A year and a few days ago a friend’s brother killed himself. I knew him, I liked him, sometimes he annoyed me. We weren’t close–we were tightly tied to the same people. This was after I’d learned how to read suicides in the news. Died suddenly is a phrase people like to use, especially in the media. MIT has ways they talk about these deaths in the community–they might be official or just polite. It’s that kind of glaring politeness that doesn’t help anyone. Died suddenly.

I remember my friends going to the funeral. I pictured them there, in their suits and dresses. They wore pants my middle school teachers would have called slacks. Blouses and collard shirts. Those are the words I used when I saw them in my mind–those outdated words that belonged to middle school teachers.

When my grandmother died, there was an open casket for the sake of my cousin. My aunt and uncle looked at the body and said some condescending things about how they’d done her up. My mom told me to look if I wanted to or if I was unsure. You’ll never have another chance.

I’ve seen two dead bodies in my life. One was my grandmother’s. One was the grandmother of some friends. We would hang out at her house. I showed up there one day and she was dead.

Death is a lot of waiting around. Someone called 911, and we had to wait all day for them to arrive. Hours and hours. The bathroom was on the second floor, next to the room where she–the body–lay in a bed. I kept going up there to try and catch a glimpse. I’d never seen death before.


The inheritance came through. I thought about tithing it. I knew I ought to. Ten percent to a charity–to help people the way she helped people. I could invest the rest, have savings. Selfishness, fear, took over. My minimum monthly loan payment dropped from $650 to $450 with a few transfer agreements of things that never seemed real.

This is what death looks like.


I’m in a room full of people. I recognize some of them–a lot of them actually. I also don’t recognize a lot of them. Some of them are dressed well, and some of them are in t-shirts and jeans. In front of us a man is talking about a man who died two months ago. He says something about the next generation. Our children. I turn and look at a baby in a stroller. His eyes are open and he’s staring up. He’s making a face, like he’s deciding whether to cry or not.

In my mind, the dead man is a distant cousin and the baby my nephew. I put my arm around the person next to me, the one I call my rabbi. This is my Boston family: the baby’s mother and his father. The one on the floor, resting her head on my rabbi’s leg. People standing and sitting behind us. Two men sitting at the front of the crowd with the parents and brother of one of them. A man on a screen, a video playing from Germany talking about the man who is my distant cousin and his close cousin.

This is my family and they’ve lost someone and not knowing what else to do, I cry.

death, 03

I sat down with my new supervisor for the first of our weekly one-on-one sessions. “I don’t know what CN told you,” I said with little warning, “but there were two deaths in my family last month.”

“I knew you went to Florida,” JC said.

“Yeah, so I fell really behind. I’m still catching up.”

Death is like that. Still catching up. AA, my cousin who came to our grandmother’s funeral, was given three days of bereavement leave from her office. I took nearly a week and it still wasn’t enough. I’d still been reeling from the news of my uncle when my mom called me at work and told me my grandmother was in hospice. I retreated to one of the conference rooms in the office. I sat there in silence for several minutes before I began to cry.

I went home after that and sat in the shower with the water running until the steam and scalding drops turned cold and the redness in my skin faded. I’d barely been functional at work since the news of my uncle–the day I buried myself against W and my body rocked with sporadic, uncontrollable sobs. I spent the rest of December useless. I’d sit at my desk, sometimes just staring at the screen, looking out the window, doing nothing for hour after hour other than listening to my own breath and watching the clouds move.

I won’t lie and talk about how close I was to either of these people. I was closer to Alec than I was my uncle or my grandmother. I felt, I feel, bad about how deeply I was–am–affected by these deaths. I grin and say I’m okay, that it’s not that big a deal. Both were, in their own ways, expected. That didn’t make them any easier for me. I didn’t want any sympathy and I didn’t want to share it. I had the liberty of privacy. My grandmother, the last of her generation, had been an extraordinary woman with a quiet life. My uncle’s death was not reported by anyone outside of his family. No one knew unless I told them and, even though I told the internet, it passed with silence. My sadness was my own. I needed it to be. I needed time to process and understand and grieve and I still do. Three days could never be enough.

Someone I was–am–in love with once told me that how I feel is how I feel–it doesn’t matter what anyone else says I should feel. I shouldn’t be apologetic. I return to my grief, the grief I feel I don’t deserve. I grieve for my student and Jeff, who both killed themselves years apart. I grieve for Moses and Alec, my grandmother. Now I grieve for Aaron. I am angry and sad and my heart aches for my friends who lost someone. This grief is mine, this struggle for understanding is mine, and I deserve it.


My aunt and my mom stand around the kitchen table. There are bills and statements all around them. They are both on phones, on hold, and talking to each other. My mom is typing something into her laptop.

This is what death looks like.

A candle burns. It’s white and in glass. The wax is liquid and around the wick, sucking up whatever it sucks up and mixes with oxygen to burn and burn and burn. A discarded, torn black ribbon is on the table next to it. There’s a wicker tray with apples and mandarins.

This is what death looks like.

My cousin stands and speaks candidly, tears in her eyes, about a miscarriage. The rabbi faces her, but he looks elsewhere. He’s not making eye contact. The wind blows the clouds away from the sun and spanish moss sways like haze in the trees. The casket is on straps hooked up to a hand cracked rig. I wonder how they’ll remove the supports after they lower it into the grave. There’s a concrete box at the bottom for the casket to sit in. A cover nearby, a neon orange identifier spray painted on top. Men with dark skin and dazzling smiles speak a French creole and drive construction equipment and golf carts. My mom shifts in the way she does when she has to pee. I cross and uncross my legs, wondering what’s most polite. There’s a pile of dirt and two shovels. I want to grab a shovel and push it hard into the pile, lift it up, and dump it in. I want to do it again and again until the entire grave is filled. I’ll only be allowed to nudge a little of the dirt onto the body that belonged to my savta. A machine will bury her.

This is what death looks like.

The masticated mint and lime mix with crushed ice at the bottom of my glass.

This is what death looks like.

Pictures of a woman I never knew, with a long dace and a long nose. A wide jaw. Cheekbones under her eyes. Soft eyes. Curls in hair I’ve seen in my mom during humid days. A curve in her neck I’ve seen in my own. Or maybe I’m just reaching. A picture of a woman I knew from a time I don’t remember, with the same jaw and a slight smile. Her head is on the shoulder of a laughing man and her glasses are the biggest I’ve ever seen. Her cheekbones are hidden under softer skin and wrinkled lines.

This is what death looks like.

Phone calls and e-mails, facebook messages. “P’s in Berkley. Yeah, he lives with a wonderful woman. She’s older. They seem so happy together…C has a job at in the same department as her dad…A has a great boyfriend…S has made a family with a lovely woman and her two kids…m’s at MIT. She loves Boston…” Updates again and again. Ritualized conversations. “Hospice of Palm Beach County. It’s what she would have wanted. They took care of her. They took care of Dad in the end. Thank you, thank you.” Half-heard whispers of “prayers” and “sorry.” “She was…” Sympathy and love.

This is what death looks like.