What Grief Is, and a Confession…
March 2, 2015
I’m going to tell you some things I believe about grief and the grieving process now. It’s going to be slightly rambling and not altogether fashionable, and at the end of it I’m going to make a confession.
I’m going to confess to you the thing I don’t say whenever the subject of mortality comes up in conversation.
This is how we’ll begin.
Leonard Nimoy died last week. It impacted me the same way it impacted a lot of you. As a child I wept openly during Spock’s death scene. Spock is a character with whom I identify the same way I’ve always identified with Bruce Banner and Hulk. He was an unexpected mixture and melding of brain and brawn, and always had to deal with the way others labeled him on sight.
But it’s not Mr. Nimoy’s death or my feelings about it that got me thinking about grief. It’s the absurd backlash I witnessed on Twitter and Facebook over William Shatner’s decision to honor a charity commitment he’d made rather than attend Nimoy’s funeral. And the inevitable and stronger backlash against the backlash against Shatner.
I watched as a lot of people dealt with and processed their grief in very different ways, and this is what that observation led me to.
I’ve had thirty-two years wrapped in and often constricted by this mortal coil, and in that time I’ve worn my blood and the blood of others and I’ve lost more than some of you and less than a lot more of you and I’ve done my level best to attach a meaning to it all by way of finding a lesson.
And I’ve grieved.
I’ve grieved over pets. I’ve grieved over friends. I’ve grieved over family. I’ve grieved over enemies. I’ve grieved over strangers. I’ve grieved the loss of things that weren’t people. I’ve grieved places I’ve left, opportunities I’ve lost, careers I had to give up, and ideas I’ve had to let go.
We all have. All of those things.
Like most of you I’ve taken many models of the human grief machine for a test drive in an attempt to find the one that rides the smoothest for me. I’ve tried crying. I’ve tried not crying. I’ve banged on the glass and I’ve put my fists through it. I’ve taken it inside and I’ve unleashed it on the outside world. I’ve self-medicated and sex medicated and gone cold turkey and I’ve never left the house and never stayed home.
Hurting yourself often feels so good when you’re grieving. It’s even better than hurting others, which is also hellishly euphoric.
Some would say you can judge a person by which of those options they indulge.
They’re right and they’re wrong.
What I’ve learned overall is this: Grief waits in the silences. It lives in the silence of our lives. No one grieves out loud, I don’t think. Out loud is how we evade grief. We yell and rage and fight and attack to keep ourselves safe in the streetlights, distracted from the shadows hiding their horrible stillness and serenity and fuckawful silence.
Because alone, in the silence, is where grief will fucking devour you.
The reason I think the movie John Wick was such a surprise hit with so many folks (beyond surprisingly good world building and simply being the best pure mainstream American action film made in the last like, five years) was…wait for it now…the unbelievably base and universal emotional resonance of its very simple story. On the surface the premise sounds ludicrous: “The world’s most lethal assassin swears revenge after the murder of his dog.” But when you watch the movie, it’s the context that elevates it and makes it a thing with which you empathize utterly. Context is everything, and combined with execution it can sell anything.
John’s wife dies of cancer. After the long and tumultuous illness, her traumatic passing, the bleak commotion of her funeral, when he’s settled back into the home they share and facing the maw of grief itself, that silence, a package arrives at his door. His wife arranged its delivery before her death. It’s the dog. She’s gifted him this puppy because, as she writes in a note, “you [John] need something to love.”
Later, captured and under interrogation by the villain after his violent rampage, John explains that when the dog was killed what was taken from him was “the chance to grieve unalone.”
That’s a beautiful line, strung out on more truth than any bit of dialogue spoken by a character that utilizes Center Axis Relock so effectively ever is in a movie, despite those type of characters probably being the most qualified.
Whether or not “unalone” is a word is immaterial.
Social media is where grief (along with a plethora of other base emotions) often becomes a charnel house. As helpful as such a community can ever be, and often is, every community inevitably reaches a critical mass of toxicity, especially on-line. In the case of Mr. Shatner, you may wonder why anyone would condemn the friend of the deceased like that. You may wonder why that friend would even consider not attending the funeral.
The truth is a lot of people can’t reconcile their own pain unless everyone else shares it in precisely the way those people want them to. The truth is a lot of people want Shatner to be dead instead of Leonard Nimoy. The truth is a lot of other people just want to fucking hate and blame someone to escape the silent spaces of their own pain. The truth is some people are just assholes.
All of these things are true simultaneously, and I wouldn’t spend too many cycles trying to figure out which one is The Thing that motivates people in their own grief.
The important thing to take away from situations like this is there are healthy ways to fill the silence, for you and for those tangled in your life, be it the fleshy or digital variety. There’s also no wrong way to deal with grief short of tearing into your own flesh, someone else’s, or just plain giving up. And that’s not an empty platitude. I’ve spent almost twenty years learning that. There was a time I would’ve passively watched myself or a friend work through grief by pummeling the fucklights out of some random asshole and known it to be, not only completely justified, but singularly needed.
It isn’t and it’s not. You’re just compounding the karmic toll on yourself.
And you do pay the full freight for those acts later.
Falling just short of that, however, don’t let anyone tell you how, when, or where to grieve. The grief police wear tin badges and have been authorized by no one. They don’t have the right, or the wisdom, to enforce your grief for you.
People will also tell you “you’re not alone.” And that’s often true, and important, and valid, and can even be vital, lifesaving. Except sometimes you are alone, and no matter how intently those around you choke your reality with their presence and well-meaning words you will remain alone until you’re ready to be otherwise.
That’s okay. It’s okay to be alone sometimes, even a lot of times.
As long as you come back eventually.
The important thing to remember, the only thing to remember, really, is you may be alone, but you’re not a test case. Your circumstance does not exist in a vacuum. Millions, even billions of people have felt exactly the way you feel and enough of them lived through it to warrant your indulgence of your own pain and even believe it might become tolerable before it becomes too intolerable for you to keep going.
You’ll notice at no point did I write the word “hope” just then. Because fuck that, you know? Hope is too often like faith without the pamphlets. Give me a basic truth. Give me a simple, undeniable fact to which to cling any day, all day, twice on Sunday.
All right, so, that’s grief. Now it’s time for the confession I promised you at the beginning.
My confession is this: I believe we all die alone. Whether we’re surrounded by three generations of family, a legion of friends or fans or supporters, whether we’re lying next to someone we love and who loves us deeply in return. In the end I don’t believe it matters, and I don’t believe it can comfort or ease the passage.
I believe we all die alone, and I grieve most of all for that when I lose someone, that they had to experience that, face that on their own.
I want to be wrong, and I hope I am. But we’ve just covered hope. And I’ll find out for certain one day, anyway. We all will.
The thing is, and there’s always a thing that is, it doesn’t really matter. That’s another lesson it’s very genuinely taken me a long time to learn and accept. Because that belief will never stop you or me from trying to be there when someone we love has to answer that question. And it won’t stop them from clinging to us as much as they’re able for as long as they’re able at the end.
I suppose my point, if such a thing exists, is that in dealing with grief or with death itself we all keep trying. And we should. That’s the only universal rule that need to be applied to the process.
The rest, folks, is entirely up to you.
That’s how we’ll end.