Name: Erin McReynolds
Tell me about the person who died:
In July 2004, when I was 27, I found my mother's body under a blanket on her bed. She had been stabbed in the neck by her boyfriend during an argument, and had been missing for three days. I had a locksmith let me in when the police wouldn't break into the apartment; I didn't know she was in there, but I knew I'd find some clue as to her whereabouts. Likewise, I didn't know her boyfriend was capable of killing her, but I knew—for a long time I knew—that something terrible was going to happen. To her, to me, it's hard to say; I grew up with a feeling of dread, and it hardened into something flexible and helpful as I got older. It's what made me clear-headed and capable of action when I moved the pillow on her bed and saw her hand there. I knew not to pull the blanket back further, not to see the rest. That it was not going to serve me, what was under there. That I was my mother now, and hadn't I always been? And that mother pulled me out of the room and let me rest on her home’s cool, terra cotta tiles, which she and I had painstakingly coated with sealant when she first bought the place, her first homeownership, when she was still employed, before she met him. I got down on those tiles and felt End wash over me. I heard it as a galaxy-sized book slamming shut. I saw it as an imprint of her hand, her right, white, soft hand, hanging limply in space, whenever I closed my eyes. To realize something you think you may have always known—to come to a moment you knew would always arrive but kind of hoped wouldn't. It felt like my own death.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
Grief came in little springs, bubbling up in still moments, when I wasn't talking to police, to victim's services, my family; when I wasn't making lists, dialing strangers, ordering funeral arrangements; when I wasn't relaying the story to everyone I met: the clerk who sold me the makeup that would go on her face, the kind mortician who let me sit and talk because I was vibrating with trauma, someone in an elevator I think. I remember after taking stock of everyone who had come to say goodbye and show support—friends from my mother's better days, friends of mine from college whom I hadn't seen in years, my high school crush, my dad's side of the family—and I let myself fall on the casket in this kind of dramatic way that felt right and good but my brother pulled me off and held me instead. I kept saying I was sorry. And then we had a big party. And all the people came and we sang and danced and drank and laughed. We couldn't believe what we had lived through, and we celebrated that we did live through it. I woke up the next day and it was summer-hot and my dad had crashed on my couch and we both had monster hangovers, and I never felt more alone, more empty. It was the day I would begin to pick up and move on, and I had no idea how.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape you've been passing through, what would it look like and feel like at different points in your journey?
My grief is so intrinsically tied to trauma. I don't feel one without the other—one feels cool and heavy while the other is hot and spiky. About two years after my mother died, I went to a yoga therapist who moved various parts of my body and had me describe the resulting sensations in terms of color and texture. I described something green-gray in my chest, something smooth and glassy, and when she asked me to name it, I surprised myself with: Grief. Until then, I didn't know I had grief. I thought I had only trauma, anxiety, loneliness, hope, lust, and a number of other responses and motives, but not grief. As soon as I said it, something began to shift in my life. I broke up with a boyfriend who wasn't treating me very well, and met the man who would become my husband. I think what happened that day was I began to feel compassion for myself, for the very first time.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
When my brother and I were kids, my mom came back from a trip to Ensenada with a crab claw she'd found on the beach. She used it to do an act from Señor Wences, a ventriloquist comic who was on Ed Sullivan when my mom was a kid: "S'alright? S'okay. Joo want to talk to my crab?" It made us laugh and laugh. She was so wonderfully silly, so adorable. To this day, I can't look at a crab claw without hearing that voice, and it always makes me smile—a little joke between me and her, wherever she is.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
How much beauty there was in it. Time slows way down, so you can see things happen in these tableaux. So much happens that you would otherwise miss: the way the flowers we threw in the ocean made a red, blue, and yellow path to Catalina island; the specks of blood on my grandfather's tissue as he hacked into it on the boat, and I realized what it meant for parents to outlive their child; how my mom's dog and I cried and threw our bodies against the bars of her cage at the shelter until someone opened it, and I knew I might never again share that howl of need with another animal.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
Nobody knew what to say—of course they didn't—and when they stood there in silence, looking with that awful expression that says "I am beyond words for you but I am so sorry this is happening,” I felt loved and safe in a way I couldn't articulate then. I tell people now, when they say they don't know what to tell someone who is grieving, to just show up. Hold them if they want to be held, bring food they will not eat. Eleven years later, I remember the Indian food my friend Sara brought the day after, though I couldn't touch it. I remember my friend Brett, after the service, sent me Nick Drake's "Time of No Reply" and it was everything about loss. I remember my kind boyfriend's cool hand stroking my head, many, many times. I remember the mortuary wrote "professional courtesy" next to zero dollars owed on the pink bill. I do not remember a damned thing anyone said.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
My grandmother was sedated, and her eyes, which are very light blue, went near transparent with grief. Later, she was angry, and that hardened in her and wore her out. I was annoyed by her anger then, in part because I couldn't locate mine, so I didn't understand it or its usefulness. My father talked, like me, a lot. He worked it out with his head, and could only let his big heart feel so much before he switched to head again. My brother—it's hard to say, because I project like crazy onto my brother. I made him call me every day when he went back across the country to finish school the week after it happened. He was more of a loner, so he didn't reach out to people. I remember he got this girlfriend not long after and when I asked if she was helping him through things, he said he hadn't told her, even after they moved in together. I worried endlessly about him; made myself sick with it. I made him promise me he would be okay, that I needed him to be okay. We're not great at being family, is the thing. We don't show our vulnerabilities to each other, and griping is our shared language. Griping and laughing bitterly. We're great at turning tragedy into a laugh.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
I did nothing in private that I didn't write down with the intent of sharing it publicly. I wrote an essay the week after we took my mom's ashes to sea and applied for an MFA program with it. I knew I needed the right tools to tell the story. There is no private: I've been a diarist since I was eight years old, and a showboat, and a ham. I am an artist, so everything is grist for the mill. There's a scene in Contact where Jodie Foster is trying to describe to NASA what she is seeing, through the wormhole to the other side of space, and she says, "They should have sent a poet." That's how I feel every day I try to write about what happened. I went to the other side of space and I cannot make the words to convey it. But that's what I want my life to be about.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
As early as the funeral, people were coming up to me to report where my mother was now, in what form. My very Catholic stepmother said she was with God, which my mom would have hooted at. "I am God, and so are you," she probably would have said. Her brother's girlfriend said she put a glass of red wine, my mom's favorite, on the mantel and was visited by her that night. Mom would have enjoyed that, too. We didn't go in much for ghosts. But she did believe in some kind of spirit—that we come from and go back to some enduring force. When I put her ashes into the sea to disperse and become totally lost to me, but part of everything, it was my form of prayer for that to be true. I believe in DNA and in the mind, and she's embedded deeply in both, so she is always with me, and that's been more sweet than sad.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
Writing and reading. Reading and writing. I read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, which nailed grief for me even though our circumstances could not have been any more different. That's the thing about great writing: it transcends mere relatability. I read Thomas Lynch's Undertaking, essays by the poet mortician of a small northern town. I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, the book of short stories about war and trauma and loss and writing about war and trauma and loss. I read Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, because the things that are larger than words have to be wrought from words somehow. I flung myself across the page like I did across that casket, and I wrote my way into every part of it, sometimes elegantly, sometimes clunkily. The clunky times came when I forgot feeling, when I forgot the beauty of those slowed-down tableaux. When I tried to make it make sense. It doesn't make sense. Death will go on without your making sense of it, thank you very much.
How did your loss and your grief change you?
Here I will refer to the words of the poet they should have sent. Anne Lamott, spirit mother to all writers, said this about grief: "You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination." To this I would add, if you want it. And I did, right from the moment I saw her little hand there. And I knew she'd want it (joo want to talk to my crab?) for us all, too.
Erin McReynolds is the managing editor at Audible's online magazine Audible Range, and the web editor at American Short Fiction. Her fiction and essays have appeared in North American Review, Memoir, Split Lip, and others. She lives in NYC and is working on a memoir.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I then photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. I’m looking for many more submissions and for a range of experiences, so please share widely! Learn more about the project and submit your story. - Mindy Stricke