A star collapses when its fuel is used up, and so does the human heart. Not only in the physical sense, but also the nebular, nuclear stuff that we attribute to that particular organ. Grief can manifest in many forms, but it is always ascribed to loss; of a person, self-respect, hope, dreaming. We can grieve many things, and often do, but we tend to pack it deep inside as though always ready to move on, without experiencing any impact.
But the truth is, most stars take a million years to die, and in the same way grief will linger. From months to years to generations; grief can pass down through blood, song, and stories, an intuitive memory that weaves into century after century. War, colonisation; these are difficult griefs to forget. I was born in England and feel its terrible past keenly; I know I will apologise for its history until I die.
If you take a photo of a galaxy 100 million light years away, you are recording that galaxy as it looked 100 million years ago. Likewise, when someone dies, we time travel. Whoever dies, we seek a return to their best selves, even if it means delving back decades. It is important for us to care if we are to grieve, even when the person has done terrible things. It is a positive trait of the human condition.
Yet we also have the power to grieve a person long before their death, if they injured our heart deeply enough. This means we can experience loss without additional pain. People who are meant to be close to us may die, without that death impacting us in the way society expects. It is entirely possible, for instance, to not attend your parents’ funerals and to do this without anger or enmity. Which in many ways, may be the saddest grief of all.
My father was absent during my childhood, until I met him aged thirteen. He died after a few visits, yet I celebrated that we had actually gathered a few precious memories. His absence felt no different than before. My mother was violent and tyrannical, and I had finished mourning the absence of her love by the end of my teenage years. When she died, I felt only relief and empathy – she had finally left a life that she always seemed to despise. I wonder if I am capable of grieving? Or if, unknown to me, I am grieving still?
By the time we see another person’s grief, we witness only the tip, a glimmer of its true depth. And in that glimmer, we see a hint of ourselves. Grief is dealing with phantoms in all their forms. And just as we tend to forget to acknowledge the stars as we go about our daily lives, we live as though we, and everyone we love, is invincible. As though the one true fact of our lives – our death – does not apply.
Humans and stars are dying all the time. When we look at stars with the naked eye, they have already gone, and we are seeing an illusion; a ghost of their greatness. If you crashed a spaceship into a star tomorrow, you’d be long forgotten before it was even discovered. A buried piece of history. Like the ruins that litter landscapes, your successes and struggles and woes reduced to rubble and dust. The leftover glimpse of a star.
Now, don’t be sad about all this death, because people and stars are being born all the time – even if we won’t see them in our lifetime. It is in our nature to worry about what will happen to the world when we’re gone, but death does not have a definitive end. There is always a legacy, though it may exist in a different galaxy. Whether our life (and death) affects one person or thousands, our example can burn bright and linger, falling as a phantom star, ready to be captured in the hearts of future generations even a million light years away.
Elizabeth Rose Murray writes for children, young adults, and adult audiences. Her books include the award-winning Nine Lives Trilogy and Caramel Hearts. Recent anthology and journal publications include The Elysian: Creative Responses, Reading the Future, Autonomy, Popshots, Terrain and Banshee. She lives in West Cork, Ireland. www.ermurray.com
Photo by Sven Scheuermeier.