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Finding the bittersweet: where love and death overlap

There is a particular emotion that I am trying to find a name for… bittersweet maybe?

It’s the emotion that I feel when I watch the opening scenes of Up or Romeo and Juliet, when I know what’s coming for the happy heroes. Or at the end of Philadelphia when Tom Hanks’ Andrew Beckett wins his court case and it’s triumphant, but that’s not enough to save him. Even Independence Day has a bittersweet moment- when Randy Quaid’s shambolic Russell Case sacrifices his life to save his family and the planet.

The bittersweet is where sadness and joy meet, where death and love sit side by side. Cat Stevens often writes music from this place, and books like Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply carry us there and ask us to explore it with them.

Most of these books and songs and movies centre around losing someone you love to illness and death. The bittersweetness of these stories, what really makes you cry over them and remember them and recommend them to others, is that they combine the grief and fear of death with a brave love, one that we admire and learn from.

The result is such a complicated heap of emotions- you feel sadness and respect, empathy and relief, love and terror. You are so glad not to be living through this terrible ordeal, you are so grateful, but you also know that we’re all in this now… there is only one way out.

My friend Alanna first used that turn of phrase- that’s there no other way out- when we were talking about new relationships. We were worried that new romances that we’d both just started and were discussing whether we thought they would end badly. We already knew that we cared about the people we were involved with and we didn’t want to get hurt (again).  In an absolutely throwaway moment of genius, she casually pointed out that once you start something with someone, there is only one way to get out of it: to break up with them or have them break up with you.

There is only one way out.

And then we realised, horrified, that life is even worse, now we’re here, there’s only one way out. But we wouldn’t want to not be here. Fuck.

That’s the bittersweet. When the world is boiled down to that perfect paradox and you feel both love and death at the same time.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I am a crier, and there is nothing that makes me cry more than this feeling, especially when I am reading about other people experiencing it. Seeing their bravery in the face of such overwhelming emotions is so inspiring and living it through them is so cathartic. I feel less alone and I definitely feel gratitude but I also hope that I will have the same grace when I, inevitably, have to deal with something similar.

That’s it, the bittersweet teaches you about grace.

mike belleme

I fell upon one of the most bittersweet articles I’ve ever read last week in Esquire, of all places. I wasn’t expecting the impact it had on me and when I tried to talk about it I couldn’t quite explain what I was feeling. I enjoyed it so much but it was so painful and sad and lovely, so confusing, that I don’t know if I could read it again. It started me thinking about the idea of the bittersweet and I began to run through lists in my head of other articles, books, films and songs that gave me a similar feeling. I’m sure you have a similar list and they probably count as some of your favourites but maybe, like me, you’re not sure you could ever read or watch them again.

The Esquire article in question is an incredible piece of writing by Libby Copeland and it’s called ‘Kate’s Still Here’. The piece tells the story of Kate and Deloy Oberlin and how they deal with Kate’s terminal cancer and their desire to have a happy funeral for her. The story touches on their amazing relationship, their family and the growing death positivity movement.

Of course I recommend it to you, I want you to read it and feel what I felt.

I understand that’s a strange recommendation, like someone eating a forkful of their meal at a restaurant, exclaiming in horror, and then offering it to you to try. Still, I think… tentatively… that it’s worth it. There’s only one way out right? And we need to learn how to handle the bittersweet and about grace.

One of my all time favourite collections of writing come from Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar columns on The Rumpus. Beth and Sarah from Pantsuit Politics recently mentioned Strayed’s columns on their new podcast The Nuanced Life and picked out one of the columns from the series that is pure bittersweetness. The column is called The Obliterated Place and it’s about a father losing his son. All of the columns are worth reading but this one is particularly beautiful and brave.

Finally, I want to share a video and blog that Andy and I discovered a while ago and which has stayed with us for months. The video is below and the blog is called Sans Oxygen and it’s written by a woman called Allison Adams.

Allison was married to the talented typographer Vernon Adams who created several incredibly successful Google fonts and who died tragically in 2016 following a car accident in 2014 which left him with serious trauma from which he never recovered. Allison is so straightforward and unflinching in her posts about how Vernon’s health slowly degenerates and finally about his death that, much like Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air, it is both inspiring and harrowing to read.

These pieces of writing and films and works of art exist in such a strange place in our lives, we admire them and cry over them and pass them on to others, but we also struggle to look at them and discuss them.

They are powerful and too hard to face sometimes. I’m sure, just like me, that there are days when you can’t take this sort of bittersweet feeling and for those days, there’s Zooey Deschanel’s back catalogue. If you are feeling brave, then I recommend these.

Top photo and second photo by Mike Belleme for Esquire.

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