Three years after Whitney Houston’s death, the singer's daughter was in the public eye more than ever. As this writer, who lost a parent, knows, unwanted exposure while grieving can be lethal.
For Bobbi Kristina and all those who have experienced the unfortunate incident of grieving:
I recently finished reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. The story of a woman who survived the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, but her husband, her children, her parents, and her best friend did not. She wrote that when she’d been rescued, her savior recounted that he found her sitting in mud “spinning in a circle and mumbling to herself.” That image lived within me, the spinning in mud, as that was what life after death felt like to me for years. This continuous and deranged wander, where others watched me spin, but I did not know its difference from forward.
Where were you when Whitney Houston died?
I was away on a weekend trip to Amsterdam. I was surprised to discover how deeply the news of her death affected me because I hadn’t actively sought out her music in my adult life. But as the news of her death was sinking in, I realized how much her music was a mainstay of my childhood: My maternal grandparents had a video of Welcome Home Heroes With Whitney Houston, and I’d spend hours doing the running man to songs like “My Name is Not Susan,” only to rewind the tape and do it all over again. I’ll never forget sitting on my father’s lap as he readied for the Super Bowl XXV, in 1991, and together we watched her belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And I know my mother owned at least three copies of The Bodyguard soundtrack and bought the VHS as soon as it had been released. “I Will Always Love You” would be blasting from her stereo in the master bedroom, and my father would wait until the climax before bursting into the doorway, hands up and ready, “And IIIIIIIIIIIIEEEIIII!” while my mother and I screeched and threw pillows in his way, which he’d effortlessly dodge, grinning and laughing.
As I contemplated Whitney that day—three years ago, February 11—I realized there was not one Whitney Houston album I did not own, not one song I did not know. I may not have sought her out in years, but my love for her was an integral part of my life, and, admittedly, something I’d taken for granted.
“What’s going to happen to Bobbi Kristina?” I asked a friend soon after the singer died.
My friend shrugged. “She’s going to be pretty friggin’ rich.”
Two days after we buried my father, when I was in college, my family put me back on a plane to Penn State. “Your father would want you to finish school,” my mother told me. “You have to be strong.” The flight from Oakland, California, to State College, Pennsylvania, usually takes over seven hours. But really, Oakland (OAK) to Washington Dulles Airport (IAD) is about six hours, but then add to it a layover, and a good 40 minutes from IAD to State College’s small airport, in a propeller plane. I made that journey alone, downtrodden and frightened. I slumped against the window and burst into tears every 30 minutes or so, bringing much discomfort to the unfortunate soul who sat in the middle seat next to me. Somewhere over the Missouri, I undid the latch on my backpack and found a book in there. I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that there was the word JESUS in the title, and a familiar cover of a Semitic land—sand and sun, a shadow of a human roaming over the dunes. My mother had slipped it in my backpack while I’d readied myself in the bathroom.
I never opened that book, nor any of the other books family members felt compelled to send me over the months: all of them about how to get over loss, promising me the future of some blurred-faced White woman grinning in soft lighting while her brunette hair bounced free of grief. As far as I was concerned, those promises were lies. There was no Bible verse that could comfort me, no Kübler-Ross stage to follow. Grief felt like a battle, a struggle to break the surface, but with no foreseeable surface in sight.
Every day I rose from bed, went to class and observed students from a portal of some Dead Fathers realm I’d passed into—watching all these people living. My friends handled me with humiliating care. I found myself forcing myself to say “my parents” instead of “my mom” when I spoke. I talked about my father to anyone who would listen, more than I’d ever mentioned him when he was alive. And if I came by a stranger, I would tell him or her within the first few minutes of our encounter that my father was dead. It was like a disease I was tired of hiding. Hello, I’m Carol and I suffer from an acute and seemingly incurable case of grieving. They’d always say: “Oh, I’m sorry! So sorry for your loss!” And from that apology spawned this expectation to relieve them of the discomfort I’d caused them. This slightly postured entitlement that we’re taught at an early age: Someone says sorry, the other person forgives. So I relieved them with a lie: “It’s okay, I’ve accepted it,” to allow them that space to exist without death.
Grief has a way of isolating those who carry it, and when it overwhelmed, I retreated. I hid in the comfort of my apartment, with my video games and my dog. I turned off my phone and shut down Facebook. Friends would understand. “Oh, that’s Carol being Carol,” they’d say, “she’ll show back up when she feels like it. I could disappear, if only for a little while.
Bobbi Kristina never had the freedom to retreat, let alone to disappear. She was forced to live out her ugly grief in the public eye, through a reality show and social media. Which is little surprise, because from the moment she was born, she had been thrust into the public eye, born into a famous family, as the daughter of a woman who went from being a subject of admiration and awe, to tabloid fodder, as her drug addiction consumed her and her marriage to bad boy Bobby Brown became increasingly, spectacularly bizarre and abusive. She was an aspiring singer who neither inherited her mother’s angelic belt nor her looks, but instead her father’s sweaty hump-face, one that somehow worked for him because it made so many ladies bellow “BOBBBBAAAAY.” Bobbi Kristina, not surprisingly, grew into a young woman with $20 million, a drug problem of her own, and a not-quite-husband-brother-person-thing that the masses sneered at. One media outlet after another taunted her with images of her mother, with old films, unreleased footage, interviews, and that Lifetime movie that oh-so-meticulously documented her parents’ turmoiled relationship. Bobbi Kristina was a griever who was force-fed her loss, and she could never hide, and therefore she could never heal.
I refused to move home after college. Too much memorabilia of my father still lay around the house and it sent me into an anxiety-driven stupor. So I went to Washington, D.C. Grieving had settled at the core of me, and like a parasite it fed off my sensibilities. I mistrusted my knowledge, my faith, and most days I spent hours layering on heavy eyeliner and picking at my guitar. I stopped speaking to my brother. We were both too angry. I couldn’t handle my mother. We were both too catatonic. Grieving has a way of isolating the griever, even when they share that loss, even when we were most in need of each other.
Three years passed and I spun in my mud puddle. I became a binge drinker. I showed up to work hungover and indifferent. I fought with boys in cars and made a stupid mistake in an alleyway. I went to the OBGYN. I waited for the results. I swore off liquor and tried to be a better daughter to my mother. The results came back clean. I’d walk the path of recovery a few weeks or even a month or so before being seized by some anger that would drive me back to a bar to find more tequila or possibly a new boy that I secretly hoped would abuse me.
The third anniversary of my father’s death came in late September, and I woke up at 3 a.m. at the Black Cat, a music club, face first in a slice of chocolate cake, hand wrapped around a glass that reeked of alcohol, and a gash across my thigh. I stood up, the ground shifted under me. I patted the walls for balance, found the door, and fell outside to my hands and knees, where legs parted and voices yelled at me, “Drunk as fuck!”
I found the wall again, patted my way down 14th, to U Street, and I tiptoed around traffic to my apartment building, heaving vomit in stride. I didn’t make it to the eighth floor, and instead got off at the third and banged on my friend’s door.
“What the …?” she began, but I pushed past her, tumbled all the way to her bathroom and miraculously poked my head over the toilet right as the last bit of tequila in me was ejected.
“Uh?” I heard her call to me from behind. “Did you take anything besides alcohol?” I dragged myself into her bathtub and pulled down on a lever. Cold water shattered my body, sending me into convulsions, my straightened hair puffed and curled. “Don’t hook me up to no machines,” I muttered. “Just let me die. That’s what my father used to tell me.”
“You need to get a grip,” she replied, leaving a glass of water and two aspirin on top of the toilet. She made me an appointment with a therapist the next day.
It’s been three years for Bobbi Kristina, now. Three years, and loved ones found her not breathing in a bathtub.Gossip sites report that her last texts had been about the upcoming anniversary of her mother’s death. Newest updates include a criminal investigation launched into her relationship with Nick Gordon, which appears to have been abusive. Her family reports unexplained bruises and injuries all over her body. Therapy taught me that our bodies react to traumatic experiences whether we are conscious of it or not. Our strange choices, the loneliness, the people we choose to associate with. The boys I sought for abuse. I’m ten years out of loss now. It didn’t get better, but it got easier. Grief doesn’t thrive in me the way it use to, just stirs, but every September, that urge to spin comes rushing back.
Sometimes death feels like the most incredibly selfish act that we all have no choice but to perform. In some ways it’s the ultimate betrayal and abandonment, the crushing of a vase and a few pieces forever missing.
Sometimes death feels as if it should not be a singular act, but instead communal. Take all your loved ones with you. Don’t leave us here to relearn life around your absence.
Perhaps Bobbi Kristina was just too tired to relearn. Lord knows that night I lay in a bathtub, I was. Perhaps no friend had come to her aid quick enough, no family had visited her, encouraged her to stay in therapy, to understand that addressing mental health did not make her weak, but instead would allow her to become strong. Allow her to finally break surface and find a breath. Perhaps her unfolding relationship with Nick Gordon, no matter how toxic, was all she understood.
As a community who inserted ourselves into Bobbi Kristina’s life, we failed her. We failed to offer her space for healing. Instead we demanded she entertain us with her grief. We did not handle her with humiliating care, we only handled her to humiliate. We bombarded her with endless images of her mother, her best friend, and we demanded she perform on our watches without any regard for her body or health. We didn’t watch her spin in the mud; instead we twirled her and gawked with fascination until she finally just spun out. And for that we owe her, her mother, her father, and her entire family the most heartfelt apology. One we should give without the expectation of acceptance.
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