Mental Health

Painting Grief: Remembering My Fallen Ally

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

Trigger warning: description of addiction and substance abuse

I’ll never forget telling my younger brother that I’m gay. He asked if I was dating anyone. Since he’d recently met the person I was dating, I simply told him who she was. He responded, “Damn, I was planning to ask her out. Well done, Ang.” From there, he became one of my biggest supporters, always quick to correct or call out anyone who said anything disparaging about LGBTQ people.

I was his sister, and he would love me unconditionally, always my ally.

I’d like to dedicate this post and painting to my little brother, Carl. He died on March 6, 2017, and writing and painting about him has been my way of coping with the grief. My little brother was both an ally and an addict for all of his adulthood.

Over a year ago, his recent addiction began spiraling out of control and he refused to go to rehab. My family worked hard to try and reach out to him, to open him up, to offer him support, but he refused to let anyone in, drowning his anguish in blackouts and overdoses.

This happened for the last time when my mother found his body surrounded by the drug that can cut off oxygen to the brain each time it is used: duster. My beloved single-mom, Mary, became Our Lady of Sorrows, as she held the lifeless body of her 33 year-old son.

Our lives will never be the same; the grief is overwhelming.  

As ordained clergy, I’ve officiated a lot of funerals. For fourteen years, I shaped burnt ash across congregant’s foreheads each year on Ash Wednesday and reminded them that we all come from dust. To dust we shall return.

As I officiated my little brother’s funeral, I held the ashes of his body in my bare hands. I’ve never done this with anyone else’s remains, but I wanted to somehow touch him one last time, to feel his pain and let his torment fall through my fingers, as fragments of his bones stuck to my hands.

Even as the dust of his body filtered through my fingers, as I kissed his cold face in the funeral home before he was incinerated, even as I weep with my mother, knowing that my pain pales in comparison to hers, I feel as though I am living someone else’s reality. That his death is not real. As I face this new reality, I am reminded that addiction is a savage, relentless beast that rips families apart without remorse, and is nearly impossible to overcome.

I say this here, in a forum dedicated to queer religion and affirming LGBTQs into the fullness of the Christian tradition, because grief is a human experience we all share. Processing grief and death is difficult for everyone, but being queer complicates the process further.

Because the LGBTQ community knows death intimately.

From hate crimes to suicide, it feels like death whispers at our door. And there are so many instances of LGBTQ people who die and families refuse to acknowledge their queerness, their identity, their family, their partner or spouse.

I recall a former congregant who lost his partner of over thirty years to cancer; they’d shared a home for all of those years, but the mortgage was in his partner’s name. Though his deceased partner’s family disapproved of their relationship and was not involved in their lives, the judge gave the family the home instead of his partner because their marriage was still not legally recognized.

Grieving for family members who we love, yet who have disparaged or hated us because of our sexuality or gender identity is tremendously complicated. Grief, for us, is a pressing and complicated reality.

And, though my brother did nothing but affirm me upon coming out and show love and care for my wife, grieving his death is also painfully complicated because of his addiction and the way he treated his family at the nadir of his spiral downward. I do not mean to equate the complexity, but simply say that, as I’ve struggled to cope and grieve, I’ve thought of so many others who are struggling to do the same.

As an artist and writer, I had to find something constructive to do with my grief.

So, I began researching saints and goddesses of grief: Frigga, Nanna, Borghild, Nephthys, Demeter, Persephone, Saint Elizabeth Anne, La Llorona, Our Lady of Sorrows, Isis, and many others. I began painting a series of Holy Women Icons of Grief by painting the Goddess of Grief.

With an opening nod to the poem Catullus wrote upon his brother’s death, I penned the words that continue to break my heart, as the Goddess of Grief cries out to us:

Speaking in vain to the silent ash,
Her heart large enough to contain
Lamentation, sorrow, and memory,
She wept tears of grief and rage
Until she opened wide enough to hold all the sadness.
And she bid farewell…

I share this with you, beloved queer community, because I know you experience grief, too. Because loving and hating and raging and weeping and grieving are our realities far too often.

As I grasp to cope, I invite you to share which saints, goddesses, or holy figures who provide you hope and solace when you grieve.

And I leave you with a stanza of a hymn that I have sung with my wife, child, parents, and youngest brother in the wake of my brother’s death: I will weep when you are weeping. When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you. I will share your joys and sorrows til we see this journey through.

If you are weeping, beloveds, know that you do not weep alone.