Surviving the Loss of a Mate

Poet Elizabeth Alexander offers insight into living through grief

In 2009, Elizabeth Alexander took the stage at President Barak Obama's inauguration to read "Praise Song for the Day," a poem she had composed for the occasion. Three years later, Alexander's beloved husband—the artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus—died suddenly of a heart attack. Her new memoir, The Light of the World, chronicles her life with Ficre, before and after his death at 50. Alexander tells Life Reimagined about navigating the territory of grief.

You were only the fourth poet in history to appear on the dais at an inauguration. What was it like?

It was a solemn honor to be part of that day that meant so much to so many people and that had such historical resonance. To be an American poet representing American poets was both humbling and joyful.

Was it difficult to make the transformation from writing poetry to writing a memoir?

I have been thinking of The Light of the World as "poet's prose," because I wrote it little bit by little bit, each line and then small chapter constructed in the same way I wrote poems, where the power of the word is everything. I was able to do this one prismatic moment at a time, which mirrors the way I have been moving through grief.

When Ficre died, you lost your husband and your boys lost their father. What was it like to try and comfort them when you were so shattered by grief yourself?

I knew that every morning I needed to get up and get them fed and ready to go to school, and that was a blessing. It didn't paper over my sorrow, but it did remind me of my sacred purpose on this earth: to continue to raise my children as best I could. No one else could do that. As I have written, sometimes I would get back into bed as soon as they left and weep, and they definitely saw me in my grief. But I knew I had to be there for them, and that was larger than the emotional quicksand of grief.

You dreamed a lot about Ficre. Was that comforting or did it exacerbate your pain?

Both. At first he was absent from my dreams, and I think that was my subconscious protecting me, for when he first appeared and then I realized it was a dream, I was inconsolable. It felt like loss afresh. He still doesn't appear in my dreams as often as I would like. But when he does, though I feel loss when I wake up, I also feel grateful to have been in the particularity of his way of seeing and speaking, and smile, his radiant love.

Many people helped you along the path to healing. Can you tell us about William Cameron at the Grove Creek Cemetery?

Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven is a gorgeous cemetery with historical significance. It is beautifully landscaped and filled with blossoms in spring, an oasis in the middle of the city. Ficre and I used to take walks there to discuss important matters—many people in New Haven use it is a sanctuary for walking. Mr. Cameron is the manager and caretaker there and has been for many decades—I believe he is close to 90. He opens and closes the cemetery every day and has great insight into human beings and grief. He always has a wise word and a kind demeanor when I go to visit, and his manner has made visiting much easier for my children. Someone should do an oral history of him—he has seen so much and observed people at very intense moments.

A priest at Ficre's church taught you many things about grieving. What were they?

My family belongs to St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Orange Connecticut, and though we don't often attend, and it is not the faith in which I was raised, Father Peter has welcomed us with open arms at all of life's major junctures. He taught me that our beloveds remain with us in some way even after their bodies are gone, and he also taught me that the ability to make art and to live life in art is a sacred calling, one that Ficre and I shared and to which we were devoted.

What was the turning point in your journey through grief?

I don't think of it that way—I think evolution in life is better measured two steps forward, one step back. The journey continues. But if I had to point to one moment, it would actually be the very moment my children and I wept over Ficre's body in the hospital. As I said to them then, "We will suffer, but we will survive," and I just knew that, very clearly, in that moment.

Is there anything you would do differently?

Perhaps, yes, but I don't think that way. I always ask, what's the lesson? When something doesn't go well, I don't dwell in regret, I just try to do better.

Near the end of the book you ask your sons, "How can we be so happy, when we've been through so much?" What's the answer?

The beauty and love and experiences that are meaningful to us cannot be taken away. They happened; they remain with us. They will always know they had a magical father who lived his life for them and poured all the knowledge and love and affection he had into them. That is indelible, and an ongoing source of joy.

What would you say to someone who has lost a spouse or partner and feels unmoored?

I would say, we may be profoundly lonely, but we are never alone. There is always a new village to be created; there is always someone who will surprise you with their kindness. If you were loved deeply, you are loved—that doesn't go away. And no one can tell you how to walk your unique road, just know that there are companions along the road, and often in surprising places.