I began to feel years ago, as though I had been born into my mother’s grief. This emotion, which I struggle with daily, both in my dreams and in my waking hours, is a well of immeasurable depth inside of me. I often feel walled in by my own grief, simultaneously overwhelmed in hers. I struggle with a profound sense of isolation, while at the same time, recognizing that the act of immersing myself in that well–the place that puts a barrier between myself and other people–is the only time I feel safe enough to express that emotion.
One of the things I do to immerse myself is listen to music that speaks to all the reasons I grieve. Not all music taps into this part of me. I often feel unable to engage with music that fails to engage my grief. This is ultimately why I am drawn towards subversive artists, as many express parts of themselves that the rest of society rejects. Their lyrics speak to my experiences; both during the events for which I grieve, and during my attempts to grieve in a world that rejects my attempts to have depth beyond customary superficial mannerisms. The depth, complexity, and layers of the music accompanying those lyrics allows me to experience an abstract sense of grief I have yet to put into words–such as, until writing this journal entry, feeling the weight of my mother’s grief (unjustly) piled on top of what already (justifiably) haunts me. Or feeling the urge to reject her burden, while becoming conscious of how much strength it ultimately requires of me to accomplish the task, all while fully realizing how I am biologically connected to it for as long as I live.
I also watch films that engage with these emotions. Watching a particularly evocative depiction of a fictitious person’s emotions as they move through various experiences that parallel my own (literally or metaphorically), helps me to let off powerful bursts of repressed grief. Depictions of gratuitous violence and emotionally erratic or irrational characters often serve little to no purpose to me, because I don’t enjoy watching films whose sole purpose is to make me stop thinking. When something in a film or television program fails to keep my interest, I simply walk away and rapidly lose track of the meaning and purpose of what I walk back to a few minutes later. There is a sense in which this is a metaphor for when I am emotionally dissociative. I’m not conscious of my emotions slipping away when I dissociate; and so I’m unaware of what emotions I ought to be feeling as I go through the motions of my other relationships, without the ability to empathize or emotionally engage with other people. By the time the emotions return, we’ve frequently grown apart, the context of our relationship has changed, and I can’t makes sense of the damage because I wasn’t present enough to follow it. I need to think like I need to be emotionally present.
This brings me to another very important pillar of how I deal with grief: physical pain. I alluded to the biological ties I have to my mother’s grief above, and now is the moment to revisit that. By far, the most physically excruciating body modification I have endured to date, is a tattoo of 17 skulls arranged in a tower. The skulls originate at my false ribs and increase in both size and detail, all the way down to the lateral aspect of my upper thigh. They are integrated into the tattoo that spans over my entire back, and tree roots wind into and through them. It is the story of my mother’s unspoken grief, as well as my father’s. It is the story of my ethnic roots, my history, and my dying lineage. There is one skull for each childless relative of my maternal family. Each skull simultaneously represents an aunt, uncle, or cousin of my paternal family, who lives on the other side of a schism–having made the same decision that I have, to estrange myself from a family that would be the death of me.
While enduring the application of this particular tattoo, I felt the full force of my grief. But I also felt a penetrating pain in my right hip bone, on which I rested for the entire duration of the tattooing process; as well as horrendous sciatica, and a persistent burning sensation that crept into every organ in my lower abdomen until I had to take a break to stop myself from becoming spontaneously incontinent. When I returned from the bathroom, and was shaking as I raised a glass of juice to my swollen and cracking lips, tears streamed down my face. My tattooist, who could sense the intensity of my grief even before he turned the machine on that day, asked me if I’m ok. I completely broke down before I could even finish pronouncing a monosyllabic word. As he put me back under the needle, he told me part of his story. It is not my place to recount the details, but suffice to say that it was an equally meaningful gesture to me, as receiving that tattoo by his hand was.
Unfortunately, I only have so much skin and so much money, to further my grieving process through tattooing. And there are only a few times a month when I might feel that it’s the right time to explore how much I might have repressed, by watching a particularly evocative film. Repeatedly watching these films alone is also only getting me so far into that aspect of the process, as is listening to the same music for a limited period of time each day when I’m alone (or at least, not in the presence of people who I know and trust). And while I do have the opportunity each week to explore how these feelings emerge in my dreams, there is a time limit on that as well.
This is why, when in January of 2011 (shortly after receiving the tattoo described above), someone encouraged me for the first time in my entire life, to do something I always wanted to do but wasn’t already doing of my own volition, I took it to heart and picked up a second-hand violin. I had no idea what I was about to unearth within myself when I met its former owner, and I resisted opening the case until I got back home with it. But when I opened it up, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. I was shaken to tears as I touched it for the first time. Everything about handling this instrument reached into something inside of me that I’ve never before felt without either enduring physical pain to take me there, or recounting a physically painful event. Until I realized that the reason I wasn’t comfortable accepting lessons or tips from friends was because I was working through grief by teaching myself, I couldn’t control how emotionally I responded to these unsolicited offers of help. I didn’t even understand where the emotion was coming from. I just needed to work through it alone.
I am still struggling to find ways to grieve. I am mourning for myself. For my estranged, silenced, and childless family. I am grieving for having been raped, molested, battered, and threatened. I am working through the loss of my life aspiration to become a medical professional, as I try to find a new direction for my future. I am grieving for how I treated myself when I completely lost hope of having a future. For the loss of my family, because it’s been nearly thirty years and they still aren’t ready to be my parents, my siblings, my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents. I am mourning the multiple people who have come into my life when I most needed someone, who showed me they trust me, and who promptly committed suicide because I was too emotionally absent to recognize their needs. I am fighting for air and human contact, immersed in this well of grief.