On Grief

This sadness is not for me.

In another lifetime, Rich and I were close. We saw each other often, many times a week in those first years of our acquaintance, with our social lives completely entwined. But things change, as they do. First, a hobby of his became a passion, and I saw less and less of him until I counted the time between visits not in days or weeks, but in months and holidays. Later on, I left the man who connected us, so what little proximity Rich and I still had dissipated altogether. It’s been more than five years since I saw him. If he hadn’t been so ill these past six months, I doubt he would have crossed my mind at all.

When I heard Rich died, my first feeling was sadness for the messenger, my ex-husband, Mike. Then for Rich’s family. I felt a little nostalgia perhaps when I told Mike about a good memory I had of Rich, but I can’t call it grief. There is no sorrow for Rich himself, of course. I can’t feel sadness (pity) for someone who doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t miss someone who wasn’t around.

I didn’t want to go anyway

When Mike texted me, “Rich passed last night,” I responded with a phone call, so that text is still there, in the list of recent text messages on my phone. I see it often. It is a constant reminder that the next text message never arrived. The one Mike promised to send with the details of the funeral arrangements when he got them. (Not that it is hard to find out the details of a funeral – it was online within a day or two. Easily searchable when one knows all the pertinent details of the recently deceased.) There are many potential reasons for why Mike did not send the information, none of which would have anything at all to do with Rich. The nicest excuse I could give him is he knows how much I hate funerals.

‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief —
To re-endure a Day —
We thought the Mighty Funeral —
Of All Conceived Joy —

To recollect how Busy Grass
Did meddle — one by one —
Till all the Grief with Summer — waved
And none could see the stone.

And though the Woe you have Today
Be larger — As the Sea
Exceeds its Unremembered Drop —
They’re Water — equally —
Emily Dickinson

In my forty-three years, I’ve been to exactly five funerals. Two grandparents, one family friend, and two sort-of in-laws. This doesn’t imply a strange lack of death in my life, it only means I am good at avoiding funerals. There is nothing more uncomfortable than a funeral. The whole point of a funeral is communal grief and who would choose to go through that? At three of the five funerals I attended, there were very few tears, because they were for old people who’d died as expected. Nana was very ill and 89 years old. She’d had a good life and there were a ton of people at her funeral, what in the world was there to be sad about? Same for my grandfather, and for the friend of my grandmother, whose funeral was the first I’d ever attended.

For my partner’s mother, there were tears, she was seventy but hadn’t told any of her friends that she was dying. The church was full of the grief that comes from the shock of knowing someone you’d just seen was gone forever. But we’d known for weeks that it was coming. My partner, his sister and brother had spent the last week of their mother’s life with her at home. He’d had his chance to come to terms with her death while she was still there to help him through it. He did not cry at the funeral and so neither did I.

As for the fifth, well, that one was just weird. It was for a person I hardly knew. My then husband’s sister’s father-in-law. He was older, close to eighty, but his death was sudden. He’d gone into the hospital for stomach pains one day and died the next. Again, the grief in the church was of the unexpected-punch-in-the-gut variety. It was palpable, it got up into my nose and filled my ears and eyes and throat until I was choking on my sobs. Mike sat next to me, dry-eyed and embarrassed by the mess I’d become. It was our nephews’ fault, I said later. They were only 12 and 9 years old. They’d loved their grandfather. They stood at the lectern and read a letter they’d written to him and it hurt so fucking much, how sad and bewildered and lost they seemed to be.

“It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus, and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”
― Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Crying in public

I can’t get upset by Mike’s embarrassment of my undeserved bawling, grief in public disgusts me. It is everything weak about humans I can’t stand. That wimpy, soggy, snot-laden denial that death happens to everyone, “but why?” That strange clinging to fairy-tales, religion and heaven and souls and the rest of that nonsense. That idea that one needs another human to make their own life worth living.

It occurs to me now that Mike’s supposed embarrassment was probably nothing more than a projection of my own. It wouldn’t have been the first time I misinterpreted his actions.

Crying in public, part two

I feel it is an important part of being human that we can cry at stories. Movies, books, poems, songs. Tears are a sign that you have connected to the story – proof that you are human, not an unfeeling, sociopathic robot. Empathy is what keeps society healthy.

My litmus test for whether a person is human or not is if they cried at the scene in ET when Elliot thinks ET is dead. Everyone, and I mean everyone normal, cries at that scene. I was 11 years old when that movie came out. I will never forget sitting in the theater with my family, pulling my eyes away from the screen, just for a moment, needing a break from the other child’s grief, and witnessing in the dim light, the shining moisture beneath my father’s eyes. To this day I can’t think of that movie without remembering the shock of seeing my father cry.

“Michael could never remember his father ever having uttered a word about death, as if the Don respected death too much to philosophize about it.”
― Mario Puzo, The Godfather

Other people’s sadness

The more probable reason that the second text never arrived is that Mike simply didn’t want me there. And he is right in thinking my presence at Rich’s funeral could have been more of a distraction than a comfort, possibly even an annoyance, to the other mourners at the funeral. Not to Rich’s family – who wouldn’t remember me at all – but to Mike’s family (they’ve all known Rich since he was 15) who also haven’t seen me in five years.

People go to funerals to comfort each other. I am not good at comforting others and I never feel the need to be comforted, therefore I should not go to funerals.

When I was 17, a friend of my mom and dad’s died. A young and tragic death of a beautiful woman, leaving behind a husband and three teenaged daughters. The reception was held at my house. (notice this funeral is not in the list – I managed to plead illness (chronic selfishness) and my mother didn’t have the heart to argue with me.) At said reception, beyond all sense of propriety, I flirted with a nephew of the deceased. Amazingly, my 17 year old brain woke up from its self-absorption at some point and realized that there were an awful lot of adults paying attention to what was going on between me and the young man. I asked someone, an old aunty, if I should stop, and they said no, “I think we are all enjoying the distraction. Young love is so full of joy, and this day is so sad.”

I understand now, and so the memory is somewhat sweet. I’d feel the same way if I saw two teenagers acting the way we did at a funeral. I would love the chance to turn my eyes away, to take a break from the grief.

But what I don’t like about that memory is the lack of grief I felt for the woman who’d died. I loved her as much as I did any of my aunt’s. In fact, living across the street as she did, she was closer to me in some ways than any of my biological relatives. Why did I feel nothing at her death?


There is a diary entry from just before I left for college: I was about to leave my first real boyfriend, and I wondered if he died, would I miss him? Or would it be a relief to not have to deal with the guilt of leaving him behind?

There is a memory from a year later of a moment with another boyfriend: telling him how alone I always felt because everyone eventually leaves. Even as I said it – I knew I was lying, no one at that point in my life had left me. But the feeling of being alone was real. I lied because I didn’t know how else to tell him I wouldn’t miss him if he died.

There is a memory of sitting with a disliked counselor, of her telling me she thought I had a personality disorder, telling me I had problems connecting with other people because I wouldn’t make eye contact with her.

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
― Leo Tolstoy

Is my lack of grief proof that I am missing the ability to really love another person? I’m not a sociopath – I feel a great deal of empathy for other people – I cry a hallmark commercials for godssake! I miss my niece and nephew horribly every time my visits with them end. But death isn’t like the end of a visit, the deceased don’t continue doing things that you will miss out on while you are away. They cease to be. There is nothing to miss.

Death and me

I used to think dying was like going to sleep – but sleep implies waking. I know better now. Rip Van Winkle and Sleeping Beauty didn’t die, and those stories are not analogies for death. They both awoke eventually. They did not cease to be. And because I now understand the finality of death, that life is something to be treasured, I no longer want to hasten the end the way I did when I just wanted to sleep away all my troubles. However, the nothingness of death does not frighten me. I won’t know it when it happens because there will be no more ‘I’ to know. There is literally nothing to be afraid of.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I rented a room in a house owned by a quintessential ‘little old lady.’ One night my buzzer rang, and I went downstairs to find the two other renters helping our landlady into the foyer. She’d fallen getting off a bus and a good samaritan had helped her walk home (then annoyingly rang every buzzer.) The old lady was bit giddy with the adrenalin from her ‘brush with near death,’ and she trapped us in the foyer by talking non-stop, repeating the story of what had happened. Eventually we all made our excuses to go back to our rooms, and she finished by saying, “I know young people look at me and think, why struggle to stay alive? With my arthritis and the screws in my hip and my wrist, and my bad eyes and my hearing aids. But you don’t understand.” She clenched her tiny, bony fist and held it up in the air and gave her voice all the power she could, “I want to live!”

Mr Power gazed at the passing houses with rueful apprehension.
—­He had a sudden death, poor fellow, he said.
—­The best death, Mr Bloom said.
Their wide open eyes looked at him.
—­No suffering, he said. A moment and all is over. Like dying in sleep.
No-one spoke.
Ulysses – James Joyce

The thing I fear is the dying, not the death. I fear incapacitating illness and dying too soon. I don’t want to experience a long, slow descent into unending pain and weariness. The way Rich died, both sick and young, would be the worst way to end this life. When I think of him lying in a hospice bed, I don’t feel sadness, I feel pity tinged with “not-me” guilt and fear.

To say goodbye

About a month before I left my husband, a little more than five years ago, Rich and I shared what would turn out to be our final conversation. I was trying to tell him, indirectly, that I was leaving his friend, but the conversation ended up being more about him than about me. He echoed my reasons for leaving Mike by saying he was afraid that by settling down with his steady, dependable girlfriend, he would be missing out on a risky but potentially more passionate relationship. My advice then was: Look, no one is dependent on you, so what is the point of staying in a boring relationship? When all the color in life is leached away by domestic dullness, do something about it! Follow your passion.

He did not heed my advice, he stayed with his (honestly) lovely and loving girlfriend till the end. Is it cruel of me to wonder, if he’d known his life would end up being so short, would he have done anything different?

We grieve for the living, not the dead.

Grief is, according to one dictionary, “the emotional suffering one feels when something or someone the individual loves is taken away.” So I can not feel grief for Rich. While I loved him, I did not lose him, he was never mine to have.

Grief and loss, the words swirl around each other, meld into each other’s meaning until I’ve lost the sense of each. Can you only feel your own grief? I think we grieve for Elliott’s loss, not for our loss of ET. What was ET to us, really, other than a cute marketing scheme for Reese’s Pieces? But is what we feel for Elliot only sadness?

I feel more than sad for Mike’s loss of a good friend. Another dictionary says grief is, “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.” Which is closer, but it seems it is not only the actual death that causes the sorrow.

Here is my own definition: For me, grief is: deep sorrow caused by someone else’s loss. That is how I feel.

And now I can grieve.

“Grieve not for the dead, for the dead feel no pain…
Instead, weep for the living, who heal to hurt again.”
— Unknown