Growing Up in the House of Grief

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

I would never have been born if my older sister hadn’t died.

Existence is a joke, and most of us aren’t here on purpose. Most of us can’t trace the reason we were conceived beyond a hopeful or incautious pair of parents. Some can say their folks sought out fertility treatment: IVF, insemination, or surrogacy. Some have received the story of why they exist as a joyous happenstance; their folks wanted to conceive and they did.

Mine were not the kind of parents who ever told the whole story, so I got it piecemeal from other people. Four or five years before I was born, there was another daughter. They divorced when she was a toddler, and then she drowned in the backyard swimming pool. Remarried, they then rushed to conceive me.

Research indicates that the death of a child is more likely to tear a marriage apart than remake it, but I do come from a long line of non-conformists. The same studies say that the parents who stay together will often try to repair their assumptive reality (a world that is kind and just and safe for children; a world that does not exist) by having another child.

So here I am.

I was born into a house of extreme grief, but I didn’t know it until I was an adult. No one was allowed to say my dead sister’s name in that house. When I was on my own as a teen and members of the family wanted to explain to me my own mother’s failure, they told me about the one who drowned. It isn’t her fault, they told me. The death of that child had broken her. The birth of two more hadn’t fixed it.

The story of my sister’s death explained a lot of things to me, about my family, but also about myself. I had believed for a long time that some people were just born creepy—maybe it was genetic. The Addams family certainly seemed to make the case for bats roosting in the Punnett square. But then why was I the only one of my siblings to drape her Barbies in black and read the eulogy scene from Julius Caesar? Why weren’t we all goths who gobbled up horror stories and lived for Octobers?

I remember in the 1990s, when women’s spirituality was going through one of its many rebirths, someone gave me this workbook about the nine archetypal goddesses and what each one meant for the path of one’s life. Always eager for the newest version of the Zodiac, I took the quizzes. My goddess was Persephone. My path led into the underworld.

The book asked the same question various therapists had been badgering me with all my life: had I lost someone who was close to me? Did one of my parents die when I was young? Had I been cradled by grief?

I always said no. Aside from the statistically likely death of a grandparent, I’d been close to no one who had died. Or so I thought. I was living, at all times, within arm’s reach of my sister’s ghost. She’d left an empty crib behind, and I slept in it. I did not live the life she might have had; I lived my life in the shatter and shadow she had left behind.

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    I found other creepy people, as we always do. I tried to find their roots, to divine the tragedies that had made them like me. I assumed everybody had a comic book backstory to explain their love of vampires, their black boots, their unshakeable devotion to Baudelaire. I found it was not that simple. Not all goths come from tragedy. Not all people touched by tragedy lean into it.

    Grieving and growing up are the same process. Grief throws the assumptive reality into relief; the world is a place where this happens. You are not immune. You are not above it. You are not in any way special. I wasn’t unusual in being touched by tragedy. I wasn’t even unique among my friends, whose parents had lost children in a myriad of ways. I was unlucky in that mine hadn’t had the first clue how to process that loss, or to move on in any way except to do it all again. The trauma I drank from was maybe a little more fermented than average, but it is literally all the same.

    Each of us was born to replace someone else. Death makes vacancies, birth fills them. Sometimes the vacancy is in your own house, and you can feel the soreness around you like a new tooth coming up through the ragged hole of one lost. Other times, you’re just a member of a species that is always dying and breeding and it was just your turn.

    People think goths are miserable, disaffected souls who know all this and let it make them sad. But here’s the thing I’ve learned from my time in the house of grief, from grappling with the nearness of the death that opened up my place in the world: knowing all this is freeing. Awareness of the indifference of the universe doesn’t make misery, it is the product of misery. Understanding the rote predictability of death and recognizing that you are no more special before it than any piece of roadkill frees you from requirements and responsibility that you somehow do better than any person destined for death has done before you.

    I was born because my sister died. Her death brought my parents back together, but they divorced again anyway. I might have been a creepy kid anyway. We might have grown up together and been as weird as a pair of sister witches, or as bored and tired of one another as average siblings usually are. We’ll never know that other life, but I get to know this one.

    My life was shaped by of death, but so is everyone else’s. Statistically, outcomes for the surviving siblings of dead children are not significantly different from any other kids. Life just goes on.

    And so does death.