I was asked by the good people at Posy-Filled Pockets to give a talk on Deathiquette for their Decorum of Despair Event. I was honored to participate. My mediocre iPhone recording is here! If you’d like to see the whole talk… contact me! I don’t have a better recording but I’d do it again.
(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.
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.
(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.
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.
(originally posted 2 February 2012)
Caveat : I have not necessarily grieved more than anyone else. But I’m in the habit of writing snarky posts about my own experiences.
Your parents aren’t dead. If this is true, say that sentence to yourself over and over again before you open your mouth to mention your estranged parent(s) to someone who is grieving. I am always amazed when people compare the death of a parent to their parent(s) with whom they have chosen not to speak. No one is saying that having parental strife is easy, or ideal. The point is in the choice. The idea that an estrangement, regardless of who initiated it, is anything at all like having that choice removed, regardless of the relationship of the bereaved with their dead parent, is inconsiderate at best and unconscionably self-centered at worst. If you COULD pick up the phone and call your mother right now, shut up, take a deep breath, and say you’re sorry for the bereaved’s loss. Please, save the comparison. It is one of the idiotic things people can say to the grieving that will slice through the fog and haze of grief and create sheer rage. Ofcourse, if your aim is to distract a close friend from their grief for a moment, well played.
Losing my mother when I was 22 taught me many things. One of those lessons continues to be that I am not entitled to anything. Just because I want something, would lay down my life for something, doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than me. It doesn’t turn back time, it doesn’t cure cancer. Death shows us the powerlessness of our wants. Losing the thing I wanted more than anything taught me that I am not entitled to anything that I want, have no reason to think I will ever get anything I want again, and am, frankly, naive to ever have thought otherwise.
So, to fill the gaping hole of powerlessness, I became driven. I would do everything in my power to prepare for every contingency. I would never let loose, I would never lose control, I would do all of the things I was supposed to do so that I couldn’t be taken by surprise again. I would give my 20’s to always having a full-time job, always having life insurance, health insurance, making safe bets, being reliable, never feeling that thing unlock in the back of my head that says that things will be ok, because nothing would ever be “ok” again. Certainly not by my old definition. I don’t know what it feels like to “let go”, to believe that things will be ok if I go on a weekend bender or don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from or … any number of things I saw people like aliens doing throughout their 20’s…and some into their 30’s and older.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to consider wanting again. I pressed my foot into the gas pedal for so long that now, my youth streaking behind me, I am far and beyond where I thought I’d ever be in so many realms, and now what? I’ve been so terrified it would be taken away, I didn’t stop to consider what I might want. If I say what I want out loud, I know I won’t get it. If I get it, I won’t keep it. If I keep it, I won’t deserve it. So I worry. And I don’t worry about things, I worry about people. I worry about my loved ones. I worry that, yet again, those I love will be ripped from me with no rhyme or reason.
What do I want?
I want you to be healthy. To live. To love. To be well. I want to be healthy, to live, to love, and be well, to see the world and enjoy my friends well into old age.
My friends are at the age where they’re beginning to lose their parents.
I used to have a friend, years ago. That friend helped me during the darkest hours after my mother died. That friend’s mother had died four months before my mother died, and I watched them, I held onto the line that they held, though I couldn’t see where they were, on the other end of it. All I knew is that they were further along the tunnel than I was, and that, if they were still going, I could keep going. Some days it was the only thing that kept me alive.
To my grieving friends, that is all I can offer you; I am on the other side of the tunnel. It does end. I promise. Beyond the point that you give up ever seeing daylight again, it will end. The other side doesn’t look the same. The world will never look the same again because you have changed, and everything will look different through your eyes from now on. But the world, and you, are still here. It is not much, this promise that you will survive, but it is something. I know this, because there were many days that the only thing that kept me going was knowing that someone else could make it further along, and out of the tunnel. That survival was possible.
And the thing that made me tenacious as hell was losing my mother when most of my friends still had grandparents, and knowing I wasn’t entitled to any of my many glorious moments with you amazing people. I’ve never taken those for granted, and treasure them above any travel memory I can conjure.
So. Again, to my grieving friends… when you are ready (and I really do recommend 30 days of not shoulding on yourself for even a moment), I wish you luck kicking the shit out of Option B.