How do we process grief and loss? Both look different for everyone—the process is never the same, but we all encounter grief and loss at some point in our lives. It's not something that we ever really heal from. It is an ongoing struggle, something that hits you when you least expect it—even years later. You learn to shift that loss to a less prominent part of your mind, but it lives inside you. If you’ve ever experienced any kind of loss, you can relate to the emotions Antonia, the protagonist of Afterlife, feels. She finds herself annoyed at the suggestions that the podcasts she listens to and books she reads about grief give her. She—like so many who have experienced grief—looks to others for answers but comes up empty-handed. And that’s because there is no clear cut, black-and-white answer. Alvarez does a great job at reminding us of this.
“More likely she will learn to live with a hole in heart.”
Alongside Antonia, we experience the different stages of grief as she navigates life after the loss of her husband and the sudden disappearance of her sister. Antonia has spent the better part of her life with Sam, her late husband when he suddenly dies almost a year prior to the start of the book. They built a home together in a rural town where he was loved and respected by their friends and neighbors. He was, as she likes to call him, the good cop, the trusting guy. They balanced each other out. But now that he is gone she feels like she is taking on many of his characteristics. That he is not just a part of her now, but living inside of her.
“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
Antonia tries to look for signs from Sam from the afterlife, anything to let her know he is still with her. After loss we find ourselves trying to hold on to that person, trying to keep their memory alive. After a trip to see her sisters during which they find that their eldest sister has gone missing she finds herself unexpectedly caring for a pregnant undocumented teenage girl who shows up at her house. Taking her in and getting her the medical and emotional help she needs is something her husband would have done. Her actions in not turning away and refusing to assist her—or being unable to—is her way of keeping her memory of Sam alive. And that’s not to say that the character is cold and uncaring. It just seems that throughout their married life, Sam held the role of activist and gave out help, no questions asked. Without Sam around, she has taken over that role and has started to embrace a part of herself that is awakening.
“...though everyone assumed it was she who was the political one by virtue of her ethnicity, as if being Latina automatically conferred a certain radical stance.”
Afterlife isn’t just about the grieving process that Antonia goes through after losing Sam. The other characters that are woven into her life give us a look at other types of loss: the pregnant teenage girl who is mourning the loss of her life back home while waiting for her new life to start, the “bighearted, but unstable” older sister who is mourning the loss of her over-the-top plans and dreams when her sisters step in to get her the help she needs. In helping those around her she is able to think about something besides Sam.
In these characters Alvarez also explores themes such as love, mental illness, and being undocumented in a rural town. Everyone in her small Vermont town seems to be aware that there are many undocumented immigrants living and working amongst them, but no one talks about it. They turn a blind eye and at times protect them. Interacting with a young man from Mexico reminds Antonia of her own youth as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and what she experienced. She can relate to being in a new land and not knowing the language, yet she is hesitant to get too close as she doesn’t want to involve herself in someone’s life when she is still sifting through her new one. I see this as her trying to take care of herself first or as she puts it—putting her oxygen mask on first. I particularly enjoyed her interactions with the young girl because it brought the real world into the fictional world Alvarez created—the struggle of undocumented immigrants trying to build a life here while constantly being in fear of being discovered, detained, and deported.
Another theme that Alvarez touches upon—and which she does so well in her other books too—is that of sisterhood and the changing relationships between sisters. Although the four sisters fight, compete with one another, and call each other names, they are fiercely loyal to each other. As a fellow Latina and one who has multiple sisters and cousins like sisters, I could relate to this. Alvarez so faultlessly portrays what it means to have a tribe or as the sisters call it, a sisterhood. Your sisters are tied to you for life, no matter what. And this is particularly true when it comes to the eldest sister. No matter what had previously transpired between her and the other three, they dropped everything to find her and get her home.
Antonia feels responsible for everyone, like she has to fix all of their problems while still dealing with her own loss. A lot of us also feel that even if we are dealing with our personal struggles, we owe it to those in our lives to be there for them. When do we get to ask ourselves ‘Who is the most important one?’ and answer back ‘Me’? This is something Antonia asks herself several times throughout the book as she is called upon by the numerous people in her life pulling at her. How and when do we know when to say no?
Afterlife in this doesn’t refer just to the after of those that have passed. It refers to those left behind. The ones who continue to live. Those that are trying to hold their lives together and glue themselves back together. Afterlife is where you hope your loved ones go, but it’s also our own lives after they’ve left and what we do with it.
By Julie Alvarez
256 pages. 2020.
Buy it here