What Happens to Our Love When It’s Filtered Through Grief
Updated: May 4, 2021
Processing 2020 in a cemetery so you don’t have to.
A few weeks after the presidential election was called back in my home country, the United States of Giving-Me-An-Ulcer, I went out to Barcelona’s Poblenou Cemetery looking for a famous statue. It’s called El Petó de la Mort in Catalan, El Beso de la Muerte in Spanish, and The Kiss of Death in English.
I’m somewhat of a cemetery connoisseur and a massive history buff, so this sort of excursion would normally fill me with deferential, if not downright giddy, warmth. Napoleon razed this cemetery to the ground in 1775, for France’s sake. And my country’s been run, for the last four years, by a coked-up Napoleon wanna-be. Très pertinent!
It wasn’t until I entered the grounds that I realized I’d made a huge mistake.
See, what I’d just done is set up the circumstances for a deep-dive into the collective and personal trauma of this past year. This was not at all the lighthearted historical romp I told myself I was setting out to write. I was a writer who’d missed all the foreshadowing.
Only an idiot goes to a cemetery, during a pandemic, after their country’s just been rescued from the brink of fascism, thinking they didn’t come to face their demons and have a good sob.
I was definitely going to cry by the end of the day.
The Poblenou Cemetery is split into sections. You enter through the crematorium, which is a maze of mausoleums with niches stacked 6 families high and several city blocks deep. As you venture further, you find yourself surrounded by individual neo-gothic crypts with intricate iron gates, crying angels, and hooded figures.
This is a strange flex, but I’ve walked through a lot of different types of graveyards, from ancient Egyptian tombs to bone-littered medieval catacombs to endless, unfathomable military cemeteries. I know it sounds fucked up, but they all used to spark joy.
When you grow up in the desert, surrounded by cactus, rocks, and pavement, a cemetery is like the Garden of Eden. It’s the lushest place in town. Fresh-cut grass? Yes, please. Soil instead of dust? God, that’s good. Touchable trees with bark that doesn’t prick you and leaves that provide shade from the relentless sun? Can we live here, please? Cemeteries, to me, were the most sacred, most living places in town. Dead people were the most cared-for.
I didn’t have many opportunities to go to the cemetery when I was a kid, which was or wasn’t fortunate, depending on how you look at it. My high school choir sang there every year on 9/11 to help the community always remember never to forget. Looking back now, after twenty years of war in the Middle East and the daily number of Coronavirus deaths having surpassed the number of people who died on 9/11, I think it’s fair to say our little concerts did diddly-squat.
When we were done singing, my friends and I would find a tree to sit under, take off our shoes, and wiggle our toes in the wet grass. Death had no way of touching us back then. There were no skyscrapers in Tucson.
Here in the Poblenou Cemetery, however, at the age of 30 and in the year 2020, I felt jumpy and anxious. Like something was watching me from the dark interior of one of these crypts. At one point, I thought about turning around and running back to the safety of… I don’t know, really. Home? Is that the only place I felt safe these days?
Where the hell was this damn statue?
The time difference between Spain and the United States meant that I got to call my brother and sister in Hawaii and California, respectively, and wake them up with the news that Joe Biden had won the United States presidential election. “They called it!” I yelled over video and watched them bolt upright in their beds. “We did it!!!” (And by ‘we’, I specifically meant my occasional phone banking efforts for the Democratic party.)
As my brother and I made virtual, non-simultaneous eye contact, he and I both silently agreed to ignore the fact that we hadn’t been on speaking terms for the past few days. This moment was far bigger than that. Life won!!! Trump could go drink bleach!!!
The reason my brother and I weren’t speaking is that he’d started going to the gym again. And any other year, that would be such a ridiculous argument to have, but I made it clear that I thought going to the gym during a pandemic was a spectacularly bad idea.
He insisted he was being careful. He was totally quarantined otherwise because he lived alone and worked from home, the place was well-ventilated and only allowed a few people in at a time, surfaces were being wiped down, masks were being worn, Hawaii had been especially careful, being an island and all, cases there were pretty low, etc.
He tried to tell me how good it felt to be using his body again after almost a year of being cooped up. And I listened (or pretended to listen), then I downed a couple of ibuprofens for the chronic headache I’d had since my grandma, mom, and I got Covid ourselves way back in March and I told him that his body wouldn’t feel so good if he got sick.
I made him feel guilty. I told him he was as bad as the anti-maskers. I questioned how safe his precautions really were. I begged him not to go, for me, for my own peace of mind. “Just wait a few months! Is that so hard? There’s a vaccine coming out. Let Biden do his thing. Run around the block a few times!” …The conversations ended curtly.
My brother wanted to live. I wanted him not to die. Irreconcilable differences in 2020.
Over the next few weeks, my worry for him turned into chronic nightmares. I’d wake up in a sweat from dreams about him in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, dying alone. When I told him - desperately, tearfully - that he was driving me crazy, he’d just get quiet for a really long time, then say,
“I don’t know what to tell you, Katie. I need to do this.”
Coming to the center of the cemetery is like coming to the center of a labyrinth. There’s a large memorial that stands taller than anything else around. It says:
“In the year 1821, a cruel disease called yellow fever appeared in this city of Barcelona, which took the existence of many thousands of inhabitants. Their remains were deposited in this holy field. Pray for their souls.”
I found myself struck with the realization that someday, there would be monuments to the people who died of Covid-19. And I guess I’d always sort of hoped I’d make it to old age without the kind of collective trauma my grandparents went through. Now I was picturing myself as an old lady, overcome with emotion at the sight of a Covid memorial while some young whippersnappers fuck around nearby doing whatever it is whippersnappers do. Smoking something that’ll kill their lungs or jumping up on things they could fall off of, most likely.
And if I’m anything like my Nana, who worries that I’ll trip over a computer cord and smash my face or that I’m not wearing enough layers for a beautiful, sunny day, who shouts and clutches at her heart when I drop a spoon or when there’s a strange noise outside… I’ll respond with angry-fear. I won’t just caution against, I’ll reach out and smack the dangerous thing away.
“What the hell are you doing?!” I’ll scream at the whippersnappers, in the shadow of all the death I’ve avoided. “How can you be so disrespectful?!”
I suppose, when I was the whippersnapper, I would have assumed my offense was disrupting the somber mood. Now I realize it’s the cavalier attitude towards the utter, ridiculous, fragility of life.
…And, whoops, that’s trauma knowledge, isn’t it?
I thought back to February, when I was training to teach English. My mom had been way ahead of the curve when she ordered masks and emergency supplies for us, anticipating that the virus would spread. I thought about how my fellow trainees had laughed at me, the overdramatic American, when I nervously joked that we might not get to finish our course. As of December, that school’s gone into bankruptcy and not a single one of us has received our teaching certificates.
Before the schools shut down in March, Nana had a stroke. It was awful. She couldn’t form words and she became deeply confused. She thought the EMT’s were trying to harm her and her fierce overprotectiveness went into full gear on her own behalf. She fought, growled, and yanked out her IV. She screamed bloody murder when anybody touched her and had to be drugged and restrained. This tiny little woman was like a feral animal until they got the stroke under control. And all we could do was watch, helpless, feeling her fear like it was our own, praying she wasn’t about to go out kicking and screaming.
Thankfully, she came back to herself, and our main concern, then, was to get her out of the hospital before Covid hit Spain the way it was hitting Italy. There was a palpable tension in the hospital, like a storm was about to hit. We were nervous that someone would infect Nana while she was compromised.
Of course, it turned out that we were the infected ones all along…
I must have been close to the statue now.
This was where it was supposed to be, in the back of the cemetery. But as I scanned the dark crypts, the left-behind photos of loved ones, the signs of decay and neglect, more memories of this past year started battering down the protective walls around my poor, vulnerable heart.
Two more strokes after Nana’s first (but we’re no longer allowed in the hospital with her), months of throbbing pain without a solution, my mom’s hacking cough, cops murdering Black and brown people and shooting protesters and anti-maskers spitting in nurse’s faces and food bank lines and evictions and covid numbers ticking up and mass graves and body bags and tear gas and assault rifles and Trump’s grubby hand on the bible and “Don’t wake up the day after the election wishing you’d done more” and fires in California near my sister and red skies and proud boys and getting my friend out of her abusive home and getting the vote out and an explosion in Beirut and —
The Kiss of Death is tucked into the back, right-hand side of the oldest section of the cemetery.
As I approach, I notice different elements. The figure’s limp hands face upwards at his sides. His lulled head and sunken eyes, his skin drawn taught against muscles rendered useless. The way Death crouches to hold him upright, bony fingers digging gently into his skin.
Aaaaand I’m crying.
I feel shattered, metaphorically brought to my knees just like this figure above who looks too much like my brother. It’s terrifying and beautiful. Death could either be attacking or embracing. The dead man (dying man?) could either be losing a fight or sweetly surrendering.
An inscription chiseled into the stone base of the sculpture is a poem by the Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer:
His young heart is thus extinguished. The blood in his veins grows cold. And all strength has gone. Faith has been extolled by his fall into the arms of death. Amen.
I was struck by a memory I don’t like to think about very much. It felt like it came out of left field.
When my grandfather, Nana’s husband, was passing away, one of the last things he said to me was, “I’m disappearing”.
He looked scared and small in his hospice bed, which we’d placed in the middle of his living room, right next to a lovingly framed print of Renoir’s Dance In the City, which depicted a man and woman dancing cheek to cheek – a representation of my grandparents at one point in their marriage.
“I’m disappearing”. It sounded to me like he was asking a question rather than making a statement, and it threw me completely. I didn’t have a response. Anything I could have said sounded so cliche, so trite. It was the ultimate question and I didn’t have the ultimate answer. I wanted to clutch at him, hold him to this world, but I didn’t know how anymore. And I didn’t have an excuse for that.
And so I said nothing.
That silence now stretches on and on and on and on, penetrated only by Nana’s crying wail when he’s gone.
She’d worked so hard to keep him alive, had worried about this day for so long. She’d gotten so mad at him so many times. How many times had he fallen because he hadn’t been wearing his glasses? How many times had she had to remind him to take his meds, to go to sleep, to eat something? Now there was nothing she could do. There was no one to get mad at, nothing to fuss over. Where would all her love go?
The cogs were moving in my mind as I stared up at the statue and sniffled away my tears. I was remembering a quote I’d read somewhere:
Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go. — Jamie Anderson
It occurred to me that my love for my family, my friends, my home country …had soured and turned into premature grief. My love had a place to go, but I was killing those places off in my mind before they were ever really gone. My fear and anxiety was an echo of trauma witnessed, learned, and experienced.
“Be careful!” “What the hell are you doing?!” “Put that down!” “You’re driving me crazy! Please just stop!” Please. Please. I don’t know where to put my love if you’re not here.
Grief-love is a love that looks to the future and fixates on it. It turns our loved ones into living ghosts, bound to us and our unwillingness to let them go or to trust them to make their own choices. It turns us into agents of Terror, unknowingly doing its bidding. People don’t want to be grieved over while they’re still alive. They want alive-love — love that acknowledges the state of this moment, not the next one or the next.
Listen, I’m not at all saying that we should succumb to death willy-nilly. Or that we don’t, as individuals and as a society, have a responsibility to keep each other safe. We absolutely do. Anticipation of the future helps us to decide what action to take in this moment. People are dying and being killed and neglected every day. That fear isn’t unfounded.
All I’m saying is that, when we love someone so much we can’t stand the thought of losing them, I think we have a tendency to filter our love through grief. And when we do that, it comes out as one of grief’s demons: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, or Depression. This type of love feels like an attack on those we direct it towards. It pushes them away until we’ve fulfilled our own prophesies. The grief becomes justified, we start to expect it, we do it all over again with someone else, we lose and are at a loss, ad nauseum.
To recognize one’s own insanity is, of course, the arising of sanity, the beginning of healing and transcendence. ― Eckhart Tolle
When I left Poblenou Cemetery, all I wanted to do was call up my brother and tell him how much I love him and that I’m sorry for all of my attempts to control him. He was more than happy to accept my apology and didn’t even gloat. I’m still worried about him. And if he dies, I’m gonna kill him. But my heart rate slows down when I remind myself to send him some alive love. It’s now a tool I keep in my back pocket for when I feel overwhelmed with anxiety and dread.
This concept has even helped me realize the correct answer to “I’m disappearing”. It’s so simple, really.
“Tell me more. I’m listening.”
My job was not to fix anything for my grandpa or to make him feel better or to have the perfect last words or to control anything whatsoever. I’d had him there, alive, for that brief moment. I can never go back and see what else he might’ve had to say if I’d shown him alive-love, not grief-love. But regret’s a kind of grief too.
Three strokes in the last year have taken their toll on Nana.
But when I wrap my arms around her frail frame and kiss the top of her head, we mirror the very statue that taught me how to love her properly while she’s still here. Her tense muscles relax and “faith is extolled” …as she falls into the arms of her living descendent.