In this Time of Dying/Practicing Grief

Zibby Jahns
MFA SC 2022

With the multitude of deaths due to the inadequacies of our government and healthcare system and the general anxiety everyone is feeling, it has felt really difficult to grieve for any individual person, in person. Despite this, I still find it important to carve out space for memory, honoring, and celebration.

I am so grateful I have had the ability to mourn my loved ones in the most beautiful, ecstatic, collective ways over the years. It is a gift to cry and laugh while building altars with friends, to dance til your feet hurt, til you see your dearly departed dancing next to you, to hug every single person around you and sincerely, with every cell, thank the stars they are still alive on earth. Now we have to grieve in the ways capitalism has taught us: silently, behind closed doors, without much time or fuss or drama, mourn with dollars and move on.

We are in a moment when reality is teetering. Where beautiful futures are just over the next hill but the valley before is so long and dry and hot. The only water seems to be a man-made pond of deep, salty sadness, possibly toxic to drink due to the fracking nearby. How to make mirages of sweet sustenance a reality? How to hold our love and grief when people are unnecessarily dying in this country at staggering rates—murdered, ignored, sterilized, caged, made to live on toxic soil? How to grieve when immense numbers of people can’t buy food or pay their bills but billionaires are richer than ever? How to find solace when we physically can’t hug those we love, lest we endanger those who are more vulnerable than we?

I have had to learn my own ways of mourning. I don’t know how my ancestors grieved in the old country. The funeral industry has removed most of the rituals, although we still eat pierogies and kielbasa together and tell stories we’ve been waiting a lifetime to admit. There is such happiness in this remembering.

With friends, memorials have been more spontaneous, cobbled together with the same intensity and time constraints as any good party. We make it up as we go along, much the way we do in our living. It often feels like the people who’ve passed have known most how to live. They enjoyed euphoria by the fistful. They were messy with their happiness and ran headfirst into slippery situations and the dangers of heartbreak. That part of myself has begun to calcify. I can recite the rules of physics to a fault. I plan for disaster before a threat is on the horizon. To remember is to pry this soft part of myself back open. It hurts at first, but if I relax into it, it soothes too. 

Through every loss I learn to love more. It’s tough. It doesn’t come overnight. Loss constricts the body, hardens the fascia. I practice being present. I wish I could remember all the silly insignificant times when I was blissful with the ones I love. The ones I’ve lost. The ones we’ve lost. I try to tell those stories, however fragmented, with a big smile, unashamed to remember fondly, out loud, in company. I try to indulge in the pleasures of the departed, participate in activities I’d never enjoy otherwise. I like to make gifts for those loved ones, taking the same care I would if I could see their faces in joyous surprise. I decorate the places where their pictures sit and hum their favorite tunes. I remember with my body. May their memory be a blessing.

Zibby Jahns, Practicing Grief, December 2020, steel, 5 x 4 x 4 ft. (Ashley Harris, MFA Glass ’21, reclines.)

I made this piece, a reflection of my own body, as an offering, a place for people to let go, go within, and grieve—a way for me to hold strangers who are hurting at a time when we cannot touch each other. It takes balance and resolve to overcome the fear of lying here, suspended in the air. Like grief, this object is not welcoming. But as one person who experienced it said, the release of opening the heart inspires tears.

Zibby Jahns is an interdisciplinary artist who explores themes of connection and loss within community space through memory, as invoked by debris and objects made sacred. They navigate these themes through performance, illustration, textiles, and sculpture.