Mount Eerie is Phil Elverum. Genevieve Castree was the singer’s wife. She passed away in 2016. The next year, “A Crow Looked at Me” came out. The album dealt with her death. It was a massive shift in theme for Mount Eerie, and considered the best album of 2017 by a wide range of critics. I bounced off some of what made it great. It was in the throes, too immediate and visceral. I knew it was good, but it’s not the way I process death.
In 2018, Mount Eerie released “Now Only”. It picked up immediately where “A Crow Looked at Me” left off. It took the breath out of me. “A Crow Looked at Me” was an immediate thing. It was sorrow, and numbness. Those aren’t the things I struggle with after someone I love dies. I’m decent at coping, communicating, at finding some process I can dive into that helps me pace those feelings. They’re still incredibly hard, but I can do them.
What I struggle with are the days after, those moments months down the road when I’m well into coping with it. That feeling of missing someone, I can process. But once I begin to get healthier and move on, I begin to fear I won’t miss them the same way again. Once I’ve dealt with the heartbreak, I can fear that I won’t be able to access that heartbreak the same way, to inhabit that moment of mourning again.
When death is fresh and I haven’t begun to deal with it, there’s a space where it’s so hyper-real that it feels otherworldly. The immediate moments after someone’s death can feel like reading Victorian nonsense poetry, a condition invented by a writer chasing the ridiculous. “They went to sea in a sieve” makes about as much sense.
Later, there’s a moment when you turn and it’s not unreal anymore. The moment isn’t supersaturated. That unreality was just a shield, a space to exist to cope. That dissonance between “I just talked to her” and “I’ll never be able to talk to her again” was a shelter. You can breathe in that unreal, saturated, nonsense moment when it doesn’t make sense because it’s so damn ridiculous. You can breathe there, but once the reality of it begins to take hold, it takes the breath from you. It takes that coping space. Once it’s normalized in your life, there’s no nonsense to it anymore. There’s just the fading of that dissonant, safe shelter where you could still feel that person so close still.
“Now Only” captures that new, echoing, isolated, wrecked place. When I begin to cope, I begin to miss how much I missed someone, how close I felt in those moments of shock, how much I felt before it became normal, how saturated the moment was and how much that marked how important someone was.
And even as I cope with this, as coping becomes the new normal, I begin to catch my breath back. And I feel guilty for catching my breath. The sorrow was a testament. My inability to function was a monument to the meaning of who I lost. To move on is to belittle that. I don’t want to belittle that, to dismiss it. I might chase a moment of that non-function. I miss existing in the shock, and then I miss existing in the wreckage, and then once I stop being able to access these as readily, it feels like I’ve done something wrong, like I’ve betrayed how close a memory was.
To be able to keep going back to those sensations feels like keeping the person I lost around. If time heals, then I’m angry at time. Fuck time. It broke someone I loved. It’s the most obvious thing to resist and be angry at in this moment. And part of healing is to one day realize going back to those feelings, going back to that anger, is becoming more and more about going through the motions of it to salve that guilt for having coped.
To recover is to lose your closeness to those intense emotional pieces that keep you connected to the person you lost. But so many of those pieces are desperately formed in those moments after, when there’s just one of you left and you’re working as hard as possible to fill yourself with monuments, with testaments for how much they meant to you, because each one makes you feel like they’re still there.
To recover is to distance. To hold on is to keep someone alive – to keep that moment when you’d still just talked to them and it hadn’t yet translated that you couldn’t talk to them anymore active. That’s real. It’s also an illusion. A part of you will never give that person up to death, even after that nonsense shelter you built for yourself fades. Over time, that becomes a beautiful place, less visited, overgrown, but calmer, more introspective, less fearful of their death and more celebratory of their life.
You don’t want to think about how beautiful their life was at first because doing so would be to accept their death. You want to stay in that moment when you haven’t accepted it, when it’s not real yet, when death hasn’t yet gotten your approval.
Even as you cope, you never want to lose hold of that place. You never want to lose your closeness to it, but coping is about that place changing, and not needing it as often.
It’s not the missing I have the most trouble with. It’s hard, but I know I can deal with that. It’s once the missing fades, how much I miss the missing, how much I feel I’ve failed for not missing as much as I had.
Thinking about how much they meant, loving the moments you had, is also accepting that there won’t be any new ones. I don’t know that I want to fully accept that, but at some point loving them means celebrating and remembering them instead of keeping myself in a place where I can’t.
There’s a fulcrum that balances these two things. I can know this and yet fear it won’t show up, or that it will develop a different balance than I want. That fulcrum evolves over time, shifts as you process and cope. That fulcrum, that shift from clinging to the act of missing to embracing the act of remembering – it’s a process very few works of art can translate. It’s so internal, and we tackle death in our culture in those moments when our reactions are most dramatic and outward.
There’s a bare handful of works of art that can inhabit that process, that can recognize it, remind us it’s OK to go through, that will always inhabit that painful and needed evolution every time I watch or listen to them. It’s where “Now Only” takes me. A part of me wishes it hadn’t. A part of me is thankful it does. I need to know it’s normal, that it’s not some shitty, inhuman thing, some over-complicated process built from ego. It’s just grieving, and guilt that we’re still here, and pain that things are different now. It’s like the world is missing a color I’ll never see again. Its OK to not know how to handle that. Harder yet, it’s OK to begin learning how to cope with it.