The Science of Mourning

Today I’m sitting on the couch with Ronan and his new Sleep Sheep from Aunt Susan. He’s a particular fan of the dark blue bubble wrap from the delivery box. Bright and noisy — every baby’s sensory dream.

It was a long night of insomnia and strange dreams; Ronan must have had them too, because when I tossed, sweating, from one side of the bed to the other, adjusting the strength of the ceiling fan, sitting up to scribble down an idea for a new book on the pages of the book I’m reading, twisting my rings around my swollen fingers, I could hear Ronan squawking and singing in his room across the hall. I’d stop what I was doing and listen — did he need to be turned? Rocked? – but then he was quiet again. The next time I woke from a dream that wasn’t terrifying but left me feeling terrified, I asked Rick if he’d locked the front door. I had a sense that something or someone was in the house, a fear that always accompanies the most vivid and unsettling dreams.

Maybe good poetry creates insomnia, and good poetry about death creates a flexible and grotesquely magical dreamscape in the mind-house of the insomniac. Last night in Santa Fe I listened to Dana Levin read from her new book Sky Burial. These poems stalk death the way death stalks us. I’d been worried about attending; could I listen to poetry about death when I was mourning a little bit every day, facing death every day in tiny doses? It turns out yes, that’s exactly what I needed. In her interrogation  – both playful and brutal — of death and loss, Levin starts from the intensely personal experience of grief and from this I/eye throws out a net to see what spiritual, religious, friendly and not-so-friendly voices get caught up, and she carefully examines her catch. Death: our inevitable end, our worst but loyal enemy, our crafty, dictatorial ally. Sitting on the couch during the Q and A following the reading I realized that living in the midst of the knowledge of Ronan’s untimely and inevitable death has prodded me into a new kind of living. It’s uncomfortable, it’s a daily mental wade through a big messy mud pile, but it is living, and the poems gave voice to that reality. Grief and loss: felt in the body, through the body, with the body; experiences that are transcendent and yet ground down to the bone, each moment exquisitely and achingly observed. I felt as though I understood the artistic impulse of Dana’s project. To walk through this tunnel of fire, I need all the voices I can to coach me out to the other side, voices that are different from my one-noted keen, voices of philosophers, poets, religious theories, stories both real and imagined, stories grotesque and compelling, tender and fierce.

My dream last night: I was in England, standing on a train platform under bright lights. The roof of the station had been lifted off and taken to another place. A bird was sucked straight up into the sky without flapping a single doomed wing. I had just walked out of a high-rise building that was all steel and concrete like the spare housing blocks in Seoul, little pods where people lived all scrunched together. I stood waiting under a dark, starless dome lit by fluorescent lights with a bunch of kids who identified themselves as members of an Oakland gang. They told me that passage to the other side of the platform was impossible. “But that’s the train I want,” I said as it began to move away, rusty wheels ringing against the metal track, the motor hissing, excited hands waving from the windows, some fingerprinting the glass. “No way, Jose,” one of the kids said. I was someone else in the dream, married to an ex’s brother, but when he came to meet me on the platform, because he was also leaving town with me, he also wanted to be on that other train, he walked straight past me and into the arms of his burly, bullying brother who had just appeared. My French friend passed me on the platform in black stilettos and asked me if I knew that there was going to be another movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, only in this one she would be asking him to be a sperm donor for a fertility procedure. (Rick thought this was actually the most terrifying part of the dream.) When I woke up it was three a.m. and I heard a middle-of-the-night duck quack from Ronan. I shut my eyes but was afraid to sleep and lingered instead on the paralytic lip between waking and sleeping, limbs jerking and mouth locked open, thoughts running up and down the ragged stairs of the grieving mind. Where was I longing to go, and why was I someone else? What was my name? Would there ever be a train to take me anywhere from that place where I stood waiting, a not-me surrounded by people the real me recognized or had once loved?

Perhaps it was death in the house making me uneasy, Death — that “serial killer,” that Dana Levin describes and that we all pretend we can avoid, out sex, out love, out achieve, work out, cast off, deny deny deny. This fall I had dreams in which Ronan was stolen through his bedroom window. I wanted to activate the security system for that room alone. My dreamy presentiments were correct: he is being stolen, a little bit each day, all those lipids building up in his brain, building up in his baby body, this soft, tender and perfect-looking body that is unable to process what it needs to be able to live, unable to proceed, unable to manage what the body creates. A body lost and yet we cling to him. What does he dream in that fizzing, intricate brain that is ticking down each moment, counting it out like cards on a table, like birds landing one by one on a wire? Tay-Sachs: the serial killer that takes every moment, one at a time, and unravels it to the beginning, to a scrap of wool that lifts easily in the wind and is shepherded to some unseen place. Lost.

When I had insomnia as a child, I read the books from The Little House on the Prairie series and waited for the first sign of sunrise. I could only sleep in the light; darkness was too unknown and too deep and it called to me in a way I felt irresistible and yet understood that I needed to resist. I sat on the windowsill of my basement bedroom, propped my wooden leg behind my head and read stories of following a thick rope from the barn to the house in a blizzard; seasons of near-starvation in mud houses; the joy and wonder of a glass window and a square of natural light on the floor of a simple house. Stories with consequences. I wish I had those books now. I have no patience for chic-lit or cosmo lit or city lit or nanny lit or whatever lit in which the stakes aren’t real and don’t involve literal death. Death must be taken literally – there is a violent comfort in facing this truth.

In “The Mentor,” another Levin poem, two people turn together to conduct the “science of mourning.” My great project, mine and Rick’s. Burning up in the tunnel, hoping and believing there is something left on the other side, here we are, kicking on, knowing the battle is already lost. Fighting it anyway.

Here’s a voice I’m listening to:


You put a bag around your head and walked into the river.


walked into the river with a bag around your head and you were

never dead.

in your land of scythe and snow-

game on the banks of your

mental styx

for the double


of smoke –

You pressed a coin into his palm and stepped across the water.


stepped across the water with a hand on his arm and he was

silent and kind as you

shoved off; toward the smoky coils

of the greek-seeming dead-

You’d been trying to sleep.

Found yourself here

in this mythocryptic land-

The river

had widened to a lake. You were anchored i

in the shallow boat

by his faceless weight-

And on the green shore you could see their vapored

residue, how they could

smell it, those two; if you

slit your wrist you could make them speak.

“Styx,” in Sky Burial, by Dana Levin (Copper Canyon Press, 2011)

3 responses to “The Science of Mourning

  1. I’ve hesistated to leave you a comment because I fear I’d be intruding into your private grief – but this is public and maybe some days you want to know that other people know and care about your son, and what will/is happening to him. I don’t know. I lost a son (stillborn at 37 wks) and my daughter has DS – which makes the odds of losing her to pneumonia, leukemia, and heart failure significant. Some days I didn’t understand why the world was still spinning – on others I rented action movies. Much of the time what I wanted & what I felt changed by the hour or minute. This comment is for the moments you want to be heard.

  2. Emily! I am so glad the new book holds up a lantern (the path through grief is dark, dark, dark; we need all the light we can find). Insomnia too was the worst and most persistent of my grief responses (until I discovered klonopin; and kava kava tea)

    Your blog is another kind of lantern. Pioneer tough, I always think.

  3. Christine Bowen

    Emily, I came upon your blog quite accidentally through Salon perhaps a month ago, and my first reading shook me to the core. I have not posted before because I don’t know what to say, but I think you of you and your beautiful boy every day. I have a 10-month-old son, and since his birth…before,even…I have feared death (his, mine, my husband’s) for the first time in my life. What you and your family are going through hurts me deeply, and more than once I have gone to sleep with tears on my pillow wondering how you endure and how you manage to find some beauty and meaning on your journey. I will keep reading and wishing you all the best, whatever “the best” ends up being for you. And I hope you ultimately have peace.

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