Explaining Loss with more Images than Words

Pre-Nuptial

by Christine Garren

It’s like a bowl of roses I carry all day in my arms
even after the flowers have blackened and the water stinks.
I know I could be stronger than to tell, but the flowers are heavy;
they stain the cloth against my breast.
When I try to put them down, they cousin me like vines;
I walk the aisles of my life with them.
I thought you should know this before you marry me:
some days I cannot free my hands enough to love.

The first year I worked at a rape crisis center I shared a bedroom. It was at a time where emotional honesty was pretty difficult for me, and where I experienced pretty regular nightmares. My roommate gifted me this poem with a letter offering me gentleness I couldn’t yet direct at myself. Several months later when I was writing a pilot advocate training, I picked it up.

I was looking for a conception of empathy that didn’t diminish the loss present alongside any trauma. I was looking for a way to encourage advocates, but also discourage much of the helper arrogance that goes along with volunteering and direct service work. I was looking for a first-person connection to loss that was graspable for those seeking to be truly supportive. I was looking for an emotionally honest way to teach about loss, and I was very new in practicing what I believe in. I guess you could say I was a novice in dealing with grief, but also seasoned in living with grief.

It’s an intimidating task to be expected to teach someone about trauma without coopting personal tragedies inappropriately. It’s an intimidating task to not use yourself as your only example, while remembering that you take yourself everywhere.

Around this same time the movie Maleficent came out on DVD, and soon after a series of articles critiquing the story as an allegory for rape. There was a lot of praise, but equally a lot of suspicion. I decided I needed to watch and see for myself, and before I rented it, I was cautiously neutral. It’s hard to excuse the visual of a nonconsensual kiss so central to stories like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and to be honest nuanced character development isn’t often a strength of Disney movies.

I was caught off guard by how emotionally present I felt watching this movie, that hasn’t diminished with increased familiarity to the story. There’s a depiction of the sensation of having your trust broken before you could even anticipate that form of loss, and it coincides with the consequence leaving you disconnected from what allows you to escape those feelings and physical wounds. The sensation of not being able to choose to breathe or hold your breath, and becoming winded none the less. Stumbling on sounds that trip over your teeth before they can reach your lips while your body shakes and quivers. Legs buckling if any weight is put on them to try and remove you from an environment that holds all of the reminders of what has just happened. Shock, but in response to total knowing of what this means. I say sensation and not emotion on purpose, because the physical reality of loss is very real, and it’s not in your head or exclusively your heart. It fills your body, even if you describe the effect as emptying.

My body was gripped by the syllogism and the power this character had to make me believe in what she already knew, whether or not I could relate personally. My response was to emote and not to think, as I sensed a physical reaction welling up in me that I wouldn’t describe with words. There’s no dialogue in this scene, and yet a theme is concentrated that every next scene will refer back to unconsciously, as the viewer and by the characters. You feel the moment where trust is broken, and the permanence that will carry for relationships, worldviews, character development, place development, how and what is recounted, narrators breaking off divergently like barely seen spider veins in a matter of seconds. Without a word, the significance of change rippling out is made clear. A change made to someone’s body, noticed first by what is left absent. The first shown reaction is a person gasping for air and reaching for something that was previously there, but they no longer feel as a part of them.

I showed this movie to my nephew for the first time when he was three. Originally it was because it was the only kids’ movie I owned. Every subsequent time it was because he would ask to watch it. The other reason I showed him this film was because I was looking for ways to let him know me. There’s a choice we make in our relationships with kids where we decide to what extent we are going to be honest with them about who we are and things we’ve experienced, and it comes sooner than we’re expecting. Most of us find ourselves either doubling down on the censoring we’ve engaged in, or trying to take it back later when we see grown up children mirroring the secrecy we engaged in first. I intuited this crossroads we had come to, and I held my breath instead of my tongue. I showed him a film that would centralize mental health, grief, trauma, and broken relationships so that one day I could talk openly about my complex PTSD. I showed him a story that might make my experience real to a child, and might start us on a course to learn some different power dynamics in an adult to child family relationship.

I recently showed this movie to my two-year-old niece for the first time. She calls it the Fairy movie. I skipped over some of the more violent scenes, but I let her watch Malificent’s reaction to having her wings taken. She started to pay fuller attention when Maleficent is a child making a new friend, turning away from her toys and sitting with her hands in her lap vigilantly. She yelled at the tv, “don’t go kid,” mad that Stephen had stolen a jewel. When I asked her if Stephan and the fairy were friends she countered, “maybe she and the baby?”; showing already that she differentiated how he had treated her compared to how Aurora would. When she saw Maleficent crying, she walked over to the tv and asked her if she was ok, placing her head on the screen to be physically closer to her while she cried.

There is a very concrete component to loss in the plot of Maleficent: her wings are stolen after her closest friend has drugged her. But there’s also intangible forms of loss that young children seem to perceive. Their response is to focus on the pain that is exhibited in how someone reacts to harm caused. Lost trust, lost friendship, lost joy, a new and strengthening anger and resentment that is expressed. Wings are symbolic and literal, as the architecture, relationship to, and even physical abilities of Malificent’s body are injured by the same action. Secondary are the relational changes, and not even noted are the intentions of Stephan or what should happen to him because of the harm he has caused. Total attention is directed at the image of sudden loss, and responding to loneliness by coming closer.

When I train on the impact of sexual trauma, one of the first things I discuss are some of the universal components. Being multilayered, being contextual, producing and requiring survival skills, having an immediate and cumulative impact, and including loss.

In a description of ambiguous loss, author Pauline Boss in her book Ambiguous Loss Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief notes four qualities: confusion, especially over the permanence or impermanence of what has happened or is happening, a lack of adjustment caused by uncertainty, a lack of community embrace and validation, and a withdrawal of support over time. The characterization of a loss not bound by a time period that closes, and the fatigue and isolation produced and withering go hand in hand physically and emotionally. There is an immediate need being misrecognized, and the response to the loss tends to fixate on how someone chooses to cope with it.

If we get stuck there, we prove the feeling someone began with. That they are in a situation alone, and that the story of what happened and what should happen now are not accountable to their needs. What is powerful in depicting loss on a physical level is that the emotional consequences become clearer in our minds. There’s an exaggeration that only seems hyperbolic if you minimize the loss that is still occurring, and try to push it out of the way before healing has any resources directed to it.

I thought you should know this before you marry me:
some days I cannot free my hands enough to love.

These lines speak to an internalized aloneness where what burdens you is named as coming with burdens for those who care for you or want to draw closer. It’s a warning, but it’s also a test. A test to see if the worst visions of yourself are as true as they feel in your mind. A test to spare you if you want to be spared, and not with judgment or malice. Escape is understandable, and the loss of escape is best characterized by cutting off someone’s wings.

There is a hollowness to trauma that is not honored by triumph stories. Grief isn’t poetic, even when healing occurs. The changes to how one builds relationships are set in motion by what you now know to question or wonder about. It produces an instinct that can be easily and repeatedly hijacked, teaching you that what is unsafe is best understood by avoiding what has been unsafe before. People may be on that list, and so might relaxation, or independence, or dependence. I can’t illustrate loss as it is felt for someone else, but I can describe what I feel in my body when an image of emotion resonates as honest. Support that has the potential to last can start there, grappling with what has already changed without wanting to fix it or beautify it or punish someone for creating it. Support can hover and witness your voiced emotion, allowing the shock to turn into something else. Maybe an exhale, maybe silence. Maybe a head laid against a tv screen.

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Amanda Lindamood

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.