Grief in Art

“I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt, but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss. My heart was broken by my dark lady, and I wept, in my room, alone; but while I wept, somewhere inside I smiled.”

-Neil Gaiman

This quote by Neil Gaiman has been a favorite of mine for years. When Adam died, I remembered the quote and thought, Of course Neilman wasn’t glad his son died. He tried to see a silver lining. At least, his portrayal of grief will be authentic and true to life.

  • But what do we do when we feel as though our own expression of grief is well, cliche?

When Adam overdosed for the first time, I remember hearing my scream in my own ears as I ran around the house trying to find the Narcan. My scream reminded me of women in horror movies because it was the only time I’d heard a scream like that before: one that makes your toes curl. The scream ripped through my body without my permission.

Later, when I wrote about the experience, readers asked, “How could a girl screaming analyze her own scream while it was happening? Wouldn’t she be too worried to analyze her own scream?”

I had no answer for them except that it was the truth. While I scrambled to find the Narcan, the narrator in my head analyzed everything that I was doing.

When Adam died over a year later, a police officer pulled into our driveway to notify the next of kin. I screamed and fell to my knees (even typing that out feels cliche although, again, it’s the truth). Like before, I thought of people in movies falling to their knees because it’s the only frame of reference I have for that type of trauma. My knees hit the gravel and I thought: Oh my god. Trauma is this cheesy. I did scream and fall to my knees.

Dissociation hits, and I am not in my body but above, watching myself through a stack of scattered Polaroids. Time stretches, and I move in a series of clips:

  • Now she is looking in the back of the police car for Adam because he cannot be dead. He must be handcuffed in the backseat.
  • Now she is kneeling in the driveway screaming, “No.”
  • Now she is standing up and screaming at the police officer, animated and hostile.

I analyzed myself based on the stack of Polaroids because I was not there mentally or emotionally. Dissociation had removed me from the situation to protect myself.

When I wrote about how I analyzed myself moment to moment like that, readers who haven’t experienced trauma or dissociation didn’t understand. Dissociation turns you into a cold observer of yourself as way of protection. The observer scolded the girl: How could she fall to her knees like a widow onscreen? Why is her shock so unoriginal?

Because the responses to shock and grief onscreen (and in books) are often based off the experiences of real people. We laugh and roll our eyes at the “intense” or “cliche” films of widows when we’ve never been through it. When we have, we tremble at the scenes because we know now. We understand, and we hate that we can no longer smirk and grab another bite of popcorn. It isn’t a movie anymore. It’s our life, and we wonder how we found ourselves in this story.

Progress Report

There will come a time when you will be you again.

When you masturbate because you’re horny, not because you want to remember how it feels to relax.

When you don’t cry after every climax and ache all over, looking up at a ceiling that never yields his face.

When you stop changing the radio stations frantically, trying to find a song that doesn’t remind you of him.

When you stop taking 30 minutes to pick a movie because it can’t have a country setting or a tall man with brown hair or any mention of drugs or this and this or that.

When you no longer stare at the Red Bulls in the mini fridge while you stand in the checkout line, wondering if maybe you got one: would it summon his return?

No, that’s silly. But can he hear you?

No, that’s foolish. But can he see you?

No, that’s unrealistic. But you light a random candle you found in a wiccan store, hoping some unintentional magic will bring him back.

You turn on your essential oil diffuser, take your medication, and ease into downward dog. You go through the motions of supposed stable, peaceful, well-adjusted people.

You end up lighting a cigarette anyway and try to keep a lid on the overflowing rage. Are you mad at him? Mad at the universe? Mad at yourself?

my boyfriend overdosed
Photo by cottonbro

You want to fight anyone and everyone. You want to scream and howl and throw glass at buildings downtown until your fingers bust open. You want to find who is responsible, as if it could ever be one person, and strangle them until you see the light leave their eyes, the way his looked when he overdosed.

But all you find is your dazed reflection in the mirror.

So you shove his things in a box and put it in the garage like he never existed.

You cut your hair and dye it, so you look like a version of yourself he never touched.

You start a new job, enroll in a new school, and block all his friends because they won’t stop calling.

You pretend he is gone even though his blood drips down the walls of your bedroom every morning.

There will come a time when you will be you again, but it is not now. Not yet.

Stage of Grief: Anger

After work on Tuesday, I’m driving home in Adam’s truck when a sleazy man’s voice comes on the radio. He is the kind of man who wants to sell you a diamond ring for your girlfriend, the one from Shane Co with the never-ending radio ads.

“If the two of you made it through 2020, you need to-”

Before he says “buy her a diamond ring,” I mash the button of another radio station and screech, “WE DIDN’T! We didn’t make it!”

I bang a left turn and raise my eyebrows, surprised at the amount of rage that explodes out of me at unpredictable intervals.

my boyfriend died suddenly
Photo by cottonbro

I pull up to my sister’s apartment to avoid going home to an empty house.

“How was work?” she asks.


“Why? What’s wrong with them?”

A year ago, maybe two, I would respond with a quip about how stupid my boss or coworkers were. I didn’t have enough self-awareness to understand that I am the problem, not everyone else.

“It’s not them. It’s me. I’ve got shit social skills.”

She laughs. “I’m sorry, Jo.”

I shrug and dig my nails into my palm, trying to straddle the line between self-awareness and self-destruction.

Pro Tip #1

Don’t listen to your Spotify 2020 wrapped if your boyfriend died this year.

I know, why would you? You told yourself that it was a bad idea. How could you be so stupid?

It’s just that, well, it looks fun. The ad itself is so colorful. And you kind of want to know how many times you listened to The Vowels Pt. 2 by WHY? this year. Plus, it will probably just pull up The Strokes and The Shins, right?

None of the country songs he played in his beat up pickup truck that you actually began to like instead of tolerate. None of the sci-fi soundtracks you showed him, while you sped down the road in your silver Camry. To make it to work barely in time. Or fight over the sounds of the violin in film scores because you smelled whisky on him. Or because y’all weren’t going to be able to pay rent this month since you quit your job… again.

Don’t do it. Cause you’re wrong. The first song that plays will be the one he sang to you that day in May when you both decided to maybe, well… fuck it? Get married and start a family. And you will hate how cliche memories and grief and life are. But more than that, you will hate how much it hurts.

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