Pandemic Journals

All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun

Fumbling Towards a “Good” Grief

illustration by christian svanes kolding

I am a hopelessly inept griever. I know it exists, I know I’m supposed to be experiencing it right now but I won’t make room for it other than to be annoyed by its inconvenience.

I’ve discovered that my family is terrible at grief as well. We go through it each on our own, none of us connecting with each other. We won’t even put a word to it.

I guess I don’t know how to grieve. I’ve had many opportunities but I still haven’t succeeded in having a “good” grief.

I sit with it. I wait for it. I struggle to summon emotions, inviting them forward. I wait some more. Nothing happens.

I don’t know how this works. 🤷‍♂️

It is solitary and private and there is a certain narcissism to grief that can be difficult to reconcile or, at the very least, escape from. One easily forgets that others grieve as well or, for that matter, that for many, life has already moved on. The pandemic amplifies this.

How many people are grieving on their own right now as a result of what this last year has brought down upon them? Upon us?

. . . . .

Grieving in solitude rarely scales up to grieving as a collective but given the last year, there is certainly a role for collective expressions of grief.

How moving it was to witness the live-streamed Easter concert in an empty Duomo di Milano back in April 2020 that made space for such an outpouring of sorrow for so many Italians. How moved we were in New York by the nightly 7 p.m. applause during the spring and summer months of 2020. Applause for the first responders as well as grief for the lives lost.

Those were the exceptions, not the rule. We mostly grieve alone, especially under lockdown.

In my family, we have each been isolated in our own sadness, which deepens even further when others don’t reach out, not realizing that they are likely experiencing the same despair and loneliness.

. . . . .

When I compare grieving experiences, what I see today are well-marked contrasts between families that have strong internal cultures and those who don’t, like mine. My hunch is that most people don’t have the benefit of strong family cultures. We look to our social networks, online and off, or we manage on our own.

And perhaps that’s why for so many centuries, people have relied on the structure of rituals to see them through loss and the stark transitions they impose. From a societal level down to communal, tribal, even family, the rituals, unambiguous in their purpose, provide an outlet for grief, an infrastructure for how others may help, with measured steps towards finding balance, resolution and purpose.

There are rituals that acknowledge the grief, create space for the grief, and to some degree, regiment the grief during this period of upheaval, to give it a timeline so that there is a known point on the horizon when one can move onto the next phase of life.

. . . . .

In Vietnam, there is the concept of chia buồn that was introduced to me over the years by Vietnamese friends and is well-known to much of the world. It translates roughly to “dividing the sadness.” It is both a feeling, a hopeful declaration, and a ritualized set of actions that expresses consideration for the bereaved’s sadness and loss.

I hope I summarized that right.

It is part of a larger mourning tradition involving entire communities that lasts up to two years, with a process for close friends and relatives to participate in tending to the needs of the bereaved that ultimately creates a sense of continuity, that life goes on (and that the bereaved is part of a bigger story with one’s ancestors).

. . . . .

In Mexico, death is part of the everyday and therefore so is grief, never hidden away.

Each year on the day of the dead, as her ancestors have done before her, my partner and wife, Adriana, lays out a path of marigolds from the sidewalk outside to an altar that she has created for her brother inside our home. It’s decorated with his photograph, candies and candles and lets him know that his spirit is welcome to visit anytime.

When her brother died, her mother grieved out loud and in public. It was painful, raw and full of anguish, brutally transparent and honest.

Nowadays, her mother tends to his grave at least once a month, while visits for the entire family take place year round. One day, it will be our responsibility to care for his grave.

Additionally, every year on his birthday, wherever Adriana and I are in the world, we eat pizza to remember him. Pizza was his favourite food.

. . . . .

Perhaps in the absence of rituals, the unfamiliarity of grief compels people to do curious things in response to the moment when death makes a house call.

I remember years ago a friend who came home during autumn recess from university studies where the day after she landed, her mother died from a heart attack. She told me that upon returning from the hospital to her family’s house, her first impulse was to go outside to mow the lawn.

So that’s what she did. She mowed the lawn on a tractor while smoking cigarettes. As their property covers three acres, it took her the better part of the afternoon.

She told me she cried while riding that tractor and felt better.

Later, she sat shiva with her family but all she really wanted to do was take care of the yard. It’s the state of shock, I suppose. An impulse towards normalcy.

. . . . .

In my family, what do we do? How do we honor the loss, the reality of death?

Southwest of Copenhagen proper is the Vestre Kirkegård, a vast cemetery on the border between Copenhagen and the historically working-class municipality of Valby. My grandfather is buried there. Or he was. A lifelong socialist and a member of the Social Democrats since its early hey days, my grandfather wished to be laid to rest in a common grave together with hundreds, if not thousands, of other socialists in a meadow that’s located by a tiny lake nicknamed “The Red Sea.” Here, he would one day be joined by his wife, my grandmother, also a committed socialist. In a grassy area amidst a grove of magnolia and beech trees, they would be together, apart, with no stone marker to locate them.

This did not sit well with their only son, my father, the first in his family to attend college, the first to go to business school, and the first in the family to serve in the Danish foreign service under the administration of Poul Schluter’s conservative-led government in the 1980s and 90s, which would later earn my father a knighthood. My grandparents often teasingly disparaged him for this achievement — for his fealty to the Queen as they were no fans of Schluter — but none of those details are material to this story… or maybe they are.

My father suffered from vanity. He was constantly preoccupied with protocol, appearances, and with doing “the right thing.” It bothered him that his parents’ final resting place was an unmarked grave. It was undignified to him. Beneath him, if you will.

This is a man who changed his last name as soon as he was legally old enough, rooting around in our family tree to find a name that sounded more sophisticated and less working class than Jensen, a ubiquitous handle which my grandfather had been more than happy to carry as an enduring artifact from Denmark’s legacy of domestic indentured servitude. As a side note, the irony is not lost on me that I’ve done more or less the same thing, albeit it is my middle name that’s been changed in order to honor my mother’s side of the family — but that’s another story.

When my grandmother died at 97 years old, my father was overwhelmed with grief for his beloved mother, which he mostly kept to himself. I never saw him shed a tear.

He was soon fixated on correcting what he believed was a grievous historical error and so acting unilaterally against his sister’s wishes and defying the final wishes of his parents, he had them each disinterred from the working-class confines of that cemetery in Valby in order to relocate them to a fancy cemetery in a nicer, more bourgeois part of town. There they would each have their own plot marked by their own tombstones.

Perhaps my father saw the relocation of his parents as an act of great generosity, a monument, quite literally, to his love for them and not an urge driven by something as curious or vulgar as vanity or political ideology, as I had come to suspect.

Besides their graves, my father bought a space for himself for the day when it would eventually be needed.

Fourteen years later, that time finally arrived but my father may never get there.

For he spent his autumn years in southern Spain, residing in a community of retired expats from the Danish foreign service. There he died from an ordinary infection well over a month ago during this terrible pandemic. Given the state of emergency across Europe, there are no regulatory provisions in place at the moment, which could facilitate the transport of my father, or even caskets, from one country in the EU to another. Nor is it possible for anyone to travel to Denmark in order to attend a ceremony or funeral, and so for now, my father is consigned to rest in an urn, which sits on a shelf in a small seaside house in Cadiz.

For as long as we’re under lockdown, and vaccines are almost impossible to come by, then there will be no funeral. There will be no flowers from the Queen nor wreaths from the Danish foreign service, neither a “Toast Master” nor any of the eulogies that my father must have imagined the occasion would require.

I guess he never saw that coming.

. . . . .

When I found out about my father’s death, what did I do? What was I supposed to do? What ritual could I rely upon from my vantage point in California?

I opened the window, instinctively, forgetting it’s a deeply embedded part of Scandinavian culture. I lit a candle that evening. Superstitions. That’s what I know. That’s all I know.

. . . . .

illustration by christian svanes kolding

Two weeks ago, for a few moments while waiting to fall asleep, I cried for my father’s death. I thought about the moment of his passing, in his solitude in Spain during his final days, and I wondered if he was aware of his crossing-over — and that brought feelings of great sadness to me. Not so much the loss but the passage — the journey into light or darkness that we must each make on our own. You step towards the light and then the light turns out. He took his steps alone. Where is that person now? That person I knew as my father.

What ritual will I choose to acknowledge the loss and to honor the memory of him and is this ritual for him or is it for me? Will it help me have a better grief? And who is there to help me divide the sadness?

I won’t pour one out for him, that’s for sure. Alcohol always got the better of him and left little of him for the rest of us.

I honestly don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t even know if I will get to have a good bye.

We hope to bury him in July — when it seems most likely that travel will be possible again, when all of us can reconvene in Denmark, in the cemetery where my father wishes to be laid to rest next to his parents. What will be our rituals by then? Will I still be grieving?

Will I find a gesture in something small and then wonder, is that it?

He was always a big fan of giving speeches. It took up an outsized portion of his professional life as part of the protocol, which so appealed to him. A bit ironic since he departed without so much as a single word for any of us. No letter, no mention of us in any final documents or statements even though he had years to consider it. Nothing.

He left in total silence, as if this family never existed.

But still, the occasion probably warrants a parting word.

Perhaps I will give him one.

. . . . .

In Lieu Of A Eulogy

Translated and adapted from Danish

I have difficulties with the concept “home,” as in a “homeland” and a “home.”

Like my father, I have lived much of my life away from the homeland. I’ve lived in many different homes in many different countries yet none of them have been “home.” Three months there, two years there, twelve years over there. Summers spent “not here.” They’ve been anything but home.

His was a life lived abroad, my father. A man who set out to see the world and became an accidental exile. A life of constant introductions and new initiatives, making a new “home” then moving onto another new home but we never called them “homes” — they were simply houses we lived in.

That brings us to the notion of hjemve, a “longing for home,” that wherever one travels, the longing for home will always be a steadfast companion. It never goes away.

What is this home? Is it an actual place? A dwelling that is permanent?

The truth is, for my father as well as for many of the rest of us, there is no home to go back to.

The homes my father knew here in Denmark, in Nykøbing Falster, in Copenhagen on Guldbergsgade, they’ve been gone for a long time. The people in my father’s life who owned and occupied those homes, they are also gone.

The place that he knew as the summerhouse out by Ejby on a bluff overlooking the Isefjord — the land is still there but the cottage itself has been replaced with a modern house, lived in by another family.

There is no home to find yet the longing for home, hjemve, persists.

Why did my father want to rest here? Why would he want to return to a country that he was so eager to leave when he was younger, embarking on an odyssey on the other side of the world that would make him an expat for most of his life? Why return to a place where he hadn’t resided in nearly fifty years? What was he hoping to find?

I have theories but I honestly don’t know.

I know that in my experience, when I am here, the feeling of hjemve, the “longing for home,” goes away. The pain of longing for home is no longer felt. That ache is replaced by something else, something constant and enduring, a sense of calm, an affinity for one’s surroundings.

It probably doesn’t extend to a sense of belonging — I don’t think anyone in this family has ever felt that one belongs to one place, one tribe, one culture… But it may be a feeling that there are certain things that don’t have to be explained — they just are — and everyone understands.

One can be at ease. One can enjoy the daily life of commerce in the city, for example, the mundane gathering of people on the square.

My father occasionally liked to buy himself a sausage from a vendor on City Hall Square and then sit on a nearby bench to watch Copenhageners go about their daily tasks. He liked visiting the bakery to bring home pastries for afternoon coffee. The little gestures of hospitality, feeling welcomed, hygge, conviviality — he really liked that (and so do I).

And with that comes a novel feeling of normality and anonymity. That one is one amongst many. A part of a greater collective. One can just be.

Is that “belonging”?

Maybe that’s what “home” became for him. A nest made from a convincing and comforting illusion of belonging, free of obligation. After a life in constant motion, of trading upwards and living up to expectations, one can just be.

If so, then welcome home. May you find peace here, in this place.

. . . . .

“All flowers in time

bend towards the sun

I know you say that there’s no-one for you

But here is one…”

-Unreleased track written by Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

You can find me on twitter as well as at christiansvaneskolding.com

Filmmaker, Writer, Artist. My work has been in MoMA. On Medium, I write speculative fiction, humor and the occasional essay. From Copenhagen, lives in NYC. 🇩🇰

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