In ‘The Store of the Worlds’ Mr. Wayne enters the store of Tompkins. For a high fee—literally everything he has of any value—he will get an injection and, for a limited time, his ‘mind, liberated from its body, is able to choose from the countless probability-worlds which the Earth casts off in every second of its existence’. Mr. Wayne hesitates, the price is high, and he wants to know whether his desired possible world will be worth it.
When reading the story, I immediately knew which possible world I would like to experience. A few years ago, we lost one of our twins, halfway through the pregnancy. Since then I have been living in possible worlds. When the baby died, my life split into two lives: the life that is and that feels unreal, and the life that could have been but isn’t there.
Scenes from my ideal life would not look really ideal for the outsider: sleepless nights because two babies are teething, relationship-stress due to sleep deprivation, two toddles playing together, and all the other newborn stresses and delights that would have been twice as demanding and blissful. To the outsider, this ideal possible world might not seem very spectacular, but to me it would.
Mr. Wayne’s ideal possible world also turns out very mundane, so mundane that the reader at first does not grasp that it his ideal possible world. But he too experienced a loss that he tries to repair.
Although this thought experiment of being able to medicinally travel to your ideal possible world is nice food for daydreams, this probably will never be possible technically. Yet, there is another take on possible worlds that I found comforting in my grief.
In his book Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut presents a protagonist, Billy, who is ‘unstuck in time’. We learn to experience time in a linear way. The past is closed behind us, the future is uncertain, and we only have the current moment. Vonnegut challenges us to experience time differently. We are not captured in a certain slice of time, but every moment contains the whole spectrum of moments, and we can freely travel between them. So a person may be dead in certain moment, but they are “fine in plenty of other moments”. When we experience time as a hologram rather as slices we are travelling through, as vertical rather than horizontal, it also changes our relationship with the past and the people that are in our past. The past is no longer a closed chapter, but still part of our living life, and we can freely travel to it. And if we combine this idea of vertical time with the idea of possible worlds, then the short life of my son already contained the moments of the whole, full, possible life he could have had with us. It takes practice to experience time differently, but I found that for me, death got a different meaning in this concept of time than in a linear concept of time. The people who are dead became less lost for me. Maybe all the beautiful memoires that are written by parents and lovers for their lost loved ones, are an attempt to grasp this vertical time and revoke the one that is lost. There is a beautiful quote by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, where he states that in the messianic time, what changes are not the things themselves, but their limits. I cannot bring my child back to life, but I can extend the limits of time.
There is another association that I had when reading “The Store of the Worlds”. The story starts as a redemption narrative, however, the redeemed world is a very profane world. This reminded me of a little parable by Walter Benjamin. Benjamin describes that in the world to come, the messianic kingdom, everything will be the same, just a tiny bit different: “The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too will it sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different”.
Grief expert Megan Devine describes that in our current culture there is a strong pressure to be positively transformed by our misfortune, to triumph over grief, and come back better than before. I found this narrative quite offensive. There is a great pressure to make something good out of something bad, something inspirational for others. There is a great pressure to provide others with a happy end to our tragedy.
Opposing this narrative, I paradoxically found consolation in the idea of irreparability by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. He states: “The Irreparable is that things are just as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being.” What happened to me, is irreparable. A child cannot be replaced. Only in this acknowledgment of the irreparability can my lost child be seen as it is. Only in its irreparability can my tragedy be fully acknowledged. And paradoxically enough, this irreparability is not the ultimate form of nihilism or hopelessness, it is recognition. It is in this irreparability that I am closest to my lost child. It is in this mode of irreparability that I can incorporate the loss in my life. When there is no way back, or no flight forward, the only option that is left is to acknowledge what happened as it is, and to fully see it.
Everything is the same, just a little bit different.
 Kübbler-Ross’ famous stages of grief can be read in this tradition as well: grief needs to be solved.
Anke Snoek is a postdoctoral researcher at VU Medical Center and Maastricht University. One focus of her work is exploring paradoxical forms of agency; agency in situations where you do not expect it. For example the agency of people with addictions, or the forms of agency that can be found in Kafka’s stories. She is the author of Agamben’s Joyful Kafka (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Images used are sourced from unsplash.com