I have a student writing about Quantum Physics (in Kurt Vonnegut) this semester, which means I have been thinking about Schroedinger’s Cat (the 1935 thought experiment), and Copenhagen Theory, and Multiverse Theory: the tiny pieces of these complex ideas that I sort.of.but.only.just.barely.and.not.really.at.all understand. If any of our readers are scientists, I apologize in advance for my sub par use of these theories. My Quantum Physics comes almost exclusively via literature (Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing The Cherry especially); thus it probably bears little resemblance to the Quantum Physics of the, you know, physics world. Still, these ideas have been dancing around in my head of late, mixing with those I hold about grief (taken from theory and from popular culture). I want to write some of them down in the hopes that they’ll begin to make sense.
This afternoon, J and I hung out for a little while with some friends in their backyard, and I found myself espousing (for the thousandth time) the non.uncommon (and probably annoying) principle of coping that is, essentially, “think how much worse things could be; we’re really quite blessed.” This has been an important idea for me as I move through this new (with.Emmett.and.her.death) reality. I have had meltdowns wherein I feel like a cursed person – and I think that’s both normal and totally okay – but I try not to live in that space because I sense that doing so makes me blind to the suffering of others. In that space, I’m not my best me because I’m not compassionate. In that space, I think that my suffering makes me different from other people. When I’m aware of others, I think my suffering makes me like other people. I’m happier when I feel this sense of connection, so that’s what I strive for. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes, “despite our differences in location and history, my guess is that it is possible to appeal to a ‘we,’ for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody. Loss has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all.” I like the “tenuous ‘we.'” It’s the only way I know how to love the world now.
But I’ve also been thinking about what it takes to get to that place of connection. Because that process is painful. Butler also says (and I’m sure I’ve cited this here before, as it’s the theoretical backbone of my approach to grief, that “one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation), the full result of which one cannot know in advance.” I buy this. Instinctively, it makes sense to me. The process of grieving Emmett is the process of accepting that I am this whole new person, that long as I might for the old me, the one who hasn’t been crushed in this way, that me is gone. I’ll never see her again. And I have no idea who I will become now. It’s as if (and here, clearly, is the Quantum Physics part) when she died, this whole new world was created in which I am this person. There’s this me I can imagine, the me who is still moving along in the world without having lost a daughter, but I can’t access her. I’ll never know who she might have become. Maybe she’d have been happier than me. Maybe she wouldn’t have. Maybe she’s out there facing struggles I’ll never know.
But though I can’t know “in advance” the “full result” of how this has changed me, I am not without agency in the shift Butler describes. Grief has changed me – and I have to surrender to being this new person (which means accepting; which means making peace) – but I have some say in what I allow it to make of me. There’s not the kind of power I’d like to have here, but there’s plenty. I can choose to feel connected to – and not set apart from – a world full of suffering. I can become more compassionate. I can be thrilled at the possibility of new life coming into being within my wife (which would not have happened if Emmett had lived). I can be ecstatic over a new child who would never have existed if my daughter hadn’t died. Maybe there’s a me out there still pregnant with Emmett. Maybe there’s an Emmett with feet. But those beings (real or theoretical) have nothing to do with me. And wishing they did is to erase all that was set into motion the instant she died (or the instant she developed the problems that would stop her from growing). I have no influence over those theoretical worlds, but I have influence over this one.