by Nancy Miller
Many of you who are reading this right now have undoubtedly had the experience of answering the phone and receiving bad news. A mysterious dark spot on a mammogram, a parent who has fallen or been injured, a child who has gotten sick at school or is in some kind of trouble. For my co-author Armen and me, it was a call that would change the course of our lives; it was a call telling us that our children had died.
Although the days and weeks following this news were a fog, what I remember most are the many notes, sympathy cards, all saying how sorry everyone was for my loss. As beautiful and heartfelt as these notes were, each one felt like a dagger because it was just one more reminder that my daughter, Rachel, was never coming home again. When the notes finally stopped, when everyone needed me to return to normal, I had to choose how I would survive this ordeal. I did the only thing I knew how to do, the only thing I had ever done. I wrote.
When I met Armen, I discovered she had been doing the same thing, writing for her life. We decided to chronicle the journey, word for word, embrace the grief. What we hoped was that by facing our worst fears, we might emerge more human, more alive. Now we share with you a part of the journey, and a few of the lessons learned along the way. Let me begin by introducing you to my daughter.
When I close my eyes, I see Rachel’s ruddy corkscrew curls, her gigantic brown eyes with flecks of green, her amazing smile, her laugh that was half hiccup and have gasp, her passion for reading and writing. She kept a journal all her life and it had always been her way of expressing herself best – through the written word. We were always emailing each other. She was a mean Scrabble player, sometimes a cheat (but always in a teasing, playful way). When she was a little girl, she adored dolls: baby dolls, Barbie dolls, paper dolls. She was a girly girl.
As she grew into a beautiful young woman, she loved experimenting with make-up. We had this ritual of going to Sephora’s in search of the perfect shade of green or brown eye shadow. She would narrow her choices down to seven or eight and then struggle to settle on just one or two. Accusing me of torturing her, we’d laugh all the way home.
The last night I spent with her when we said good-bye, it felt different, and we hugged each other in an embrace whose imprint I can still feel some nights, her fingers pressed against my back, our bodies so close, breast to breast. Neither of us wanted to let go.
I crash-landed into Griefland on Dec. 26th, 2008 at about 7 a.m., as Rachel had died the night before, on Christmas.
The immediate aftermath felt like being thrown into the deep end of a freezing cold ocean without a life-preserver and noticing about a dozen sharks circling, their dorsal fins closing in. The sensation is not unlike feeling terrorized or that you are in life-threatening imminent danger. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t listen to human voices or music. My senses felt like they were on high alert. All I knew was that something very bad had happened and I couldn’t seem to process it.
About two weeks later, I received an e-mail from a friend who asked permission to set up a meeting between me and a woman named Armen Bacon. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to meet anyone new. In fact, the thought of sitting down and spilling my feelings all over a new person made me sick at first. Maybe I was afraid this new woman would start telling me what to do, how to start “healing,” telling me how it would all unfold. But in a split second of impulsiveness, I said “yes,” followed my gut. There was something about this opportunity that beckoned me.
I arrived first at Uncle Harry’s, the popular bagel shop where we’d agreed to meet across from the university where I worked. There was a major storm outside; it was raining hard. I grabbed a table in the back and sat down. Since we hadn’t met, I had no real idea what she looked like, but I knew I’d recognize her instantly. Then, there she stood, blowing through the double glass doors, strands of curly hair caught in her eyelashes, still fresh from the wind. She looked in my direction, and that was the first moment of our magical alliance.
The idea for the book came up almost immediately. I asked her if she had ever thought of writing something, and she described her vision for the same thing that had been running through my mind. But why hadn’t she just done it herself in the last four years? I asked. She told me something had been holding her back.
That very first night, as crazy as this may sound, we began writing, ultimately creating more than 1,500 pages of e-mails describing in minute detail this life after death. For one entire year, we both showed up, every night, while the rest of the world was sleeping. Even though my grief was brand new, even though there were moments where I felt like I was going insane, even though I was also working every day, and managing a laundry list of responsibilities, I showed up. And even though she was working at a demanding job, caring for her aging mother, babysitting for her grandchildren, and making her way through her own grief – my friend and writing partner, Armen – showed up. I suppose that’s one of the most important lessons we learned — showing up. Ultimately, we created 27 essays, each framed with a pair of our e-mail exchanges.
One of the first things we wrote about was the side effects of this condition. Do you know the feeling of having your eyes dilated and everything is ultra-sensitive? Suddenly, all of our senses were magnified, exaggerated, just like that. So how could we write this book while we were both feeling so fractured at times, especially because writing the book forced us to go back to the original moment? Because we wrote from the trenches, and every single day we wrote, Alex and Rachel died all over again.
So we went to a place, or should I say we created a fictitious place called “Griefland,” which is the title of our book. Let me describe it for you. Imagine landing in a strange city, without baggage, without a passport, where there are no road signs or maps, where the national language is silence, where there are vacant lots, empty buildings, and one-way streets. Now imagine a café, located in the heart of the city, the kind of place you meet a girlfriend at for coffee or a glass of wine. A sort of sanctuary. When Armen and I first met, we were both in that foreign place I just described. Then, one day we stumbled across the fact we both had Van Gogh’s print, Café Terrace at Night, hanging in our homes, the one you saw in the opening video montage. It’s a beautiful café scene with tables and chairs, against a starry night sky. That vision or imagery, instantly became, and still is, a powerful metaphor, our symbol for rescue, comfort, friendship, spiritual soothing. A safe house. The place we can meltdown. But feel protected.
In Griefland there seem to be two distinct poles: hideous and magical. On the really bad days, there are terrifying monsters, trolls, dragons, and we often slip into quicksand marshes, find ourselves climbing steep, sharp mountains, holding hands through blinding dust storms, earthquakes, or tornadoes. But then in the next moment, it’s like some kind of paradise, with glittering rain forests, mermaid lagoons, twirling gypsies dancing in the light of morning or dusk, huge butterflies, dragonflies, and waterfalls we can slip behind.
Griefland is often alien and haunting, but when we can be receptive, let go of the horror, the fear, we often find those dazzling meadows, thick with colorful wildflowers, too. And, sometimes, we can see Alex and Rachel from the corners of our eyes.
Our book is full of metaphorical imagery and these metaphors literally save our sanity on so many occasions. Their power seems to come from our ability to transform our emotions into concrete images that nail the experience down because only then have we come to understand it a little better; only then have we come to share it. And once shared, it is also relieved, because someone else is helping to shoulder the burden of the pain. And too, finding this metaphorical language for grief has allowed us to pull you, the reader, into each moment with us, into the landscape itself. We wanted you to see, feel, hear, what we were, and still are, seeing, feeling, hearing. The more of us who can meet up in Griefland, and connect there, the more comfort we will find as we move through its rough and rocky terrain.
We have found the only way to get through Griefland is with a friend at your side, the whole way. The kind of friend who will show up no matter what — without her makeup on, in sweats, soaking wet, with un-manicured nails — the kind of friend who will watch your back, who will stand guard at the door and let you grieve in your own way because you know what? Any way you get through this journey is heroic.
About the Author: Nancy Miller is the co-author of Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss, and Unlikely Friendship. She has taught English and literature at the university and junior college levels since 1996 and served as managing editor for The Business Journal and Pacific Publishing Group in Fresno, California for more than six years. She currently teaches composition at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Washington, where she lives with her husband, Randy. Write to her at Nancy.Miller55@comcast.net