As told to Nelson
Unlike most emotions, say sadness, restlessness or happiness, there is no single language to sufficiently sum up grief. There is also no template that can tell us how to effectively navigate it. Half the time we have no idea what to do with grief, how much or how little of it we should feel, or whether or not we should even allow ourselves to feel it at all.
But what is certain, however, is that grief binds us all together in interesting ways. And since we all experience it differently, the most we can do is wonder how the next person is navigating this tough emotional process.
So on that note, we spoke to 29-year-old Isabelle on how their obsession with dead bodies helps them cope with the grief of losing their mother four years ago. Read their story below.
Before my mother died, she had been sick for a while. Nobody knew what exactly was wrong with her, but the doctors suspected cancer. One day, she just fell very ill and had to be admitted to the hospital. At first, it was nothing serious. She even called me one morning while she was at the hospital and her voice was clear. So I figured it was just something mild and the admission was precautionary.
The day she died, my sister was the one who called to tell me. When I saw her call, I just knew the worst had happened. The call was brief. My sister said, “Our mother is dead”. I didn’t say a word. She asked me if I heard what she said. I said “Yes”. Then the call ended.
The next day, I woke up, bathed and went to work. I still had not processed what had happened. I hadn’t told anybody. The day kept passing listlessly, but towards the end of the workday, my boss asked me what was wrong and why my demeanour seemed off. And that was the first time I told anyone my mother had died.
I couldn’t finish what I was saying because I burst into tears. I think saying it out loud pushed me over the edge and made me realize that it had actually happened.
Up until that point, nobody close to me had ever died. So I was not quite prepared for grief. And the fact that I didn’t know what killed her made me mad. It still does. How can someone die in a hospital and you can’t tell what killed her?
I need the closure desperately, but I know deep down I’m never getting it. When you’ve never experienced grief like that and you lose someone close to you, it is indescribably jarring. It leaves a huge mental scar. It has totally changed who I am and how the rest of my life will pan out. Added to the fact that I didn’t get to spend the last moments of her life with her makes it all worse. I was her favorite, and I wasn’t even there when she died. She never got to see me one last time or anything.
When I went to see her at the mortuary, she looked like she was sleeping. As though she could wake up if I reached out and touched her. This is when my curiosity about death started to become a coping mechanism. It began with the smell of the chemicals used for embalming corpses.
It’s a very foul and inhuman smell. When the smell hits your nose, you just know this is something different from anything you’ve ever perceived. Some weeks later, I went to pick her body up from the mortuary along with other family members. When we got there, we had to transfer her from the body tray to the coffin. When I grabbed my mother by the arm, her body felt stiff. She didn’t feel like a human being. It is simply not something I can describe.
We are so used to the warm and soft touch of living people that nothing ever prepares us for how inhuman embalmed corpses feel. Tears came to my eyes all over again. I can’t articulate it very well but there is something cruel about the fact that people die and have all traces of their humanity sapped out. I will never be able to get that feeling out of my mind.
After the burial, I started googling stuff. At first, I was curious about why bodies feel stiff after storage and embalming. Then I started reading up on morticians, undertakers, embalming, etc. Things soon escalated. I became obsessed with death and, specifically, dead bodies. Decomposition, burials, autopsies, eviscerations, etc. For the past 4 years, I have consistently dug up and looked up pictures of corpses in various stages of decomposition. Pictures of embalmed people and all of that. I read, in full detail, Kobe Bryant and his daughter’s autopsy. I downloaded the coroner’s reports. I know how their bodies were mangled and torn apart. I looked up Emmet Till, although that one is quite popular. Eva Peron, Abraham Lincoln, some baby who was preserved in Italy, Maradona. I am obsessed with dead bodies.
It is a compulsion, I cannot help myself. I don’t know what I am looking for but it has become the only way I can cope with my mum’s death and the fact that the last thing I got from her was that cold and inhuman feeling of death. Maybe seeing these corpses helps me feel better about my mother, I don’t know.
Another thing, I still wonder how her body is faring now that she has been buried. I read that embalmed corpses take anywhere from a few months to several decades to skeletonize. Is she like that Italian baby who has barely decomposed? Is she a skeleton now? Is her skin dried? Does she look like a mummy? Is her coffin waterlogged (yes, this is a thing, and it is very common). It’s been a horror show, and I am well aware that I may need therapy to get this out of my head. There is a page on Reddit where people can ask funeral directors questions about dead bodies and stuff. Been on it for a few days now. I read about 3 or 5 posts before I go to sleep. Reading them helps me feel better about my mother’s death. Anytime I try to stay away from reading or looking at pictures, I feel haunted and tormented. But whenever I read, maybe about how someone’s dead body was autopsied or look up the picture of a corpse, I feel better and can get my mum out of my mind for a few hours at least.
Looking up death makes me feel better about her death and the factors surrounding it. Knowing all the processes that happen during and after death helps me cope with the fact that I didn’t know what killed my mum. I wonder if this makes sense. The fact that I am at least aware of how she may be doing in the grave right now makes me feel a bit better.