How science fiction helped me through my grief

Illustration for article titled How science fiction helped me through my grief

During the second to last episode of Battlestar Galactica, we learned that, before the destruction of the Twelve Colonies, Laura Roslin lost her father and her sisters in a car accident. How horrible, I remember thinking. This explains so much about her emotional armor, how slow she is to grow close to anyone. It also hit my own greatest fear, to lose my only sibling, my little brother.


A week later, Battlestar Galactica ended and my brother was dead.

Colin and I were four years apart, but so close that we were often mistaken for twins. We both went to boarding schools and spent our summers far from our peers, with only each other for company. When I started freelancing for io9, he was finishing up a few college requirements at our mother's house in South Carolina, so I'd go there for weeks at a time. When I was back in Boston, he'd call every day—sometimes twice a day—even if it was just to talk about the previous night's episode of 24. He introduced me to what are still some of my favorite things, including Zane Lamprey's boozy travel show Three Sheets, Kim Possible, and Disney's hugely underrated film Meet the Robinsons. He would sometimes tuck his elbows at his sides and quote the movie's T-Rex, crying out in a falsetto, "I have a big head and little arms. I'm just not sure how well this plan was thought through," before erupting into girlish giggles.

I'd lost grandparents before, and beloved teachers and pets. Just two years earlier, my childhood best friend had suffered a fatal overdose. But Colin was a loss that was too great for my brain to properly process. A few weeks after the wake, I became gripped with the certainty that there had been some kind of mistake, that Colin must be in a coma in Medical University of South Carolina and we had to go and find him. I developed a guilty sense that we had left him behind at some fixed point in the past, and we were failing to fight our way back there. I found myself staring at my left hand, wondering how I still had a hand when I didn't have a brother.

Colin and I had been raised in a church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, an institution I still have a great deal of affection for even if my fellowship has lapsed, but my pastor was far more concerned with this world than the next. He was a bit of a universalist, and spent our catechism classes not speculating on life after death, but explaining that loving God meant loving all of humankind. My mother had a bit of a falling out with the Episcopal priest who ran her church in Charleston after she insisted that Colin's memorial service not contain any references to what Colin might be doing now that he was no longer among the living. I agreed with her sentiment, but I still envy people who possess the conviction that death represents an only temporary separation.

I'm not sure if it was for her comfort or mine, but I decided to stay at my mom's for a few months after Colin's death. Colin's girlfriend was finishing up her undergraduate courses in Greensboro, and after that, she'd move in with my mom and begin her adult life. In the meantime, I stayed in Charleston. I spent a good deal of time crying, going to grief counseling, and getting sad-drunk while my mom (who was holding me together rather than the other way around) kept repeating the Meet the Robinsons mantra: "Keep moving forward."

My mom lives along a marshy running path, and a great deal of my non-drinking, non-crying time was spent there, jogging with her Golden Retriever. I'd load up my iPod with podcasts, listening to endless episodes of This American Life, Stuff You Missed in History Class, and The Story Collider. That's also when I started listening to the genre fiction podcasts like Escape Pod and the Clarkesworld Magazine Podcast.

The podcasts were meant to be a distraction, like the wine or the VCDs of movies my mom had brought home from a trip to Asia that Colin had never gotten a chance to watch. But one day, I heard Robert Reed's story "A Woman's Best Friend" on Clarkesworld, and I found that I felt inexplicably lighter. I ran home and immediately looked up the text of the story, rereading it for clues to my sudden shift in emotions.


"A Woman's Best Friend" is a funny story, a sort of multi-worlds parody of It's a Wonderful Life. Instead of being led through an alternate timeline by a down-on-his-luck angel, George Bailey is dumped in another universe by an interdimensional being who finds amusement in such rearrangements. George does meet a doppelgänger of his wife, Mary, but she's no sad spinster and is, in fact, hip to the ways of the multiverse. George left behind a drowned corpse in his own world, but he comes to find that his new home universe holds all sorts of wonders.

I've spent a great deal of time meditating on "A Woman's Best Friend," trying to put my finger on exactly why it was so comforting. All that I can come up with is this: It suggests that existence may be filled with mysteries that we haven't even begun to explore. Maybe it's not ridiculous to think that George Bailey could die after jumping off a bridge and live on at the whim of a multiversal traveler. Maybe we'll all end up in the realm of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld books, reunited with everyone who ever existed. Maybe after the computer simulation of our reality runs its course, our files will be executed in a different setting. "A Woman's Best Friend" certainly didn't claim to have any answers, but it did present possibilities beyond the yes or no of a divinely operated afterlife.


Eventually, I left Charleston, moved across the country to the Bay Area, and started working for io9 full-time. I spent a lot of time trying to lose myself in work (which only made things worse; a few months later, I temporarily vanished from the Internet) and watching loads of television. To some extent, television was another way to escape from the grief weighing constantly on my brain. But I was also picking at my emotional scabs. I fully understood why Fringe's Walter Bishop kidnapped the alternate-universe version of his dead son. Caprica's Amanda Graystone became my drinking buddy; I'd match her tear-soaked glasses of green ambrosia with red wine. Meanwhile, I'd binge on trades of The Walking Dead until I felt nauseous, having overindulged in a world where nearly everyone has lost the person closest to them.

When I read physicist Ronald Mallett's memoir The Time Traveler, I felt a bit less insane for comprehending my grief in the context of traditionally science fictional tropes. Mallett says that he was inspired to pursue time travel research in part because his father died of a heart attack when Mallett was just 10 years old. That childhood notion became Mallett's adult obsession, the pursuit of a real, working time machine. The actual content of Mallett's research has been met with criticism by other theoretical physicists, and I tend to doubt his claim that time travel will be possible within the 21st century, but he isn't some fictional Walter Bishop knocking on the universe next door; he's a real-life scientist who feels the drive to run backwards and scoop up the person he couldn't have protected so long ago. Where that feeling had left me paralyzed, it inspired him to work out a grand dream.


At an io9 meetup, I mentioned to Annalee that I had been reading Mallett's work and that I wanted to write a novel about a physicist who wants to travel back in time to prevent her brother's death and becomes a supervillain in the process. "But it won't work," she said without a second thought. "You wrote that post about how it's a bad idea to bring people back from the dead."


And I realized she was right. If I wrote that story, the physicist wouldn't save her brother. She'd fail, and probably get herself killed in the process. That book, if I wrote it, would have to be about moving on from tragedy, and the self-destruction you can bring upon yourself when you keep your eyes focused on the past. I wasn't ready for that yet, but maybe when I was, it would mean that I was ready to move forward myself.


It would be more than a year before I finally sat down with a copy of Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, perhaps the best book I have ever read about getting on with your life. I could certainly see the appeal of sealing yourself off in a pocket universe outside of time where nothing bad (or really nothing at all) could happen to you. There were times when I would have happily wrapped myself in a warm blanket of mere existence. But through his fictional avatar, Yu reminds himself—and me, and all the rest of us—that life marches forward whether or not we deign to participate, and the people in our lives might be worse off for our non-participation. Even if we can't get to those other timelines, the ones that may house our lost loved ones, we can still find joy in the universe we live in. But we must be willing to live.


There have been smaller lessons and reliefs along the way. I know Bryan Lee O'Malley doesn't consider it canon, but after Mary Elizabeth Winstead revealed that Ramona Flowers' younger brother had died, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour took on new meaning for me. I felt a keen truth in Ramona's constant drive to run away and the significance of her ultimate decision to at least try standing still. Post-apocalyptic stories have provided a strange sort of comfort, probably in part because their inherent unfairness appealed to me and in part because I got to watch the world pretend to burn. And there has been, of course, plenty of escapism. While it's still possible to be glum after marathoning The Venture Bros. or old episodes of Justice League: Unlimited, they can help stave off the tears for a while.


Yes, I still spend a great deal of time being sad. Remembering Colin's birthday is coming up or the phrase "naked mole rat" can still send me into a sobbing fit, but for the most part, I'm okay. I try to remember that there's enough room for everything else along with the mourning, that as great as grief is, it doesn't have to outweigh joy. That's mostly thanks to a good therapist, great friends, and family members who have held me together at my seams. (Bosses and co-workers who understand when you need to stop working for a while to get your head together helps, too.) But there have also been a lot of fantastical stories that have made the path a little easier at times when I wasn't expecting it but definitely needed it.

I also can't watch Meet the Robinsons without bursting into tears, but sometimes I watch it anyway. Keep moving forward.


Top photo by Kate Ter Haar.

Gif via Fuck Yeah Disney Gifs.



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