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?

Disconnected

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

Thoughts on Quotes on Death

“I don’t want to go.” – The 10th Doctor

But that wasn’t really death was it – it was rebirth, reincarnation.  The wish fulfillment of a hundred million souls.  What if… when we die we just get popped into a new body? Keep the memories, ditch the bad hair and judgy personality. Start all over, and this time I’ll get it right.  This time I wont eat so many cheeseburgers and fries.

“The hardest thing about death is not that men die tragically, but that most of them die ridiculously” – Mencken

But Mencken was an atheist, and the core of atheism is the knowledge that there is no life after death. Therefore – ridiculous or not, I couldn’t care less.

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” – Banksy

But if no one knows the real you, or your real name, does the second death count?

“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” – George Eliot

A variation on the above theme – with the same problem, does anyone remember George’s real name?  (it was Mary Anne – there, now she lives again.)

“I saw few die of hunger; of eating, a hundred thousand.” – Benjamin Franklin

Which is more true in our time than his… and ironic considering his own obesity helped to kill him.

No particular reason for these morbid thoughts on a Wednesday morning.  Sorry…  well, here’s something that will cheer you right back up:

 

Still Life

I’ve lost my fear of failure, and I’m in no rush to replace it. I’ll encounter failure again, in dark alleys and low lit corners, but I will see it as only a friendly former foe with an age-crooked back and dull, flaky claws.

The rejections arrive as sleeping breaths, inevitable, slow and deep. They lost their ability to cause pain, like the hair I pluck from between my eyebrows. After twenty-odd years of yanking at the same patch of skin, there are no nerves left to harm.

They don’t like my work, but I do.  I think it’s brilliant, I can’t get enough of myself.  So, I’ll keep it all and stop this farce of sharing.

My body of work will go into the grave with the body of its creator.  All buried deep into the wet organics with the dead leaves and rot and revolting decay.  (Revolting is a word I don’t use often enough. It has a lovely mouth feel, full-bodied and rich on the tongue, with undertones of a midden pit in mid-summer.)  Or into the fiery furnace which would be, in fact, my preferred method of disposal.  The potential for mistaken living-burial is reduced by the consumption of mind by flames. Only reduced though, we know not where the sense of self lives after all.  If it is in the bit of skin behind my right knee, as I truly suspect, instead of just behind the eyes as most believe, and if, perchance, that bit is not consumed in the fire, my nightmare of being trapped in this world and unable to interact with it will come to pass. Trapped, motionless, still. And then won’t I be sorry.

Failure is a still life.  A life without motion or movement, not of the hand or foot, but of neuron to synapse and the vast spaces between yours and mine and theirs and ours, is as dead as death could ever be.

Death scares me to death, now that I understand what life is for. It is not for submissions and rejections but for the creation of the items to submit.  For the conversations and songs and art and words and the birds and the food and the lovely, lovely wine.  For this apple and lemon and orange, in digital form, life stilled by pixels, and for these lines and curves, shapes and symbols in digital ink, that let me move these hyper-active thoughts from my mind to yours.

Memory

I don’t trust memory.

I am nine or ten, and I am sleeping over at my friend Holly’s house. (Holly is not her real name.  It shouldn’t matter, since she is dead now, but I feel the need to protect her.)  I know Holly doesn’t have a dad, which isn’t too strange.  This is the early eighties and divorce has become an epidemic in my upper middle class town, and it is always the dad that leaves. Actually, I have no idea if her parents are divorced, or if they ever married.  Maybe her father is dead. Strange thing is, I don’t remember seeing her mother that night either.

I don’t remember arriving at her house, or what we ate for dinner but now it is really, really late, hours past my bedtime and Holly and I jump up and down on her bed, loud music is pouring from her cool robot-shaped cassette tape player and we eat candy necklaces. Lots of them.  She has an endless supply and there was no one around telling us, you’ve had enough. She has so many cool electric toys, everything I ever wanted from the toys-r-us catalog is lying there on Holly’s bedroom floor.

We are doing every thing I always imagined I would do if my parents disappeared.  And it is fun!  We are giggling and dancing, being loud and silly and nobody is getting hurt. Well, my tummy is hurting just a little bit.  I blame the jumping.

Her room feels small and cluttered and dark.  I don’t remember seeing a desk.  Just the bed, the toy and candy strewn floor and a closet full of more toys and lots of clothing.

I guess we slept eventually, but no one ever told us to go to bed.  The next scene is in Holly’s backyard.  It is daytime. A huge tree dominates the square, fenced-in space.  There is a dog roaming around, its dried piles of feces litter the patchy grass. There is a man sitting at the picnic table with us and he is shoving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into Holly’s mouth.  Holly is sobbing and choking.  Snot and tears and jelly smeared all over her face.  The man is angry, I made you the damn sandwich and now you’re gonna eat it.

I don’t know who the man is.  Her mother’s boyfriend?  The concept of a ‘mother’ having a ‘boyfriend’ is too foreign for my sheltered mind.  The sandwich this man made for me is disgusting. He slopped the peanut butter and jelly an inch thick over the bread.  It isn’t cut up into child sized squares or triangles, I have a hard time holding it, and the excess jelly oozes over my hands as I eat it, fast, bite after terrified bite.

The memory ends there.  My mother told me later that she was furious to learn Holly’s mother had left us alone with a stranger. I never went back to her house.  I switched schools after that year and that was the end of our friendship.

I have two more memories of Holly. The first is passing by her in the stairwell of the high school.  She wore all black, a long black skirt, black blouse, black nail polish, even her eyes were circled in black.  The word ‘goth’ wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time, but it fits now.  Did we speak?  I know she smiled at me.  Her teeth were crooked, but the smile was sweet.  The moment feels kind in my head.  We walked completely different paths through that building, weaving among two thousand other students, and I don’t remember seeing her again.

If I stopped the story here – you might predict drug use, dropping out of school, maybe a few unwanted pregnancy’s, and eventually death by overdose.  I already hinted at an early death, no one would be surprised if the story continued on this trajectory.  Unfair, true, but that is what we do.  We take the bits and pieces of memories and fill in the gaps.

I don’t know what the truth is.

My last memory is of her memorial Facebook page, just after she died of breast cancer.  I was not connected to her, but a friend of a friend wrote a note of sympathy and it popped up in my feed.  I know that people like to speak well of the recently departed, but I’ve never seen such a list of specific positive memories written by so many people. I think she was married and had a good job, much of the grief came from her co-workers and boss. Her mother and sister do breast cancer walks in her honor. Years later, the page is still updated with variations of the phrase: I miss you.

That memory of that strange and horrible sleep-over, of a neglected and abused child, is the only real memory I have of her.  But the evidence of other people’s memories, and the pictures of a smiling, happy woman, belie my singular experience.  An individual life is a complicated, many faceted thing.  Memory lies and omits.

Perhaps I am the only person with this memory. Perhaps I made the whole thing up.

Stubborn Ignorance

Silence is not agreement.

I keep my mouth shut as I walk behind the two women I am working with this week.  The younger one is marching in her formerly fashionable combat boots in time to the words barking from her mouth.  The topic is Suicide. Don’t ask how they got on to that subject, I wasn’t really paying attention.

She says, with all the force of the righteously ignorant: “I don’t understand how anyone can kill themselves. It’s so selfish. How can anyone be that selfish?”

This woman has been a part of my life for about eight years, a friend of a friend at first and now a coworker. I’m sure she’s heard my story. Perhaps she has forgotten.  Or, more likely, she thinks she is imparting a message to me.

“I’ve been depressed, everyone gets depressed sometimes, but I’ve never wanted to die.  Don’t they know how final that is?”  She says, with a tone that implies, “idiots.”

In my head, I answer, “Uh, yeah, they do. That is kind of the point.”  But I don’t say this aloud.  I just follow. Silent. Listening. Cringing to think of the older woman’s thoughts.  The older woman is smart and tolerant, I know she’s been through an emotional hell of her own.  She doesn’t respond either.  Because what can you say?  Silence is not agreement, I just don’t have the will to argue with her.

The speaker continues on, telling stories of people she knows who were hurt by someone’s suicide and how terrible their lives became because of their loss.  “So selfish!” she says, repeatedly, unaware of the hypocrisy.

What is Death?

I know other people who don’t understand the desire to end ones life.  They may not be as obnoxious in their verbalization,  but it boils down to the same thing: they don’t think about death the same way I do. I want to ask her, what does the word DEATH mean to you?  She is one of those agnostic-yet-spiritual types.  I imagine she would answer,  “Of course we don’t know what comes next, and I don’t believe in a fairy-tale heaven or god or anything, but there has to be something. My soul is real, and it can’t just disappear.”

In other words, you are afraid of not existing, therefore you have convinced yourself that you (your ‘soul’) will never die. It is that fear that keeps you from understanding suicide.  If you looked upon death as an inevitable ending, a dissipation into nothingness, a sleep without dreams or waking, perhaps then you could understand the desire to just skip to the end.

What is Life?

I choose to live, and it is a conscious choice. My life is a good life. I have experienced great joy and I believe that I will feel those bursts of happiness again and again in the future. That belief counters the anxiety, the fear of failure, the defeats, the blanket of numbing despair that threatens to smother me. No, I don’t forget.  It is always there, in the dark corners of my mind.  An open door into oblivion.  A promise of nothingness.

We are born into a reality not of our own choosing. The chemical soup of our brains can so easily twist that reality into pain/despair/insanity. We make life-altering decisions before we have the knowledge to understand that the repercussions can destroy all happiness. There are no second chances. There are no do-overs.

What keeps you alive?

She is facinated with skulls and crossbones, symbols of death, evident in her tattoos and the stickers she plasters on her car and her luggage. (Reminds me of the totems used by an old shaman to ward off evil spirits.)

English: Skull and crossbones
English: Skull and crossbones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She has a ‘Kill or Be Killed’ attitude towards guns. She believes the weather/economy sucks and is just getting worse. The city is full of terrorists.  We’re all going to be speaking Mandarin in twenty years and of course that means the end of the world.  All strangers are bad until proven good.  And in the end, life is about suffering, after all.  If you aren’t complaining about something, you aren’t really living.

Here’s what I don’t understand, when your fear of death is the only thing that keeps you alive, what is the point?  If I told her I believe the world is a wonderful place, that most people are mostly good, and disasters bring out the best in us, she would tell me that I was terribly naïve. If I told her I that I live for the future moments of unexpected joy that I know are coming, she would tell me I was being childish.

And yet, I’m the one who has attempted suicide.  I’m the one who understands why, for some people, it is the only solution. I’m the one who’s selfish because I figured out that we can live (or die) only for ourselves, because it is the only reality we know.

I know why I keep going, why I keep breathing through the unending moments when I’m curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor unable to stop crying.  Does she?

Stubborn Ignorance.

“I don’t understand suicide!”  No, you don’t.  And somehow, by ignoring the inevitable end of life, you seem less alive.

Her ignorance on the topic of suicide ought to mean that she has less to say, but, sadly, she just keeps talking.