Fragments of Grief, part 2

Here is the second of five fragments that I place beside each other in my experimental essay on living and grieving beside Judith:

The attempt to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration, is surely also to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way (Undoing Gender, 23).

In Precarious Life, Undoing Gender, and Frames of War, Butler repeatedly emphasizes the importance of grief and vulnerability. She discusses the value of grief in relation to those who have been denied the right to grieve their loved ones and/or have had their own lives considered not worthy of grieving, and therefore not fully human. She also describes how grief, as a state of being and as a non-violent response to others, is urgently needed if we are “interested in arresting cycles of violence” (Precarious Life). Much of Butler’s discussion of grief is in the context of two specific historical, cultural, social events: the AIDS crisis and GLBTQ communities’ inability to grieve their lost loved ones and post 9/11 and the U.S. government’s quick and very violent response to the terrorist attacks in New York City. In these situations grief is the thing needed because grief has been so unjustly or unwisely denied and/or foreclosed.

But, even as Butler devotes considerable attention to specific contexts in which grief needs to be promoted, she has grander aims for how and why we should value grief. She believes that grief is a valuable state to be in and is an important part of what it means to be human. Grief, and the vulnerability and sociality of the self that it reveals, help to guide us as we struggle to develop less violent ways to exist in the midst of/beside others.

I was always so tired. I had been living with my mom’s impending death for 3 years and she was really starting to look bad. My dad warned me that it would probably get a lot worse. My daughter had just turned three and was entering a new phase, the “I hate you” phase. With no warning and for no apparent reason, she would matter-of-factly state, “I hate you.” It was really hard to hear. I wondered, how can I be a good mother when I am sad all of the time? What is it doing to my daughter to live in the shadow of this death and my grief over it? Were her repeated declarations of hate more than a phase that all 3 year olds go through? Was she trying to warn me that I was failing as a mom and remind me that I was more than a daughter losing a mom, but also a mother who needed to care for her daughter?

While I agree that being in a state of grief is valuable and can help to remind us of our vulnerability in the midst of others, it can also place unrealistic and unhealthy demands on us. It is difficult to balance the need and/or desire to grieve with the demand to care for others. Are there other resources, aside from grief, that can guide us as we navigate the difficult terrain of being a daughter losing a mother and a mother raising a daughter?

The first two years of my mom’s terminal illness weren’t too bad. Even though she had been diagnosed with a death sentence (6 months to live), she was able to qualify for surgery and undergo chemotherapy. She experienced a miracle recovery, welcomed two new grandchildren into the world, and traveled to Paris and Sydney. Then the tumor came back. Slowly she deteriorated. First one of her wrists became numb so she couldn’t do any of her artwork. Then her anxiety and the morphine she had been taking daily for two years already made it almost impossible for her to read. Then she started falling down a lot. Suddenly one day she couldn’t walk. My sisters and my dad arranged for hospice at home. We thought she was about to die, but we were wrong. She looked terrible. She couldn’t talk. She could barely eat. She slept a lot. Yet she continued to live. To me she was already gone. I wanted desperately to grieve her loss, but I couldn’t; she was still alive. I was tired of being in a state of grief, yet not able to grieve. Tired of witnessing her suffering and feeling helpless and unable to alleviate it. Four years of waiting, with uncertainty, for her death is a long time.

As someone who has spent the last four years grieving for a mother dying an excruciatingly slow and painful death, I am not interested in mining the ethical and transformative possibilities of grief. I don’t want to keep grieving; I want to stop grieving and I want to think about what other resources I have for guiding me as I attempt to recognize and live with my vulnerability. What about humor, joy or even wonder? Are there ways to think about risking uncertainty and our unknowingness that are not connected to violence and grief as something that is only negative and that always signals loss–-of control, of autonomy, of stability?