Emailing the dead
Navigating the circular staircase of grief and gun violence in America
Joe was our friend for more than 30 years, but that friendship has ended. He was murdered by a violent man who went to a rental home and shot its tenant in the back. That tenant was Joe. He was a good Joe, a teacher and a friend. Now he’s just dead.
When we heard of his sudden death, Pam and I struggled to process the news. His murder was so unlike the other senseless gun-inspired violence we hear about every day, because he wasn’t just a news story or a statistic. We knew him, visited often, shared meals and gifts, talked by phone and email.
We sat quietly on the couch at the hotel where we were staying overnight during a trip to Flagstaff, me searching the internet for information about Joe’s murder while Pam – at least I assumed – was doing the same, that is, until she spoke.
“Do you want to hear what I wrote in my email?”
“Who are you writing to?”
For an instant, I wondered if Pam had slipped into that mental chasm that can appear when confronted by a sudden tragic loss, sending her into a free-fall of denial. But then I remembered who I was talking to, the woman who helped me understand and deal with my mother’s terminal cancer and my father’s death when his heart simply wore out.
“Sure,” I replied. “What did you write?”
So she read. “Oh Joe, you are missed. May you know happiness and that you finally found your bliss. The sun dimmed when we heard you had been killed. Go in peace. You were always loved.”
She spoke so directly to Joe that I was comforted by her words, as if he was in the room, listening, smiling, shaking his head. I exhaled a grateful breath and told her I liked it, that I would try to write to him too. And I did.
Of course, he never answered, and I’m not suggesting that he ever will, except in that brief wireless moment when we could let go of the guardrails to say what is on our minds.
Linda Pastan wrote beautifully and honestly about this moment in her poem, “The Five Stages of Grief.” It begins by suggesting an overly simplified technique for breaking down the process and grappling with grief.
“The night I lost you
someone pointed me toward
the Five Stages of Grief.
Go that way, they said,
it’s easy, like learning to climb
stairs after the amputation.
And so I climbed.”
It’s not true that the pain will go away by ignoring it, or that crying (or not crying) means you are weak or strong. The “stages” of grief in poetry may be shaped like a staircase that leads upward toward a firmly fixed landing, but the grieving process is more like a fingerprint, a mark everyone carries to prove they have touched the world in their own remarkable way.
For me, the Pastan mark resides in her poetry, and this poem in particular is the one I come back to again and again. Its words are for the living, not the dead, and I can feel its pulse each time I reach to hold her pages in my hands. She blindly follows the steps and climbs the staircase, reporting at the end of the poem on her quest to master grief only to start again:
“... Acceptance. I finally
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.”
Joe died at the hands of a man with a history of violence. It was easy. He carried a gun. He pointed at Joe, somehow the object of his rage, and pulled the trigger. According to the Albuquerque Journal, “In November, (the perpetrator) allegedly fled from a Sandoval County deputy with his 12-year-old son in the car, driving up to 120 mph, and later trying to head butt a deputy. Salazar was released and awaiting trial in that case when Keleher was killed.”
We have produced more guns than people. According to Guns.com, “...an estimated 434 million firearms (are) in civilian possession.” Adding fuel to the violence, more than 1 million guns were stolen from private citizens between 2017-21. If we love our guns as much as our children, why are we not doing a better job of protecting the living half of this equation?
The Constitution’s articles and amendments also configure a similar staircase for the stages of democracy – seven steps through the articles that stabilize the government’s authority, and 27 more ascending amendments that set forth the rights retained by the people. It may appear simple, but as I pause to consider our freedoms upon reaching the Second Amendment, I begin to understand why denial is the first stage of grief. Substantive legislation for curbing everyday violence and homicide desperately needs to be enacted, because merely adapting to a perpetual climb on America’s circular staircase is not a solution.
– David Feela