By Lana Haffar
Odin’s ears never stood up like a German Shepherd’s should. His cartilage was weak, so they sprawled from either side of his head, like wings. The force of every heartbeat made them flutter. He bounded everywhere, tongue lolling, paws spread to cushion the impact. On a November Wednesday, I turned twenty years old. Two days later, Odin died of lymphoma. I lay down on cold marble to hold him as he shuddered from this world, taking my words with him. Now, I’m looking for them elsewhere.
Grief is a slippery beast that has left us tongue-tied for centuries. Even the giants of our artistic tradition have hesitated with their pens in the air. Whether widespread or intimate, collective or personal, grief levels all. But by examining these contexts, we might find comfort in a commonality. Maybe our inability to speak is the thing that connects us.
“I sit, with all my theories, metaphors, and equations, Shakespeare and Milton, Barthes, Du Fu, and Homer, masters of death who can’t, at last, teach me how to touch my dead.” – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
Every funeral home website has a section advising people on proper condolences. We walk down dark wood floors with flowers or food or empty hands, pay our respects, and avoid the ravaged eyes of the family. No matter how we dig in our heels, the long line of love and loss stretches onward, winding us in its wake. In the aftermath of death, language breaks down. Words—our trusted tools for connection, explanation, and rationalization—are defunct. And so, non-verbal expressions of grief pervade our artistic tradition. In the downturned face of every “Pieta.” In the funeral marches, lamentations, and even the threnodies of music. But those who would transcribe their feelings must grapple with a reality. Grief is a space that words can’t reach.
Give him a pale horse if you must, but Death somehow comes striding in with skeletal, greedy fingers. He reaches inside of us, that thief, and steals away with our rational thought. If the blank page is already the enemy, what chance is there for articulation when grief leaves us hollow? This uncertainty is a recurrent theme in Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 album “Carrie and Lowell.” He opens:
“Spirit of my silence
I can hear you
But I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin.”
Carrie Stevens, Sufjan’s mother, died of stomach cancer in 2012. To process her passing, Stevens assembled an 11-song meditation on complicated loss. In a hushed, sincere voice, he rhetorically questions his unresponsive mother, asking, “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?” and “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” Often, the one person we wish to speak to is the dearly departed. Only with their advice can we know how to miss them. In this way, Stevens’ songs are a private conversation, not ready to be shared with the rest of the world. Because, really, how do you start talking?
“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” – The Prophet, Khalil Gibran
If we think of grief as overwhelming, undirected love, then maybe it’s this reckoning that leaves us too stricken to speak. No matter how drawn out or lightning-quick death is, there’s never enough time to adjust. We’re never prepared. In grief, there’s too much soundless love inside us with nobody to receive it. The object of our affection has gone somewhere we can’t follow, and they don’t take your love with them. We’re given the dreadful task of safeguarding it here for them.
“This is the rotten core, the Grünewald, the nails in the hands, the needle in the arm, the trauma, the bomb, the thing after which we cannot ever write poems, the slammed door, the in-principio-erat-verbum. Very What-the-fuck. Very blood-sport. Very university historical. But don’t stop looking.” – Grief is a Thing with Feathers, Max Porter
You bring a puppy home; it grows; it dies. You lose your grandparents. Such is the heartbreaking, yet natural, progression of things. But the cruelty of people meets the cruelty of death, and nature is perverted beyond recognition. As war carves scars on lands and souls, the immensity of this loss renders entire generations speechless.
Anna Akhmatova, standing outside the gates of Leningrad Prison, crushed herself against the sides of other Russian women praying not to become widows. A grim woman with a tired face turned to her and asked, “Could one ever describe this?” Akhmatova responded, “I can.” So goes the preface of her famous “Requiem,” in which she recounts the Great Purge of 1937. In ten parts, Akhmatova laments the loss of her husband and the imprisonment of her son. She describes the scores of anguished mothers and wives who wait outside the prison in chilly silence, their lips turning blue with disuse and cold. But in her defiance, Akhmatova beats back Grief the Bandit. She accomplishes the impossible, and her ability to find her words allows her to become “the mouth / through which one hundred million people scream.”
“Oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade, what is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.” – “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman
Even in our cloying silence, the mechanics of speech are there. Our throats can produce sound and our hands can write. That, in itself, is a privilege. Why is Gregor Samsa such a tragic figure? In part, because his voice is reduced to insect chatter. He dies curled up, wounded, and utterly silent in his room. And Io, the nymph turned into a cow after her assault by Jupiter: what of her? She must scuff hoof-marks into the dark earth to communicate. A human voice is a powerful thing. In the absence of this, animals huff, haw, bray, roar, cry. Elephants tend to the bones of their loved ones, and gorillas cradle the bodies of their infants. In these funeral rites, there is no chatter. No urge to rationalize and explain one’s way through grief. Maybe by observing them, we might learn that words are not vital to the expression of despair.
This line between animal grief and human grief can be thin. In Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, we follow Charlie as he undergoes an experimental surgery meant to enhance his intelligence. He gains the ability of formal speech and writing, and begins to process his experiences on a deeper level. A lab mouse named Algernon participates in the trial alongside him. Charlie and Algernon grow, prosper, and begin to wane at the same time. After a steady decline in health and happiness, Algernon passes away. This small mouse is one of Charlie’s closest friends, and as Charlie himself regresses into his pre-operative state, he delivers one last journal entry to us: “Please if you get the chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”
“Mama tried to talk to me about it, and I let her. But while everything she said made sense, it didn’t do a thing to that dead feeling I had.” – Old Yeller, Fred Gipson
I have a theory. Love, no matter who it is between, is a wordless bond. What better example of this implicit devotion than of master-and-hound, of man’s-best-friend? These creatures make their home with us. When we send them off—when we ease their pain—we must draw on every telepathic connection and cosmic force to convey our love to them. As I looked into Odin’s dark eyes, I knew he was looking right back, feeling everything instinctually with a freedom I can only wish for. His favorite food was P.F. Chang’s frozen chicken. He had a birthmark on his left ear. He adored the sound of his own bark. He hated getting in the car, but he loved the destination. And maybe that’s all it is—these little pearls they leave us with. We can pull them out, recite them, and know, for sure. They were here. They existed. And I loved them. And I will. Though the right words may never come, I will find a way to hold this love.