Departed: Photography and Grief

There was dust floating in the air. It’s always there, but today it caught the shafts of early light from the window and, suddenly, it wasn’t hidden anymore. Brought finally into light, the bits of lint and debris obscured my vision in that direction. It was early early, and I could think of nothing but the dead weight of grief that sat on me, that shot through me like those blades of light cutting through an invisible, dusty world.

Grief does this. It comes on in waves, months after the shock, the wailing, and the denial are all over. It hits hard and fast, with no context to anchor it. I always feel like doing something, not because I want to, but because the idea of doing nothing rings like a death knell in my frantic mind. There’s not really much to be done, though. He’s not coming back.

Remember when he was here? When I was a person who had him in her life? What did that look like? Why can’t I remember? What if, one day, I forget?

The blueish light from my phone felt wrong in the warmth of sunrise, but I was desperate. I scrolled to the right place, the right date. I have it memorized. The photos I collected the day he died appeared on the screen, and I felt free to feel again. In seeing his face, I felt like I was allowed to cry and allowed to feel better at the same time. He doesn’t mind at all. He’s not angry. I know it, because the photo is him and isn’t him. It’s a him that’s frozen in time, but I know where he really is as we look at each other over a chasm that others have only guessed how to cross, he into my streaming eyes, me into his never-blinking ones.

This is photography.

Representations of the long-gone have been safely guarded in the homes of their loved ones for… ever? Entire traditions have been built up around collecting, honoring, and clinging to the images we create to remember those we loose. We associate a person with their image, even though they are two separate things.

What I’ve realized is that I don’t just use photography as a means of expression, but as a kind of therapy. I use images to recuperate and process my grief. Photographs anchor our hearts to the person we’ve lost, keeping fresh in our minds where their dimples were, which eyebrow rose higher when smirking, which side they parted their hair on. And it works. It really helps. Eventually, I turned off my phone, gulped down some hot tea, and said another, smaller goodbye than the one I’d said last week. The ways my life has changed since he died came to my mind with less guilt, and I treated my current, him-less self with more compassion.

What is this we do with photos? Does it help to freshen the loss with reminders of who left, or does it comfort us to know we won’t forget the color of their eyes? Does it do both? This is photography, to be sure - a huge part of it. This preserving and providing options to which we can cling when we need to is part of why we get our pictures taken - not because we think we’ll die tomorrow, but because we know it won’t ever be quite the same as it is now, no matter what happens.

What do you think about this? It feels important. It feels like this is what’s at the heart of it all, in the end.