I’ve lived through a few Facebook funerals now, where somebody I’m connected to via Facebook, but haven’t seen for years…decades even…dies and the news is relayed on their page and often numerous others’ pages. Or the news intrudes on completely unrelated posts as the awkward grief styles of the American public become all the more public. I don’t think the American people in general deal with grief well, and my own personal grieving style tends toward an above-average level of avoidance and, uh, blockage.
I’m trying not to go there right now—to the awkward social media grief, or the blockage—even as I’m posting in a social media outlet. But a friend of mine really did die last week, (and the post I was working on about swearing therapists decided to punch me in the brain, preventing me from working on it). In some sort of weird and possibly misguided effort to maintain some level of privacy, I’m not going to name my friend here, although not naming him seems sort of like denying any kind of tribute as well as making this post that much more about me me me.
I will say he was a kick-ass guy with a wonderful wife and kids, as well as numerous other beautiful (in the drunk, ‘you’re my best friend!’ style) family members and friends. I can’t say as I knew him well enough to give even a marginally adequate sketch of his life, but then there are very few people, even some of my siblings, for whom I could provide such a thing. I have my own small store of personal recollections and connections, which I’m just not going to share here. But we’ve been down too long in the midnight sea anyway.
I don’t know if keeping his name out of this would be considered a positive or a negative, because I just don’t know how these things work anymore. Anymore? Who am I kidding? Even before “social media” existed, I didn’t know what to do with the various real-world aspects of grief. Do I call the family? Do I leave the family alone? Do I show up on the family’s doorstep, sobbing, Crock-Pot full of chili and bouquet of sunflowers in hand? What about donations to charities, the family, or…?
As much as we say the grief is about the deceased, ultimately, grief often comes down to “me me me,” especially for those of us who don’t know how to “do grief” or do the funereal etiquette properly. We can become obsessed with how the death of someone impacts us, and how we are supposed to act in the face of it. We can become obsessed with whether we are doing the right thing or not, even when nobody is paying all that much attention to us. I can’t imagine that anybody is sitting around complaining that I have not made it clear that I am aware of his death, or what I intend to do about it. I’ll show up for the funeral and work that all out there, or in the days after, or…
Me, I don’t do grief well at all.
Yeah, I’m a therapist, and I have completely inadequate training in dealing with death, and more importantly, the living left behind…perhaps all by design. It’s not my thing. It’s not anything I’m comfortable with…not that I should be allowed to claim the privilege of comfort at this point in time. I truly love this man, and his family, and f*ck me if I know what to do with that.
So let’s change gears. Here’s a little example of how I function in these situations: Following a memorial service a few years back, I was somewhat mortified when my grief fog began to lift and I realized I’d been wandering around, a forced smile on my face, at seeing people I hadn’t seen in far too long. The awkwardness of, “Hey, good to see you,” collided with, and perhaps overrode the awkwardness of, “One of our friends/family members died.” It’s a fine line between grief and panic…grief and meltdown…grief and straight-up weirdness(?).
It seems like grief is one of those things I should have learned or maybe just known, like you’re supposed to know how to change a tire or unclog a toilet (or how you’re supposed to know all those stupid things that are supposed to be part of a wedding). But I’ve largely managed to avoid engaging my grief skills, in favor of engaging my grief avoidance skills. My father died when I was still too young to really understand what that meant. And almost nobody else I know who died since then was really all that close to me when they went, either due to time and distance, or due to design.
I distinctly remember, back in the summer of my 11th year (was it my 11th? Maybe it’s not so distinct) when my favorite uncle died. Due to his prolonged illness, I had intellectualized his passing, had closed myself off from having to feel much of anything. I didn’t want the hurt, so I wasn’t going to have it. When my mom got the call, I sat on the couch between my younger brother and older sister as the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” played on vinyl, pushing my mind into that song. My uncle was gone. I knew he was going well before he left. “Something inside, that was always denied, for so many years…”
I will also say that in many instances, I kept my distance, which was usually just a matter of carrying the relationships on as usual. I guess my attachment issues lead me to downplay relationships, to where connections most anyone else would call friendships feel more like acquaintanceships to me.
And perhaps even worse, my instinct to dull the pain often leads to making jokes, usually sarcastic comments, realizing only after I’ve begun unleashing them that I am saying things that are horrifically inappropriate. I want to imagine myself, like Superman, realizing a missile has been launched, taking off to steer that missile out into space. Only, like Superman and the missile, I end up blowing up the Phantom Zone instead, unleashing General Zod, Ursa, and Non, ultimately raining much more hell down on everyone, myself included, than I would have if I’d learned to keep my mouth shut, or to make appropriately staid comments.
I’ll say that right now, I’m trying to do this right. I’m trying to let myself take this in, even as I am engaging in various forms of avoidance. I can’t promise that I won’t just crawl inside a bottle for a few days, and then drag myself out, emotions appropriately muddled and washed downstream. But I’m gonna try to feel this one for real, dammit.
I was like that until suddenly one day my little brother was dead. In my experience, when real grief arrives you don’t spend any time thinking about how you “should” feel – you go into a zombie-state of shock & don’t really care what anyone thinks you should be doing or saying to show your grief. If there can be said to be a good side, I think that since then I’m more able to “feel” other people’s grief, & more able to decide to visit/send a card, etc, because I’ve experienced it & the idea of losing someone I love is no longer an abstract notion.