WE LIKE TO say how things are, perhaps because we hope that’s how they might actually be. We attempt to name, identify, and define the most mysterious of matters: sex, love, marriage, monogamy, infidelity, death, loss, grief. We want these things to have an order, an internal logic, and we also want them to be connected to one another. We want it to be true that if we cheat on our spouse, it means we no longer want to be married to him or her. We want it to be true that if someone we love dies, we simply have to pass through a series of phases, like an emotional obstacle course from which we will emerge happy and content, unharmed and unchanged.
After my mother died, everyone I knew wanted to tell me either about the worst breakup they’d had or all the people they’d known who’d died. I listened to a long, traumatic story about a girlfriend who suddenly moved to Ohio, and to stories of grandfathers and old friends and people who lived down the block who were no longer among us. Rarely was this helpful.
Occasionally I came across people who’d had the experience of losing someone whose death made them think, I cannot continue to live. I recognized these people: their postures, where they rested their eyes as they spoke, the expressions they let onto their faces and the ones they kept off. These people consoled me beyond measure. I felt profoundly connected to them, as if we were a tribe.
It’s surprising how relatively few of them there were. People don’t die anymore, not the way they used to. Children survive childhood; women, the labors of birth; men, their work. We survive influenza and infection, cancer and heart attacks. We keep living on and on: 80, 90, 103. We live younger, too; frightfully premature babies are cloistered and coddled and shepherded through. My mother lived to the age of forty-five and never lost anyone who was truly beloved to her. Of course, she knew many people who died, but none who made her wake to the thought: I cannot continue to live.
And there is a difference. Dying is not your girlfriend moving to Ohio. Grief is not the day after your neighbor’s funeral, when you felt extremely blue. It is impolite to make this distinction. We act as if all losses are equal. It is un-American to behave otherwise: we live in a democracy of sorrow. Every emotion felt is validated and judged to be as true as any other.
But what does this do to us: this refusal to quantify love, loss, grief? Jewish tradition states that one is considered a mourner when one of eight people dies: father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, son, or daughter. This definition doesn’t fulfill the needs of today’s diverse and far-flung affections; indeed, it probably never did. It leaves out the step-relations, the long-term lovers, the chosen family of a tight circle of friends; and it includes the blood relations we perhaps never honestly loved. But its intentions are true. And, undeniably, for most of us that list of eight does come awfully close. We love and care for oodles of people, but only a few of them, if they died, would make us believe we could not continue to live. Imagine if there were a boat upon which you could put only four people, and everyone else known and beloved to you would then cease to exist. Who would you put on that boat? It would be painful, but how quickly you would decide: You and you and you and you, get in. The rest of you, goodbye.
For years, I was haunted by the idea of this imaginary boat of life; by the desire to exchange my mother’s fate for one of the many living people I knew. I would be sitting across the table from a dear friend. I loved her, him, each one of these people. Some I said I loved like family. But I would look at them and think, Why couldn’t it have been you who died instead? You, goodbye.
-Cheryl Strayed, “The Love of My Life”