the obliterated place

Manila, 1 November—In her book “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar”, Cheryl Strayed writes letters to strangers. One of my favorite letters that she responds to in that book was written by a grieving father who lost his son to a drunk driver.

“I don’t have a definite question for you,” the man writes, “I’m a sad, angry man whose son died. I want him back. That’s all I ask and it’s not a question.”

He goes on to say that he’s had a good support system, all considered, and that he was seeing a psychologist regularly to help him deal with his grief and suicidal thoughts. “In short, I’m going on with things in a way that makes it appear like I’m adjusting to life without my son, but the fact is I’m living in a private hell,” he admits.

“I’m writing to you because the way you’ve written about your grief over your mother dying so young has been meaningful to me.”

He ends his letter with questions many grieving people ask: “What can you say to me? How do I go on? How do I become human again?”

I love Cheryl Strayed for the same reason this man wrote her—she writes about grief and death so beautifully. If there’s a thing about grief I know, it’s that it is timeless. Though it’s been years since we lost our mother, the grief belongs to a place that seems to be suspended in time—it is always fresh, and that’s not always a bad thing. So though I may have discovered Dear Sugar much later, her words ring true just the same: They’re as true to me now as they would have been to the newly lost twelve-year-old me.

Anyway, I am sharing parts of it with you now, on this day of all days—on this year of all years—because I found it to be quite helpful. This year marks 23 years since our mother’s passing. It has been a terrible year full of loss. I hope it touches you just as it has touched me, or that it finds its way to someone who needs it through you.

Small things such as this have saved me: How much I love my mother—even after all this years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours.

The word “obliterate” comes from the Latin obliterare. Ob means ‘against’, literare means ‘letter’ or ‘script’. A literal translation is ‘being against the letters’. It is impossible for you to go on as you were before, so you must go on as you never have.

The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there.

When my son was six, he said, “We don’t know how many years we have for our lives. People die at all ages.” He said it without anguish or remorse, without fear or desire. It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother’s life was forty-five years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be—my mother at eighty-nine, my mother at sixty-three, my mother at forty-six. Those things don’t exist. They never did.

You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by offering comfort to others who can’t go on. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.

The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me is: Your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother. It has been the greatest salve to my sorrow.

The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred, what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place.

I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen.

Insert hug here. As Cheryl would also say: May their memories shimmer brightly.

Some end notes:

  • Tiny Beautiful Things is available on Kindle. One of my favorite purchases this year.

  • Cheryl Strayed is reviving Dear Sugar on Substack. Subscribe here.

Thank you for making it this far.