Broken Reality

While watching Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film, Fanny and Alexander, I came across a very powerful scene about grief. I keep thinking about it. I suspect I will think about it for a long time because it articulates (and, in a way, resolves) several things that I struggle with when it comes to grief and loss.

In the scene, Helena Ekdahl is speaking to the ghost of her dead son, Oscar. She talks about what grief has done to her life and to her sense of reality. Helena used to be an actress, and that’s what she’s alluding to when she mentions playing a role.

This shattering of reality is central to my own life. I often use the word “shattered” to describe what it was like to lose my father when I was 16 years old. Something happened when he died, something happened when I was told that he was dead. This wound was created and started to form. Reality was shattered, broken. I have lived with that brokenness ever since, and I have struggled to articulate it, to find words for it.

I am also overwhelmed by the inability to make sense of things. I’m not sure how to explain this to you. I’m not sure many people understand it. Nothing makes sense anymore, nothing has made sense since he died. The way I thought the world was, what I thought my life was, what I thought reality was–all of it was destroyed. It’s why I’m drawn to non-linear, non-narrative forms of art. It’s why I myself write in fragments. His death, and all the other loss and trauma I have suffered in the intervening years, pulverized me, reduced me to ruins. That’s how I write. I write bits and pieces, I write word shards. I write all the fragments that remain of my shattered life and soul. I can’t make sense of anything. I can’t find or create meaning. I can’t do it.

What I find fascinating about this scene is Helena’s acceptance of her shatteredness, her embracing of senselessness, her belief that it makes reality more real, that it is the natural state of life. She has no desire to heal the wound, to repair the brokenness, to make any sense out of the chaos. I think, for so long, I have resisted the senselessness. I’ve thought that I needed to overcome it, or maybe I thought that it would change, that some miraculous moment would arrive when everything finally made sense again. That isn’t going to happen. I know that now. 

He’s been dead over a decade. It’s never going to feel real. It’s never going to stop killing me. It’s never going to be acceptable that he isn’t alive. I cannot heal. I cannot move past it. I cannot bear it. Reality is broken. It will always be broken. All I can really do is create a space for engaging with what is broken, what is lost, what is unbearable. I do that through writing. Writing helps me to survive the senselessness of this world. It helps me live in this broken reality that often defies language and makes words impossible. How do you write when you can’t make sense of anything, when your reality is cracked in pieces? How do you write a scream?

There’s another powerful scene in Fanny and Alexander. It’s just after Oscar’s death. His body is laid out in a room in the house. His two children–the title characters–are awakened in the night by the sound of their mother’s screams. Emilie Ekdahl is pacing the room that holds Oscar’s body. She is releasing the primal shrieks of grief. No language can be found. She cannot speak. She can only wail. It’s one of the most visceral and honest scenes about grief that I’ve ever witnessed. Helena speaks about the breaking of reality, and Emilie enacts it through her body, through her guttural and raw shrieking that gives voice to the depths of her unspeakable anguish. 

I think that’s what I want my writing to be–the articulation of a scream.

I Remember

Recently, we had the first snowfall of the winter season. The kids got a day off from school. I saw many of them playing in the snow and a few even built snowmen. Some of them were at or around the age I was when I lost my father.

I'm never just in the present. I'm always also in the past. I inhabit both realities at the same time. Snow is never just snow for me. It's imbued with vivid, overwhelming memories.

When I stood outside in the snow alone, I remembered the first snowfall after my father's death. 

I remembered standing in the middle of the yard as the snow flakes fell around me, stunned into silence by the beauty I was witnessing that he was not alive to see. 

I remember the warm tears falling down my face. 

I remember thinking about how Emily Dickinson wore white after her father's death.

I remember wishing the whiteness and the coldness would obliterate me.

I remember how I couldn't understand the fatherless world I suddenly lived in. 

I still don't understand it.

Grief During the Holidays

Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander: Episode One (1982)

It's hard to believe this is the 12th Christmas without my father. More than a decade later, I am still dumbstruck by grief and still struggling to make sense of life without him.

I started getting into Christmas early this year. I'm an atheist, but I do enjoy the holidays. I like decorating the tree and putting up pretty lights. I was listening to holiday music in November! I was really happy for a few weeks and feeling good, but when December came the bottom fell out.

I haven't listened to any holiday music since December started. I feel no desire to celebrate at all. It's like a switch was turned off, and I think I know why. It's because all the memories of my father are back, memories of my childhood. The pain debilitates me. My depression and anxiety feel very intense right now.

I think some people would assume that almost 12 years is a long time and it shouldn't hurt as much or I should be over it or okay with it. I'm not sure how to respond to that attitude. This wasn't the death of a distant relative, this was my father. A man I knew for 16 years, the man who raised and loved me. When I lost him, I lost his love, too. I lost all he was. I lost the life we had together. I lost the life we could have had together. No amount of time changes that. It's as raw and real and painful for me now as it was the first Christmas I spent without him. This is my life. I never escape this grief.

I don't update this blog on a regular basis. I can't do it anymore or haven't wanted to do it for a long time because the language for the pain eludes me. I write fragments in my journal. It's the reason I rarely share my writing anymore. All I write about is pain. I don't think most people want to read it. I'm not sure I want to read it, but I live it and so that's what I write.

The holidays are hard for a lot of people who are grieving. Things are never the same after a catastrophic loss. I think a lot about this poem by W.S. Merwin. It's called "Separation":

Your absence has gone through me  
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

I think that says it all. I don't have any words of inspiration for other people who are suffering the way I am. I can only say that you're not alone in your grief, that others feel it too. If you are struggling, consider reaching out to people you know. And don't beat yourself up if you are having a hard time. It's okay to miss someone you loved. Don't let anyone make you feel bad or ashamed about it.

Since my father's death, the new year isn't the same either. I'm just reminded that I've survived another year without him and that I have to live the upcoming year without him, too. What is time? A reminder of our mortality, the thing that takes and takes and takes from us. Time is loss. Life is loss. I think we all do our best to survive it.

“One moment he was there, and then he was gone”

While watching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End, one scene, in particular, stunned me. 

The film is about a widow whose husband continues to haunt her after death. One day, the widow–Urszula–is at a bar. She sees an American man across the room. He has hands like her husband. The American man mistakes her for a prostitute, but she plays along and goes to a hotel room with him. After they have sex, she asks if he understands Polish. He says he doesn’t. As they lie in bed together, she starts to pour her heart out in Polish. He doesn’t understand a word she says, but that’s the point. She doesn’t want him to understand. She just wants to speak. It’s the first time in the film that she communicates her grief, says it out loud.

There is such a rawness to the scene, an emotional nakedness that mirrors her physical nudity. Her silence says as much as her words. Her face expresses so much.

Maybe sometimes we need to speak even if it’s to a stranger. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we are understood. Some of us–myself included–need to put experiences into language. We need to articulate, like Urszula, what it means for someone to be here one moment and then for them not to be here, how that sudden disappearance is profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Absence, the void, the missing–these are things that, by their very nature, defy language. 

I was thinking just recently about how I struggle with language, how I grapple with the unspeakable, how tired I am of words. I’ve filled notebooks with thousands of words and still I haven’t really written anything. What do I want to say? Do I have anything to say?

I write from need. I write from pain. I write from my body and my grief and my despair and my mad aching.

The director Su Friedrich said something interesting in an interview and I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. She’s talking about her film I Cannot Tell You How I Feel.

Marchini Camia: So there was a therapeutic aspect to making this film? 
Friedrich: No, because this isn’t art therapy. Art therapy is something very particular: People have troubles and they go to an art therapist. They aren’t artists; they’re people with problems who use a paint brush. I’m a person with problems who also is an artist. I don’t disrespect art therapy, but it’s not at all the same thing. If I start thinking about working on a film because the subject has deep emotional resonance for me, I know it’s going to be really hard and that I’m going to have to go to places in my mind that I don’t want to. But it’s also going to be hard because I’ll have to get good footage, good sound, I’ll have to write good texts, and then I’ll have to edit so that it all makes sense and works well. There is a huge, huge, huge amount of craft and thought and planning and consciousness in the process that completely takes over from the emotional stuff.

Also I think the goal of art therapy is that you understand how you’re feeling and you get better. That never happens when you’re making a film!

Friedrich is talking about that age-old question of what makes art art. She makes a distinction between art as a form of therapy and art as a craft and a kind of intellectual process. She seems to suggest that people who create purely from a need for therapeutic release or who engage in a more automatic process are not legitimate artists. 

I don’t think I agree. I think my idea of art is more expansive than that. Perhaps because my writing process is much more connected with the therapeutic, automatic, instinctual, and cathartic.

Grief blew me apart. Profound loss and mental illness have forever changed me and also changed how I write and why I write. There is a deep silence in me. There is so much that lives inside of me that I cannot articulate. I wonder if I will ever find a language for it, if a language is even possible. If I can’t find that language, have I failed as a writer? Am I a legitimate writer at all? Am I just, in Friedrich’s words, a person with problems who uses a pen? Could what I write ever have meaning beyond myself and my own personal issues? Is art that which transcends the artist and takes on a life inside other people?

Back to Urszula, naked and speaking her grief. Her act of speaking is so interesting to me because she does it on her own terms and in her own language, not in the American’s. She’s not concerned with being understood. There is something in the act of saying the words. It doesn’t matter if the audience comprehends them.

When you write, you must be prepared to be misunderstood or ignored. You may create a language that few understand, but it is your own.

I also disagree with Friedrich that art therapy eases the pain and makes the practitioner feel better. I don’t write to cure my pain but to bear it.

I find it touching that Urszula is attracted to the American because his hands remind her of her dead husband’s hands. We perpetually seek out the dead in the living, we watch as they are resurrected in everything, from songs to other people’s body parts. There is no easy way to bear grief when the dead can never be laid to rest, when they haunt us to no end.