Grief Work

Ashley Bethard

A few years ago, in the thick of summer, I returned to my family’s Ohio farm. The land there holds the creaky, late-1800s farmhouse where I lived for thirteen years, tucked just beneath the state’s northern coast, about ten miles south of Lake Erie. Life swells there, so thick it could burst: the whir of cicadas, the rustling of trees cut by a breeze, the sound of semis rushing on Route 20, all carried across the flat fields and landing as a distant roar. There, the droning of mowers and the loud, incessant beeping of farm equipment dot the auditory landscape like some slow, earthly Morse code. For me, this complete immersion of the senses prompts the process of recall. I find myself clambering back through memory: part climb, part crawl, part breathless scramble. I notice more trees are dying.

“The pines,” my mother said to me, as we sat on the front steps. She waved her hand at the twelve trees lining the driveway. Their branches were sparse, the browning needles thinning.

Pines are known for their long lives. Recently, I read about one that scientists found in Italy that’s 1,230 years old, making it the oldest scientifically-dated tree in Europe. It juts out from the earth, its sunbleached limbs stabbing at the sky. It’s gnarled, wizened, and miraculous: despite its appearance, it’s had a recent growth spurt.

“What do you think it is?” I asked.

“No idea,” she said. She stared past the trees, lost in her thoughts. I wanted to tell her about the Italian pine, but I didn’t.


Several years ago, the emerald ash borer swept through our woods like a winged flame. My memory tells me it happened fast, in the span of a couple years. But when I ask my father, he says otherwise.

“There were already a lot of dead trees when we moved there,” he said. “It probably took six to ten years.”

Regardless of the timespan, the result was the same: every ash tree in our forest died. My father spent seasons sawing up the dead trees for firewood. It was either that or let them rot in the woods, since Ohio law restricts the transport of ash trees in an attempt to contain the blight. Not one to let anything go to waste, he seized the opportunity to fuel our woodstove for the winter. Ash is some of the best wood to burn, he told me. It produces a steady fire and good heat.

I helped him load and stack the wood, observing the pathways the insect had cut into the trunk. When a tree is infested by the borer, the bark splits and falls off easily, like shedding a too-tight skin. It dropped off in chunks as he sawed through the trunks. I traced the patterns they left with my fingertips, a collection of smooth paths and slight ridges that wound and curled themselves into loops. The patterns are a pretty byproduct of destruction, created by larvae eating their way between the bark and outer layer of the trunk. This delicate space between the two is where the food network is located—the maze of tiny veins and tunnels carrying nutrients to all parts of the tree. Once the larvae begin to eat, they disrupt the network, destroying it completely.


The week my sibling died of a heroin-fentanyl overdose, I came back to the farm and noticed the curly willow was dead. I obsessed over it. It was an otherwise unremarkable feature of the landscape, but suddenly its absence was the only thing I saw. The gap between what once was and what was no more throbbed like a pulse, accompanied by spikes of adrenaline, shortness of breath. Symptoms my body would perfect in the weeks after their death and would hold on to for years.

The only thing that made sense to me was this: walk the yard in the midday heat, let the preternaturally hot May sun blind me, feel the energy drain from my body. My father taught me the best cure for pain was work. That may or may not be true, but I did it anyway. I dragged brittle, unwieldy branches to the fire pit one by one, set one foot in front of the other, pushed the sweat from my eyes. Grief-work is body work. It is carrying. It is sweating. There was nothing logical about it; it was all I knew. I just had to keep moving.


There is one memory I keep coming back to. On a cold weekend in April, when my sibling was still alive, my boyfriend and I drove to the Ohio farm to spend my birthday with my family. The weekend was mostly awful: my boyfriend and I were barely speaking, and my parents had no birthday festivities planned. But a few hours before I had to leave, I convinced my sibling to go for a walk with me.

They had been subdued and quiet. Several times, they fell asleep on the couch for long spells at odd hours in front of the crackling wood stove, the TV blaring. It was the sleep of exhaustion, of resignation. There was a vulnerability in their sprawl, limbs dangling off the couch until someone, one of us, gently moved their arm back to rest. They sweated profusely, and in an occasional fit of motion, tossed the blanket off their body. One of us would pick it up and return it, careful not to wake them.

So we walked to the woods together, silent, making our way along the treeline, past the muddy fields slick from melted snow, the razor-sharp edges of last year’s crop still standing at attention. We walked past overgrown thickets with their wild tangle of reedy brambles, catching the attention of a red-winged blackbird that hopped from branch to branch, clucking as it followed us.

It was early spring, after the first true melt, and while everything was bleak and colorless except for the greys and browns of a sleeping earth, there was a scent in the air suggesting it would all turn soon. Once in the woods, we stomped through wet, matted leaves and overgrown paths until we reached the creek. We followed the waterline until we reached it—a small, secure aluminum bridge, wide enough for a pickup truck to drive across. Aluminum is lightweight and very strong, my father said. He had installed it with help from my sibling one summer when I was in high school. They spent several days clearing out brush, assembling pieces, and anchoring the sides.

But it had washed out, turned askew. One side had gone completely unmoored, its end submerged in the creek as the water trickled by. Half of it was now buried in the muck. Its body had gone sideways, like the earth was trying to swallow it whole. Their work had been undone, no match for nature.

We climbed up and sat on the unswallowed half. All around us were the standing carcasses of dead ash trees, bark long gone, their stark white trunks engraved with the otherworldly patterns left by the borer.

And then I confessed: my fear that my boyfriend would propose, and how that filled me with an unstoppable flood of anxiety. When they asked why, I said: because I can’t say yes.

They looked at me, eyes wide, searching my face. They asked: then why are you wasting your time?

Through the lump in my throat, I started to run through the list of reasons: I didn’t know how to extricate myself after years together. I was scared of starting over. I feared being alone, and the uncertainty of what that meant in a city that still didn’t quite feel like home. They reached for my hand. I leaned onto their shoulder, the old Carhartt they wore smelling like cigarette smoke and wood stove ash and mothballs, and cried there quietly into the afternoon, listening to the sounds of birds and the rustle of the creek, and I felt time and place compounding in a way that I hadn’t before. Things would change. But somehow I could move forward, could learn a new way of being.


That summer they died, I returned to my first childhood home, the one on the east coast, to find almost all the trees there had been culled, cut back, or removed completely. I discovered this as I pulled into the now-naked driveway leading to the yellow Dutch barn-style house my parents built together. My eyes swam, trying to match what I was seeing with an overlay of memory, the picture of what once was, my brain marking the gaps with tiny synaptic explosions. I could not stop myself from noticing absences.

Once there had been two large maples marking the edges of our property, one on the right, one on the left—imperfect twins that created a comfortable, messy symmetry. A frame for context, now removed. The once-neat edges loosened and blurred. A gnarled apple tree that sat squarely behind our driveway was gone, too. In the fall, the apples dropped to the ground, filling the air around it with the perfume of sweet rot. It became a buzzing carpet of bees, ants, and other stinging insects: a natural landmine.

The three pines hurt the most. They once stood in a loose, formidable cluster to the left of the driveway, across from the house. They were close together and far enough apart that their branches grew into one another, forming a cover from the sun, except in a few places where light streamed through. The smooth dirt floor was protected from the elements, topped with a carpet of soft, dry pine needles. It was a magical treehouse, one that existed just for us.

My sibling and I spent countless hours there beneath its boughs, creating elaborate stories starring ourselves as the main characters. We surveyed the yard, loaded up our rusted Radio Flyer wagon with sticks, rocks, and other found treasures, and used the supplies to furnish the treehouse. We stacked layers of thin sticks in a rectangle, covered it with handfuls of silky pine needles, and called it a couch. We built a fire circle with round stones, and added a cooking spit using two Y-shaped sticks and a bucket.


I was the ringleader; the bossy one who barked out tasks. Get the bricks from dad’s pile. Go find a hammer. Ask mom for some wire. Find some leaves. They were eager to please, the sweet one who would fulfill my requests without a question. All I had to do was ask. When they returned, bright-eyed and triumphant, they’d share what they found, a smile on their sweat-drenched face, blonde curls slick around the edges. All they wanted, it seemed, was to do things that made me happy. To make their big sister proud.

This dynamic continued throughout most of our childhood years. They began to copy me, too—at least, that’s how I saw it. If I tried a new hobby or started learning a skill, they wanted to try it too. They want to be just like you, my mother would say. It’s a compliment. But I saw it as competition. I had to be first; I had to be best. And when it became clear that they were better than me at many things, I’d become angry and give up. I was the flighty, finicky one. They were slow and focused. Soon, they were sewing quilting scraps into elaborate patterns to make potholders, while I could barely make a stitch.

The most memorable humiliation was bike riding. One day, we both had training wheels. On the next, they rounded the corner free of them, riding fast into the wind, golden legs scuffed with dirt and cabs, pedaling furiously on two wheels. I huffed and labored behind them to keep up, feeling heavy with my extra wheels and the petty grievance of an older child who had been outdone by her younger sibling.


I always felt safe there in the pines, as if they formed a circle of protection around us. It was a sort of magic, how we could conjure anything within those trees. But now they were gone: chopped down, reduced to sawdust, someone else’s firewood. An unforgettable place of my childhood obliterated from the landscape completely.

I realize place is not memory. I haven’t lost my memories because the landscape changed. But they do feel more tenuous, more fragile. Slippery. Like they could disappear at any moment.

It’s still hard for me to explain the life-fracturing experience of losing someone so violently, the way I lost my sibling. To say it consumes is just the beginning of the after. Sometimes my breath felt like it was on a looped track, one that kept timing out, interrupting each inhale and exhale. I had to remind myself how to breathe, my internal voice coaching me through it. What was once a thoughtless pattern was now disrupted by the perpetual static of grief. Bursts of panic drove my nervous system into overdrive. Spells of sadness filled my limbs with lead, and I felt stretches of longing pierce deep in my gut.

Worst of all was the way grief clouded my thoughts, my ability to recall. How it began crowding out memories, like everything up to that point had crumbled. Then the loss became something else entirely: the inability to remember. And then, the panic of that. Loss upon loss upon loss.

I read so much grief literature after they died. I signed up for a Bereaved Parents of the USA newsletter, desperate for something that would help, searching for any bit of wisdom I could apply to my pain. But the problem with much of grief literature is that it suggests that you can move forward by promising the past: the lost will live on through your memories. This seems to be false logic to me, because the nature of trauma itself changes the brain and obscures lived experience. Everything becomes hard to remember. And when the landscape of those places change, so does memory itself. My father’s removal of the trees is an assault on my already-tenuous memory. How do I get my memory back?


My father is a practical man. He is someone who does what needs to be done. He has a deeply ingrained respect for nature and reserves his highest admiration for landscapes that have remained unspoiled by human hands. When I ask about the trees, he explains to me, with trademark matter-of-factness, why they had to go. Some were leaning dangerously toward a neighbor’s house or toward power lines. Some had dropped massive limbs after rough storms. Some were sick—riddled with disease, unable to return to a healthy state, at risk of infecting others. But I can’t stop myself from thinking it’s deeper than that—like it’s his way of grappling with his own grief. I wonder if he needs to change the landscape in order to cope with memories he’s unable to run from. There is logic in this: change the place that holds them. Remake it in a new image. Raze what you once raised.

But despite this logic I’ve superimposed, the urge possesses a fatal flaw by suggesting we have the ability to physically reshape our pasts, to re-architect our own memories. Control is a human obsession. A way to manage something that causes pain. We can try all we want, but we can’t wrest pain from the truth, and we can’t wrest truth from the land. They are indivisible. These histories can be retold or recast, but the version remaining will never be quite true for the teller.

Later that day, after we’ve had a few beers, my father tells me he saved the wood from the pines you kids used to play in. I recognize this double-vision, this collision course of then-and-now, as if we’re living in two times at once, decades apart.

“I thought about making something out of them, but I don’t know,” he said. He wiped his face with a napkin, carefully folded it, studied his hands. This is a tic of his, one I couldn’t quite read until I was older. It’s his nervous fidgeting, the thing he does with his hands to quell anxiety.

He tells me about possibility, forward-facing: this wood he saved could be sawed into boards. He uses the word maybe. He is noncommittal, maybe unsure. He says he wants to remove the four lilac bushes that line the road—they’ve grown so big that they’re a visibility problem now. He wants to replace them with crepe myrtles, maybe—something similar but not the same. My stomach knots at the mention of lilacs. They’re the ones we played under after a rain, one of us standing underneath the waterlogged blossoms while the other shook the branch, creating our own outdoor shower.

The conversation suggests he’s not fully at ease with what he’s done. At least, this is how I read it. It’s like part of him wants to hold on to the past, but he’s not quite sure what to do with it. Now, that past is piled up in the form of limbs, trunks that have been turned into woodchips, and upturned root systems. It’s in the blank circles of dirt where the trees once stood. But it’s also a past that he talks of transforming into something new. In other words, it’s not just physical eradication—it’s transmutation, too. Creating something new out of the old. Something that doesn’t remind him of the past every time he looks at it. An act of selective forgetting. Of memory management.

I think of Sophie Calle’s book “Detachment.” In it, she surveys missing and partially-removed monuments in what was once East Berlin, taking photos of their absence. With the exception of the brief introduction, the text is comprised only of pieces of interviews with the people who live there. I start to think of detachment as an action. As a deliberate way we acknowledge absence. A way we reckon with history, or dismiss it. A questioning of the collective narrative of history. The interviews contained in the book are wildly different. Detachment, it seems, is an individual process, not a collective one. Much like grief.

I think about my father’s desire to remove. I think it is probably driven by many things—necessity, pain, shame.


I think of place as a reckoning in a way that time isn’t. Time is a kind of softness that creeps up on you, takes you by surprise. Place, on the other hand, is an immediate assault on the tangible. Place is not so forgiving. Here’s an equation: place + time = loss.

I look for the ways place mirrors me. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say my state of mind dictates how I see place. It can be a canvas I project my own life onto. Place tells the whole story, usually, unconstrained by human desires to shape its narrative. It tells of the build and the fall. Of growth and destruction. Of beauty and trauma. How these things aren’t opposites at all, but are part of the very same cycle: birth and death, over and over again. How we always return to the earth. Isn’t place like a body, then?

Release is another word for detach. So is remove. It is the letting go of intent, a decision, the brain telling the fist to unclench, the fingers moving from curled to splayed. It is not the letting go of resignation. Maybe grief is the way we learn to let a body go. Here I am, seizing place as a substitute for memory. Would I feel the same way about place if my sibling was still alive?

I think of the trees and I imagine my father’s body, still strong at seventy, pushing himself across the land like easy machinery. I know the way he works: methodical, efficient. Applying a chainsaw at just the right angle. Using his body weight as heft behind a handsaw. Triangulating height and lean and distance to ensure a limb’s safe fall. I see him clearly, boring into the land the way grief bores into a body, disrupting the circuitry of all that came before it. Not to forget, but to detach.

Ashley Bethard headshot

Ashley Bethard  is a writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, The Rumpus, PANK Magazine, Hobart, Fanzine, and others. A 2019 Tin House Winter Workshop alum, she was also the 2017 recipient of the Ohioana Library’s Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. Find her online at @ashleybethard and