“It is sad that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you.”
― Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother
American Horror: Murder House is the story of a couple living with the ghost of their only child. In The Killing parents mourn their murdered daughter. Happy Valley’s police sergeant Catherine Cawood grieves for her daughter while raising her grandson. In AMC’s mystery/drama The Affair one of the central characters, Alison is trying to piece her life back together after her son’s death. Three of the toughest characters on The Walking Dead, Rick, Michonne and Carol are all bereaved parents.
Of course, the mystery isn’t the only genre that exploits grief. Animated movies are filled with death. Take: Beauty and the Beast, Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King and Snow White. For the most part these stories use loss as a quick form of character development. The characters—with the exception of Simba in The Lion King—rarely actively mourn.
Movies like: Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Wind River and A Single Man depict the cruelty of grief with beauty and candour. Still as much as I appreciated these dramas, I didn’t feel as involved as I did with certain mysteries (with the exception of Arrival).
Dennis Palumbo the author of the successful Rinaldi mysteries and licensed psychotherapist defines mystery as “a story about the disruption of the social order.” He says, “We want to know two things: who did it, and why.” Or at least that’s what the viewer thinks they want. What they really long for is “order restored…so that things in our world are set right once more.”
What threatens our sense of the natural order more than the loss of a child? “Because the death of a child defies the expected order of life events, many parents experience the event as a challenge to basic existential assumptions,” says Inese Wheeler, author of the study The Role of Meaning and Purpose in Life in Bereaved Parents. Her research confirms that bereaved parents have more health issues, experience greater rates of anxiety and undergo more financial difficulties. There’s even proof that they suffer from certain types of cancer more frequently.
In mysteries the character who solves the crime is as important as the transgression itself. Palumbo suggests that viewers relate to this character as a “surrogate, the smarter, wittier, more doggedly determined version of themselves: “the detective hero.” Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to stories where the person solving the crime is haunted by some earlier trauma. Take: The Killing’s Sarah Linden, The Sinner’s Detective Harry Ambrose, Rust Cohle in True Detective, The Fall’s Stella Gibson, River’s John River. Each troubled, each grappling with the past.
In the early days after India’s death, Mark and I survived by binge-watching mysteries. We’d sit on the sofa, cradling cups of coffee, our eyes fastened to the set. If we ate, it was there. Our plates precariously perched on our laps. As soon as we finished one series, we moved quickly to another, terrified of being left with our thoughts. We rarely watched movies, we preferred serials with lots and lots of seasons.
Grief was the commonality. The shows we favoured were raw and relentless. Out of all the characters we focused on the bereaved and traumatized. India’s death had nothing to do with violence, still we were shattered—left groping for some sort of explanation for why our daughter?
We watched the first season of The Killing twice. Filmed in Vancouver, the city’s grey skies play as much of a role in the action as the actors. Here the characters stumbled through sorrow, ugly and angry. Watching them made me feel less alone, less singled out by tragedy, less ugly. There was no escaping the reality of loss in the mysteries we watched, no saccharine attempt to make a lesson out of it. Out in the world I felt compelled to pretend. I dressed carefully determined no one would see that I was cracking.
These shows reflected my reality. Time after time I saw myself in the actresses playing the bereaved mothers: the familiar slump of her shoulders, the slowness of her movements, the way she picked at a plate of food, cried until her face was burning and slick with snot. Such were the similarities that I related more closely to these fictional characters than people I’d known for years.
Five years after India’s death I still can’t remember what our lives were like before she got ill. It’s as if I’ve put all my early memories of India in an old hatbox somewhere for safekeeping and can’t remember where I’ve left it.
Despite this she finds me. Often her spirit is conjured by sound: the clicking of bicycle wheels, a girl’s laughter, the snippet of a song. Music brings her instantly to me—The Rent soundtrack, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, any one of her favourites by Johnny Cash. India was a big fan. Seven months after she died we drove all the way to Cleveland Ohio to the Rock in Roll Hall of Fame so we could place the first Indy bead on Johnny Cash’s tour bus.
Recently we marked the anniversary of her death with a drive into Boundary country. In a coffeeshop in Rock Creek, I found a photo of Johnny and June Cash standing in front of their tour bus. They were dressed in eighties denim and had wide smiles as if they were smiling at good friends.
“Johnny stopped here when it was a precious stone shop,” the server informed me when I pointed out the photo to Mark. “Can’t remember where they were headed. Maybe Calgary or somewhere. They’d just done a show.”
A stone shop, I thought. Stones and beads. Somehow these two things seemed connected to me. Both reminded me of the sort of treasures children like to collect. The kind of thing they hold tightly in their little hands.
“It’s Johnny,” I said to Mark.
“And the bus,” he said staring up at the photo
Moments like those in Rock Creek can be either poignant reminders or a torment, there’s no predicting the outcome, no clues, no trail of white pebbles. These days I see my life weighed out in small gains and absolute losses. The everyday patter of normalcy gone forever. Time measured forever by before and after her death.
The Aymaras, an indigenous people from the Andes, speak about the past and future very differently from most of us. It’s a language I’ve adopted since my bereavement. Like the Aymara speakers, I see the past in front of me, and feel the future pushing at my back. Everything is clouded by what went before. I cannot contemplate the future without first revisiting the past. It’s as if I’m inside out.
In fictional narratives, no matter the genre, the ending usually establishes a new order in the lives of the characters. American Horror: Murder House finishes with the parents being reunited with their daughter through death, in The Killing the bereaved parents learn how much their daughter loved them when they are sent the film she was working on at the time of her death, Rick in Rick Grimes The Walking Dead, honours his dead son by trying to create a community of peace, and Alison, in The Affair, gets a second shot at motherhood.
Reality is seldom as linear as fiction. There’s no coming to terms with certain losses. Grief is that shard of glass left on the kitchen floor after an accident that either gets picked up or pierces my foot when I least expect it. There’s no telling what will happen. No matter how many times I sweep the floor I can never be sure I have all the pieces.
When I began writing fiction many years ago I learned early on that if I told a true story readers frequently questioned its veracity. “No”, they’d say, “that could never happen.” So should I be surprised that I relate best to the grieving characters I find in mysteries? After all I’m slowly becoming accustomed to dwelling in the contradictions of fact and fiction.