Losing the Thing Unimaginable

“This was never supposed to happen to her.”
Joan Didion

We take for granted that certain things are weighted in granite, anchored in epoxy, and will always just be. How to exist otherwise? What does it mean to lose the thing unimaginable?

It’s presumptive to define “the thing” so I won’t. Pain is incomparable, yet connective. This is a look at pain and the fear of pain. Pain that drips upon the heart, has us fumbling in abstraction, and forever reshapes our existence.

"The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch, 1885. The first of six canvasses Munch painted over forty years. Each depicts his sister who died from tuberculosis when she was fourteen. Munch fell ill as well but survived. Photo: Børre Høstland – Nasjonalmuseet.

Lydia Davis’s short short story “The Child” captures a true moment of routine in the fog of unspeakable grief.1

She is bending over her child. She can’t leave her. The child is laid out in state on a table. She wants to take one more photograph of the child, probably the last. In life, the child would never sit still for a photograph. She says to herself, ‘I’m going to get the camera,’ as if saying to the child, ‘Don’t move.’

The mother rolls on tracks that no longer exist. The movement of emotional gravity.

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” writes Joan Didion in her stunning memoir about the death of her daughter at the age of thirty-nine.2

I imagine she means that the loss of a child is as close as we come to experience our own death. “Once she was born,” writes Didion, “I was never not afraid.” My own daughter’s possible death affects me so deeply if I look at it too closely that I cannot breathe. The loss of this thing unimaginable is real before it exists.

Because we’re not meant to live in an emotional coma, we diminish the object in an attempt to care less. Didion regrets she never gave her daughter appropriate personhood: “She was already a person. I could never afford to see that.”

Didion wrote Blue Nights to make sense of the completely nonsensical.

[T]he way in which you wake one summer morning less resilient than you were and by Christmas find your ability to mobilize gone, atrophied, no longer extant?


The way in which your awareness of this passing time—this permanent slowing, this vanishing resilience—multiplies, metastasizes, becomes your very life?

"The Sick Child," etching, by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” etching by Edvard Munch in 1894. Munch’s guilt of survival while his sister died inspired his reworking of the piece many times. Each capturing that moment before death. Photo: Børre Høstland – Nasjonalmuseet.

There is a bespoke intimacy in losing a child, but losing the thing unimaginable need not be so personal. The loss of anything infinite—how does that affect us? How does the fear of it affect us?

Last Chance to See is an emotionally insightful odyssey between Douglas Adams—the inquisitive, creative, and often playful mind behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — and Mark Carwardine—a dedicated zoologist and conservationist. They travel to specific and remote spots like Komodo Island and the Zaire mountains to introduce us to critically endangered species.

Adams’s account is superb, yet tragedy vibrates beneath. Losing one of our brilliant species, one that you “know” from childhood (from the zoo, books, stuffed animals) and love and imagine, fills me with shimmering pain. Adams asks why we care. Empathy, certainly. (Like Emerson, I believe man is not apart from nature, when we care for it we care for ourselves.) And because, Adams argues, “the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.”

In the home of my heart, New Zealand, my husband and I visited a bird sanctuary where they protect, track, and nurture deeply vulnerable kiwis. With the help of an expert, we tracked Kami, unearthed her from her grassy daybed, and checked her weight and other vitals as she burrowed into our sweaters for darkness. I was overcome with visceral pain at the vulnerability of her species, emotion broken only when Kami relieved herself in my husband’s lap, and we laughed.

Once again, the immediate real superseded the immediate imagined.

When we look to the bigger reality of things, especially an eternal to which we are all part and must return, it is overwhelming. So, we hunker down and laugh, take photos.

I worry about the loss of humanity. Yours. Mine. Under the right conditions, what prevents me from becoming inhuman? It’s happened to others. Perhaps that’s why I do The Examined Life: atonement.

I think of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who wrote during WWI and chose to see murder not as morale-boosting but as horror. From his “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”:

I, too, saw God through the mud,–
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there–
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I think of Elie Wiesel, who wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century, Night, an unblinking look into what happens when a body is reduced by hunger and deprivation. Wiesel becomes—in a small and insignificant way— numb. Uncaring.

I stood petrified. What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, in front of me, and I had not even blinked. I had watched and kept silent. Only yesterday I would have dug my nails into this criminal’s flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast?

Most people don’t fret over their own humanity. It is always someone else who concerns us. Someone else we must stop, not us.

But as Owen and Wiesel show us so brightly, that isn’t enough.

"The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch, 1907. The painting was created from memory and have slight variations but depict eerily similar scenes. Of this 1907 version, Munch wrote ‘it was a breakthrough in my art.” and that all subsequent works were affected by what he created here. © Tate Collection

And then, of course, there is the most internal loss: our minds. Something exacerbated by an attentive focus on the immediate and something we often don’t realize is happening.

When the unexpurgated diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky were published for the first time in 1979, they showed extant psychosis. Nijinsky’s relevance to ballet, dance, and choreography, his unquestioned virtuosity, and his long life spent in a mental institution for schizophrenia are the stuff of dark legend. A soul without mind.

I went out for a walk, once, toward evening. I was walking quickly uphill. I stopped on a mountain. It was not Sinai. I had gone far. I felt cold. I was suffering from cold. I felt that I had to kneel down. I knelt quickly. After that, I felt I had to put my hand on the snow. I was holding my hand down, and suddenly I felt pain. I screamed with pain and snatched away my hand. I gazed at a star that did not say ‘Hello’ to me.

He goes on and on and on. Rhythm without meaning. I am not psychotic, but I certainly have moments of distress and instability.

During a particularly difficult period in my life without purpose or direction, I spent hours drawing lines. Straight, long, short. Lines that folded back in on themselves, connected. Delineated a path I could not. Pen, paper, line—I contained myself in those items. They were all that existed.

When life whisked me out of the circumstance, I put down the pen and folded the paper into boxes an effort to keep the episode contained, apart. I existed elsewhere.

Humans are wonderfully adaptive. We manage pain. We manage joy.

What strikes me, as I read through these works and write these words and sink into my heart, is we are less adept at managing both simultaneously. Carrying both joy and sorrow in our hearts, to love fully our children and fear their death.

Is that possible?