When I was two years old, I scared the living daylights out of my dad. He found me crouched down, inspecting the dark, fuzzy, mouse-sized body of a vole that our orange tiger cat Zeke had killed and left on the flagstones outside our door. Why wasn’t it moving? I asked. My dad, who loved nothing more than explaining things to inquisitive children, must have told me that it was dead and described what “dead” meant in terms he thought my two-year-old self might be able to understand.
I listened carefully, digested this. I looked up at him. “I’m gonna die in the spring,” I said.
I was two—I had no idea what I was talking about. I have no memory of this, except the memory of it through my dad’s eyes, when he told me about it many years later. I can only imagine how he felt hearing those words come out of my mouth.
My dad told me he thought he’d die in the winter, but he made it another nine months to early September 2012. He had terminal cancer; it wasn’t a surprise to any of us that he died. But it was a surprise that he was gone.
I was standing underneath the laundry line on my porch that September, talking to my friend Sam on the phone, when I realized that I didn’t miss my dad because he was gone. If he had only been completely gone, if his presence in this world had been erased from every atom he’d ever affected, I wouldn’t feel this terrible.
We grieve because someone is still present, I thought. Just not in the way they used to be. Grief is carrying someone with me in my brain cells, because to have a relationship with another person, no matter how fleeting, is to etch them into your brain. Apples come into season, his favorite fruit, and the neural pathway between “apples” and “dad” is so well worn that it fires automatically, telling me I need to pick up some apples for him. Grief is the neuron-level presence of a person in my brain, contrasted with their absence in the world outside of my head. One or the other doesn’t do it: it’s the combination. Just a presence, or just a complete absence, wouldn’t hurt like this.
Grief is mitosis, replication of a person into two cells: one the person, and one my memories of them. Then, the inevitable mutations, but only on my side. The other copy disappears. I can’t get it back to compare it, to see how mine mutated. I just have to assume that it did, and live with the constant itch to know how exactly it differs. My cells’ machinery can’t even copy my own DNA perfectly, never mind copy a whole other life. I compare my memories with my mom’s, my brother’s, my dad’s friends’, and sometimes I glean clues. “Your dad was over the moon when you got offered the job here and decided to move,” his friend David told me over dinner one night. I barely remember my dad’s reacting at the time. He must have hidden it so I wouldn’t feel I needed to move for his sake.
Grief is an excavation of new areas of missing someone. Once, in Texas, I watched the excavation of a leafcutter ant nest with a bulldozer. We could see the mound on top of the ground, see the ants streaming from it and going about their thousand different antly tasks, but it took destroying it to realize quite how big it was. How many distinct chambers it had. One day it dawned on me that I was now the only person in my family who liked grits. Another day I realized that my dad had been the person I called most often for advice, to talk about dilemmas or things I was anxious about. I hadn’t even done it consciously.
Grief changes the world around me, and I have to adapt. I am finely attuned to living in my world, as finely as any creature adapted to an ecological niche, and grief is an upheaval of my emotional fitness landscape. An organism’s fitness landscape is a three-dimensional graph, imagined by evolutionary biologists, that looks like a range of mountains and valleys. The mountain peaks are the places where the creature has the highest evolutionary fitness. Organisms adapt over evolutionary time by climbing upward until they reach a peak. Once on a peak, they stay put—to get to another peak, they would have to pass through a valley of lower fitness. But fitness landscapes change over time. With my dad’s death, the ground shifted under my feet. One of the largest peaks sank completely into the ground and most of the other peaks shuddered in response, and I am now adapted to a fitness peak that’s no longer there. Climbing up toward that new peak feels a little bit good, like finally stretching out after sitting through an airplane flight.
Grief is a spandrel. The word spandrel was originally an architectural term. Picture a curved arch inside a rectangular building, like a cathedral. The spandrel is the triangle formed between the curve of the arch and the place where the wall meets the ceiling. No architect put the spandrel there on purpose: it simply came into being, given shape by its surroundings. Later, someone realized spandrels could be decorated, and they gained an artistic purpose. The neoclassical sculptor James Pradier carved the spandrels of the Arc de Triomphe with winged figures stretching out their hands toward each other.
But spandrel has a biological meaning as well, introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. A spandrel is an evolutionary byproduct. Certain lizards, like the Jesus lizard that walks on water, can walk on two legs. But natural selection did not favor bipedalism in lizards. What it did favor was shifting their center of balance slightly toward their tail ends so that they could maneuver more quickly, still on all fours. Bipedalism just happened as a byproduct when this balance shift caused the lizards’ front legs to lift ever so slightly off the ground. Spandrels can be repurposed for another end—as bipedalism was—or they can remain useless.
Grief comes from looking for someone when they’re not there. This seeking, imbued with distress—this by itself is evolutionarily adaptive. It motivates a child to find her parent when they’re separated. It motivates a parent to find his child. John Archer writes in his book The Nature of Grief that, on balance, the times when the seeking instinct is useful, evolutionarily, outnumber the times when it’s harmful. The urge to find our missing loved ones has helped us survive as a species. It all goes horribly wrong when they die, though. Grief does many things—it brings me to my knees, makes the world feel grey, persuades me that hurling the dirty dishes to smash against the wall would be a reasonable alternative to washing them—but it does not help the grieving organism survive.
Grief, then, is the cost of love.
Grief itself wasn’t designed to do anything. It wasn’t designed at all. It doesn’t have a purpose, but it can be repurposed. I wouldn’t have chosen it, not in 4.5 billion years, but it can be useful—maybe not in evolutionary terms, but in personal ones.
Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed with stress about one thing or another, I use grief like a wide-angle shot. What’s the worst that could happen? I ask myself, and I know it’s not looking stupid or even falling flat on my face.
Grief has other unintended uses. A year and a half after my dad died, a local college student slipped on the ice, hit her head, and died suddenly. She was only twenty-one; it was terrible. I barely knew her, but we were in the same peer counseling group. Most of the group had never lost someone so close. Being counselors, everyone wanted to help but we were worried about saying the wrong thing. So I told them what it was like when my dad died—how they could be helpful, and kind.
Grief is instructive. Before my dad died, I don’t think I had felt the edges of how much he had given me or how big a place he occupies in my life. Once when I was upset but didn’t want him to worry, I reassured him that I was okay. “You’re so much more than okay,” he said. That feeling—that he believed in me no matter what—I hadn’t realized how much it meant. But now I know.
Grief is a spandrel, but I can use it. Maybe death is the same way. A blank space, not designed with our lives’ meaning in mind, but open for repurposing.