First published in my Substack newsletter, Unsorted but Significant, December 2023.
THE ADMITTEDLY JARRING SELFIE above reminds me, if I do say so myself, of a still from a Wes Anderson film. It captures my feet, my mom’s coffin and her open grave on the frigid early afternoon of Dec. 4, 2018, five years ago tomorrow. It represents the final moment I was “with” either of my parents in this world.
Contained in that moment was the end of a journey that, since then, I have spent countless joules of energy trying to sort out. That act of trying has, in fact, become its own journey, which continues today.
It is part of why this space exists: to explore and understand how so much of the miscellany kicking around in our homes and in our heads about lost loved ones can be made sense of — can be corralled and either used wisely or jettisoned mindfully. To follow the path that grief is leading me down, and hopefully to find something useful at its end — useful for me and, I hope, for people who read this as well.
Several months ago, I posted a contemplative (and, I suppose, rather gloomy) essay about making sense of 1980s pop music through the funeral of a childhood friend who had died far too young of a particularly aggressive form of cancer. On social media, a person I know marginally — a smart and incisive person whom I’ve always admired and liked, albeit from a distance — responded with this comment:
“You really love swimming in grief, eh?”
After a few other comments — including one from my wife in my defense — he added this:
“Wasn’t referring to this post alone. It’s the 24/7 navel gazing. Gets old.”
HIS COMMENTS, I MUST ADMIT, knocked me off my horse for a few days. After all, I created this space for observation that comes largely through personal memoir and experience. It is predicated on the notion that what one person has lived through might be useful to others — if, that is, I can process it through a broader cultural and societal lens. It’s always been my secret fear that, with this kind of writing, self-indulgence would crowd out relevance. (I can hear the response: My God, now he’s actually writing about writing about himself. Where will this self-referential hellscape end?)
Embedded in the pointed comments posted by my friend (I use the word in the Facebook sense, not the real-world one) is, I think, the notion that to openly put forward one’s grief, to grapple with it in a public forum, is somehow self-indulgent and unseemly.
I have found that to be completely untrue. Just the opposite, in fact.
Grief, I think, is present in so many lives today — in ways we often can’t and don’t recognize. I see traces of it cross people’s faces every day no matter where I find myself. It takes sundry forms.
The pandemic left us with grief in multiple flavors, many of them still undefined and unarticulated. Political polarization and its schisms — and the breakdown in community they can cause — produce their own varietals of grief. Growing up realizing that the climate is getting alarmingly warmer and the very planet upon which we live is convulsing is, to my sons’ generation, a unique kind of grief that we’re only beginning to articulate.
Top that off with the relatively recent development that in addition to encountering new sources of grief, we are finally developing a common vocabulary around it. And perhaps we are slowly understanding that talking about it can produce both tools to navigate it and allies for the journey.
For many people of my generation and age (Gen X, 55), trying to balance the ascent of our children with the descent and decay and multifaceted caregiving — and eventual loss — of parents and figuring out what it all means is also a form of grief, or at least can be. It’s not what life is all about, but it permeates many things — some of them quite unexpected, at least in my experience.
PLEASE DON’T MISUNDERSTAND: I am sure some of the paths that this writing is taking me through are in fact self-indulgent. I apologize for those. For the others, I am unrepentant.
Now, though my commenting “friend” and I remain connected on the platform, I make sure that whenever I post something remotely inward-looking, I exclude him from the audience so that he doesn’t have to be subjected to the conversations I choose to have in my virtual living room. I wouldn’t want to be rude.
So for now I swim on, scouring the horizon, confident the land is there somewhere and that I will, eventually, see across the grief and navigate my way home.
In the meantime, if you’re struggling with something overwhelming that touches the idea of grief, I wonder if a dip into the waters of open contemplation — and yes, even gazing navelward now and then and sharing it with people — might be healthy as you begin to process things. Or, barring that, consider reaching out; I learned long ago, under the most trying of circumstances, that helping people feel less alone is one of the most urgent pursuits we can undertake. Because when you have support, sometimes the water’s just a bit warmer.
So come on in for a bit if you’re so inclined. Or don’t. Totally up to you. Either way, this much has become clear to me: I’m not treading water, not flailing about. As the man said, I’m swimming. And I refuse to drown.
I’ll get to shore eventually. Hopefully we all will.
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
Where the Spirit Might Dwell
In undoing the architecture of my late parents' everyday lives and deciding what to discard, was I committing a small…
The tiny things we choose to remember can echo forward for decades.
Close, But No Cigar Band
The curious, tobacco-inflected correspondence between my adolescent grandfather and Mark Twain.
The Uninvited Sweater
Toward the end of his life, my father owned many pieces of clothing. This was definitely not one of them.
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
© 2023 Ted Anthony