A Purple Gorilla Named Grief

Imagine when Whitney was at her worst, the world outpoured the love the way it has upon learning of her death, instead of scorn. Would it have made a difference?

I know, from personal experience, that addicts must come to their own understanding and acceptance that they are in fact addicts but often it is too late. Respect has gone and pity is left it’s place. It is hard work being an addict. Even worse living with one.

In AA there is a great metaphorical story, of living with a giant purple gorilla. The alcoholic lives with gorilla. They lives in a cage and they share everything with this beast. Sometimes, people come and they take the person away from the gorilla. They help them to try and see that the gorilla is angry and dangerous and people are starting to stay away. The person wants to escape but the gorilla gets them back, over and over again. He demands to be fed, to be given attention, he breaks things, he breaks willpower.

It is an enormous quest to leave the gorilla.

But the true victims are the ones who are born into captivity with the gorilla. There was no choice and the gorilla’s demands, emotional state and often violent action demands our attention. We don’t understand why we must live with this beast. It can got to hell, as far as we are concerned.

However, the gorilla won’t leave while the drinking is happening, so eventually we leave the person who feeds the gorilla. The addict.

Ah, it’s complicated as fuck and it makes me sad. Whitney makes me sad. Any addict living with the gorilla makes me sad. Any kid living with an addicted parent makes me sad.

I will finish with this poem by my favorite poet, Matthew Dickman. He is never not amazing.


By Matthew Dickman

When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla

you must count yourself lucky.

You must offer her what’s left

of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish

you must put aside,

and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,

her eyes moving from the clock

to the television and back again.

I am not afraid. She has been here before

and now I can recognize her gait

as she approaches the house.

Some nights, when I know she’s coming,

I unlock the door, lie down on my back,

and count her steps

from the street to the porch.

Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,

tells me to write down

everyone I have ever known,

and we separate them between the living and the dead

so she can pick each name at random.

I play her favorite Willie Nelson album

because she misses Texas

but I don’t ask why.

She hums a little,

the way my brother does when he gardens.

We sit for an hour

while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,

crying in the checkout line,

refusing to eat, refusing to shower,

all the smoking and all the drinking.

Eventually she puts one of her heavy

purple arms around me, leans

her head against mine,

and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.

So I tell her,

things are feeling romantic.

She pulls another name, this time

from the dead,

and turns to me in that way that parents do

so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.

Romantic? she says,

reading the name out loud, slowly,

so I am aware of each syllable, each vowel

wrapping around the bones like new muscle,

the sound of that person’s body

and how reckless it is,

how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.





2 thoughts on “A Purple Gorilla Named Grief”

  1. Really liked this post and the poem, Kate. I get frustrated by the way media treats the deaths or drama of addicts–you would never discuss a cancer patient’s death that way, so why do we treat the disease of addiction so negatively?

    1. I think it’s because we all flirt with disease of addiction and ‘there but for the grace of god go I’, is the type of thinking. I think it’s the same with depression or mental illness. People don’t talk about it enough or accept it. Mental illness and depression often go hand in hand, unfortunately.

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