Twenty Years

Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead. – Don Hertzfeldt

Twenty years is an inconceivable amount of time.

Yes, I do keep using that word and, yes, it does mean what I think it means.

Twenty. Years. Enough to drive, vote, almost enough to drink in the United States. Enough to go from young adulthood to early middle age and do all the living that goes with that – break-ups, career changes, life changes, marriage, moving, succeeding, failing, devastating heartbreak, inconceivable love.

So many of the critical things I’ve learned in life, most of the non-survival, the thriving, things, have been in the last 20 years. She’s missed them.

There is too much to say, so I’ll keep it focused on the events at hand…

You can imagine what it is like to lose one of the closest people in the world to you.
You will be wrong.
But you can try.

The truth is, grief is a million facets. It evolves with us, grows with us. It doesn’t become a speck in the distance, like a thing that happened in time from which we are inexorably pulled away through the simple act of living. It changes as we change, as we become aware of and work on our own flaws, and the people who have left us are no longer two-dimensional, they are complex, they are flawed in ways we wouldn’t allow ourselves to see in the first wash of grief.

And still.

There were misguided attempts, in the beginning, comparisons of a dead mother to an estranged one.

At the time I found it in such achingly poor taste that I felt sick to my stomach with it.

Now I see it more clearly. I get that there is pain, and that I can’t understand it, not because I had a great relationship with my mother – it was flawed, and the extent of those flaws I didn’t realize until well after she had passed – but because I never had the opportunity to explore those feelings while my mother was alive. I also know that, of the more-than-five people who tried to compare their relationship with their estranged parent to the death of mine, all but one has begun speaking to that parent, or their parents, again. Maybe tenuous, maybe uncertain, certainly not with all-encompassing faith, but still. The relationship continues. All but one has realized that, as final as things seem when we are younger, it’s still just a comma, a semi-colon. It’s not a period, it’s not the end of the sentence. And hopefully, these people have realized their own flaws, and those of their parents, and as we get older and our edges soften out, and things aren’t as black and white, we can forgive them, and ourselves, or at the very least move on so that the animosity isn’t costing little pieces of soul. But I can speak with as much certainly now as I did then – it’s nothing like death. Because, back there, I used the word relationship. It’s not a privilege I have.

The truth is, my grief now over Ellinor is multiplied by the fact that I know exactly how final this is. I have 20 years of nothing staring back at me and, if I’m lucky, forty more for both Ellinor and my mother, moving forward. Forty more of no conversation, of no cups of coffee shared, of no admonishments, of fewer and fewer people who’ve known me since I was born. Moving up into that next step, being the oldest one in the room, no one to look up to in terms of life experience, and moving right up into my spot in line. The finality is total, and while you can suspect that at 22 years old, or 32, or 42, if it’s your first Big Grief, the only thing that will sink that anchor to the trenches is looking back and realizing you couldn’t, at whatever age you were, fathom the darkness in those depths.

Don’t mistake me – my life has been good. Amazing. Full of the richness of love and purpose and care, full of wonderful, gentle moments, of fierce, bold ones. These things are not, however, mutually exclusive.

So here it is – 20 years, a day I remember, I can feel in me, at any time, the darkness, the heaviness, the final breaths, slowing to stopping, the relief, the guilt at the relief, the pain a slash into my soul that would heal, but not cleanly, nor without scars.

There are so many commas and semicolons in my life; so much to be continued. So many wonderful relationships that I get to dip back into over time, through periods of closeness and distance. It’s like re-discovering treasure, revisiting old friendships, finding new relationships in old friends. And then there are the new ones; when I think of “What would Ellinor do?”, so much of it is “take your friendships seriously – make new ones, ask questions, have friends of all ages, let fade the relationships that do not serve, and let your life be as enriched by relationships as it is by art and travel.” While Ellinor was 44 years older than I am, she adopted her first daughter when she was in her forties. The thought is staggering, intimidating, and inspiring, at once.

This is the beginning of part of a legacy. There may be other things, but this is, without a doubt, part of it. I have less vision for what my mother wanted for me – for me to be happy, able to take care of myself, less trusting, more financially secure. Ellinor knew more of who I am as an adult, had more to say about things that apply now. More time with Luke. Not making myself sick with work. Singing where I wanted. Traveling to learn – Fez sacred music festival. Kumano Kodo. Being more patient. Still being financially secure, self-sufficient.

I am so, so flawed. But I am learning. I have been so fortunate to be so wrapped in love. Wild, fierce, imperfect love. This is the legacy left by these two women, whom I mourn exponentially today. In the end, what is left is not our judgment, our thoughts, our opinions, our hopes, our dreams. The mark we leave is on those left behind; they are the living reflection of how we have spent our days. No ego in those ripples, just the simple giving of who we are. Who we are, as we age, whittling down to our core – no energy to feign interest or kindness that’s not inherent. I am honored to be the living reflection of two women who left their mark on my heart, my actions, and my life. I will, and will continue to do, my best to live this life in the ways that honor them.

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Deathiquette VI : Is it Time?

Grief is an effective delineator. It’s harsh, and can be devastating. If you don’t want to know who your friends are, don’t let anyone close to you die.

People are not comfortable with emotion. This is not news. People want you to be fine, not because they want you to be fine, but because they don’t want to deal with you when you’re not fine. This is the same reason people don’t say anything when they cheat. Not because they don’t want to hurt you, but because they don’t want to deal with your emotions. That’s another rant.

Yep, it’s inconvenient. If you’re typically fun, creative, joking, and good at either genuinely being interested in or feigning interest in your friends’ daily lives, and keeping the focus on them, your turn toward yourself and needing to process will be too much for some people.

Talking through grief is healthy. Recalling anecdotes, describing your feelings; for many people, this is an important part of processing. It won’t be all the time, and it won’t be to all people. And you’ll learn – fast -who’s open to that, and who isn’t.

I typically don’t want to talk about it at work or if I’m focused on something else (don’t you dare deathface me). But if I bring it up, it’s because I want to share something with you. I am not prone to talking about my feelings with people I don’t trust. We might be close, or I might want to share a story with you. I don’t need you to cry, or share a story yourself if you’re not up for that. Just listen, and be willing to say “Thank you for sharing that with me.” Or share something with me, if you’re open to that.

People have been stunning about this. Amazing, frankly. Colleagues especially, but people from all realms of my life have stepped up, some completely shocking me in the best way possible, and have listened, have done that horrific hippie thing called “holding space” that sounds ridiculous until you need it. People have driven from far away to hug me. I am … humbled.

And then there are the others.

A quick text or, from some people, nothing. No acknowledgment or very little even when I told them personally, directly, to their faces, that I was deep in first circle grieving. And then, after what is considered by them to be an acceptable amount of time, a joking text. More about them. Shifting focus back or, more accurately, just carrying on with what is perceived to be a brief interruption in attention from my “normal” self. Their “enough about you, let’s talk about me… forever” is something for which I typically have a lot of bandwidth. More than I should, it seems. Delineating. And expecting people who are pretty garbage at a shift in attention focus to not on them to suddenly be capable of it when it’s desperately needed is naive.

So they wait. Many of them have never been in the first circle, so they think that 1-2 weeks is an ok amount of time, or a full month, even. It doesn’t go from “how are you feeling/doing” to the shift, it goes from complete silence to “hey, I wanted to ask you this thing about work!” or “funny story!” or “my drama!” A complete or near-complete lack of acknowledgment or willingness to deal with someone else’s feelings, to have the focus on someone else for a minute or two, and then a ping, as worthless as a Facebook “poke”, to say “we’re still friends, right? Everything’s cool, right? You over that thing yet?”

Last time I experienced grief like this was 20 years ago. It changed the landscape of my world. My life. My friendships were never the same. My priorities shifted. I was also in my early twenties, so these things were set to happen anyway. Now, I’m less angry, I know myself much better. Those priorities I set in my early twenties were absolutely the right ones for me. And I’m busy as hell. I don’t have enough time for the friends who have been present for me during this time. So, if the thought of dealing with my emotions has been too much, and you’re waiting for me to be over it, I need more time. I need a lifetime. Mine.

Deathiquette V : The Death Face

(originally posted 13 May 2012)

No, it’s not the face of someone whose jaw has been wired shut. It’s the furrowed brow, the eyes full of falsified sadness, the cocked head and often hand-on-the-shoulder of someone who is, actively, vampiring your grief. They will say “How are you?” and “How are you holding up?” while they do it. These questions will almost never come when the two of you are alone. They want to show that they, too, care. That they, too, are hurting. That they, too, can get emotion out of you in the same way that the deceased has seemed to…or so they assume.

They are too self-centered to realize that, maybe, this particular moment, you weren’t having your soul ripped to shreds by pervasive grief. That, maybe, this one moment, you had the liberated feeling of wondering what you wanted for dinner and weren’t sinking to the depths of your own despair with the rock of your own sadness tied inexorably to your feet. Nope, for the 3 minutes a day immediately following the death of their friendquaintance, they decided to come to you, who knew the deceased better, and show you that they, too, care. That they, too, are hurting. And they are bound and determined to do this by vomiting their shallow emotions all over you.

They may finish this off with a hug. A long, long, HARD hug, during which they will pat your shoulders, rub you, and generally touch you more than would ever make you comfortable even if you were about to make out. This is where you are supposed to cry, to break down into them and, if you can muster it, make sure you are facing their audience while you’re doing it. This will show everyone else how close the two of you are, and how empathetic they are. Apparently, rolling your eyes at anyone watching during this process and mouthing the words “help me” is frowned upon. I recommend doing that.

By far the best response for a grief vampire, a death-face abuser, is an unrepentantly cheery smile and an “I’m doing/holding up GREAT! How are YOU??? How’s the promotion/new job/herpes/kid?” Turn it on them. They want it to be about them, sure, but in this moment small talk will render them helpless.

Remember, you’re going to be dealing with this, and thinking about the deceased, for years, if not every day for the rest of your life. They will go back to their daily lives after the funeral/memorial and, after a month, the dead will only enter their mind when they see you. Make it awkward.

Are you a grief vampire? Does this describe you? There’s a cure.

Those close to the deceased, like, really close, are thinking about this almost every waking moment. Not in the “happy memories” way. In the visceral, dealing with logistics, planning the worst party ever way. They’re not reminiscing. They’re busy, and they’re annoyed, and the deceased are in their conscious thoughts constantly. If they’re not actively talking about the deceased to you, DON’T FUCKING BRING IT UP. Trust me. Everyone knows they’re dead. If they’re not talking about it, give them a damned break and either help with the worst party ever or walk away. Because, in grieving as with everything else in life… it’s not about you.

Deathiquette IV : Grieve However You Need (but weeping is most acceptable)

(originally posted May 11 2012)

There is a lot of lip service paid to grieving in the way that feels right to you. This is, of course, technically true. Some get angry, some isolate, some socialize, some soldier on, some drink, some break down. All of these are good. Fine. Great. And, of course, because Everything Is Always Ok, no one is going to tell you that how you’re grieving is NOT ok. But, in order of socially acceptable, here’s how it really goes:

1. Weeping. Yep, if you’re weeping, the message to the world is “I Am Suffering.” Clear, easy to parse. Lowest Common Denominator Grieving, and the easiest for Other People to understand and relate to. They don’t have to say anything! They can just hug you. If you can, be this kind of griever.

2. Isolate. This one is almost as good as weeping. It’s far less of a socially acceptable way to grieve but, since no one has to see you, it’s fine. People can tell themselves you want to be alone, and you take the social pressure off of your friends because, hey, you want to be alone and they really don’t know what to say to you anyway.

3. Soldier On. Similar to isolation, except that you’re in front of people, but they still won’t insist on making conversation. If you can, it’s good to fake this one to avoid conversation.

4. Drink. If you stop in time, it’s still fun to be around you.

5. Get Angry. Don’t do this. Not only will you completely alienate yourself, but no one will want to be around you. Additionally, the narcissistic among your acquaintance group will forget you’re going through anything at all, take this personally and assume it’s about them. This may, however, prove to be an excellent filter for your future, post-grieving friendships.

Hope this helps.

Deathiquette III : The Eyes Don’t Stay Closed

(originally posted May 6 2012)

Despite your best attempts minutes, hours, and even days after the person has died, the eyes will not stay closed. You will get up the guts to close the eyes, you will use your hands and lovingly pass them over the eyes like they do in the movies. It won’t matter. You will wait. You will try it again. You will get other family members to try it. You will laugh uncomfortably. Finally, you will pull a sheet lovingly over the head or just not enter the room as often. Either way, you will add it to the list of things about which Hollywood has lied. Next time you go to an open-casket funeral, note – the eyes are glued shut, and the jaw is wired shut.

Deathiquette II : How it Happened is Not Relevant

(originally posted 8 February 2012)

People tend to die of one of two things – illness, or an accident. A few of the very fortunate will die of old age, in their beds, while asleep. Odds are this is not what happened. If so, mazel tov. If you were close to the deceased, you are not a person who needs to ask “how”, because you know. If you were not close enough to know, you do not need to know. Your curiosity may FEEL as though it is killing you but, trust me, you will survive this. You will ask how the person died. If the response is cancer, you will ask what kind. If it was lung/mouth/esophageal/throat/anything like that, you will ask whether the deceased was a smoker. If the answer is yes, you will make a tsking sound. If the response to the first question is “motorcycle accident”, you will skip straight to the tsking. Or, you will ask if the deceased was drinking. Allow me to remind you of the following: You are not Jesus, and you are not God. You cannot resurrect, and you are not fit to judge. In the 80’s and 90’s in San Francisco, if someone was found out to have had HIV or AIDS, the next immediate question was “Are they gay?”, as if a person who got it through a blood transfusion was somehow more deserving of health than someone who enjoyed regular ass-poundings in a bathhouse. Fuck your judgment. It does not matter HOW the person died, only THAT they died. Acceptable questions are “Was it sudden?” or “Was it expected?” This will give more depth to your empathy. I’m convinced that the true reason behind the judging line of questioning is humankind’s fear of dying. Don’t worry – you’ll get there in the blink of a redwood’s eye. And, whatever’s on the other side, it won’t matter how you got there.