Grief and Its Discontents

Hey Dames Fans!

It’s Jessica Reedy and Kat Chow here for today’s take over of Two Bossy Dames. *Troy McClure voice* You might remember us from such NPR podcasts as Pop Culture Happy Hour (for which Jessica is a producer and on which Kat is a regular fourth chair) and Code Switch (for which Kat is a frequent contributor).

This go-’round, we’re talking about grief — the IRL version, and the consumable, as-experienced via pop culture version. It really needs no further introduction, so we’ll get right to it.

Jessica: My grandmother Kathy passed away 10 days ago, and I need your grieving expertise. Deaths are always sad, but is it weird to say it couldn’t have gone better? She was 90 years old and was in hospice, so this wasn’t a surprise. I visited her a few times around Christmas, and we had a wonderful last visit — she was lucid and charming and clearly at peace with her own mortality. All of my family had a chance to say goodbye. She passed away in the presence of her two daughters (my beloved aunts), and wasn’t in pain. I know I’m sad, but I also know I can’t let myself leave the denial stage quite yet. I’m blaming work — Oscar season is my busiest time of year. But also it doesn’t feel real. I’m here in Washington, D.C., and my whole family is in my hometown, Santa Cruz, California. Kathy was a huge part of my life, and I don’t think I’ve felt the tectonic shift that the Reedy matriarch is now dead, even though intellectually I know she’s gone. Is this normal?

Kat: Jessica! I’m really sorry for your loss. From what you’ve described, it sounds like your grandmother Kathy lived a long and hopefully full life, and I’m so glad that you had the chance to visit with her over the holidays. I don’t want to be prescriptive, but I personally don’t think it’s “weird” at all to say that it couldn’t have gone better, or that it’s “abnormal” to say you haven’t experienced an enormous shift yet. And I put those words in quotes because I’ve always considered loss to be nearly impossible to describe with adjectives, since there isn’t a standardized way to grieve. (I mean, there’s always Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but when she came up with those stages, she was trying to understand what the varying emotional waves that terminally ill patients were passing through as they were understanding their pending deaths. She never intended for this framework to be linear.)

No one tell Jack Donaghy.

It seems like your family was as prepared as they could be for your grandmother’s passing, and that you were able to have a thoughtful conversation about her mortality during your last visit over the holidays; I imagine that would feel almost like a relief to hear that she seemed at peace. Still, I think that regardless of how expected a death is — in the case of someone who’s elderly or has a terminal illness — grief comes and goes in truly unexpected ways. Some days you might be going about your day thinking everything’s just dandy, laughing at some wacko thing on Twitter, and then the next moment, an evocative scent or a taste or sound might tug you into a memory of a loved one that sends you through all of Kubler-Ross’ five stages at once. I know this might seem terribly cheesy, but it’s OK, as hard as it might be sometimes, to let yourself just be. Even if being is, well …

Jessica: Heh. We talked offline about how the challenge of finding appropriate gifs for grief, but you found THE PERFECT ONE! Seeing as you are writing a book about about grief, do you have suggestions of what I should read or watch?

Kat: Hrm. There a bajillion things to suggest. But can we start with books? I have a lot of grief or death-adjacent memoirs and novels on my shelf that I’ve been re-reading as I’ve been working on my own book project. In the memoir space, the poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote a moving book about her husband’s death called The Light of the World, which I’d say is as much of a love story as it is about loss. H Is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s meditation on her father’s death as she trains a goshawk. Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped traces the lives of five men in her life who died young. I also really recommend a lot of Tracy K. Smith’s poetry and work in general. She wrote a memoir about losing her mother called Ordinary Light. (And speaking of Smith: a friend recently recommended I listen to her podcast called The Slowdown. It’s been described as “literary ASMR,” and each episode is only five minutes long, includes a new poem, and manages to be incredibly reflective and meditative in such a short time. A good starter episode that’s specifically about grief is “Mystical Rose.”)

The novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter is a staple. My very favorite novel of 2018 was Severance by Ling Ma, and I’d argue that it was as much about loss as it was the end of the world. So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen is this experimental novel that I’ve returned to re-read many times over the past couple of years, and explores loss, failure and the act of giving up in a tremendously thoughtful way. It’s one of those books I can’t stop thinking about.

I also highly recommend A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers — a short story by Yiyun Li that was also turned into a movie by Wayne Wang — since I think it shows an immigrant’s grief story with a lot of depth in a compact space. Same goes for the author Ken Liu’s short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” which is about a Chinese American kid in Connecticut who lost his mom at a young age; when I read the story, I was blown away with how many very specific parallels there were to my own life as … a Chinese American kid in Connecticut who lost a mom at a young age.

Also, I can’t wait to watch the movie The Farewell, which Awkwafina stars in and has received some exciting buzz. What about you? I’m always in search of new stuff that makes me think differently about loss.

Jessica: Kat, you are giving me SO many great options for my “to read” list — thank you! I’ve been meaning to read Men We Reaped and Severance. Clearly I have to move them to the top of my reading list.

I recently read Nick Dranso’s graphic novel Sabrina and it floored me. It follows a man after his girlfriend Sabrina goes missing, and the media firestorm that ensues. Ariel Levy’s memoir Rules Do Not Apply also stuck with me.

I would argue that Michael Kupperman’s excellent graphic memoir All The Answers is about grief. Michael’s father Joel is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so Michael sets out to learn about his father time as a Quiz Kid before it’s too late. I would also recommend Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, a beautiful novel about a son who must cope with his mother disappearance after goes to her job at a nail salon and never returns.

If you are looking for something shorter, Mia Alvar’s wonderful story collection In The Country includes a remarkable story about a man who returns to Manila to take care of his ailing father. David Sedaris’ essay “Now We Are Five” helped me understand what it’s like to lose a loved one to suicide. Samantha Irby is a national treasure, and there’s a wonderful piece about scattering her estranged father’s ashes in We Are Never Meeting In Real Life.

Two other things come to mind: First is the movie A Fantastic Woman. It’s a Chilean film about a trans woman who faces intense scrutiny after her older lover dies. The other feels like a left turn, but bear with me… Comedian Nicole Byer’s wonderful podcast Why Won’t You Date Me is primarily about her love life. But her parents died when she was in her late teens, and I find it illuminating how she discusses her grief and abandonment issues as they relate to her relationships.

Which, oddly enough, brings me to my next question: how does grief change years after losing a parent? I assume it never goes away?

Kat: Before I answer your question — I can’t WAIT to dig into all your recommendations. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers destroyed me, and In The Country has been on my list to read for too long. You’re reminding me I gotta return to it.

The editorial team’s official position on mortality.

But back to your question: You’re right. It never goes away, but it’s certainly changing all the time. My mom died when I was thirteen, which was right around the time when I was, you know, a pimply weirdo just trying to figure out who I was all while shrugging off this horse girl phase. So my mom’s loss and all the questions I had about her death, our family and being the kid of immigrants from China coalesced into my general identity. The way I currently think about grief is how it forces us to constantly redefine our relationship with the person who’s died. Before, it was so hard to even think or let alone speak about my mom. I’d write about her as a form of release, but I wanted her to stay dead. Now, I consider her to be this dynamic, shifting force in my life, and I see that in trying to finally understand her, I’m helping reanimate her so that she can exist as I remember her: a full, three-dimensional woman.

Jessica: I imagine marinating in grief is emotionally draining. What do you do to take care of yourself?

Kat: Oh! This is a good question. I’m on book leave right now, so I need to constantly unwind, otherwise I’ll find myself locked in my own mind-palace, which is usually an OK place to be. But, ya know, sometimes you gotta break away. I like taking walks around D.C., and I often find myself in Malcolm X Park, which is a quiet, gorgeous place to just sit and people watch. When I’m indoors, I snuggle with my very needy dog, Samson. I’ll bundle him up in a ball of blankets and hug him for hours while I sit on the couch, binge-watching something on TV. (Currently, I can’t get enough of The Fosters — why is Brandon the worst?! — and the YouTube series that the pastry chef Claire Saffitz hosts for Bon Appétit, where she tries to re-create things like instant ramen or Snickers bars.) I’m a big fan of my weighted blanket (that I got based off of your recommendation!) and putting a few droplets of citrus-y essential oils in my diffuser. I’ve also found the occasional consumption of CBD oil to be helpful. What about you, Jess?

Royal Tenenbaum: a man who understood how to exit the world.

Jessica: I’m so glad you invested in a weighted blanket. I love mine so much. I’m sitting under it as I type this! Right now I’m in a phase where I only want to consume things that won’t upset me. I’ve been doing my best Netflix binges on the treadmill. I recently watched The Hookup Plan  and Terrace House: Opening New Doors (Shion and Tsubasa 4eva). Right now I’m working my way through the latest season of One Day At A Time.

I feel better both physically and emotionally when I cook for myself. I’ve been trying a few new recipes this winter, including blueberry baked oatmeal, roasted cauliflower and quoina salad, and vegetarian lentil chili.

I try to unplug from all screens by 9 p.m. It helps me decompress, plus it’s helped me up my book-reading game. I now plough through a book a week. A few of my recent favorites include My Sister, The Serial Killer by Braithewate Oyinkan, You’ll Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Wife by Meg Wolizter (WAY better than the movie, IMO.), and (*ahem* this is a galley brag) The Bride Test by Helen Hoang.

I also have a few YouTube videos I return to again and again when I need a boost. I can’t stop watching Janet Jackson perform “Rhythm Nation.” Or these adorable girls dancing to Beyonce’s “Formation.” Or this bootleg of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about recording the Company cast album. Or Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand performing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” (I COULD keep going, but I’ll stop here.)

Alright, Dames Nationals. We know that grief can be a bit heavy, but we hope that this dames-dition gave you some things that might help.

We wanna hear from you, too. What are some things that you’ve watched/listened to/read that have been helpful in your grieving process? Tell us on the Twitters! We’re at @jessica_reedy and @katchow.

— Jessica and Kat

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