[Editor’s note: This post was published in its original form here.]
THERE ARE WELL-DEFINED STEPS to dealing with the grief of death, which you can process through at weekly therapy sessions or in a local group that meets in the basement of a church on Tuesday nights. We cry longingly in private; we show only a glimpse of the tear in the heart tissues at some work retreat that forces a bonding moment. Steps are well-defined because:
- grief takes such a seemingly insurmountable toll, and
- death is common. Any one of us might experience the death of dozens of people during our lifetime.
For me, I’ve personally known a half-dozen people who have died. I’m here to admit I don’t really know how to deal with it.
I know the pain of relationships — romantic and platonic — ending. I’ve been in car accidents that tore my leg open, broke my kneecap, damaged my back permanently, as the guy who rammed into my car from behind took off in the lane beside me. I’ve watched friends lose parents and celebrated the anniversaries of those deaths with them.
It seems like I feel the anguish more in those moments than when I experience the death of someone I know myself.
I almost got to the corner of the street that dead-ended at Matt Edmister’s house. Whether I was coming or going, I don’t know, but I remember stopping and stepping my feet down on either side of the middle bar. Mike was in front of me and wrapped his arms around me, gently asking how I was doing as I pushed my face up against his chest.
I knew, at age 14, I was supposed to be devastated, in shock, or feeling some other common emotional reaction since I had just found out Jerry died late the night before after smashing himself and Gayle and his car into a tree out in the country. But all I could feel was enjoyment that Mike was being attentive and nurturing and guilt for only feeling enjoyment that Mike was being attentive and nurturing. For a girl who could cry at the Folgers commercial where the son surprises his family by coming home early Christmas morning ten years after they started airing it, why couldn’t I summon a tear for the death of a close friend?
Years later, after making the decision to go through sorority rush, I got a phone call from my dad. His mom — my grandmother — had fallen to the floor in their pink bathroom that smelled of rose and Noxzema, a stroke removing her ability to stand but not to move her eyes. She passed a day later in the hospital, my grandfather sitting next to her. I flew up to meet them in Dubuque a couple of days later.
It was odd to hold my grandfather’s arm as we walked toward the open casket; he seemed small, and with my 5’1″ frame, I held him up and enabled him to move his legs. I held a man I had barely known as he faced the puffed “fake” face of a woman he had been married to for over 55 years, a woman I had also hardly known. Again, I felt mostly guilt for not feeling more.
Do I not know how to properly deal with death?
Getting the Message
I get a monotone message from my mom a day after she left it while I’m driving home from dance class. “Your grandmother passed away. I’ll be going to Germany sometime in the next couple of days. Just wanted to let you know.”
From the outside, I would say this to myself: “Of course this affects you in some way. You just don’t know which way yet.” But when I talk to my mom on the phone the day before she leaves for Germany and I ask, “Would you liked to have seen her body?” and she says yes — that she’s curious what she looked like weighing only 60 pounds, but that it mostly wasn’t a big deal — and that cremation is easiest and best and bodies always look weird and strange filled with chemicals to make them hint at what real life looked like — and that to imagine this woman sitting in her own piss and shit for days as Rolf refused to put diapers on her but rather just took off in his car to god knows where (certainly not the doctor like he’d been saying) and her blind, osteoporosis-induced body refused to drink any more water because she knew she’d have to sleep in it — is it a wonder I can’t connect? Is it a wonder I want to cut any sort of cord that exists?
I try my best to get my mom in touch with her own sadness. “It’s been a long time coming,” she says. “She’s definitely better off.” I’m left to ponder when, and which one, will hit me the most.
Death is part of the cycle of life, yet it’s a taboo subject in our culture. We think it’s important to talk about it openly. If you have anything to share on the subject, we’d love to hear it.