I’ve never been one for a ton of small talk. I engage in it when it’s expected, but I’ve always just seen it as BS that’s not real connection with people. If I want to ponder the weather, I’ll look up the forecast.
I realize this makes me very charismatic and approachable.
The grief I’m experiencing from losing my brother is a hard thing to fake past, when I’m generally not good at faking.
Soon after returning from his memorial, I had to do back-to-normal things like go to the grocery store, make eye contact with the cashier, and not cry. I was able to answer, “Good!” when asked how my day was going. Then sometimes I’d get in my car after loading up the bags, and cry on the way home. “Not good at all. Fuck,” I’d whisper alone.
One day I went to buy dog food. The cashier has seen me in his pet supply store many times and we are usually cordial and laugh-y. But this was less than 3 weeks after losing my brother and I was solemn.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “The kids are back in school, you should be smiling!”
I didn’t know what to say and I’m a terrible liar. Plus, I hate when people imply I, or anyone else, should smile for their benefit. So I just spoke without thought.
“My brother just passed away a few weeks ago. Sorry, it’s a little hard to smile right now.” I said it nicely but there was no sugar coating.
The poor guy. He had a moment of shock and shame, and I felt bad for not creating a lie to protect him.
“Oh, I’m…I’m so sorry,” he said. “Here—“ and he awkwardly offered a hug, which I let him give, to make himself feel better.
After that, I’ve improved a bit at just acting happy around strangers, for everyone’s sake.
Around people I know better, this grief is either making me an alien or a fake. When I’m honest with friends, I often feel like a huge drag, sucking their day away talking. Who wants to do that to anyone? When I’m fake happy, I later curse myself for being inauthentic. There is no escaping the unrest right now.
The day Andrew passed, and before I was in town for the memorial, I called my other brother to check in on him. It had been a few hours since he’d called to give me the news. The earlier conversation had been short and I’d been in total shock, so I thought I’d call him back. “Hi, how are you?” I asked.
“How the fuck do you think I am?? I just lost my brother today!” my brother answered. I was hurt at first by his tone, but understood. He was honest; still in shock.
Later I said, “You know, ‘how are you’ is a bullshit thing to ask right now. Maybe what we should say instead, after ‘hi’ at the start of any conversation, is ‘I love you’.”
But I can’t be that honest with everyone I know. Being too much of a heavy in other people’s lives will make them shut you out pretty quickly. It’s as if you have a super contagious sad virus.
I shopped in Target a few weeks ago and saw an acquaintance, someone I have a feeling has heard the news about my brother. She saw me too, and quickly disappeared around the corner. As if just looking at me might bring some curse/sadness/death in her life too.
I want to tease and spray my hair like a movie character who’s “mad”, attach a third googly eye to my forehead or something, and chase people down, grab them by the arm and say, “Not safe! The fucking Reaper will come for YOU TOO! And when you least expect it!! Ask me how I know!” and watch everyone yell and run in horror. Or maybe when someone asks me if I want to grab coffee, text back, “Actually I’m busy contemplating the existence of the afterlife, would you mind bringing me over a bitter black coffee and joining me in my dungeon?”
I mean, sometimes I want to do that. When I feel down, alone, angry and jealous that people think they can protect themselves from sadness and keep their lives clean, neat, and worry-free. Death-free.
I’m uncomfortable with sadness too, people. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t want it. But I can’t just make grief go away. I’m not sure people understand that. Too many days of “faking” happy, or even in some cases starting to truly let go of the grief, are followed by days of exhaustion and depletion and tears for me. And nightmares waking me up at 3am.
I know what I’m experiencing is “normal” but it’s certainly not my old “normal.” My moodiness embarrasses me. I can be happy awhile, and then a memory of my brother sneaks in and flips my stomach. “You’re faking, “ I tell myself. “You’re not really happy. Never will be again.” People say that’s not true, that I will pass through this, but they say all sorts of other things, too.
I’ve done my best to avoid crowds because people in numbers reeeeally do not like to talk about sadness (outside of the initial memorial/funeral crowd). They’re quicker to change the subject or dole out platitudes. “Everything will be okay, you’ll see.” “Be strong for [name of anyone else in my family].” And my favorite, “You just need to take care of yourself.” I would try that, the ‘just taking care of myself,’ if I were not a mom of two kids in grade school. I should tell my kids, “Sorry! No clean laundry, food, homework help or anything of that nature this week because I’ve decided I just need to take care of myself. I’m just feeling sad and since I’m ‘allowed to feel however I feel,’ you can just look at me huddled in this ball in the corner and order yourself some pizzas. I know you’re too young to understand, but I just need to focus on me now. Don’t be scared. I might take a shower in a couple of days. Maybe in several months or so things can be like they used to be, but I can’t promise. Enjoy the journey, kids!”
I even had someone tell my husband, “Maybe you should just start acting like everything is normal.” As in, pretend this never happened. A very clever idea, not sure why I haven’t thought of that, except, OH! Haha, I just tried to call my deceased brother Andrew and I just keep getting voice mail, what’s up with that jerk these days, anyway, does he think he can just avoid me?!
I was listening to a recent Rob Bell podcast with grief expert David Kessler. Kessler said, “Grief must be witnessed.” I think this sounds odd, really, like that question, “if a tree falls down in the woods does it still make a noise?” He went on to describe an existing village in which there is a tradition of all the villagers acknowledging the death of someone. When a person dies in that community, that night every villager moves something in their home or their lawn, to show the grieving family that by next morning everything has been changed. Nothing is the same for anyone, in theory.
Not to say that cards and flowers and kind words haven’t been greatly appreciated, but I envied these villagers—this subtle but universal acknowledgement of death, this expression of sympathy and acceptance of change. But then I thought—waaaait a minute. These are humans. Even those villagers screw this up, I’ll bet. I’d put money on the idea that some people don’t express the grief in a way that brings the survivors contentment, and those survivors still feel resentful. “Sara only moved her broken bird bath,” the daughter of a deceased person might say of a friend. “She needed to move it anyway. And that’s total crap, because when her father died, I painted our hut in bright orange tulips.”
Which brings me to another point. In the midst of grief and confusion and a tornado of emotions, some people get really ugly. This I never expected. And it’s happened more than once.
They get ugly for their own reasons, and they lash at you. You can see that they have their own reasons, that their reasons are not your problems. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. I think, for these people, I don’t represent a sad virus, I am actually The Ultimate Scapegoat. “Oh, God, here she comes again, sad. I can’t even handle it. When I told her, ‘I can’t imagine’ I meant I really. Do. Not.Want. To. Imagine. You know, I think she’s picking a fight with me! Yes, yes, I can see her doing some ridiculous-thing-I’m-just-making-up-right-now, right now! I need to say something awful back, (yes back because she did so say that egregious thing I just made up) or else just act rude enough that she goes away.”
I don’t understand at all what goes on in people’s minds in these situations, but I’ve had people question if my children are “okay” (I’m excluding the expletives here. Yup.), accuse me of saying and doing things I did not and would never, bring up far-past arguments that I thought were long-settled (because now is a great time to rehash those), and discredit my defense because I “come from a crazy family.” Six days after I lost my brother tragically I had someone yell a sentence at me twice (and not finish because I walked away, refusing to hear whatever could be the end), “I know you just lost your brother, but…” Hmm? What was that? But what? What can I do for you? What have I done wrong again? Please tell me. Lay it on me now, for God’s sake. Help me help you.
And just to admit here: no, you’re right, losing my brother tragically is not the worst thing in the world. Particularly if I get my head out of my privileged, white, first world arse, I realized there is clearly a lot worse that could have happened to me or my family. I have not lost my whole family, or seen my children tortured and killed, and so on. My limbs are intact, my government is only partially corrupt, and clearly in writing this it’s apparent I have freedom of speech. But the crummy thing is, I might know all that and gain perspective from it, but perspective won’t bring my brother back. And I really, really miss him. I miss him for him. Because there’s no one else like him.
And yes, I should be easier on these people who say things to me that don’t fix my pain. First, there’s no fixing of the pain this early. I get that. Second, for people who haven’t experienced death or loss firsthand, they don’t know what to say. I fell into this category myself just a few months ago. I should give them some grace, mercy, and understanding. I get that too, but sometimes lately I feel like I’m grading the majority of other humans on a curve, while the bar for my behavior, reactions, return-to-normal has never been higher. I’m tired. I’ve never been so tired of journaling, reading, understanding, processing and being calm while the rest of the world moves forward at full speed.
The truth is, just like people say “there’s no ‘right’ way to grieve,” there’s no perfect thing to say to someone in grief, either. Life is awkward in the midst of pain. And painfully awkward for those people who care for the grievers in any way. Poor bastards.