three days, bringing food, reading verses from the Qur’an, and staying overnight so that the surviving spouse is not alone. The family often wears clothing of mourning for forty days. In some traditions the mourning color is black, and in others it is white. Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh, and fortieth days. In Egypt the day of condolence is forty days after death. Public expressions of grief for women include wailing, scratching the face, and hitting oneself. In some traditions these outward displays are discouraged. Some Muslim men will not shave for forty days.

Muslims and Christians believe that God either allows or causes everything to happen for a purpose, so people should be happy, even if loved ones die, because they have been chosen to be part of God’s plan. I don’t believe that Evelyn’s death served any purpose. She just died. If anything, it took compassion out of the world because Evelyn was taking care of children who were learning challenged and helping people deal with grief.

In Judaism there isn’t much discussion about the afterlife because the focus is on taking care of matters in this world, not the next. In the twelfth century, the great Jewish theologian, Maimonides, addressed this. He said that while there was an afterlife, its details were best left alone: “As to the blissful state of the soul in the World to come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it.”

In the Jewish tradition, from the moment of death until the end of the funeral, survivors honor the dead in a time called aninut—the “hollow days,” an apt term because that’s how this time felt to me. They tear a piece of clothing, symbolic of their everyday life being torn. After the funeral, they observe shiva, covering mirrors and sitting with their grief for seven days while others take care of their basic needs. They also receive well-wishers during this time when I figure they’re numb to everything, and the words of grief from others do not deepen their own. This also gives the community the chance to acknowledge its sorrow over the death. Then survivors mourn for thirty days, shloshim, after which time they rejoin the daily life of the world, believing that God will provide what they need. After twelve months, and on the anniversary of the death each year after, the yahrzeit, the dead person is remembered by lighting a memorial candle.

Discovering the Jewish traditions helped me realize that grief was going to last much longer than I anticipated, and its rites gave me a time structure for my journey.

*     *     *

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross spoke of five stages of grief, and while they are helpful for sketching out the general territory that grievers have to traverse, it should be noted that people do not go through all of the stages, or in the same order, or with the same intensity. A person may also go through the same stage several times; anger will run rampant, go away, pop back in, and go away again. Gradually, the stages fade into the background as people make peace with grief.

In addition to the support they receive from others, survivors need to do grief work on their own. They need to take risks and try new things. They need to figure out what they are feeling and share this with others on an ongoing basis so that they can release these emotions before they turn toxic. They can also create their own rituals to honor their dead. Besides lighting candles, they can create altars of memories to acknowledge the continued presence of the loved one in their lives. Donations can be made to organizations that the deceased supported as a way of continuing their compassion in the world.

In recent years, grief support groups in the community have been set up that one can attend, organized either by how the person died (cancer, heart attack, drunk driver, and so on), or by the griever’s situation (widow, widower, single parent, teenager, child). These groups provide a valuable forum for sharing one’s struggles with people who understand your fears, doubts, and the behaviors that you think may be weird or unstable. Here you find out that others are also doing things like setting a place at the dinner table for the deceased each night or leaving the TV on all day so there are other voices in the home. Support groups let members know they are still a valued part of a community and are not alone in what they are going through.

Books are another resource I consulted, although most were written about someone dying, and not about grief. Their words helped me to understand the full dimensions of sorrow and connect with my emotions, and inspired me to go deeper into my struggles. They also put grief into the larger context of human existence. The poets of the T’ang Dynasty in eighth century China were particularly attuned to grief. There have been a few recent books about death and grief that are notable, like Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort.

Helping others who are in need can help us realize that we haven’t cornered the market on suffering. By helping them, we feel better about ourselves.

After Ev’s death, knowing how quickly any of our lives could end, I wanted to grab life by the horns like my rock-climbing friends in Yosemite who take risks. As they work their way up the side of a mountain, they understand that they can be seriously injured or die, but they also know how alive they feel when they are climbing. And when they die, whether it’s later this afternoon or in fifty years, they want to be sure that they have lived life to the fullest. People, then, will not mourn a life cut short, but celebrate a life well lived.

The turn in grief recovery comes when we can celebrate our deceased. By celebrating them, we honor who they were and what they did. In a short paper called “A Buddhist’s Perspective on Grieving,” Joan Halifax said that when she was finally able to do this, her mother moved from being a source of sorrow to being an ancestor who now lived as a healthy part of her.

Spending time outdoors is helpful for many who grieve, because the awe and beauty of natural landscapes draw them outside of lives that have been closed in by grief. In nature, I saw that death was accepted as part of a natural cycle and noticed that areas of massive destruction were growing into scenes of new beauty. Being outdoors and looking up at the stars moving in constellations through the sky, hiking through forests and across mountains, and listening to birds sing helped me realize that I was part of something much larger than my own individual life.

The year after Evelyn’s passing, I hiked eight miles to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite and held a memorial service for her at 7,500 feet. In a place that she was never physically able to reach, I made a pile of white granite rocks and added a purple Scottish thistle to honor her and her heritage. I sat and talked with Ev, pointing out the sights before us: Three Brothers to our left, Bridalveil Fall and Glacier Point across the valley, and Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and the snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada crest in the distance rising three miles into the blue sky.

In one sense, we are still sitting there on top of El Capitan in the warm afternoon sun, with a cool breeze coming up from the valley floor, and celebrating the beauty of the natural world. Moments of life like this stay with us.

    *     *     *

If I hide from grief, it will come back, whack me behind the knees, and take me down like a sack of potatoes. Those who grieve know that the long battle is both physical and mental. At times, my journey of grief has felt like rafting down a wild river with turbulent rapids and cascades that threw me out of the boat. At other times, it felt like long stretches of calm water when nothing seemed to be happening, yet the shoreline continued to go by. In both cases, I was healing in unseen ways.

It is not surprising that we run from grief. It’s not a happy event. It deals with something traumatic, and it forces us to change our lives in significant ways. What is surprising is that, in the midst of all the emotional chaos, people are willing to show up on our doorsteps and listen to us talk about grief, knowing that they cannot take the pain away, but believing that they can lessen our burden if grief is shared.

Life is suffering, as world religions like to remind us, but it’s also celebration, as the Celts believed. When we can hold grief in one hand, joy in the other, and still dance, then we have found the balance that enables us to live full lives.

While there is much that I still do not understand about grief, I know that I am on a journey that is restoring me to life.

Mark LiebenowMark Liebenow writes about grief for the Huffington Post. His essays, poems, and reviews have been published in journals such as Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Citron Review, Swink, Crab Orchard, DMQ Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. The author of four books, he has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, and the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay awards. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press.