You might not know it by what I’ve written here in the last few months, but I swear I can be a whole lot of fun. I really do think about many topics besides death. I laugh far, far more often than I cry. And I smile most of the time. I just do. But almost invariably, the moments that seem to merit deeper examination in writing are those when I’m pulling together my thoughts about life in a big picture sense. And the thing about life is, death is what puts it in sharpest perspective.
So excuse my returning to the subject yet again, but I’ve got life after death on my mind. Not the eternal kind, shrouded in uncertainty, but the unquestionable way your own life continues after someone you love dies. It’s on my mind because tomorrow it will have been seven years since my dad died.
I realize what a challenging thing this is to try to articulate, but ever since Karsten’s death, one of the many things I’ve found myself feeling grateful for is that I had some experience coping with significant loss already. Obviously I’m not in any way saying that I’m grateful that my dad died; just that if those events—losing my father and losing my husband—had to happen in my life, that at least the ordering of them feels somehow merciful. When Karsten died, I had the beginnings of an idea of what to expect from grief and how it would feel as I tried to move forward once the initial shock had cleared.
I find myself thinking and talking a lot about the idea of forward motion, because there’s this fairly intuitive way in which recovery and healing is like a journey. But the experience is dimensional in ways that one metaphor doesn’t adequately describe. So I also find myself thinking and talking about regrowth. In the last blog post I wrote here, “On choosing what to keep,” I mentioned how I read from the poem “In Blackwater Woods” at my dad’s funeral and I quoted the last few lines of that poem, about loving deeply and letting go, which are the lines that run through my head most often. But the poem also starts with imagery about fall and the turning leaves, and brings to mind how everything in nature moves cyclically toward a kind of death with only a vague notion of the idea of “salvation.” Spring and regrowth, which may be what “salvation” really is, seem abstract and far-off as the days get shorter and colder and everything seems bare and exposed.
And here we are with the leaves turning around us, and the days getting shorter and colder, and everything seeming exposed, and spring seeming far away. But regrowth in nature isn’t really as abstract as the concept of salvation. It’s just that in winter, growth is sometimes happening where you can’t see it.
After seven years of missing my dad and learning what grief means in the long run, I know there’s no rushing regrowth. But I also know how much happens under the surface, and how strong I’ve become and am still becoming in ways few people can see.
There’s another metaphor to add to this already convoluted mix, too. It’s a story I’ve been telling a few close friends to try to explain my state of mind, and it goes like this: in the late ’90s, when I was working in my first Silicon Valley startup, I had a coworker named Rick who was really into physics. One day, a group of coworkers were out for a team lunch in a restaurant with paper placemats and crayons, and while we waited for our food I started doodling. I’ve always had a fondness for art that incorporates words and imagery, so whenever I draw anything, even for a goof, I tend to listen for a phrase that seems meaningful. I don’t remember what it was about physics that Rick was describing, but at some point he jokingly summarized whatever he was saying with “they expanded space, but compressed time, so it was OK.” I immediately wrote those words around the outside of my placemat and drew some kind of visual interpretation of that concept. I had no idea why I was so attracted to it, but somehow it stuck with me all these years.
The way I think of it now, when you face the reality of death, you simultaneously confront the certainty of mortality, the enormity of all life, the insignificance of our lifespan in the overall continuum of time, and the myopia of our usual moment-by-moment perspective. Suddenly, the horizon looks wider, there is more depth to all experience, and everything—everything—seems both more trivial and more urgent. In other words, space expands, and time compresses. And it is OK.
At least for a while. Like I said, having been through life after death before, I know that eventually that perspective readjusts: the horizon narrows a little, and the feeling that life is so, so short begins to subside just enough.
That readjustment doesn’t just take time, though, despite what conventional wisdom might have you believe. It takes a bit of practice, and deliberately exposing yourself to the vastness of the reality so that you can strengthen your stride for the forward motion. I know what I did there, but it really does take all those metaphors just to come close to describing the process as I see it.
And I’m really motivated to describe it. Not just for myself, but for other people who may—will—eventually face life after death. I don’t think we, culturally or socially, do a very good job of preparing people for it. There’s work involved, and some new ways of seeing things.
As an insight into my own process, I will share that I have a Spotify playlist called “musical therapy” with a bunch of songs that I strongly associate with Karsten. I listened to it while I was in the shower this morning, cried some, and then sat down and wrote a song about memories, what you keep as you move forward, and what you really can let go of. And now I’m smiling and feeling strong and healthy. I miss my dad, I miss Karsten, and the healing has been hard work, but I’m clearly both moving forward and regrowing. I don’t care if I’m mixing metaphors; the horizon is still pretty wide, and there’s room enough to see it a few different ways.