How Grief Is An Out Of Body Experience

Carl Moon, Drying Corn, ca. 1937–1943

Death is both our loneliest moment and when we’re the least alone. At that moment, our feelings fly out of our body and into our loved ones. Grief is pain felt in other bodies. Grief is pain at a higher level of existence, at the family, at the community, at the whole. A man cannot know his own death, but his clan surely does. We feel for him. We feel for us. By all the gods of the island, it’s awful.

When our beloved Anna died we all felt it. We feel it still, every day. His presence in all the gifts he left, all the good he did, in the air all around. The tendrils of the family reach out painfully for a severed limb, nerves splaying in the air, desperately trying to re-form. They find nothing but air, form nothing but jagged scars. We grieve as if we lost our own self. Because we did. Because we were never alone at all.

Death is the black hole at the center of all perception. It both destroys and unites us all. Death is the ultimate reality that every sensation circles around. Every touch, every sight is a simulation; an approximation to keep us away from death. Only death is real. Everything else is just light and waves dancing around death, before it all falls down. This is known.

And yet no man can know his own death. Death is the event horizon we all cross, but which no information can escape from. We can only feel it as a blackness at the edge of our vision. The blinks our brain edits out. The nights we awake from. But then someone dies and by the gods you can feel it. It’s like your own limb has fallen in. You can feel it pulling, pulling, and yet never letting go. Death rips a hole in space, time, and the sensation that we’re alone at all. How could we be? How can we feel so much pain in someone else’s body? We didn’t just lose an Anna. We lost an arm.

This is the paradox at the center of existence. This is the singularity that makes us plural. Death happens to an individual, but it is only felt by the collective. While death shows that there is a self (in absence), it also shows that this self is not all. Because the grief goes on. A man dies, but his clan bears the wounds. As Brian Yazzie Burkhart writes:

American Indians often say that the people are an ear of corn. We may try to just think of each little kernel of corn on the ear, the individuals, but to do so is to take away from what the kernels are: an ear of corn (Cajete 2000)…

But just as the car of corn is cultivated and grows, so does it die. It does not live forever. It provides food for another generation that will carry on and grow and live and die.

(American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays)

I try to think of this, but it’s poor recompense for him just walking through the door. I try to be kinder, more giving like him, I try to warp my grumpy self so that he can somehow live on, his actions through other bodies. All of the next generation is trying. We can’t do it. But gods willing, we’ll grow. And the next generation will know. That’s all we can hope for. That’s all we can do.

He’s gone. That’s the definite reality. Grief is its denial, but that denial is also true. Grief is a complex feeling of more than our selfness which we just feel as pain. It’s stubbing your toe on the universe, or worse. It’s slipping your arm into a black hole, being pulled into nothing and infinity all at once. Death both obliterates the self and radiates it everywhere. Time and space explode, the dead are about to walk through every door all at once, as the child to the mother, the husband to the wife, the brother to us all. All the ages of a man, all his actions, they compress into one feeling when they cross that event horizon.

As feeling left his body, it flooded into ours. As the self died, his selflessnesswent on. Grief as real and painful as any physical wound, just felt in another’s body. We cannot explain it. We cannot understand it. We cannot bear it. And yet we cannot deny it. Grief imposes itself. It enters every room, it greets us every morning, it makes our eyes rheumy even if we manage to smile and talk. It’s too much. It’s bigger than us. It’s literally the feeling of something more than us, which every human can feel, indeed must feel. Yet not for themselves. For others. In others. It’s an out of body experience.

Grief is when you touch a higher plane of existence and by God, it hurts. The knowledge of mortality is not meant for mere mortals. We simply can’t process it. We fall to our knees begging stop. This nothingness is everything, it’s too much. Grief is pain felt in other bodies. Grief is the love that makes us more than any one body at all. A man dies and feels nothing anymore. But those who loved him suddenly feel it all.