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Why this poet sees grief as its own kind of spiritual practice

Poet Hanif Abdurraqib has struggled with grief from losing important people in his life. He reflects on the ways his spirituality is defined by his understanding of loss.
Maddie McGarvey
Poet Hanif Abdurraqib has struggled with grief from losing important people in his life. He reflects on the ways his spirituality is defined by his understanding of loss.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Grief finds a way. It just does. You can push it away all you want, compartmentalize it to the point where you think to yourself, "Yeah, I'm good. I've got this. I'm not going to be swallowed up by this sadness." But in reality, it just doesn't work like that. Grief burrows into you and it never goes away so you have to figure out a way to live with it - which means acknowledging it, even cultivating it when it makes an appearance in your daily life. And it can also show up in unexpected places. You hear a stranger's laugh and it sounds like someone you lost. Your kid says something hilarious and you want to call your parents and tell them and then you remember they're gone and grief is there again.

Through the years, I have learned that when someone else opens the door to their own grief and invites you inside, it's a gift, and you go through the door. That happened in my recent conversation with poet, author and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib.

I devoured Hanif's latest book, "A Little Devil in America," and was struck by the reverence with which he wrote about music. He has two whole chapters about how, in life and in death, Aretha Franklin was able to transport him to a deeply spiritual place. So I thought for sure when I brought him on to talk, we'd focus on music as a vehicle for spiritual transcendence. But grief finds a way. And when a poet like Hanif Abdurraqib, who finds words to describe the human experience when the rest of us have none, when he invites you into that space with him - you follow.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: How would you define your spiritual identity, if you have one?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I was raised Muslim. And at this point in my life, I am someone who at the very least feels required to believe in the presence of an afterlife because my spiritual identity is so inextricably linked to loss and the amount of people I've lost. People I love a great deal. And I think one thing that propels me forward is believing that there is a place beyond this where we might commune again. But I also don't necessarily believe in the rigidity of an afterlife as it's presented in text, in biblical text or any religious text.

I don't believe one has to earn their way to see the people they love again through a set of good deeds or a set of good works. I'm not motivated to do the things I do because I am afraid of what my eternal life would look like. But I do think that my spiritual relationship is almost entirely defined by my understanding of loss.

Martin: Can you tell me about some of the people that you lost? I know you lost your mom when you were pretty young.

Abdurraqib: Yeah, I lost my mom when I was 12 going on 13. And a lot of my friends died by suicide or drug overdoses. The way I think about it is that they decided the world was not tenable for them.

You know, as someone who has struggled with not always wanting to be here, who has struggled with a sometimes flimsy relationship to being alive, I think there's a difference between "I want to be alive" and "I wanna be here." And sometimes the thinking is, "I don't wanna be here, and the only way to not be here is to not be alive."

It's a hazy thing, but it's kind of like a series of repeated inquiries. And for a lot of people I loved greatly, those inquiries were not returning results. I don't think that's a failure of theirs as much as I think that's often a failure of the world.

Martin: May I ask if music helped you get through your mom's death?

Abdurraqib: I don't know if it did. The most romantic answer is "yes." In some ways music, if nothing else, builds these small monuments to people that I can always hold onto. There are songs that operate as monuments to people I've lost and they make a park of monuments that I can return to. I don't know if that helps necessarily. It does not bring back a person I love and it actually doesn't even refurnish the memory of them in any new way.

Memory is tricky. A few years ago I realized I could not remember the sound of my mother's voice anymore. My dear friend Tyler, who we lost when I was in my early twenties, I don't remember what his laugh sounds like anymore. And there is no song that can refurnish the sonics of their living. But there are songs that can act as a kind of silent film of their life. And that serves a purpose. I hesitate to say it's helpful, but it's certainly not detrimental to the process.

Martin: May I ask for a detail on that? Is there a song that is a mental monument to your mom?

Abdurraqib: Yeah, Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" is one, but more prominently Nina Simone's version of "Pirate Jenny." The live 1964 version. It's harrowing and it's haunting and for some reason I remember this song so vividly. I remember being on the living room floor of our small apartment while my mother was in the kitchen cooking and humming along to it. That's still a vivid memory that I have and hold onto.

Martin: That's a lot of loss, Hanif. To have lost your mom and then to lose really good friends by the time you reach your twenties. When that started happening, had you worked through the loss of your mom to the point where you were more emotionally fluent to process those losses? Or did it just accumulate in you?

Abdurraqib: Well, I'm of the belief that one doesn't move past loss. Or at least in my life, I don't move past loss. Grief makes a home within us if we allow it to. I believe that, at that point, I was learning to be something that I'm committed to now, I believe that I should be a generous steward to my grief. If I tend generously to my grief then it treats me well in return.

That means that each time I'm confronted with the grief, I have a newer depth of tools to move through it. Understanding that grief is not only tied to death or loss, but grief of the various heartbreaks we live with.

When I was in my twenties I was also struggling with the idea of being here and being alive. And there were points where it felt miraculous that I survived. I think I've had points in my life where curiosity has won out over my own nihilistic impulses.

Martin: You mean curiosity about what could happen next if you stick around?

Abdurraqib: Yeah. I kind of wanna see what's on the other side of an hour or a day. My process now if I'm in a state of depression or anxiety, both of which I have lived with for much of my life, I ask myself in the morning, "How good do I feel about being alive today?"

Thankfully these days, more times than not, the answer is at the very least, "Pretty good." Some days it's "very good." But there are some days where the answer is, "Not very good at all." And then it becomes a descending clock. It's no longer, "How do I feel about being alive today?" it's "How do I feel about being alive this hour?"

And if the answer is still "Not very good" then it's, "How do I feel about being alive in the next 20 minutes?" If the answer is still "Not very good" then it gets a little more urgent and I ask, "What curiosity can propel me towards the next five minutes?" If I move through the day I will find an accumulation of things that propel me to the next day where the answer might be different and better.

Martin: If your spiritual identity is so tethered to loss in this way, as in you have a spiritual notion about the afterlife because you have lost people and want to see them again, does that mean there's no function for spirituality and the joy of meaning that can bring to a life in the present for you? Is it all a projection of what happens after you die?

Abdurraqib: I think that's the most useful projection for me. I do fast Ramadan every year and I do that because I love the discipline it requires. It's not just not eating and drinking, you're supposed to be clear headed and operate in a way that allows you to approach it with openness, it's a holistic approach. But I don't find myself eager to have a conversation with God.

I am someone who operates with belief though. I believe that at some point perhaps I will see the people I love again. And I think there's a richness to that belief that holds me up.

Martin: You mentioned earlier about how your day goes can be determined by where grief sits in you. Could you describe what a day looks like when grief is treating you well?

Abdurraqib: I think grief treats me best when I'm channeling the people I've lost through my current living. For example, the best example I can give of this also goes back to music. There are a couple songs that I love, that I'm really drawn to, but they're songs I'm loving because I know Tyler would love them. And so I am loving them through him. Or there are things I know how to make, to cook or bake because I watched my mother do it.

I think grief treats us well when these parts of people that we've gotten to enjoy greet us warmly. That's the real gift, to say I am not just one person, I am multiple versions of a person and some of those versions of myself have been loved immensely by people who were so incredible.

Through their loving of me I have a richer texture, and that texture that allows me to navigate the world in ways that I am not equipped to do so on my own. And that means that on my best days I get through the world, through the challenges of living, navigated by a whole host of people who have created a generous blueprint through which I have learned to maneuver this life well.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.