• Letting the Story Go: Field Notes from a Brutal Time

    Janet Steen on Navigating the Loss of Her Brother

    “Love goes on
    like birdsong
    as soon as possible
    after a bomb.”
    –Bill Callahan, from “Angela”
    *

    In the beginning there was silence. Just silence in my head, as though I had been sent into orbit with nothing—no sound, no thought, no physical matter of any kind. Blasted off to someplace I’d never been. There was just space and nothing to grab onto. I fell sideways on the bed, still holding the phone to my ear.

    “You’re so quiet,” my sister said.

    It was a Friday morning, November 2020, and she had just told me that our brother had died.

    *

    One of the first things I thought, on that first or second day, was that I didn’t want this to be part of the story, my story, my family’s story, any story—his premature death and the sudden way he died. We were survivors. He was strong. He was not a victim. How could this have happened?

    With his death the story line diverged violently. The film broke. For two years I spun in different directions trying to mend the narrative. Initially, mending meant looking for answers and explanations in my head. Rumination had always been my default state.

    I tried to write, but words felt like a pale approximation of reality, whether I was writing about what had happened or about something else entirely. I meditated, walked in circles (literally), read spiritual stuff, listened to a podcast of other people’s terrible stories, told my story in therapy, went to a retreat. I reached a level of sorrow at times that seemed to negate any faith in finding meaning, which is what stories do, essentially. Give you faith, give you meaning. I went round and round trying to find it again.

    *

    There were four women who were most affected: my brother’s daughter, his girlfriend, my sister, and me. Four women in four different parts of the country catapulted into space. It was still the early part of the pandemic, pre-vaccine, and none of us could travel to be with each other.

    We were just voices on the phone, trying to reach through the fog. No one understanding how it had come to this. The impossibility of looking at things from a painless angle.

    My mind is still trying to catch up to the immense disruption, to all the missing pieces, trying to stitch things back together into some kind of whole.

    His doctor had made an abrupt change in a psychiatric medication he was taking. He had been feeling terrible from it, and had sent an email to his doctor, which was ignored for two days and then met with a terse response suggesting he go to an emergency room if he wasn’t feeling well. In the middle of the pandemic he was no doubt leery of doing that. He was also, as a professor, obsessively conscientious toward his students and did not want to risk missing his classes. This was the time of tele-visits to health-care professionals, ten-minute appointments dictated by the corporate health-care establishment—a merciless health system made even more broken by a global emergency.

    “Everything happened so fast.” That’s what we say in these situations, as though we know the beginnings of things.

    His daughter said to me, “I’m afraid I’ll never be okay again.” That is a persistent concern at first. The lost person is gone, but you are gone, too. Will you come back? What is there to come back to exactly?

    His students at the university where he had taught for twenty-five years quickly put together a zoom memorial to talk about and honor him, to tell stories about him. They adored him. I couldn’t bear to watch. There was something about hearing other people’s versions of him that I couldn’t quite face.

    In those first days I moved like a hobbled animal. Everything hurt. I had to somehow get from the chair that I was sitting in to the bathroom but how could I possibly do that. I would have to move, and to move meant feeling something, feeling my body, and it was unbearable to feel anything. I sat in the chair by the woodstove downstairs and hugged myself and bowed my head and I stayed that way for long periods of time.

    Remaining immobile seemed the only safe thing. This is what it felt like to be crushed. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to realize that I was still here, alive, and he was not. It hurt to be awake. It hurt to have a self. It hurt to be alone and it hurt to be with anyone.

    I was afraid to look at myself in the mirror because I did not recognize the face looking back at me. I thought these words to myself: I don’t recognize myself. There were always words in my head. I tended to narrate my own life. Could I still have words? They were clanging around inside my mind like marbles in a steel drum now. When I looked in my eyes, I saw the eyes of a lost person. There was something terribly missing, as though I were only minimally there, or maybe not at all.

    I started to think of myself as two people. One person was the more or less destroyed me; the other was the more or less okay me. The destroyed me was within me all the time now, but people didn’t necessarily know it or see it. The destroyed me was a crumpled-up piece of paper that would never again lay flat. A mangled car part left on the side of the road. The okay me was still sometimes moving like a body that moves, getting from place A to place B.

    Eventually I would leave the house and take walks. Sometimes I walked around in circles, many times, in the meadow of the property across the way, because I knew no one would be there. I needed to do more than sit frozen in a chair, but I could not bear to see or talk to anyone.

    I kept doing this because I had to keep doing this. By “this” I mean existing. I had to keep existing because that is what you do, and there were people who loved me and depended on me.

    Sometimes I hummed to block out thoughts in my head. Thoughts led to stories. I didn’t know what the story was. If I hummed, maybe the simple vibration of it would help get me from one moment to the next. The simple vibration might stop the compulsive looking for answers, answers to what led to what and why he died the way he did.

    Tears were starting to come, and it was not going to be an easy cry. It was going to be a dam breaking.

    I ordered a tuning fork that produced a certain frequency, supposedly helpful for grief and other painful emotional states. Loops and loops of questions continued, questions with no answers or only half-answers or answers that may or may not have been true but for the moment you will choose one or the other.

    Beauty, also, was too painful. I gave up on beauty, on anything sublime, for a time. Music was impossibly off limits, which was terrible because music is one of the reasons to live in this world. But it cuts so deeply that if you are already a torn-up wound, it’s too much. Why would I do that to myself.

    And the beauty of the landscape around me where I lived, which normally consoled and comforted on a daily basis, was now too painful to look at because I was not the same person, not the same person who had looked at it before.

    If you convinced yourself the world was shit, then it wouldn’t hurt so much to think that the lost person wasn’t here anymore to see all the shit.

    When I drove around by myself I screamed in the car. No words, just sound. Then I went back to silence.

    *

    I had always read voraciously, all kinds of things, but now I could only read spiritual books. For a person like me, who cloaked the world in a hundred layers of irony—my brother had nicknamed me “the cynic” when I was about eight or nine—this was not an easy sell.

    I did not talk to many people about the spiritual stuff, only the few I trusted. I thought people would assume I was deluded or desperate. Well, I was not deluded but I was certainly desperate.

    It was a matter of survival. I sat like a devout person in a chair hunched over a bible. I had many bibles now, books by Pema Chodron and Rupert Spira and Norman Fischer and Adyashanti and various others. These were not books driven by narrative, not the kind of thing you pick up to get lost in a good tale. I didn’t want to be lost or distracted. There was no escaping anyway. There was no beginning, middle, and end anymore. There was only this.

    “You either go under, or it changes you,” musician Nick Cave says to writer Sean O’Hagan in their book of conversations Faith, Hope, and Carnage. He is talking specifically about losing his teenage son Arthur, and generally about crushing loss.

    “This will happen to everybody at some point—a deconstruction of the known self. It may not necessarily be a death, but there will be some kind of devastation…. And it shatters them completely…and it seems like there is no coming back. It’s over. But in time they put themselves together piece by piece.”

    *

    This is the way the real-life story was supposed to go: Our parents would die (which they did, because they were old) and then the three of us—brother, sister and I—would grow old. We would get to watch each other, with curiosity and sometimes pathos and alarm but mostly just with fondness, become old people. All those things that happen to people’s faces and bodies would happen to ours. In our lighter moments, we would laugh together about the indignities.

    But that is not how the story went. Brother did not get to be an old man, only a middle-aged man. His daughter did not get to have an old father. His sisters did not get to be old people with him. His girlfriend did not get to spend the rest of her life with him.

    Over the months I began to lose my purchase when it came to the entire notion of story. Maybe stories were just prisons. At least the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about our lives. Or maybe they were dreams and shadows. At the very least, they were not what I’d thought they were.

    If something shocking and terrible happens, you might feel that you’re going to be consumed by the feelings about it.

    Stories were one of the first and greatest things in life. Stories were meant to captivate, to distract you from the free-floating anxiety of being a human being. They took you elsewhere. Idle afternoons with books were a balm. So were the stories that my father told us over a series of many nights in the summer in the backyard when we were kids.

    They were elaborate, composed in the moment, it seemed, as they unfurled. Or did he work on them in his head before evening came? We thought they were masterpieces. In the last of the four stories, the telling of which took place over years, all of the characters finally met. The three of us sat there rapt, so rapt we didn’t even realize we were happy, which is of course the best kind of happiness.

    The first official story I wrote as a child was called “The Unbelievable Plant Robbery,” about a magic plant that is stolen from a flower shop. It was plot driven. Very conventional. There is a mystery and by the end of the story the mystery is solved.

    *

    I gave up on the basic elements of storytelling. Setting, plot, character, theme. When I applied them to my brother’s life, I couldn’t get things to line up. What exactly was the “rising action”? What was the beginning of the denouement? What were the salient details? “I wanted to know more about the main character,” people always say in writing workshops. Yes, I wanted to know more about the main character. I had assumed I would have years and years to learn more about him.

    He had not been easy to know. Sometimes he seemed to want connection and other times he was aloof and far, far back in his own internal world. He could make the kindest, most unexpected little gesture. He could be savagely funny. He could typify a person in one merciless swoop—the way a young person working at a coffee shop says “No problem,” after you thank them, the ennui, the haughty disinterest barely allowing them to get the words out.

    Stories were a way to freeze time. And time was an illusion anyway, my various guides were telling me. And everything was constantly changing, constantly becoming something else we couldn’t possibly imagine or predict.

    He was a satirist. As a young boy he drew a cartoon of a businessman sitting at a lunch spot downtown and named him Business Mouth—the man’s face was just a huge open mouth droning on about his businessman job. He seemed to have always wanted to be in a more rarefied world of literature and ideas and language. He felt apart from the culture much of the time. In his last relationship, with his extremely bright girlfriend who was also a teacher, he craved honesty and seemed to be more nakedly himself than he had ever been.

    *

    I started seeing a therapist, a woman I instantly felt at ease with, even in my wrecked state. She matched my jaundiced view of things, but also exuded comfort and safety and a basic faith in the forward momentum of life. And she let me sit there and fall apart. In one session she shook her head and said, “Life is a fucking fuck.”

    The whole fucking enterprise of making sense is a fucking fuck. And still, we have to make some kind of sense of things.

    Sense is not exactly the same thing as understanding. Again and again in the therapy sessions we came back to the same sort of non-conclusion: This is not for me to understand. And the looking for answers and explanations was a form of resistance to the reality of what happened.

    For months I just couldn’t fathom anything. I kept rolling that word fathom around in my head.

    Fathom (v): a unit of length equal to six feet (approximately 1.8 m), chiefly used in reference to the depth of water. Fathom (n): understand (a difficult problem or an enigmatic person) after much thought. And this, from a website about British phrases: When we say that we fathom something now we mean that we grasp or understand it. In the Middle Ages to fathom something was, in keeping with the literal ‘fingertip to fingertip’ meaning of the word, to encircle it with the arms. From the 14th century onward, people who embraced each other were said to be fathoming.

    To encircle with the arms. To embrace. Essentially, to accept. How many fathoms would it take to be okay again?

    *

    I started to meditate. When nothing works, just sit and be still. It may not help you but it probably won’t hurt you.

    Meditation became a great relief. It was like an island inside me that I could go to sometimes and give up on everything, give up on trying to change anything that had happened.

    I had the strong sense that it was my brother, in whatever form he was now inhabiting, who was leading me in this exploration, that it wasn’t simply a result of events but some kind of force in itself, some kind of inevitability. He had been interested in meditation himself, had been a Japanese scholar and had gone to Buddhist temples when he lived in Japan.

    One of his colleagues, a physics professor who spoke at his memorial at the college, said he’d had several conversations with him about meditation. At the memorial, this professor, who was interested in the intersection of spirituality and quantum physics, led a meditation as his contribution to his remembrance.

    The storyline was the narrative you constructed in your head to make sense of your life, or the life of someone else.

    Meditation, and all the spiritual guides I was exploring, emphasized putting away the storyline. The storyline was the narrative you constructed in your head to make sense of your life, or the life of someone else. It was the way you thought of things that had happened, how you connected events, how you explained things, how you conceived of this person you had turned out to be up until this moment. It was your conditioning.

    For such a long time I had been wedded to my idea of who I was: I am this way because my parents were a certain way, my temperament is such and such, I had these various early difficulties which led to certain problems or challenges later in life. But those stories were essentially closed rooms.

    Stories were a way to freeze time. And time was an illusion anyway, my various guides were telling me. And everything was constantly changing, constantly becoming something else we couldn’t possibly imagine or predict. Memories were essentially old stories. The present moment was the only place where the memories and fantasies ceased.

    This change in view felt both liberating and destructive. Who are you if you aren’t your conditioning, if you’re not the product of your past? What exactly is under there?

    The most radical part of this process was finding out that I could withstand an enormous amount of emotional pain. Rupert Spira’s teachings especially helped with this, or maybe I was just partial to his gentle, deeply intelligent explanations in the YouTube videos I found and devoured. He was in the nondual tradition stemming from Advaita Vedanta, and what he calls the direct path. The direct path led you straight to your essential nature, which was pure awareness and devoid of, or beyond, thought or emotional content or objective experience.

    But he also talked about the tantric approach, which was about bringing feelings close, so close that it was just the raw experience—not the story, not the thought, but “the raw experience in the body.” So instead of the separate self going into flight from the experience, you were absolutely up against it, feeling it as sensation.

    I tried this. I went up against the grief, the longing, the missing, the keening, the despair. I touched into it, withdrew, touched into it again. I stayed there with it for as long as I could.

    If something shocking and terrible happens, you might feel that you’re going to be consumed by the feelings about it. The intensity of them threatens absolutely everything and, naturally, you don’t want to go near them. But then you do. And in doing so there is some kind of distillation. It is nothing other than what it is in its purest form. And then, although I didn’t know this for quite some time, there begins to be an alchemical change.

    *

    I’d been working on a novel before all this. The novel had characters. The characters had back stories. As the writer, I’d spent time thinking about the characters’ motivations, which came from their histories, from the events of their lives, from their temperament and personality. This seemed absurd to me now, as did the act of constructing a straightforward narrative that hinges on certain moments in horizontal time. It felt much too clean and orderly.

    Cave discusses a change in his songwriting that came after the death of his son. “My songs have definitely become more abstracted… less dominated by a traditional narrative. I just became suspicious of the form. It felt like a kind of tyranny. It was almost as if I was hiding behind these neat, manicured narratives because I was afraid of the stuff that was boiling away inside me. I wanted to start writing songs…that were authentic to my experience… Which was one of rupture… Living my life within a neat narrative didn’t make much sense anymore. Arthur died and everything changed. That sense of disruption, of a disrupted life, infused everything.”

    At the same time, I was captivated on a regular basis by something very simple: a podcast called “This Is Actually Happening.” It was straightforward and powerful. People told stories of terrible things that had befallen them, and described how they went on, despite or because of it all. These were stories of perseverance, and through telling them people were bearing witness.

    In a twisted way, the worse the details, the more the stories helped me. People had lost loved ones to murder, fallen into cults, been tortured, abandoned, forsaken, betrayed. Look at the godawful things people could survive. In that sense, it was like returning to the simplest narrative possible: The worst thing happened, it changed a person, and they went on.

    *

    I was helped enough by Spira’s teachings that I decided to go to a retreat he was leading at a former monastery not too far from my home. I stayed in monks’ accommodations: a tiny, plain room, with a shared bathroom down the hall. There was surprisingly good food. The other attendees were of all ages, from all over the world. This was not a silent retreat, so there was lots of socializing over meals, lots of talking.

    Sometimes you learned a bit of someone’s back story, sometimes you didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter if you had that person’s information or not. They had come there to that particular place at that particular time, just like you had, and that was enough.

    Another bomb dropped a few months before the retreat: my sister’s husband suddenly died of an aneurysm at the age of 53. No warning. Within eleven months, my sister lost her brother and her husband. To say she was brought to her knees by this is not being dramatic. And I was thrust into trying to be a support to her while I was still in mourning myself. “It’s too much,” people said to us. Yes, it was too much. The additional loss felt absurd, punishing, utterly baffling.

    For two hours in the morning Spira led us in meditation. Sometimes he spoke, nudging us with his words into some sort of clearing, and sometimes there were long periods of silence. We sat in the great hall of the monastery with light filtering through from above. I began to think of that room as a magic ballroom where some kind of collective good will and yearning and surrender held the possibility of setting us all free.

    In the afternoons there was a two-hour session of attendees asking Spira questions, which led to his eloquent, crystalline responses and sometimes a back-and-forth with the questioner. On the second day I raised my hand and asked a question. Because, honestly, I was confused. I wanted to know about this “direct path” and how that might apply to what I was going through. I did not go into specifics but explained that there had been “an enormous loss that was very hard to accept.” Could I get through this by way of the direct path? Could I proceed right to inner peace? It didn’t seem possible.

    Spira answers questions by first feeling what the person is imparting to him through the question. Sometimes he pauses for a long time before answering because he is finding his way through what he senses. This does not feel hokey at all. It feels honest and generous and kind.

    He didn’t need to pause before answering me. I was proud of myself that I had asked the question without my voice cracking, but he could feel the cracks nonetheless. So his answer was no, I was not ready for the direct path. Even though it had been almost a year and a half, I still needed to be right up against the feelings. The feelings were not through with me yet, nor I with them.

    And it wasn’t the specifics of the story that needed to be endlessly contemplated. It was something much simpler and more terrifying than that. It was, simply, the fact of the matter that had to be faced. My brother was gone and I was heartbroken that he was gone.

    On the fifth day of the retreat I had to leave the magic ballroom during the morning meditation. Tears were starting to come, and it was not going to be an easy cry. It was going to be a dam breaking. I was going to sob and it was going to be loud and ugly and I didn’t want to make noise in the magic ballroom. I went to my monk’s room and cried the way I had at the very beginning.

    *

    It has been two and a half years now. If this were a Hollywood movie, it’s at about this point that viewers would be treated to a montage of the family “getting on with things.” Sister would be shown playing piano or accordion with a band at a small club; brother’s girlfriend would be hard at work teaching and studying for another master’s degree; I would be in front of a laptop, writing; brother’s daughter would be on the set of the first feature film she’s directing. A quick scene of brother’s memorial at the university where he taught. A scene of brother-in-law’s ashes being scattered in the ocean off of Cape Cod.

    I am seeing it all in my head right now. My mind is still trying to catch up to the immense disruption, to all the missing pieces, trying to stitch things back together into some kind of whole. The thing that makes me believe that could possibly happen is the love that has increased in the family in the wake of the loss—an incredibly tender and fragile and indestructible love.

    Beauty, eventually, started to return. I eased into listening to music again. I could read passages from books I’d always loved and let the language roam around without alarms being set off everywhere. I started writing again, fragments of things. I could look at trees, and sit by an open window just feeling the air. In some ways the contentment was greater than it had ever been, because I knew it was a miracle that it was there at all.

    It’s nice to imagine that my brother would be proud of me for being less of a cynic than I used to be. That something so devastating could lead to anything positive—all these new ways of seeing and thinking about things—is proof enough that there’s a reason to keep doing this.

    In good moments I make him into a character, a mythic figure, because I can. Who is to stop me? It’s a creative act. I can make him into what I want and need him to be. He’s not a ghost. He’s a guide, a teacher, showing me the way out of darkness. He’s a doorway leading me out of a closed room.

    Janet Steen
    Janet Steen
    Janet Steen writes essays, fiction, reviews, and profiles, and has been published in The New York Times, Jack White's new Third Man print magazine Maggot Brain, Salon, Longreads, Details, The Weeklings, The American in Italia, and many other places. Steen started at Esquire magazine, and went on to freelance at magazines including Rolling Stone, New York, and Harper's; she was the books editor at Time Out New York and the Literary Editor at Details. She has received fellowships from The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Ragdale Foundation. She was co-curator of the Murmrr Lit reading series at Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn.





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