When Grief is Anger
“I trade my secrets one by one,
lessening my burden, reclaiming praise.
Every day I say I AM, let thanks cleanse my mouth.
A body shouts my fugue in the house of the Lamb.” – Peter Munro
It happens while I am drawing a bath for Arrow. I test the water, hold my fingertips and then inner wrist under the faucet, like my mom always did. I swirl my fingers in the water and think of what I wrote, about the police station and her hands full of holes.
And I feel fear crest in me and I wonder: am I allowed to tell the truth? Am I allowed to tell her story which is my story too? Some of my mother’s friends still believe she died of a heart attack and she feels no need to disabuse them, content to let the somehow more palatable lie endure. And it does go down easier: heart attack. Freak medical event. A life truncated by tragedy: random, faultless, morally neutral.
My parents were both completely hands-off with the police investigation in a way that seemed almost negligent to me at the time. But now I see: it was simply too much. It was all my mother could do to keep afloat, to stay functional and stable for the sake of us and her grandchildren, and my dad could literally barely breathe.
“Well, it sounds like she just took a bad pill. That’s it! She didn’t even know what she was taking!” my mom exclaimed, her voice staying just on the safe side of hysterical, selling the story, the fabrication, to herself a month after Lia died.
“Mom…” I began, preparing to remind her that she had much of the same information I did, that she was there when the detective called and said the autopsy had revealed numerous needle marks. But I stopped myself. “Maybe,” I murmured. “Yeah, maybe.” We both needed the respite, needed to tell ourselves an alternative story, one that absolved her entirely of responsibility, made her death a blameless tragedy instead of one tangled and fraught with emotions that shouldn’t have gone together, that didn’t make sense together: anger and grace, effrontery and regret, a sense of betrayal coupled with a sense of guilt. We needed this, just a moment’s flight to a fugue of hopeful delusion.
Two months later, we finally got the death certificate, of which she texted me an image with no comment. It was jarring seeing it there, her life and death on paper in typewriter font and all caps, and yet brought an eerie sense of completion. It was documented, official, filed by some government employee to whom she meant nothing. It was one number among a mammoth gray wave of statistics.
Yet still, the cause of Lia’s death remained a half-secret among our extended family and friends.
Yet I feel it, this burning need to tell the truth, not recklessly or abusively, but just because telling the raw truth is the only path I know to surrender. “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be made known,” Jesus said (Luke 8:17). I am looking for His redemption and it is a faithful looking that trusts it will be found but that the only way forward is through with Him at my side.
Telling the truth is the only telling that God cherishes, the only telling he honors, the only way of emptying ourselves of lies so he can replace them with his truth. Telling the truth, the whole truth, unembellished and naked, is entrusting it to God. And he will take the ugly lies and ugly truths that have festered in our broken places, the things we are afraid to admit even to ourselves, and transform them. He is not afraid of our darkness.
“It’s been said the six saddest words in the Bible are ‘I was afraid, so I hid,’” said our pastor recently, and I hold these words now, turn them over in my hands and heart.
I was afraid, so I hid. And the fear and the hiding tumble over one another and become one laminate thing and before we know it we don’t know which came first, the fear or the hiding, so entwined are they. I hid, so I was afraid.
What would Lia think, of this truth-telling? She was afraid so she hid, she hid so she was afraid. Would she would be horrified to know her life was laid bare for my family’s perusal, the addiction she so convincingly hid exposed, the horror of her death and the searing lightning bolt of the secret bound up together in one inextricable trauma for us who loved her and lived?
Yet I tell the truth, not to dishonor her, but to honor her, to seek the fullness of God’s redemption, which I believe cannot come without the whole truth: the good, the precious, the sweet, the ugly, the embarrassing, even the shameful.
And I pray desperately that I’m not just idly rattling the bones of skeletons in the closet; but instead that I am digging deep for His redemption in the soil of the past, looking for where He is composting the painful things of the past into hymns.
But still, I worry. I worry how things will sound, if I’ve been loving and merciful enough, I worry that some words have been salted with bitter and not light.
After all, a sense of betrayal was indeed among the roiling stew of emotions that finding out the manner of her death evoked. And I worry I will upset my mother.
But as I swirl my hand in the water and scatter the iridescent bubbles and fret about truth-telling and, shrugging in a poor feign of indifference, even humor the Pilatean question, “What is truth?”, I am surprised by rage smoldering in my belly. I push it down and I expel air hard through my nostrils like a bull but suddenly it erupts, the thing I’ve forbade myself but which can no longer be held in, which begs for release:
“If she wanted to keep her secrets, she shouldn’t have died!”
I say it out loud, alone in the bathroom, my voice angry and desperate above the sound of the faucet thundering water into the almost full tub. There, I said it. Trenchant words, snarled and gnarled, biting and bitten.
They are ugly. But they are true, they are true for me.
And I cry, but this time they are tears of relief with a sting of guilty heat. There, I said it: the resentment that I couldn’t put words to, that I feared putting words to because I felt I shouldn’t feel it at all.
It was wrong to feel that way about the dead, the defenseless, voiceless dead; but it was there, undeniably, loitering ominously like a cumulonimbus behind the shock of losing her, behind the fragmented memories that I ached for God to assemble into some narrative with a semblance of cohesion, of order. And it awaited its reckoning.
Lia, you’re dead. You died! I’d said in my dream, the one I'd had several months ago where she'd lightheartedly pattered down the stairs into the family room in the house we grew up in.
And when a dread fog of guilt descended on me the moment my eyes opened I thought it was because I should have held her there, should have talked about something, anything, anything but the elephant of her death. Instead I fidgeted while she talked and when I finally couldn’t take it anymore after what in that bizarre dreamtime distortion seemed an eternity within a few seconds, I blurted it out, the fact of her death. I told myself I did it out of confusion.
But now I wonder: was there a shade of accusation in my words? You’re dead. You died.
I could forgive her for nearly everything. But could I forgive her for dying? Could I forgive her for the forethought it required, this addiction, this ritual, structured and familiar as the way I make my coffee every morning? She made a container for her discarded needles. She made a container.
Who taught her to do this? Where did she learn to find the blue of the vein, to stab the skin in the right place so she didn’t end up with arm swirled with burned blood or swollen like a tumor?! Who learns such things?! Holy hell. Holy hell. I know hell is far from holy but it’s the only phrase I can think of that’s big enough to even approximate the kind of place where people are apprenticed in such things, to necrose their blood with poison and ensloth their breath to death.
Yet I remember my own perverse rituals, my own parsing of the pill into fourths: just a little bit more, and a little bit more, as if consuming it piecemeal made it okay, softened the seediness. Cutting up the strip of acid, weighing the desiccated mushrooms.
But I’m still alive, and she’s dead, because she picked the wrong poison, by no greater sin, by no greater unholy craving that led her down any fetid alleyway whose flickering shadow-holograms promised a satiation they could never actually give.
After the death certificate finally came through I was searching the internet for information on this terrifying drug, Fentanyl, one hundred times more powerful and deadly than heroin, and I read an article about a couple in Pennsylvania who had both overdosed at the same time. He was found sprawled on the lower floor, she in the second floor bathroom. Their five-month-old baby girl was in a crib upstairs, where the detectives believe she lived for four more days before dying of dehydration and starvation. Three days after that someone finally discovered this house of horrors.
I was shaken for weeks by reading this. Actually, I’m still shaken. I still burn with rage and nearly retch with nausea and ache with despair when I think of it.
Really, God?! I think. How hard would it have been to send one person in the vicinity of that house such that they would have heard that baby’s screeching cries and done something?
Why should it even matter whether you answer my middling bungled prayers for this or that trivial folderol when this baby’s innocent wordless cries, a more profound and meaning-laden prayer than I could ever offer, went unanswered? I don’t even want to live in a world where things like this happen! How can anyone watch football or use teeth whitening strips or buy thermal travel cups with things like “But First Coffee” on them in a world where these things are taking place?! We should all be weeping and tearing our garments and smearing our faces with ashes in a world where these things happen.
A sweet baby, alone. Uncomprehending, pre-verbal, trusting with a blind trust that someone will provide her needs and calling out those needs in the only language she knows, wailing for mother, for father, for someone, anyone - but instead being met with yawning silence in a house full of dead people.
I weep for her, I fight for her, I scream my throat ragged up to heaven for her. My insides turn out for her. Holy hell, holy hell, HOLY HELL!
“For he who avenges blood remembers,” the psalmist says. “He does not ignore the cries of the afflicted.” But what can we call this except ignoring? Help me, God. Help me see something else in this story except a baby’s profound suffering and your equally profound absence.
Holy hell, Lord. Maybe my plea is make this hell holy. Redeem this. Make it not a hell, make this not the end of that precious baby’s story, make it not the end of Lia’s story like it wasn’t the end of mine.
Again, I wonder, in agony: what could possibly make this all worth it? What ending could possibly make it worth giving us our free will, which we have used to trample a scorched wending path around the earth, a path sodden with oppressed blood and martyred bones?
The blood has a voice, it cries out like the baby cried for days, like Abel’s blood once did to God. Who can answer it? Who can pacify it? Who can avenge it? Who can count the cost?
A month after Lia died I started drawing a portrait of her. I needed to, needed to add color and gilding to the gray of my grief. In the photo I used as a reference she sits in a white lawn chair, smiling uninhibitedly, and her hair blazes black, tumbling down a red t-shirt. It was taken on the Fourth of July, at a friend’s house, and I can smell the firecracker smoke and the verdant earthy molder of the fresh cut lawn and hear the crackling of a hundred paper snappers as the kids hurl them down and giggle in delight or else roll them between their fingers and feel the gratifying burn of the tiny detonation.
And I can hear it, her laugh, a sparse, staccato laugh, feminine in its way, only flirting with abandon and always coming back under control, or sometimes a guise of control – she could drop back into a stone face in a second and look at you hard but then the laugh would erupt again for a moment.
I encircled the portrait with a web of color, undulating bands of rainbow that ripple outward from her face, and overlaid it with a rhythmic weave of goldleaf. I love the process of gilding, of mixing the adhesive with food coloring so I can see it on the white paper and painting it on and pressing the gossamer-thin sheet atop it, the sheet I can sweep up with just the oil of my fingertip and convey magically to the paper. I press it down on the pattern I’ve painted with the adhesive and then I sweep away the excess with a dry brush and there is the pattern, gilt and glowing, and I’m covered with golden confetti.
Now, just maybe, sometimes, I can think of that baby in heaven, every second of suffering transformed into unspeakable glory. Is it wishful thinking? Of course it is. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It’s not sentimental pabulum; either we must believe the baby’s story ended here, on earth, after hours and hours of agony, and we must deal with all the theological (or atheological, as it were) and practical implications of that: a nihilistic void gapes before us, because if we believe that then this suffering can never be redeemed, never be transformed. It just is, black and horror-saturated, into infinity. I would think any normally conscionable person who has not yet desecrated and sociopathologized their heart into a fist-sized callus could possibly watch football or buy stuff or ever feel joy again in the face of such a belief.
But the heart which still has even half an inch of uncalloused tissue, that heart, ever a rebel to the end, strikes a defiant note: no. No. This cannot be how the story ends. I do not accept. I object, I demur, I refuse. And then, tremulously, with a fearful gulp and a wavering voice: I believe.
Even in this onslaught of black, this flood of hell, in defiance of all seen reality: I believe.
Leonard Cohen perhaps said it best:
God was ruler
Though his funeral lengthened
Though his mourners thickened
Magic never fled
Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live
Though his words were twisted
The naked magic thrived
Though his death was published round and round the world
The heart did not believe.
The heart did not believe. Because the heart was a quixotic dimwit, unacquainted with the ways of the world and traipsing obliviously through a saccharine Hallmark-movie virtual reality? No. The heart did not believe because it was not true.
I have to believe to survive, yes. I could not move about in the world, washing dishes and flossing and buying parsley if I thought four days of gruesome agony were the sum end of that baby’s life forever. I would collapse in a heap of paralytic depression, unable to summon even the energy to put an end to it all.
But I also believe because I am pretty darn sure most days that it’s true, this Gospel of sin and salvation and mercy and grace, of incalcuable sacrificial love, and when the unbearable thought of that baby’s suffering tempts me to wonder if in writing and praying and talking I’m merely hurling words into an abysmal meaning-void where they will never stick, I remember the cross.
I remember nails driven through tendon and bone and the spit-and-blood smeared face of God himself, humiliated, denigrated, treated like refuse, put on display for the sadistic amusement of the crowd.
And I think how the cross – God himself crucified – is the only story big enough to answer all this. The only story big enough to answer tragedy, to answer pointless suffering, the only story big enough to speak to this whole hideous writhing hellish stew of sin, mine and yours and hers and his, but also so intensely personal as to cause a catch in the breath and prick tears of inexpressibly grateful wonder.
So I take Paul’s goal to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” – at least while he was with the Corinthians, but I imagine also most of the time - and I think of the cross. But I also remember how Jesus rose again, three days later, whole again, resurrected, radiant, speaking softly to Mary Magdalene in the garden. And I swallow hard and I’m suddenly sober, suddenly pulled into some greater mystery where unfathomable sorrow and unfathomable joy comingle and joy emerges the victor, exultant and overflowing, because this is not the end.
There was part of me, when I remembered the story about the baby and was moved to write about it, which hesitated. No, that’s just too dark, this internal censor said, a frown on his lips and the pencil tucked behind his ear quivering as he shook his head vigorously. Nobody wants to know about that. But another part gently pushed back: but it’s the truth. It’s what happened. Tell the truth.
Because if God’s redemption, if the light of his Son, cannot reach the darkest place where the darkest thing happened, then it can’t reach anywhere. His redemption must be that powerful or it isn’t powerful at all.
But yes, it IS that powerful. I believe, I believe, I believe. Defiantly, recalcitrantly, with gritted teeth that grind with rage against the gargantuan vacuum of sin and injustice that inhales everything in its path but also with a hand that clutches a precious mustard seed and vows to leave room for God’s vengeance and even more for His grace.
I tell the truth and I believe because it is life and death for me. And somehow, magically, by His grace, in the very act of telling the truth I lessen my burden and I reclaim praise. Rejoice. This is not the end.