Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sad words: faire son deuil

August 21 was the seventh anniversary of the passing of my stepfather, Robert Moog, who was what the French would call "mon papa de coeur" (my "heart-father"). This is in memory of him.
Deuil comes from the Latin dolor. Until the fifteenth century it signified the pain caused by a death. After that it began to refer to the outward signs of grief. In the 19th century, when mourning was all the rage, the expression “faire son deuil” was born. Now it means to go through the grieving process, to mourn someone or something, to resign oneself to loss. Pop psychology has overused the phrase to the point that it now borders on tacky: “faire son deuil” is something people do for junked cars, no-good relationships, and full fat milk in your coffee.

Nevertheless, it’s a verbal phrase I’m quite attached to, because I find it so expressive. It seems much truer to life than its English equivalent. In English you are “grieving,” or “in mourning.” Outside certain religious traditions, it is a nebulous state with no beginning our end. “Faire son deuil,” on the other hand, uses the active verb faire, “to do,” and the possessive “son:” it is yours to do, and no one can tell you how or where or when. It is your grief, not anyone else’s. In my synaesthetic head the word deuil is the color of violets and cream and egg yolks, opaque, mottled like a bruise, and more or less cubical. Doing your grief is a real puzzle, exponentially harder than the melted Rubik’s cube I see when I say the word.
When my husband Julien and I came back to Alba after the death of my beloved stepfather (the man who drove me to school, fixed my breakfast, and sat up with me at night when I was sick), I was at the outer edge of all the grief I had to do. Scenes from his illness flickered constantly in my head. From time to time one of them would pop into sharp focus and wreck my attempts to get on with life. I recoiled when those scenes appeared; I did not want to remember my father with sunken cheeks and strangely livid skin, a man so full of life stricken flat by a tentacular brain tumor. But I was afraid to ignore them, for fear that if I let go of them, all my memories of him would float away, too. I felt exhausted and confused, whacking and tapping and tugging at the Rubik’s cube of my grief.
The week after we came home was the fête votive (more on that next week), and though I didn’t much feel like partying, Julien and I went out for a late-night stroll around the village to take in the flashing lights and have a drink with friends. We stood around the plane trees by the buvette (which is what the French call anything outdoors that sells things to drink), and I tried to enjoy myself. I watched the crowd and felt oppressed by the hard sides and sharp corners and ugly complexities of my new deuil, angry that no one else could even see it. And then a childhood friend of Julien’s leaned over to me. Under cover of many drinks and a particularly loud disco song, he said, “I know what you’ve been going through. We’re all thinking of you.” 

 And that right there is one of the great advantages living in a village where everyone knows you. People actually can see your funky Rubik’s cube of grief. They know you’re working on it. That this feels comforting may seem counter-intuitive, given how intensely private grief is, and given that one of its hardest corners is how exposed and vulnerable it can make you feel.
I mentioned this seeming contradiction to a friend of ours whose baby had died in utero in the last weeks of her pregnancy, and whose grace with her own giant Rubik’s cube of grief was immense. “Mmm,” she said, putting her hand over her mouth and shaking her head the way some women do when they are recalling a thing for which words do not come easily. “The first time I left Alba I thought I would collapse,” she told me. “I went to get my hair cut in Montélimar and suddenly realized that no one in the hair salon knew. I almost bolted. In Alba, I could forget my shoes or start crying in the middle of the grocery store and I knew it was fine – I didn’t have to explain myself.”
“But wasn’t it a relief,” I asked her, “being in a place where no one was inspecting you for signs of falling apart?”
“I thought so,” she said. “I thought it would feel good to get away and not be me for a few hours, to stop being the woman who’d just lost her baby.” She shook her head. “But when I got to that hair salon, and realized it was invisible,” she trailed off. “How do you even describe it?” 
How do you? It may be your grief, but it turns out that the long puzzle is a little easier when everyone knows it’s there.
Grateful thanks to Daniel Stolle for permission to use his illustrations. 

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