Last night I saw Sufjan Stevens in concert. He’s an artist I’ve wanted to see for years, and he didn’t disappoint. The show was a cathartic, uniquely emotional experience. Stevens wrote his recent album, Carrie and Lowell, about the death of his estranged mother. Writing an album filled with songs about loss, grief, regret, fear, and doubt was how Stevens dealt with his mother’s death and what could have been. The live show felt like the next step in his grieving process. He’s touring the world, sharing intimate songs with thousands of people, and baring his soul at every venue. It’s how he’s getting through the pain. It’s how he’s coming out the other side, stronger and wiser and forever a little sadder.
There’s been a lot of death in my family lately. Some of the deaths have been shocking and difficult to fathom. Some have been the result of long, hard-fought illnesses. Over the past year, loss has lingered over my family like a heavy fog that feels as if it might never end, as if we might never again be able to see a path before us that isn’t enveloped in pain and permanent endings.
One thing that this myriad of deaths has shown me is that people grieve in so many ways. Some throw themselves into work. They focus on pushing forward, blinding themselves to the past and those who have died with it. Some shut down completely. They cease all work, settling instead to contemplate the nature of what’s happened. Some, like Sufjan Stevens, make art. They channel what they’re feeling and find ways to understand it. Maybe they write songs. Maybe they paint portraits.
I’ve written before about how there is no right or wrong way to go about choosing when to get married. I’m not sure there are right or wrong ways to grieve either. Everyone deals with things differently, and I think that’s all right. Though I would venture a guess that the only important thing about grieving is that you actually let yourself do it. You allow yourself to feel the pain, to understand that it exists, and then you can begin to climb out of it.
I often think about something that Jack from LOST said. In the very first episode of the show, he talks about his first surgery as a doctor, and how terribly afraid he was when he realized that he had done something wrong.
“The terror was just so crazy. So real. And I knew I had to deal with it. So I just made a choice. I’d let the fear in, let it take over, let it do its thing—but only for five seconds; that’s all I was going to give it. So I started to count: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Then it was gone. I went back to work, sewed her up, and she was fine.”
This is how I’ve chosen to look at most of the struggles in my life. I try to let myself feel things, fully and completely, but then I know I must move forward. I push towards the future, towards a light at the end of the hardships. Maybe grief can be handled in the same way. Maybe we have to feel it fully in order to ever push through it. And maybe it’s never fully gone, but that’s all right, because neither are the people we’ve lost.
Last night at the show, Stevens talked about how after people die, they become a part of us. Through our words and our actions, our hopes and our dreams, we incorporate things we’ve learned from those we’ve lost, and we carry them with us for the rest of our own lives. As we travel through life, we become more than ourselves. We become everyone that we’ve known and loved, and everyone that we’ve lost.
I like to think he’s right.