Alex Gallo-Brown, on how his father’s death showed him the transformative nature of grief.
In the first months after my father died, I took a lot of baths. I also took the dog on a lot of walks, which must have surprised him, since he got only intermittent attention from me when I was home. We had a daily routine in those months, also unusual, since I despised routines.
Most mornings, I took him to the coffee stand at the end of my parents’ block, exchanged pleasantries with whatever college-age barista happened to be working that day, nabbed a biscuit for him and a verystrong, very short Americano for me, and then descended into “the ravine,” a subterranean network of parks and trails neighboring my childhood home. While we walked, I listened to music through headphones, singing out loud to myself, making up lyrics to go along with the melodies. Other times I just howled at the sky. I never got strange looks from anybody—or if I did, I never noticed.
I was 22 when my father died. It happened suddenly when I was a senior in college, three thousand miles away from home. The day he died, I flew back to be with my mom and younger brother, staying for nearly a year.
When I think about grief, I think about those early days with the dog and the coffee and the music and the park that my mind usually leaps. Of course, more than five years later, I am still grieving. The grief never left.
My dad was the most important person in my life at the time he died. He wrote professionally for magazines, and I, too, had written from a young age. We shared a sensibility, an outlook on life, as well as a recognizable physiognomy. There were differences, too, of course, many of which were harder to reconcile when he was alive than they are now that he is dead. But we had always been close.
After he died, I did not read books about grief. I did not attend grief counseling, did not take up yoga or meditation. There was nothing wrong with those methods of coping, I thought—almost literally whatever got you through the day. It was just, at that time, those strategies of dealing appealed to me hardly at all.
What I wanted, I think, other than to have him back, was connection with other consciousnesses—release from the strictures of my own overwhelming pain. What I wanted was nothing less than the dissolution of myself. I found this quiescence almost solely through art: music, poetry, film, even stand-up comedy. Nothing but art in those months—not conversations with loved ones, not family traditions, not athletic activity, not alcohol, not thought—adequately assuaged my pain. Nothing but art made me feel revived again.
I had always loved art and literature, of course—I wanted to be a writer. But in those months after my father died my heart felt primed to surge. In moments, I was so joyful, everything sang.
That was, in a certain way, the most sacred time I have ever known. For a little while I did not think about friends or money or ambition or career. I did not consider society or politics, culture or history. It was a purely selfish time, for a little while, wandering alone through the veins of my grief.
Now five years have passed. The dog has died. I no longer live at home.
In time, I went back to college and graduated. I began a romantic relationship that endures to this day. I worked various jobs, with varying degrees of success.
The sacredness, for me, turned out to have an expiration date. Not the sacredness of life, of course, which endures despite either our actions or intent. But the sacredness of that kind of grief, wandering alone through an underground terrain.
There can be value to such travel, I think, to such wandering. But only if you learn something there about how to build a healthy home. Grief, deeply felt, can be a beautiful place to visit. Stay there too long, though, and you risk inhabiting purgatory permanently, treading some middle ground between life and death.
The grief never left, but then neither has my dad. I carry him in my heart, my genes, my face wherever on earth I go. And though I still occasionally suffer through periods of malaise and disuse—there is a wound in me that may never close—it is also true that I have learned to care about the world again. Society, culture, politics, history. Friends, money, career, ambition.
Art has not faded from this life I lead; indeed, it remains as vital as it has always been. But no longer, either, does it serve as my life’s exclusive feature. Just as important to me is that I am useful to other people. And I am again. At least, to a few.
–Photo seyyed mostafa zamani / Flickr