This is a story about two obituaries. The first is mine. There’s a photograph, a good one, snapped after I lost half my flesh but before I lost half my hair. My name is typed underneath, then my age: I was sixteen. So young! It makes my obituary extra-sad. I died too soon, you say. I’ve had less time to mess up, so maybe you assume I’ve messed up less. You grieve the innocent, and my photograph looks innocent to you: I’m a straight-passing, bony-white cis girl. You grieve my image.
Still, I’m not sure you’re grieving me as you read my obituary. Grief, I’ve been told, “delineates the ties we have to others.”1 In grief, we find ourselves confronting the relationships, binding together something “neither exclusively… myself nor you” but a compilation of us, of the parts of ourselves that connect us to other people.2 But you and I—we were connected by your dreams, your hopes, your aspirations of the person I might have grown into. For you, I was a potential-person, alive only in a fictional future now forever beyond reach. And so you find yourself nodding as you read the normal niceties lining my obituary: Showed promise. A bright spirit.
Let’s be honest: you’ve been grieving me for years. I was a fat girl, and you have always seen fat people as walking monuments, places to grieve the thin people they could have been. You tell them to resurrect themselves—“get their lives back”—as if their lives are buried under their pulsing, bodily flesh.
But I was alive when you thought my flesh deadening, and when I banished my body there was no life left. My obituary doesn’t say that though. It wouldn’t be proper.
Instead, the lines of sentimental wishing lead to a lengthy list of my family. Survived by… Parents. Siblings.
My brother Benjamin once used the word anorexic in front of me. It was the only time anyone did. You were there. You set him straight: “She is absolutely not anorexic! Do not use that word! That would be shameful. We are not shameful here.” It was a lie then; it’s a lie now. We are shameful here, and my shame survived me. It’s why I am grieved as a thin girl, grieved for what I could have been.
Your name is printed in my obituary too: you are the surviving grandmother. Your friends send condolences and flip through the newspaper to see the granddaughter you lost. They say, “what a decent looking young lady!” and wonder how it happened. The obituary doesn’t say. What will you say? Died by starving herself to death? No—that’s not appropriate. You’re not grieving an anorexic, whose body will always be flesh-had, flesh-not-had, flesh-could-have-had. You’re grieving a granddaughter who was young and pretty and had potential, who only ever existed in the lines of the obituary. You long for the life I never had, will never have.
This is a story about two obituaries. The first is mine, and the second is yours. I found it when I searched for your name on the Internet. I see a photograph of the woman I’m supposed to grieve: the smiling granny. The text is short, written in odd fragments littered with words like “dear” and “beloved” as if you’d been a lovely lady with a full life and lucky grandkids. If I didn’t know you, perhaps I’d think you didn’t deserve to die quite so soon. The woman in the obituary is not really you, but she’s a woman meant to be grieved. A busy grandmother, a faithful wife, a friend—this is a woman I should be sorry to lose. And I am sorry—shockingly so. But I am not sorry for the woman in the obituary. You see, in the middle of night, it’s not the loss of a smiling grandmother that shakes me awake, because you rarely smiled. When I’m crossing the street, it’s not the memory of a loving granny that sends me whirring around, wondering if I’d been grazed by a vehicle just out of sight. No, it’s my memory of your quick retort to my brother. It’s how you tested my mother’s patience, insisting that you wouldn’t complain while exuding displeasure. It’s how you’d say, “what do I know, I’m just an old lady,” and then say exactly what you thought you knew and heed no reply. Sometimes you were right, sometimes wrong, but it never seemed to make a difference.
If “grief displays… the thrall in which our relations with others hold us,”3 then how can I grieve anyone but the person you were, the person I remember, the person who I am enthralled with in my memories?
I have been shaped by your judgments, deserving or not. If losing you means I lose a part of myself, a part that was shaped by a harmful relationship, then should I not find myself affirmed as you slip away? I thought I would grieve only those I am sorry to lose, those I want to come back. You saw me as dead, buried beneath mounts of flesh. You were old and ready to die. I tell myself that I should get on with my life. But I find myself undone, lost in your memory, my memory, your imagination of me, my imagination of you.
If I had heeded you all those years ago, if I had refused to recognize my illness, and if I had died and been given an obituary—would your grief have been as mine? Maybe you would have dodged questions about my death and served sugar-coated falsities to your friends. But maybe in quiet corners or buzzing rooms, you’d remember the parts of me that didn’t belong in a newspaper, that nobody would think worth grieving. Or maybe by imagining this story I reduce you to a potential-person too, a fiction from an imagined future grown from an imagined past, a fiction that could have been but was not. Am I enthralling myself to you in my imagination just so I can reconcile myself with the woman in the obituary? Does memory write the obituary, or does the obituary write memory? I no longer know whom I have lost. Perhaps I never knew.
This is a story of two obituaries. Perhaps only one is real, I don’t think either are true.
- Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 22.
- Butler, 22.
- Butler, 23.
Janice Vis-Gitzel is writing her way through the entanglements of authorship, genre, and narrative. Her past work has appeared in Glass Buffalo and The Artifice, and she is currently pursuing her PhD in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, where she also works as a teaching assistant and writing tutor.