“You don’t know how it feels, ‘til it happens to you,” sings Lady Gaga in her new music video “Til It Happens to You.” If you listen to the song without watching the video, you don’t know exactly what she’s referring to because that sentiment is true for most difficult experiences, like bullying or poverty or loss.
I was 19 when my mother died, 19 and an only child and a senior in college and questioning my sexuality and uncertain about my future and now lacking in close relationships, familial or otherwise. “Til It Happens to You” could have been my theme song. At the time, I didn’t know anybody else like me, and I felt so alone that I still can’t think too hard about that time, even five years later, or some small part of me clenches like an old injury.
In literature, however, I found burgeoning evidence that I wasn’t alone. In the first years after my mother’s death, I built a library of grief, filled with novels and memoirs and poems about other people’s losses. These people understood at least a small piece of how I felt and gave me different perspectives on my grief. Over time, I started to see that while my loss was unique, as are all losses, the devastation was universal. I gulped down these fellow mourners’ words as a drowning man gulps oxygen when he finally claws his way out of the water.
Kate Steger’s “The Four Stages of Grief” is an excellent example of what filled that library. I was struck by the cleverness of reversing the stages of cancer to describe stages of grief. I had never thought of it that way, but she was right. Those stages can represent both the gradual acceptance of a terminal diagnosis and the easing of grief as it becomes less acute after the final loss. And yet, a bit of that grief is always there, as we are reminded by the repetition (in Stages IV and I) of the line, “Put my arms around you. Kiss both eyes.”
I wrote “Writing Elegies Like Robert Hass” a little less than two years after my mother died (during what I would perhaps diagnose as Stage III or II). I think it illustrates in a similar way the persistence of grief and memory, how it can arise at the strangest provocation, how much easier it is to remember the worst parts of the illness rather than the joyful person that came before.
Jenny Qi is getting her PhD in Biomedical Science at UC San Francisco. Her essays and poems have been published in various journals, including The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Off the Coast. She is finishing her first chapbook. Read more about Qi at www.jqiwriter.com. Her poem "Writing Elegies Like Robert Hass" apperas in the Fall 2015 issue of The Intima.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine