How art can provide us with different languages for discussing loss.
Artwork by Janelle Rainer, courtesy of the Grief Diaries.
By Kristi DiLallo
I was starting my senior year of high school and only a year had passed since my mother was arrested for murdering my grandmother while I hid under a blanket in my room down the hall. Already, I had been taught to think that grief was ugly and uncomfortable, something no one was supposed to talk about.
I joined a group at my high school for students who’d lost loved ones. Six of us sat in a circle after school in the counselor’s office, clenching tissues in our trembling fists as we shared our stories about siblings and parents and grandparents who were no longer with us. All of them were kids I had seen around school before. There was Amber, who sat next to me in science class, and Kevin, who rode his skateboard near my house some mornings before first period. We were sad and we were confused and we were together, but more importantly, we were strangers. We thought our secrets were shameful and that it was only safe to share them with people who weren’t in our lives every day.
Amber’s mom had passed away that summer, just a few days before the school year started, and the news of her death had spread to most of the school within the first two weeks of the semester. Her suicide was on the news after the neighbors saw red and blue lights flash against the windows of the bathroom where she died. When Amber told the group what happened to her mom, she said, “You probably already know why I’m here.” I watched her tremble, listened to her voice crack when she said the words, “My mommy.” Her hair was the color of a penny, full of tightly wound curls that were frizzy at the ends, and when I looked at her, I couldn’t help but wonder if her mother’s hair had looked like that, too.
I wanted to ask Amber if she was angry with her mother for dying on purpose, but she only said that she missed her. I was afraid of being the only person in the room whose sadness had turned into anger. Amber told the group about all of the blood her mother had lost, how she still couldn’t believe this had happened. She said, “You never think something this bad will happen to you.” I nodded and thought about the Amber who came to class every morning, sat three feet away from me, and took notes about ecosystems and biodiversity in a blue binder. Sometimes I asked her how she did on last week’s quiz or where she was thinking of applying to college, but I’d never asked her if she knew that daughters weren’t supposed to watch their mothers bleed.
I didn’t know yet that grief was bigger than death, that people were allowed to grieve other types of loss, too.
In the corner of the room, Kevin was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and jeans that rose above his ankles when he sat down. His skateboard was facedown underneath his chair, the bottom of his shoes rolling back and forth against the rubber wheels. He told us about his sister’s Jet Ski accident, how she and her boyfriend crashed into the wall of the canal outside their neighborhood one afternoon. Kevin said he had a bad feeling that day, that he could tell something was going to go wrong. He started running toward the canal to the find them and tell them to come back home.
“It was too late,” he said. He looked at the ground as he spoke, and I watched his lips quiver, thinking about the canal near my own house, how the water was so dirty it almost matched the concrete walls on either side. I pictured his sister’s boyfriend standing helpless in the canal, the gray water barely reaching his shins as blood pooled at the surface.
“Amber’s right,” Kevin said. “I never thought this would happen to me.”
Sitting next to Amber and Kevin and the others in the group, I wondered if we could ever be connected by anything other than loss. How many times had we passed each other in the hall thinking that grief had never done to others what it had done to us? When the hour was over, we took our backpacks and skateboards and returned to our separate lives, occasionally waving to each other on the way to class. The goal of the meetings was clear: keep the grief in here and not out there.
Even after hearing their stories, I still felt alone in my grief. I didn’t want the group to know about my grandmother’s screams, how they echoed through the house as she cried for help. I didn’t want them to know that I waited and waited—each cry louder and longer than the last—until the house was silent again. I didn’t want them to know about the fear or the blood or the hours I spent locked in the back of a police car. I didn’t want them to know that I was afraid of speaking in front of groups of people, how it reminded me of sitting in front of the courtroom that summer while the prosecutor asked me to tell the jury if I thought my mother was a violent person. I thought there was something wrong with being afraid of making myself vulnerable there—the only place the others felt safe enough to share themselves.
When it was finally my turn to share my loss with the group, I couldn’t look at any of them. I sat in my chair with my head down and picked at the polish on my fingernails. When I started to talk about the screams, I thought maybe the others would understand that I wasn’t any different from the rest of them.
My kind of loss didn’t belong there.
“I never thought anything this bad would happen to me, either,” I said, agreeing with Amber and Kevin, letting them know I was grateful that I could finally admit that out loud. I told them about the blood on my mother’s hands, how it had dried inside the creases of her manicured fingers. I told them how some days I still felt as scared as I did when I dialed 9-1-1 and held the phone up to my ear with my sweating palm. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so honest about the fear I felt or how it still snuck up on me even a year later, so I looked up. I wanted to see the group again and tell them I was relieved, that I felt safe here, but then I saw the looks on their faces: hands covering their mouths and tissues drying their tears as they all stared at me.
I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be the girl whose mother was a murderer, the girl whose story shocked and scared people who’d already suffered losses of their own. I just wanted to be a member of the group, to have a place to go after school where I could finally tell the truth about my grief, but my kind of loss didn’t belong there. I brought what I’d lost to the group and hoped to find people I could share it with, but somehow, I felt more alone than I did before I walked into the room. After the second meeting, I left the group for good and wondered what would happen when I sat down next to Amber in science class, both of us knowing now that maybe grief couldn’t be shared the way we thought it could.
With my grandmother gone and my mother put away in an orange jumpsuit behind a glass partition in a visitation room, I didn’t know yet that grief was bigger than death, that people were allowed to grieve other types of loss, too. The books on my shelves and the websites I visited in the computer lab at school only told me that grief was a response to death. I wouldn’t understand for a long time that mourning my mother’s absence was also a part of the grieving process—or that it would go on longer than all of my research suggested. I didn’t know yet that grief didn’t have to look the way it did on the internet: black and white photos of people holding their heads in their hands as tears streamed down their faces. I didn’t know that I was allowed to ask questions like, “But what if my grief doesn’t look like that?”
As the years passed, it was hard to keep my grief from spilling out into every part of my life. I tried to contain it, to shrink it, to make it go away. I thought it was toxic, that it would stain everything and everyone it touched. It wasn’t because someone told me to look at grief this way; it was because the people around me only seemed to talk about grief in ways that felt safe to them. Conversations about grief felt forced and unproductive, always starting and ending with cliché lines that didn’t seem to fit my grief. I knew it was easier for people to email me quotes from When Bad Things Happen to Good People and say things like, “Everything happens for a reason” or, “She’s in a better place now.” Eventually I had to stop asking them if they thought my mother was in a better place now, too. I could feel my loss making other people uncomfortable, but I didn’t know yet that although this kind of dialogue didn’t apply to my grief, there were other ways to make sense of it on my own.
It had never occurred to me that I could turn my grief into something else, but then I started writing about it. I had kept a diary in the months after the murder and wrote down all of the things I didn’t want to say out loud. I recorded the details of the nightmares I had every night for months, compared each one to the last and hoped to find something meaningful after I turned them into sentences. I kept writing throughout the rest of high school, and in college, I called myself a fiction writer. I wrote stories about mothers who killed their daughters and sons, but never their own mothers. My classmates would say, “This is so realistic. You must have done a lot of research.” My therapist would say, “It’s normal to feel like your mother took your life away. It’s normal to wish that this part of your history was fiction.” Finally, I had found a way to express my grief—a way that felt normal to me and at least one other person.
Expressing my grief through stories gave me more distance from the violence and trauma of my grandmother’s death. What had happened to my family could happen to my characters and it wouldn’t hurt so much, and rereading the words I had written helped me heal. In my last semester of college, I took a nonfiction workshop and on the first day, I thought, “What am I going to write about? I’m a fiction writer.” Finally, I had a chance to tell my story without turning myself into a character with a different name, but I was afraid. I worried that my classmates would be uncomfortable, that my workshop would become one of those group meetings from high school.
Writing honestly about the horror of my grandmother’s murder would become an important healing tool for me, but I soon realized that some readers viewed it negatively. My classmates suggested that what I was writing was too dark and too shocking, that I should just find another story to tell. In my writing workshops I found that the other students thought it was self-indulgent to meditate on a traumatic family tragedy through writing. I took this criticism personally and wondered if it was selfish to write about the murder. I considered going back to fiction writing, which felt like a safer way to express my grief, and then a professor emailed me an Anne Lamott quote that changed my writing life: “You own everything that happened to you.”
I started wondering what it meant to make art about grief. For me, it meant freedom from searching for the “right” way to respond to loss. It meant that there could be more than five stages of grief, and maybe there was nothing wrong with letting one of them fill up the most space on the pages of my own story. That semester, I learned that there was nothing selfish about grieving in front of others, because the process of losing someone looks and feels different to everyone. I discovered that grief could be fierce and it could be dark and it could be beautiful, too. Finally, I was learning that I could talk about my grief openly even if I wasn’t saying the words out loud. No one had ever told me that grief could be beautiful.
I wanted to take these lessons and join the conversation about grief and art, but I couldn’t find anyone to engage with. There were questions I wanted to ask, and they were bigger and more important than the things I had been wondering all along. Where, I wanted to know now, had the stigma surrounding grief come from? There was nothing to do but try to start the conversation on my own.
Earlier this summer, I posted an anonymous ad on Craigslist asking people to share their grief with me. Within hours, I received several emails not just about death, but about heartbreak, addiction, illness, and injury, too. I received paintings and songs and films and poems, but I was shocked to have received any response at all. I kept thinking, but I’m a stranger. Would I have shared my grief with someone without a face or a name on the other side of a computer screen? When one woman sent a photo of her husband’s gravesite with a caption that read, “I’ve never had anyone to send this to,” I realized why she felt safe sharing it with me: because I was a stranger. Like the grief group at my high school, this ad gave people a space where they could be honest with someone who wouldn’t have to exist outside of it. The only difference was that they weren’t limited to one mode of expression.
Soon, my anonymous ad became a call for submissions and I knew I needed to create a place to publish the art I was receiving. It felt like each message was a diary entry in a different medium—something the sender didn’t know they could share with anyone else, because no one had ever asked. I was walking into a movie theater when I got an email on my phone from Robert Johnson, a painter who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident over a decade ago. As the previews played on the screen, I held back tears and scrolled through the attachments he had sent in response to my Craigslist post: acrylic paintings that were the product of his struggle to remember life before his accident. Some were dark and some were bright, and each one was more powerful than the last. Robert, like many of us, grieves every day—only he must mourn the person he was and the life he lived before his accident.
I was still working on navigating the stages of my own process, and maybe I always will be, but I quickly realized that this new project was much larger than just my loss. It was finally my chance to share grief the way I wanted to, and I needed to find a place for Robert and the other artists to tell their stories. I purchased a domain name and started a site called The Grief Diaries. I spent hours watching web design tutorials and learning which codes belonged in which boxes. I kept designing and redesigning until I saw a space that was safe and sympathetic enough to carry all of the love, light, and hope I had found in each submission.
I launched The Grief Diaries three days after what would have been my grandmother’s 76th birthday. The link circulated on Facebook and Twitter, and within the first twenty-four hours, the site reached over 1,000 views and I was overwhelmed with emails from strangers who had been moved by my mission. By the end of the first week, I had almost 100 new submissions in my inbox. Now, over a month after the launch, I still receive emails and Facebook messages almost daily from people who want me to know that they are grateful for a space like this.
Two days after I launched the first issue, I received an email that said, simply, “I have so much grief in my heart for those families.” The sender was referring to the families of the victims of the Charleston church shooting, the shocking news of which was pouring through every media outlet online. I read the message over and over, grateful that the sender had reached out to me, but hoping, too, that I wasn’t the only person they felt comfortable sharing that with. This enormous loss was all anyone could talk about, but were people still afraid to say that they were grieving?
I started The Grief Diaries because there is no “right” way to lose someone, and grieving through art means there are no rules or restrictions.
When I try to understand how grief has become so stigmatized, I always come back to the group I joined in high school. I sat in that chair hearing those stories and thinking there was something wrong with being connected to others by loss. There was so much to grieve, but no place to do it unless we were crammed in a circle in the counselor’s office with a box of tissues in the middle. The group felt comfortable showing each other their scars, but made sure they covered them up before we went back outside where our friends and families would see us. We were ashamed to admit that we were still hurting, that we didn’t know how to miss the people we had lost, that we were tired of trying to do all of it right. Even now, it’s hard to distinguish whether we were too afraid to try to make sense of our grief in public or if we simply didn’t know it was an option.
I wondered what would have happened if Amber and Kevin and I had known that the language of grief was more complex than the conversations our meetings had allowed us to have. Maybe one of them could have shown me how grief could be translated in another medium that made more sense to them than speaking their loss out loud to a group of people in an office. Maybe we would’ve known that it was okay to want to see photography that reached beyond the black and white portraits on the internet and paintings whose colors could reveal the hope and beauty of living after we have lost. Sometimes I reimagine the group as a place where we could go now to grieve in multiple mediums and the difference between our losses or our languages wouldn’t matter. By each choosing a different language to communicate in, it would take away the stigma of feeling different from the other grievers. We would paradoxically come together.
Now, The Grief Diaries is my way of giving that place to people, from teenagers who can only talk about their feelings at their own group meetings for an hour after school, to sixty-year-olds who are still reeling years later from the deaths of their partners or parents. It is an extraordinary gift to be responsible for providing others with a source of comfort, but both the artists and the audience are helping me make sense of my own journey with grief, too. Every new email I receive reminds me that, finally, there can be a productive dialogue about grief through art. My hope is that the site will help people see grief—maybe even for the first time—and recognize that it doesn’t have to be ugly or uncomfortable. I want readers to see how all of the rage and helplessness and confusion that come with grief can become something beautiful. I started The Grief Diaries because there is no “right” way to lose someone, and grieving through art means there are no rules or restrictions. Some of us may never find the right words to speak our grief out loud, but now art can provide us with a new kind of language for loss.
Kristi DiLallo is an MFA candidate at Columbia University and the online nonfiction editor of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Her work has appeared in Public Books, the Feminist Wire, and is forthcoming in Modern Loss.