Detail from Jacob Vosmaer, A Vase with Flowers, c. 1613. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I tear the hearts into pieces, dumping them into the blender strip by strip. Sometimes I peel the paper hearts apart around certain words, and other times I watch their shrinking geometry after each incautious rip. Then, I add water. Then, the loud whir of the blade turning the old love letters full of adorations and apologies into fresh pulp. 

The notes—written on pink hearts, in Sharpie—fell out of a picture book years ago. I’d purchased my son a story about a panda in striped shorts and a red parasol, and when I opened the glossy pages, out fell 40 construction paper hearts in different shades of pink. The smallest hold only their own color and classic shape. The next size up contains fragments and implied praise: your voice, your hair, your happiness. As the hearts grow bigger, the messages get more complex. The lover tells their beloved how much they adore them. The lover thanks the beloved for their care, and also for sharing their joy of Animal Crossing. The lover says they will always look forward to underwear, Netflix, and Bloody Marys. 

I enjoy the particulars of their relationship more than the general adorations, but I know when the hearts tumble into my lap that their discovery in a sold book means the love is over. The cherished voice whispers endearments to someone else now. The hair has someone else’s fingers in it. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the beloved now sloppily mixes tomato juice and vodka in a thermos and heads to the mountains to watch the sunrise alone. When old notes of someone else’s love littered my legs, I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away, so I tucked them away at the top of my son’s closet. This gift between lover and beloved was sold for a few dollars, the messages inside forgotten. Of course I did not think I had any right to these intimacies, but these strangers once loved with hope, and I wanted to steward this part of their story to some other ending.

* * *

Someone in my group for hospice workers shares the article on flowers as a grief ritual, and that’s how I discover Janet. I quickly read the news story about how Janet uses the dried flowers from her mother’s funeral to make new images for 100 days. Each day she uses the petals and stems to create and photograph a new form, and each day she takes it all apart, tucking the dried floral pieces back into storage. I start to follow her Instagram account, eager for the inevitable startle of old roses rendered into birds or flattened carnations transformed into the segments of a caterpillar rising off a branch. It’s common to see birds and insects as visitations from the dead. Every flying thing from monarch butterflies to Emily Dickinson’s buzzing fly has been associated with death, but I love that in Janet’s work, the visitations are like a form of summoning, a new life from a dried petal. 

Scrolling through the 100 days feels like a catalog of grief. The work seems to change so fast: on some days she plays with the shadows each dried bloom casts; on others she makes abstract shapes. Towards the end of her project, she’s creating more mimetic pieces. Some natural materials she returns to often, using a leaf until it breaks apart. Some of the broken pieces are cast aside and others get used again for what they now resemble, the leaf crumbling and leaving only its hard veins, which suddenly becomes a bird’s foot. I love that nothing is wasted. Everything is ripe for transformation. It reminds me of the jewelry and tableaux the Victorians made from dead loved ones’ hair, somehow taking what feels ephemeral or like detritus and making something nearly permanent. 

“I see hair as proof of existence, a souvenir,” says Melanie Bilenker, who makes images inspired by the Victorian jewelry. She makes miniatures of intimate everyday moments out of hair, the vulnerabilities we forget—laying in the tub, washing our faces, braiding our hair in bed. Her art has the ability to make an image look the way it feels, which is also why I like to keep up with Janet’s daily photos. Her images are private and tender, though I don’t know if I would have known they were about grief if they hadn’t been introduced to me that way. They’re so delicate and full of whimsy, I might have only found them lovely and not looked closer to see their questions, their undeniable longing.

I read other people’s comments on her posts. Everyone is so moved by Janet’s sorrow and how she has rendered it into something beautiful. The images are stunning, it’s true, and so is the story behind them, but it shocks me that in a culture so averse to grief, her account’s followers grow every day. So many people want to remark on each picture, to apply their own interpretations, to project their own sadness into her leaves and dead buds. One even asks for the images to become a book, and many others click on the heart to show their support for such an ending to this bereavement. 

I love that strangers acknowledge and want to engage someone else’s loss process, and I also feel protective, not wanting people to suggest changes to what Janet’s doing. Her mourning is not about their wants. But even though I’ve judged others for wanting something from Janet, I’m guilty of it, too. I write to her. I ask to share in her grief.

* * *

My mother has already been dead for four years when I decide to spend a year making blankets for hospice. I’ve never made a blanket before, but I get it into my head to make a new afghan every month for twelve months, and to never repeat a pattern. At the time, I don’t see what this has to do with my mother, who died so suddenly she never entered hospice. I don’t see, perhaps because I don’t want to see, how learning a craft is symbolic of her and the craft store she once ran out of our garage. I don’t see why it matters that the bag of yarn I pull from the closet comes from my former mother-in-law, who tried to teach me to knit on a loom, skeins and skeins in storage testifying to my failures. Out of the bag I pull loops of variegated yarn I thought would be good for hats, a thick teal once intended for socks, and pastels I once tried to convert to unfading flowers. I find a dusk blue whose origin I don’t remember, and I begin.

I scroll through YouTube tutorials on how to make a “stash buster” blanket. Every online video assures me this is easy, but I chain and pull it out. I count my stitches and lose track. I double crochet, I skip one, I turn my work. Each night I carry my growing blanket upstairs and add row after row while my son takes his bath. At bedtime, he holds books open so I can read to him and keep my hands moving. I sit in the rocker, waiting for him to sleep, selecting a new color from the bag. The blanket grows heavy, and despite my attempts to pull in brighter colors, to de-petal the abandoned flower scarves and uncap the unfinished hats, the bag is full of dull blues. It’s embarrassing, this first effort. It’s uneven and drab, but I photograph it in the waiting room of the hospital to document it. When I bring it upstairs, the hospice coordinator praises it, emphasizing how much it will mean to the family that will one day receive it. She calls it a “gift,” and places it in a cupboard until it is needed.

* * *

The body has instincts for grieving, though I’ve always had trouble understanding them. When I tell a friend my ex-husband is going to introduce our son to his new girlfriend, she asks how I feel. I say I have to go on a run to find out, and this is true. Somehow it is only through movement that I seem to find my emotions in the raw state, unfiltered by reason or the sieve of detachment, fairness, and empathizing with others. When I run, I am sorry for myself, and I can cry. I can grieve the future I thought was waiting for me, the family I was making. Without the exhaustion of exercise, I can almost never unpack the signals my body sends me with any accuracy. My friend tells me after my divorce that the butterflies we feel about someone new can indicate not the excitement of attraction but a flash of anxiety, our bodies warning us we are about to repeat a bad pattern. 

The first few months I make blankets, my hands cramp, and I sort of like that—evidence in my body of my efforts. This never happens to me when I write; perhaps those wrist motions are too well practiced. But the newness of crocheting makes me feel the dull aches of creation. Somehow the hurt makes a hallway, a series of little doors, and I find my memories more easily with pain’s assistance. My labor pains are rewarded with a tangible image, a comfort, a warmth. I know it’s foolish, that physical suffering is not required, but I like that there’s proof I made something.

In my first search for the science of grief, I only find quantitative data in animal studies on rats, dogs, and monkeys. Most look at mother-child separation. I want to think I’ve discovered something incontrovertible, but I know this is about young offspring, not about adults who lose adult parents. The studies, though, assure me that loss affects the endocrine, immune, and autonomic nervous system. I’m not sure what conclusion I’m looking for, or why I think understanding the way grief may alter my biology will teach me how to heal from it. Dr. Edwin van Leeuwen of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics says “[d]eath is one of the most severe social events that can happen in a social species,” and it’s easy to agree, even if I never studied primate behavior. Severe is still the word I want for my suffering. 

I find that the greatest evidence of bereavement’s biological effects is in heart disease. It makes sense to me, but there it is in the data, tooloss stresses the heart. It’s the first time I consider the fact that my mother had cardiac arrhythmias, myocardial infarction, and congestive heart failurethe conditions most frequently associated with grief. It’s also the first time I consider the fact that my mother lost her mother the year before she died. 

This tendency in myself to prefer research over art amuses me, as if somehow science could offer a proper methodology for recovering from death or divorce. Do I want easy conclusions, a proven ritual for reclaiming joy? Or perhaps I’m looking for confirmation of what I already know—that loss taxes a body. 

Before the fatal end to the Columbia space shuttle mission, the astronauts aboard spent days on the International Space Station with Ken Bowersoxconducting experiments, rejoicing that they were among the few that got to know a gravity-less existence, to see Earth from afar. When the shuttle reentered Earth’s atmosphere, it disintegrated, killing all seven crew members. I watch Bowersox in a documentary say: “The hardest thing was the physical part of grieving. It just takes a while to work through everything that you need to work through.”  I am excited by this answer and take it as evidence that weight and force impact how we grieve. I think of him up in the International Space Station after hearing the news, gravity working on his body in none of the usual ways. 

My new love is a scientist who says I am extrapolating too much from Bowersox’s answer, but I don’t want to listen. I want to learn if a person can cry in space. Astronaut Chris Hadfield says your eyes can form tears but they can’t shed, so unless you wipe the tears away, they form a ball that sticks to your eye. He warns that they sting, but I wonder if this could have secret benefitsto see your sadness outside your body, to pluck it from your eye and watch it drift around and away? 

I write to Ken Bowersox, asking if I understand his quote correctly. Does he mean that one of gravity’s benefits to our bodies is to help get grief out?  He does not write back.

* * *

Janet agrees to talk to me about the one hundred days she is spending with her mother’s funeral flowers. Before she tells her story she asks about mine, and I tell her—about my mother, all the deaths I haven’t been present for, why I volunteer for hospice now, how I married someone with the same mental illness as my mother, and now I’m grieving two lost futures. She lets me talk, and I do, though I’m embarrassed that I’m sharing like my mother did, offering way too many intimacies to someone who doesn’t know me. But Janet listens, and then starts to tell me about her own mother’s diagnosis, treatment, and decline. It’s an unusual experience, but I like it, getting to know someone through their losses first.

When Janet tells me these details about her mother, I am startled. Though I have followed her artistic process and read the article on her one hundred day project, there was so much I didn’t know, so much that feels different in her voice than it did in a reporter’s language. One of the things I love most is learning more of the backstory of the project. Janet and her sisters decided they should do something with the floral arrangements from their mother’s funeral. They didn’t know what they wanted to do, and they didn’t know how to dry flowers, but they cleared off the dining room table and set up a press. I like thinking of this work—part cataloguing, part physical effort. They spent three weeks preserving all the bouquets, tucking them into the containers where they would sit for months. I nod on my end of the phone, knowing sometimes we have to wait.

Janet’s one hundred day project began after this process. She dedicated time each day to creating something with the pressed flowers, and it came to feel like safe time, a chance to be okay with what came out and how she was feeling. Every morning, she started her process without intention, and she took each day’s photograph and posted it to Instagram before she fully appreciated what she had made. She says people always commented on the emotion of each piece, but that when she was making them, she was not aware of what she was feeling. I nod on my end of the phone again, understanding that creativity and grief both take us outside of self-awareness and time.

She also tells me I’m not alone in wanting to talk about this project. After her local news station did a story on the one hundred days, it got shared widely; people all over the country started to reach out and share their grief stories with her. Someone asked her to make a human figure so their daughter could write stories about it. People want to set her images to music. They want to have coffee table books of these pictures. Though I am less clear about what I want when I speak to Janet, perhaps it’s all the same lonely desire—to hold up the loss and have someone see it. 

“I don’t know why it resonates,” Janet says. “It was the worst day of my life, but I know it matters that you’re not alone in it.”

With her voice on the other end of the phone, I don’t feel alone. I take notes. I watch tulips pinken the garden.

* * *

A few weeks after I talk to Janet, I get the strangers’ heart-shaped love letters down from my son’s closet. I know what I want to do with them. I read through them again, touched by the small intimacies of this love, but they also summon foreshadowing. When I read them before, I hadn’t recognized that between all the sweet praises are apologies, one lover sorry for taking illness and moods out on the other. Between the laughter and affirmation are promises to treat the beloved the way they deserve. I still feel a shadow of my former grief for these anonymous strangers, who seem young and earnest in their affections, but this time I also feel relieved it’s over. The book still sits on my son’s shelf and is still read, but the evidence of what those two people tried so hard to achieve is now a hot pink pulp in my blender. 

I go upstairs and take the shoebox out of my closet that contains my own old love letters. Although I painted walls, changed the layouts of rooms, and refurbished old furniture since my husband moved out, I did not touch the box that holds his old anniversary and birthday cards, the notes he’d tuck under my windshield in parking lots. Cross-legged on the floor, I unfold them, sometimes skimming, sometimes careful to let myself see and feel each word, knowing this is the last time they’ll be read. The knotty burn begins in my throat, but no tears come. My own love letters feel like the strangers’ did, and I grieve for that, too—for what we meant to each other once and how that force of conviction is nothing now, not even recognizable to me. 

I take the boxes downstairs and put them in the trash, but I keep one page. It’s titled “Things I Love About You.” I tear it into even strips and add it to the blender. It feels nothing like pain, only concentration and tactile effort, making each division equal in size. I don’t know why my failed love story belongs with the hearts of others, but I trust my instincts and turn the dial to low. 

* * *

Although my first hospice blanket is a blue embarrassment, and my second is even uglier, I almost make something beautiful the third time. For Christmas, I want to give my son what my father had given me—experiences rather than things—so I book us on a train from Kansas City to Chicago, where we will spend a night at the Field Museum. We watch the wintered field outside, and my fingers learn the muscle memory of wrapping yarn around a hook and pulling. My son wants to go to the viewing car, so we go, we sit, we view. I pull cranberry and lavender and sea moss through loops, tie them off, make a new slip stitch. In the middle of winter, my lap becomes a garden bed. My son rests his head on my thigh, so I tug the yarn gently over his forehead, tying on a new color, watching white fields unscroll past our window.

When we return from our trip and I start to set the granny squares on the carpet, I can see floral patterns emerging, but I can also see the train stations, the cartoon mornings in hotel rooms, the night next to taxidermied birds—looping and pulling, while my son snored along with all the other children asleep on the museum floor. I learn new stitches for connecting disparate pieces, joining the pinks and purples with the teals and yellows, making a whole out of bright and distinct parts. My back aches, bent over the squares—attaching, re-ordering. I don’t want to give this one away. I’ve finally made something good, something that required my whole body to finish, and it has my memories in it—the rock of the dining car; the icy Chicago sidewalks; the moment I was carrying my son through the history of Earth so we could see the T-Rex Sue. He put his hands on my cheeks and asked why I wasn’t listening when he said he was scared. And I laughed at the joy of it, of having this boy who knew his feelings and knew they were important. I carried him out of the dark labyrinth of time, and we went where we were both happier, the Hall of Plants, everything saved and posed in their stages of growth.

I finish edging the granny squares in white. I bring the finished blanket to the hospital, laying it on the waiting room chairs to photograph it before bringing it to the hospice coordinator who tells me, again, what a gift it is. And it is. I know it. But it still hurts to let it go.

* * *

In his autobiographical work A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis questions whether the dead feel the pain of separation like the living do. Was his dead wife, then, also grieving on the other side, without her body but still with her pain? This loneliness hurts me—even knowing Lewis is dead now, and therefore reunited, if love is allowed that post-mortem mercy. He published his book under a pseudonym, needing a stranger’s name to share with others what his grief felt like, how he feared his wife might still be in pain, beyond his ability to help. I prefer to envision an afterlife in which the body turns into grass, instead of one where our consciousnesses—even in another form or a formlessness—still hold our memories. 

My favorite bad scientist, Duncan MacDougall, didn’t set out in 1907 to prove that souls grieve like the living do, but to prove that souls existed at all, and that they had weight. He found six patients near death and weighed them on an industrial scale, marking the weight both before and after they died to determine if their departed souls left their bodies physically lighter. Only one of the dying in MacDougall’s experiment registered any lightening—21 grams—and no attempts to reproduce this data have succeeded. Still, MacDougall declared his study a success, and I can’t blame him. It’s tempting to think the body offers evidence of what happens after pain, and people in his day seemed to want to accept his findings.  The merest ghost of proof consoled some strangers who passed around this news story like a gospel. 

I think of hospice and how the body starts to grow cold, blood saving itself for the vital organs. Although I’ve never weighed one of my blankets, I resolve to make them heavier, to help hold heat, even if the body doesn’t need it anymore. 

Years after his experiment, MacDougall became convinced the soul also must be subject to the laws of gravity.  He set up cameras around the dying and tried to photograph the soul leaving the body at the moment of death. Although he never captured anything definitive, his photographs seemed to document what he called “the interstellar ether,” a light around the patient’s skulls. This didn’t capture the imaginations of grieving strangers with the same force that the weight experiment did, but I admire his relentlessness, his use of different metrics, to assure himself and the world that some part of us goes on without our bodies. 

Death photography was not new by MacDougall’s time; it was common in the Victorian period, especially when it was a child who had died. Parents posed children in beds and bassinets as if they were still in sleep, the rise and fall of breath simply missed by the camera. When photography changed from daguerreotype to a wet collodion process, photographs became cheaper and easier to produce, and this change in process coincided with a change in the stylization of the photograph, too. Instead of memento mori of children laid out as if napping in their finest clothes, many middle class Victorian parents posed themselves in ways that highlighted their grief.  The art was then in capturing the loss, and not the person who was gone. 

Part of me is drawn to such prescriptive cultural rituals, this way to formally mark one’s loss and to do so publicly. And yet doing so must also feel like a social obligation, like buttoning the high collar of one’s black dress whether or not it fits. 

Although post-mortem photography is no longer a way we grieve, photographs still hold symbolic significance for us. Photographs of my mother sit on my desk, hang on my wall, sit on the piano. And photographs of my ex-husband were pulled out of frames and thrown away. My son keeps two pictures of us as a family in his pajama drawer because I ask him to, because I can’t look at them every night when I tuck him into bed, drawing a blanket my former mother-in-law made up under his chin.

* * *

After I give away the beautiful granny square blanket filled with memories of my son, most of my blankets turn out well. I make a log cabin, a drunken granny, a mile a minute, a multi-colored chevron. Each month I attempt a new pattern. I make mistakes. I get better. When I take the finished blankets to the hospital and drape them on chairs in the waiting room to photograph them, I start to get compliments, and I believe what I hear. My creations are lovely and bright. I make one of sunflowers, using a pattern I make up. It reminds me of what Janet says about the most important day for her—day 87. Like every day before it, she didn’t begin creating with an intention, but a mother and child appeared before her. She didn’t feel a part of creating it, but there it was, with its message. 

I almost make it, but don’t fulfill the year I’d planned. A pain spreads in both of my hands and up my legs, and my doctor advises me to stop making blankets, stop playing the piano, stop running. I don’t know what inside me is waking up or trying to get out. 

Two months later, the pain leaves. It’s a relief not to be afraid of my own body, but I miss the way the over and pull through of stitches made memories arrive easily and in full color. The doctors never find a name for the pain, and I grow superstitious that it’s my body’s way of refusing to grieve through creation anymore. Though I’ve never understood the way the body communicates, I like to believe that this time, I get it. I finally understand that pain is a way of saying no.

Janet makes it to one hundred days but says the flowers aren’t ready to be done yet. A co-worker tells her that over time the work gets brighter, and this feels true. I love her early work with shadows, but she says it wasn’t until day 60 or 70 that she became more convinced of the process. The images became more detailed and refined, and as the materials started to break, it was both more challenging and more freeing. The scale of the work changed. There’s a light and a delight in the work as it evolves—a playfulness, a brightness that emerges even from flowers that have died and been pressed to hold the ghosts of their colors. I consider my own shades of grief—the embarrassment of blues in my first attempt to the gold sunflowers I finished last—and I want it to be true that my work progressed in color and skill as Janet’s did, as if someone else’s artistry in grief can verify something for me in my own, as if the evolving brightness is a sign I am surely healing. I want to impose again, to see myself in what she does.

“So you’re saying grief and art are both a process.”

“Yes, and you have to let the ugly days stand,” she reassures me.

In art and grief there are days you’re not proud of, days the emotions turn ugly, days the images don’t turn out the way you want. But that’s the human in us, and it belongs in the process. 

Suffering itself doesn’t necessarily improve us. In fact, it often brings out the messy humanness—the anger, the unresolved wounds. But, Janet says, “you have to figure out how you use the process to become a better person.”

We talk about how to grieve with hope—how to acknowledge, to ask, to be honest.  When I pour the bright pink pulp of a stranger’s love letters mixed with mine into a deckle mold, I acknowledge that even all these years later, I am still sad. I don’t know what to ask, but I know what I need will come from process, not product. 

I pull dried orchid blossoms from their containers. My husband and son came home one day with this gift, an orchid that never bloomed again. I always liked the way the flowers dried whole, but now I pull them apart and press their aged white petals into the paper. 

I sponge through, I pat dry, I pour the pulp into the mold again, enjoying the paper’s mechanics, its simple repetitions. I lay the three small pages in the sun for what remains of the day, a triptych of heartbreak. When I test them the next day, they are dry. I can see the loops of my ex-husband’s cursive, I can see the petal of an e in a stranger’s marker. The orchids are indistinguishable from the letters, all mottled and pink and wrinkled under my fingertips.  Then I see what they should become, what was obvious all along.

I take out my scissors and cut the recycled love into three new hearts. I put them up in my living room where the novice art can be seen by others, can invite a question and become a story. There in my home, grief as evidence, better than new.

Traci Brimhall

Traci Brimhall is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (Copper Canyon). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry. Her essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Brevity, Georgia Review, Southern Review, and Bellingham Review, which awarded her the Annie Dillard Prize in Nonfiction. She’s the Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University and lives in Manhattan, KS.

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