The Public Processing of Death
Josh asked me if I had ever been to Chad’s Trading Post because he had been listening to a This American Life about the Massachusetts’ restaurant created by the family and friends of Chad who had died before he could open the space. I brought up a different, nearby restaurant, Fire and Water, that was owned by Star Drooker that sounded similar. Josh told me it had been mentioned in the episode as well:
In Northampton, where I used to live there was a couple, and they own a cafe. And at one point, they had a child who lived 19 days. And after they disconnected him from life support, they built a shrine in their restaurant for him. Pictures of him connected to white tubes dotted the walls and beams. And his father, a musician, would perform a song at the cafe– weekly, as I remember it– comparing his son to a [? salmon ?] and to the messiah. And some of us, at first, though we knew it had to be hard, felt a little embarrassed for them. As though this tragedy had driven them a little crazy.
I think it’s hard for us to know exactly what to do or say when we see public mourning like this because we see it so rarely. The intensity of it is shocking. It’s too naked. And usually we think that if you hold onto someone after their death this way, you can’t live your own life. But clearly you can.
Fire and Water was one of my favourite places to eat and study while in graduate school. It made me embarrassed that the radio host expressed feeling embarrassed for them because the processing of their grief felt completely normal. Not naked or shocking. There were pictures of their son, Jesse, up in the cafe, and they spoke openly about their child; just as any parent would. In other words, Star and his wife acted like parents: a behaviour we’d never call shocking under other circumstances. But because their child was dead, the radio host expected them to stop behaving like a mother and father.
Not to single out the radio host: I’m sure there are other people who expect the same thing.
How long does a child have to live before a person is cemented in the role of parent? I mean, obviously this radio host didn’t believe 19 days made you a parent. Would a month? A year? Did the child have to reach kindergarten or high school graduation or middle age for his mother and father to get to keep their titles? I mean, it’s an odd thought — that we give and snatch away a title so easily.
I guess the This American Life episode pissed me off because even if it came to a good place with that last line of the transcript, there was still a layer of judgment over the words. Star and his wife mourned the loss of Jesse, but they also celebrated their child’s life in the same way that people do every single day: posting pictures and telling stories. It was a backdrop to my daily chai which felt no different from my classmates who talked about their kids. Star’s way of processing made more sense to me than locking up those feelings inside.
I can’t say that I felt honoured that Star shared his child’s life with me, any more than I feel honoured when I run into any parent and they start telling me about their kid. It just was. I say that as someone who experienced that cafe in my early twenties, who had not really experienced loss yet. All I can say is that the way they spoke and celebrated their child felt exactly like the way any other parent celebrates their child.
People with children who are alive don’t have a monopoly on kvelling rights. We all get a chance to talk about the people that touch our heart.
I guess I’m sensitive to this because how are our blogs — especially those like mine that discuss loss — any different from the cafe? I have no pictures to post, but I certainly have stories to tell. And I don’t discuss loss because I’ve been driven a little crazy. I discuss loss because it goes hand-in-hand with life. That it’s impossible to speak about life without acknowledging loss. We will all lose people we love. It would behoove us to be a little more careful in how we view another person’s process of trying to make sense of something that can feel senseless.