Grieving Whereas Parenting: The World Stops for No One, Particularly Not Working Mothers
In 2017, when I was five months pregnant and was bringing my 3 year old daughter home from kindergarten, I received a call that my childhood best friend had died.
Even in those first few moments, when my daughter was studying my face and I was working to muffle my reaction, motherhood framed my grief experience. It wasn’t until she was safely distracted by Peppa Pig that I let myself feel the full weight of what had happened.
I quickly realized that no matter how distracted and excited I felt, I had to resume normal activities. After all, I didn’t have the luxury of breaking down – there was lunch to be made, deadlines to be met!
My days became a kind of lively split screen: On the one hand, I read bedtime books, attended sonogram appointments, wrote articles about facial oils or wrote concise social media texts for fashion brands. On the other hand, I listened to maudlin indie music and tearfully scoured the internet for evidence of my late friend’s existence.
My grief became a private process.
That ultimately inspired my new novel Competitive Grieving, a dark comedy and improbable love story about loss and the chaotic consequences of death. The main character, Wren, is not a mother, perhaps on purpose, as writing this character allowed me to examine the loss through a freer lens. But like me throughout the book, she finds it difficult to concentrate on work and instead chooses to look through old yearbooks, write letters to her dead friend, or talk to her haughty cat. She also finds ways to manage her grief internally by planning funerals in her head for the people she meets, rather than openly sharing feelings.
Like many of us who are transported back to everyday life before we are ready, she is looking for ways to think about death without thinking about it; to process their grief without consciously processing it; Finding catharsis while she’s still moving through her life. Here is one of the letters to her dear deceased friend, with which she comes to terms with her loss and at the same time moves forward with her everyday obligations:
I became a funeral planner the day you died.
I don’t mean that literally. I’m not planning any Indigo Girls themed events for you – don’t worry. I received an email from the Auburn Prep alumni rep asking me to dig up old photos for a reminder in the newsletter and on their Facebook page. I know that the school has always asked you for favors: tickets for your latest piece for the donation raffle or an appearance at “Career Day”. They avoided them as if they could call you up on jury duty or serve you a subpoena, so the autopsy behavior is consistent in a way that you would have appreciated. I couldn’t resist: I sent them this photo of you with your corndog on Coney Island, which is sure to get a lot of “likes” on the internet. It would be even more if people knew you had two more corn dogs and cotton candy afterwards and then puked online for the Cyclone. #Truth
No, what I mean by “funeral planning” is that since you left I’ve been playing this involuntary game in my head: Whenever someone talks to me – especially about my feelings or more often about how they feel again – instead of listening , I choose spreads and songs for their funerals. What comes to mind is not the event I would want for her to happen, but what I feel in my bones, it should be. On the music front, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Adele’s “Hello” are often top candidates, although I know that a band with “The” in their name would have chosen something more obscure.
This simulated event planning has become a constant. For receptions, I envision platters of smoked meat, salmon, raw vegetables, and biscuits, or whole old-school Italian spreads with meatballs and chicken parmesan (unwieldy for a party, I know, but so tasty!). Did you know that southerners traditionally bring devil eggs and jell-o shapes with them when someone dies? My grandfather’s Mexican nurse gave empanadas after Papa’s death. At your funeral reception, I wonder what the catering will be? Something nifty, courtesy of your mother no doubt. Caviar and blinis?
Sometimes my plans don’t stop with eating. When I lie in bed at night with one knee peeking out from under my blanket, which is too warm, I plan touching but funny hymns of praise for everyone from Gretchen to my father to our old history teacher Mr. Harvey. Remember him The guy with the huge ’70s glasses? I think he would have liked fondue and Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky.
I plan how I would find out every person died too: a phone call, a text message, a totally inappropriate Snapchat, a premature social media post; from a mutual friend, from a family member, from an apologetic policeman who shows up at my door.
I plan my reactions. My shock. My dismay. My aftermath. I plan. I plan. I plan for things that cannot be planned. How to lose you
Nora Zelevansky is the author of the novels Competitive Grieving, Will You Willst You Want Me? and half-enchanted life. Her texts have appeared in the New York Times, ELLE, Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two children, and the giant cat Waldo.
Copyright: EXCERPT FROM COMPETITIVE SORROW. COPYRIGHT © 2021 BY NORA ZELEVANSKY. EXTRACT PERMITTED BY BLACKSTONE PUBLISHING.