In the abstract, grieving is predictable, legible. It follows five stages that progress in a predetermined order, bringing one through the shock and pain of loss into what we dubiously call “moving on.” In practice, though, mourning is a messy business, marked by coping strategies others may see as bizarre or improper, for the fact of loss is itself somehow bizarre. Matthew Dickman’s poem “Grief” enumerates what to do “When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla,” this absurd premise conveying, in all its comedy and seeming irreverence, the true absurdity and arbitrariness of death.
For narrator Allie in Avril Breckenridge Barron’s “The Relative Weight of Angels,” grief comes not in form of a purple gorilla but of a beloved pet, whose body she must carry from the veterinarian’s office in a cardboard box. Allie’s pain manifests in the indignity and odd matter-of-factness of the box, with her name and that of her cat—Norman—written on the side.
Norman dies on the eve of the first anniversary of Allie’s sister’s death, and “The Relative Weight of Angels” recounts Allie’s attempts to grieve both of these losses in the midst of a family whose members all envision grief differently—and judge one another’s methods of grieving. For Allie’s grandmother, loss is something to be borne bravely and stoically, following the example of the Kennedy women who, she insists, never cried in public—evidence of how well they were raised. For Allie’s oldest sister, Margaret, mourning should occur via the proper channels, such as scheduled remembrances, at the proper locations, such as the family church or the cliff where they scattered her sister’s ashes, and with the assistance of the proper authorities, such as a priest—as if, by adhering to these approved grieving outlets, the family’s pain could be contained.
Barron treats all her characters with a palpable empathy, such that we understand that the grandmother and Margaret criticize their family members’ coping methods out of a deep fear of their own pain, but I found Allie’s mother the most moving character because she does not attempt to hide her grief or channel it through “appropriate” grieving actions. Indeed, she does not attempt to move through her grief, to “move on,” as society calls the grieving to do. To do so, for her, would be to double the loss, as if the pain the lost one leaves behind is the final means of accessing her. “I don’t want to feel better,” Allie’s mother tells her, “I don’t want to look away from this.” Refusing to adhere to an expected narrative of mourning, Allie’s mother accepts that Allie’s specific pain is her own, and though her method of dealing with it may remain illegible to those around her, that method remains valid and worthwhile.
“The Relative Weight of Angels” weaves a dark humor into its exploration of grief’s many incarnations, often using a comic edge to highlight how a person’s limited vision of mourning adds to the pain of those mourning around them, such as the priest’s pontification on the absence of animals in the afterlife (“His heaven was Bipeds Only”). In Carve’s interview with Barron (featured in our Premium Edition), the author notes, “One of the things I wanted to do with this story was to explore grief, in terms of expectation and proximity. […] I realized that when we’re looking at other people, sometimes we react with an almost algorithmic expectation of what their grief is going to be, like there’s this Kelly Blue Book of grief.” I deeply appreciated Barron’s nuance in depicting the ways that coming to terms with loss often, in reality, looks so unlike societal expectations for grieving as to make that grief unrecognizable. Her story suggests that the salvation available, in situations of pain and loss, comes from people attempting to recognize each other, putting in the effort to look through a lens of empathy rather than expectations.
Read (or re-read) “The Relative Weight of Angels” in our Summer 2013 issue.