The Uncomplicated Dead

This is an essay originally published with Kill Your Darlings in 2017. As KYD is a subscription magazine, and this is behind a paywall there, I decided to republish it here. I will be doing this with other works, as and when I am able.


I recall the day I saw my grandmother dead on the floor, wrapped in a stillness so complete it exaggerated all other movement, making even a slow kiss on a chill forehead seem a kind of violence. I was in a house of tears at the time, everyone crying or having cried already, but there was a quality of peace, a rightness I associated with the sights and sensation of grief in that moment. It made sense: she was old, and had been ill for so long. We’d had the time to re-familiarise ourselves with the lesson of life, which is that it must end. I recall the day I saw my baby cousin on a gurney in the morgue, being prepared for burial. He had lived for an hour. His tiny body, his still-scrunched-up face – that made no sense. I felt no peace, only a rattling unreality that frizzled at the edges of what I could see, and which crawls through my memory even now.

Few things are more distressing in life than coming face to face with our mortality. Sometimes, it isn’t death we grapple with, so much as what caused it: murder or another kind of unnatural violence that takes a loved one – as in the case of my cousin Samir, who was stabbed to death when I was fifteen. I didn’t see his body. He was simply gone, and again, I could make no sense of it. I have had twelve years to think about and process the murder, and it still shakes me. This is the wildness, the sheer unreasoning chaos of grief at work. It’s constant, but tidal. A wave can sweep over you in an instant, no matter how long it’s been receding, or how watchful you’ve been. In these tumultuous times, senseless violence pours out of our phones and TVs and mouths virtually twenty-four hours a day, and is shared on the internet as relentlessly as it is delivered to bodies all over the world.

The term ‘social media’ makes abstract what is, for many of us, a tangible space that holds our thoughts and emotions. I use Twitter every day, as do many of my friends. I see their thoughts in real time as they see mine, from the mundane to the political, the frivolous to profane, and this feeling of mutual mind-space creates a kind of intimacy. Depositing death and disaster into this place must wound us every bit as much as an idle joke delights, or a cute post warms us. I’m not going to suggest that we remove or edit or even curate stories of war and murder from our mediated presence online, if such a luxury were even possible, any more than we could take it out of our lives – but I do wonder if any of us are taking seriously the impact viral grief is wreaking on our minds, on society itself.

It’s possible to feel, if not grief, then its close cousin, sorrow, for someone you didn’t know. It is possible to read of Alan Kurdi, to see a photo of his body, and to break. It is possible to have your day undone by news of baby Shayma, taken out of her dead mother’s womb during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2014, only to die when power cuts affected the intensive care unit that was keeping her alive. It is possible to hear the litany of African-American people murdered by racist police – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice (the most known, not most recent) – and to feel a kind of hopeless fury at the injustice, the loss. It is possible to think of the Indigenous Australians brutalised by oppressive policing and an indifferent justice system – Ms. Dhu, Elijah Doughty, Dylan Voller, just a few of many – or the latest casualties of our cruel offshore detention policy, or the crippling wave of slaughter, starvation, and disease in Yemen, or, or, or…and feel overwhelmed. I know these things to be true, and I know they are not temporary. It hurts to think about. It demands to be considered and to be carried.

I haven’t scratched the surface yet and already I feel you, imagined reader, shaking your head and saying, too much. We cannot collapse the borders of so much tragedy at once. But it seems they have collapsed already – one especially sick manifestation of this is the competition demanded by so many of the living as to whose dead is more important, more newsworthy. Is it as sick as the overemphasis placed on white victims, white deaths or simply a response to an utterly warped system? I don’t know. Even now I feel a pull to scorn the tributes and tears of late night anchors who mourn their own, but stay silent on Syrian refugees, on the struggle of first nations people around the world. As if I have a right to make a demand of their hearts, or can force them to care; as if any of our tears mean anything; as if I’m not weeping with them, too.

The scramble for a funereal audience, for memorable speeches, public vigils, a poem or artful cartoon crafting a symbolism around which to rally, is edged with a desperation that is becoming commonplace. I am not immune from this. I remember the spate of suicide bomber attacks in Turkey last year, and how each one sent me into spirals of panic – I have family there. One day I was mid-email to a poet when I heard the news of a blast in Istanbul and suddenly found myself pouring out this personal heaviness to her, a stranger – a frenzied ode that sought only to be heard, to be validated regardless of whether it was appropriate in that moment. Where is this urge, this urgency, coming from except an understanding that we are running out of time, that there is an audience and already their faces are turning away, their fingers clicking to a new, fresh tragedy.

In June of 2017, I lost my father, my uncle, and a dear friend in the span of a week. I can write no more about them than this, because if my old grief is tidal, the latest is a tsunami, leaving only wreckage in its wake, and a total absence of clarity. The truth is we are all of us grief-stricken, and the dead demand their due. How to give it to them – those I know, and those I don’t, those old and new – is a question I have yet to answer. It seems clear, though, that we aren’t processing the onslaught. We reel from traumas both distant and close, lived and relayed, and the speed of it is destroying us. You can see it in the degradation of our language, in the erosion of facts, the constant crests of emotion – typically the heaviest, hatred and fear – from everyone in our networks drowning in this sea of sorrow. It is more difficult than ever to get a handle on reality, on what’s happening, on which hurt and which wound is doing the most damage in the moment. How can you heal a body still being shot at?

It seems an impossible task, and for each of us, I imagine the answer will be different. The only thing I have found that helps is art, and in particular poetry. Of course as a poet I would say that – but a poem is a capsule in time, a space I can enter and remain in forever. Maybe the same can be said of a painting, or a song, or simply a long conversation with a friend where everything else fades except you and them and the connection between you. Whatever it is, this slowness of being, largely eradicated from our lives, is needed now more than ever – not in the superficial and increasingly commercialised notion of ‘self-care’ – but as an everyday necessity to better allow us to face the world, to reckon with its injustices, and ensure we don’t become unconscious vehicles of the violence we’re consuming.

Of course the dead demand their due, they are still human that way, but we must not value them over the living. There is an unquestionable solemnity to the deceased, and even more to those tragically taken, and it is too often wielded by the callous to justify ever more violence. Those who sermonise about abortion, but care nothing for starving or orphaned children; who demand we think of the kids killed in Western-based terrorist attacks, but will stand silent as young refugees of war are turned back at the border or unjustly detained; how quickly they are in arms over corpses. It’s easy to talk about the dead because they can’t talk back. They can’t scream when in pain, or plead for safety and food, or air an opinion you dislike. Would my teyta or my cousin object to my summoning their ghosts in service of this work? I don’t know. I can only hope when I do evoke them, I do right by their memory, itself a subjective and fallible construct.

Empathy is the catch-cry of our generation, but it’s too often divorced from action: we need it, it’s true, but not just as passive emoting for those now past. That is a kind of empty compassion increasingly utilised by people unwilling to see the structural injustices affecting the living – it’s this same poisoned thinking that has allowed the Australian government to use deaths at sea to justify torturing the survivors of war in offshore prison camps. We need real, empathic action to undo the conditions that kill too many too early, to dam the flow of preventable tragedies. If we can care so much for the dead, go to war for the dead, justify anything using their flesh as blank cheque, surely we owe the living – no matter who they are – just as much?

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