Medha Chandwani ’26
Three Writers Shed Light on the Different Ways People Grieve
Emotions are not that simple. People expect others to react to challenging circumstances in a similar or the same manner as themselves, but feelings, specifically grieving, are an individual process that can be dictated by no one. There is no right or wrong way to feel. For instance, three contemporary short stories, “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead,” “What We Have Learned, What We Will Forget, What We Will Not Be Able to Forget,” and “The Great Silence,” illustrate the denial of bad news, mental confusion, and acceptance as completely different and valid reactions to grief.
In “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead,” author Carmen Maria Machado examines the toll losing one’s family takes on Ursula as she searches for her sister Olive; Machado ultimately reveals that denial aids an individual in realizing one’s own grief. From the beginning, Ursula labels Olive as a stranger, only loving her due to their parents’ stress on familial bonds. Nevertheless, after their parents’ death, Ursula strives to find Olive to tell her the news in person, seeking to raise money online for the journey. She knows her sister resides in the Land of the Dead, assuming Olive is only visiting their parents, yet Ursula is subconsciously aware that her sister could have passed away as well. On the website, Ursula purposely clarifies, “When I tell you that my sister has absconded to the land of the dead, do not mistake me. She hasn’t died” (Machado 2). Here, she attempts to reassure herself in addition to her audience that the journey is worthwhile. She is confident that Olive still exists as her brain has not caught up to the loss, continually denying the possibility. She continues to promise her backers of Olive’s personal thanks in various forms as she is convinced her sister will come back to her. For instance, if a backer pledges five dollars or more, she claims her sister will send a thank you email, and if they spend one hundred dollars or more, Ursula will drive Olive to their house (Machado 4-5). She desperately desires to feel the connection to her sister that their parents emphasized, so she no longer feels alone. Because of this, she is in denial and overlooks the possibility that Olive may be dead. Therefore, when Ursula discovers that her sister committed suicide in the woods, she stops logging her journey as the loss finally hits her and becomes unavoidable. Debating death is no longer possible. Like Ursula, people want to live in a world that is preferable to them than in their reality as a single piece of news changes their life instantly, causing an immense amount of shock. To help cope, denial slows down a person’s grief, so they are not overwhelmed. People deny the truth and then gradually come to the realization that their new reality is different. Unfortunately, they must live in the present. At the end of the short story, Ursula retreats from society as she needs time to face her new reality.
In the same way, through the loss of contact from others in society, the unnamed narrator in Eugene Lim’s “What We Have Learned, What We Will Forget, What We Will Not Be Able to Forget” experiences mental confusion and intense illusions from his grief. Due to the spread of coronavirus, the narrator is barricaded to his home where the only interactions he receives from the outside world is through technology. He begins with an already formed sense of invisibility when he describes that he is “Divorced, childless, middle management for an insurance company. Blank, blank, and blank” (Lim 2). Without a sense of self and confined to a house, he feels unimportant and unaccepted in society as this invisibility begins to describe his identity. Who is he? Why is he just sitting at home? He continues to relay his confusion about his identity, spiraling out of control as he pretends to be a guy on television who murdered eight people in Atlanta. At least, in this way, he can no longer grieve the loss of his sense of touch. He has an identity as a murderer that everyone acknowledges. But that’s not him. He is lost. Again, he indirectly asks himself, “Proposed Turing-test variation: The cyborg asks itself questions to determine if it’s human” (Lim 9). He is not a cyborg, but he questions his existence without people, contact, a purposeful life. He feels he has no purpose. Grief causes one to wish for a more fulfilling life with no pain through imagination as they can’t change their current life. Without an essential part of one’s identity, confusion ensues and mentally, breaks down an individual’s brain; hence, the reason that memory loss is a common result of immense grief.
Lastly, grief can take the form of acceptance. A parrot narrates their community’s story in Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence” as they accept their fate of extinction and wish the best for humankind despite the fact that humans are the cause for their death. The parrot relates their experience to one of a human’s, showing relatability and similarity between the two species, yet he is confused why parrots are considered intellectually inferior. This short story displays the parrot’s last thoughts and hopes before he disappears. The parrot begins to take responsibility for his previous views by saying, “I suppose I can’t blame them. We parrots used to think humans weren’t very bright. It’s hard to make sense of behavior that’s so different from your own” (Chiang 233-234). Rationally, the bird tries to revisit his past and make sense of all his thoughts and actions. He thinks less with intense emotion and more with his head. He realizes that he never hated humans as humans are not causing the parrots’ extinction maliciously (Chiang 235). The parrot accepts that it is his time to go and embraces the present, but he wants to make an impact in the lives of humans and reach out to them before the parrots officially go extinct. They want to finally be heard before their voices are silenced. Acceptance of one’s mortality does not necessarily mean that an individual feels good about their loss, but they know they will live on through memories as they have touched another’s life.
Grief differs from person to person. An individual could deny their situation, lose their identity, or accept their current situation. People cope with their problems in a way tailored to themselves, but their coping needs to be healthy. Although having time away from society is normal, it should be done in increments. Relying on others can be helpful to move on from the past, and look forward to the future. People can still learn to heal.
Chiang, Ted. “The Great Silence.” Exhalation, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 2019, pp. 231-236
Lim, Eugene. “What We Have Learned, What We Will Forget, What We Will Not Be Able to Forget.” The New Yorker, 19 Aug. 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/books/flash-fiction/what-we-have-learned-what-we-will-forget-what-we-will-not-be-able-to-forget.
Machado, Carmen Maria. “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead.” Lightspeed Magazine, 3 Sept. 2015, https://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/help-follow-sister-land-dead/.