All Your Unasked Questions About Grieving Answered

(This picture is relevant because of concrete, or because of rain being something weird people associate with sadness. Whatever, I just like this picture and I bet no one wants to see more pics of my brother’s ‘human remains’ box.)

Angelina Answers ALL your Unasked Questions About Mourning Etiquette

Q: What is the right way to mourn?

There’s no such thing as a right or wrong way to grieve. There certainly are healthier versus more destructive ways to mourn and if you choose to drink yourself to oblivion I refuse to judge you but you can expect the people who love you to worry and maybe try to temper your choice. But that’s because they love you. If you were to ask my advice I would say to do your best to choose the healthiest ways of grieving that you can, but it’s okay to fall apart and it’s okay not to fall apart.

Q: My cousin is freaked out that he hasn’t seen me cry over my mother’s death, am I a creepy fuck?

To cry or not to cry… a tough dilemma for no one but idiots. Some people don’t cry when they lose someone close to them, it isn’t the more common reaction and will freak some people out. Feel free to ignore those bossy fuckers. Some people will cry constantly, some moderately, some will only cry on Tuesdays, and some just don’t cry. Sometimes you can’t actually see their hearts on their sleeves or in their throats. Sometimes they’re calm because their beliefs allow them to be and some people look calm but are being shredded with sorrow inside where it’s safe and private.

Q: Everyone thinks I’m a rubbernecker and insensitive because I want to know all the details about how ______ died, should I retire from society and live in a cave?

I’ve been fantasizing about living in a remote cave for over two decades, but not because the first thing I always want to know when I find out someone has died is HOW? It’s absolutely natural and normal. In fact, a lot of people want to know the details but a lot of people are taught that this is ghoulish and insensitive. It’s not. It’s an incontrovertible fact that we’re all going to die so it isn’t surprising that when other humans around us die we feel connected to it almost on an animal level. How’d they go? Was it painful? Could that happen to me? What does it LOOK like? In fact, it would be weird as shit if most humans had no curiosity about how the people around them are dying. However, sometimes the people closest to the death don’t want to share those details and that’s also normal. Don’t be offended if they choose not to satiate your curiosity, they may be feeling protective of their loved one in a way that you wouldn’t.

Q: I want to drape my house in black sashes, accept lots of lasagnas from neighbors, and wear nothing but lavender for two years but my neighbors won’t bake me lasagna because they’re scared of me now that my windows are covered in black and my mom won’t bring me lasagna cause she says I’m being melodramatic. What to do?

Sigh. I love lasagna. There’s nothing you can do about how others react to how you’re expressing your sorrow. The Victorians were obsessed with lavender as a mourning color and draping everything in black so I suggest you set up a fancy chair in your yard and wearing your very best lavender ensemble and visibly read something depressing like The Mill on the Floss or Madame Bovary (which I HATED). You might even consider enhancing your ensemble with a veil. If your neighbors think your show of grief is inappropriate, bizarre, or really bad theatre they can fuck right off. Your grief isn’t a show they get to direct.

Q: I just found out _____ died and I didn’t know them as well (or at all) as others do but I’m still having trouble dealing with it and I’m super sad. Am I allowed to be as sad as people who knew ____ better than me?

When David Bowie died I cried and then stayed up until 3am trying to process my sadness and then asked to stay home from work the next day so I could be sad without judgement or expectation. I didn’t know him personally at all but he made my life such a better place so I was deeply affected by his death. Being sad and having trouble accepting or processing a person’s death isn’t reserved just for the people who knew them super well. Your sorrow is real and you never have to apologize for it to anyone. Your sadness isn’t less important than anyone else’s.

Q: When my wife died I only felt better when I wore her underwear but then my kids found out and want to know if I’m a lot creepier than they used to think I was.

See the first Q, there is no wrong way to express grief or make yourself feel better. Is it hurting anyone? Is it hurting you? No? Carry on! I’m actually more worried that they seemed to have already thought you were creepy. Maybe you want to have a good talk with them, but in the end, if wearing your wife’s underwear is what helps you deal with her loss then you DO IT. For my own sake I’m going to assume they’re all freshly laundered. We all wore my brother’s hats when he died. I still wear one sometimes when I miss him.

Q: My mom wanted to throw out all of my dad’s things when he died. Is she some kind of sociopath? How could she not care about his things?

I don’t know if she’s a sociopath or not but I know that some people feel no attachment to a person’s effects when they die. For some people, when you’re dead your gone and your things aren’t going to bring you back or make them feel better. Some people feel a strong connection to the things that belonged to a loved one who’s died. It’s normal both ways. If you really want to know if she’s a sociopath I suggest searching through HER things to see if there’s any evidence of bed-wetting, dead pet carcasses in boxes, or secret fires. I hear those are the things to be worried about if you find evidence of all three.

Q: When my partner died all I wanted to do was fold myself up into a tiny little envelope of pain and roll down the river styx. Why can’t I do that? Why won’t anyone let me do that?!

Because people are selfish bitches and they don’t want you to fade away from them. Isn’t love stupid? But look, wanting to float away and ignore everyone around you is natural and okay. It really is. You aren’t actually obligated to think of other people’s feelings in your grief. But if you could bring yourself to check in with the people who love you enough so that they can give you the space you need without worrying so hard, you might find they try harder to understand and respect that the way you’re dealing with loss is the best way you know how.

 

If you find I haven’t answered ALL your unasked questions as promised, I’m afraid you’ll have to submit questions in order for me to answer them. Go ahead, give it a try!

Save

Save

Save

My Advice To You, Old Thing

beautiful brother

My advice to you, old thing, is to never stop digging for Roman coins and arrowheads in the fallow fields. Never stop chasing butterflies or running from bees under the hot gold light of late afternoon. Never stop calling the Jerusalem crickets up from the center of the earth or we all might get too comfortable and cease to peddle the earth round in its necessary orbit. Never stop mapping the stars with your amateur telescope or we might all fall from the sky like deflated polyester clowns.

My advice to you, old thing, is to float your goddamn boat among the crowded crocodile waters without flinching or waving, like you’ve always done, hiding in the obvious infested waters until the cavalcade of teeth has gnashed itself so thin you can swim in your smooth fragile skin without a scratch to the island with the best coconuts. To the island of drums and gongs with no repercussions. To the island where your pale skin never burns and the sands always catch your bones in soft protective squalls.

My advice to you, old thing, is to play the whole song out to the bitter end. This is the place where golf balls disappear into the ether, the place we want to look but can’t even reach with flesh and bone because it’s two inches past the living. This is the place where Barbie dolls are abandoned for sick crowns of dense brush pocked with burrs that will bite into our skulls so hard we’d trade our souls to escape the pain. But those who hold fast, who play out the whole song to the bitter end, they’re the ones who reap the truth, the ones who will get to sleep the good sleep.

My advice to you, old thing, is to let your shackles crumble down around your spirit, let go, let it all fucking go now and don’t carry anything with you to your new life. You’ve watched attics burst into flame, you’ve felt citadels of trust crush down into layers of pain so bad you couldn’t speak of it again but in dissected parts. You invested in the silence like you invested in other people’s hopes and dreams. The truth kept coming, kept coloring your walls, your film, your canvas, your wheels. Let it all go now, let it all drift off like rain evaporating in the hot dry valley of death.

My advice to you, old thing, is to know the worth of your bones to those who are still living. The weight of them in our arms is heavier than the whole of the earth without you in it.

How’s That Grief Coming Along?

Mom Zeke and Tara in Portland

While I was in Los Angeles with my mom, sister, and Ezekiel’s roommate and best friend, his being dead was surreal and visceral. I knew it was real because we were going through his things and everyone around me kept crying (myself included a few times) and we had to arrange for his cremation. After four days of intense shock and grief I was ready to come home and not think about my brother’s death every waking moment of the day. So I watched every youtube episode of the Great British Bake Off I could find (WHY THE FUCK CAN’T I FIND EPISODE 4 OF SEASON 4?!) and re-watched nearly every episode of Poirot ever made (EXCEPT THE LAST ONE WHICH SUCKS). My sister went home. Life kind of returned to sort-of normal-ish.

I started feeling like maybe it was all a dreadful nightmare and my brother might drop by at any time toting some chardonnay or cheap beer since we can’t be trusted to have such things on hand. I didn’t see him that often anyway, so it’s not unusual that he’s gone. So how can it be much different than him being gone now?

To keep things more real my brain launched itself into an obsessive thought mode. It sounds like this in my head:

Remember when my brother wasn’t dead? My brother’s dead. My brother’s dead. My brother’s dead. My brother’s dead. I liked it better when my brother wasn’t dead. My brother’s dead. I will never see my brother again. My brother’s dead. (On seeing someone pass by my house I resist the urge to shout “Hey, my brother’s dead!”) Zeke’s dead. (Philip walks into the room and I say “remember when Zeke wasn’t dead?” He remembers.) My brother’s dead. My brother’s dead. My brother’s dead. (Resists urge to post this all over social media because everyone already knows my brother is dead and it’s a bummer to be reminded again and again of someone’s recent loss and also – it makes you look like you might not be handling it well) I’ll never see Zeke again. My brother’s dead. My brother’s dead. My brother will still be dead tomorrow. My brother’s dead. My brother’s dead. Etc…

So it dawns on me that maybe part of me doesn’t totally accept that he’s dead and my brain is there to make sure I remember it and swallow it and deal with it every waking minute of the day.

Self-inflicted lobotomies aren’t recommended.

I can’t seem to stop my brain from saying obvious stupid shit like “All of my life up until now, Zeke wasn’t dead”

The problem with saying something a million times is that at first you may be pounding a truth home into your psyche, but eventually words repeated too many times in succession lose meaning. (Say baboon really fast 20 times in a row and tell me if it doesn’t start to sound extra weird and meaningless)

At least we didn’t find any porn among his things or on his computer.

But really, death is something that happens to millions of people every single day. It’s the only thing more inevitable than birth. You might not be born, but if you’re born, you WILL die. The blessing for me is that I’m not tortured by the concept of heaven or hell or reincarnation or the belief that there’s a reason we’re born and a reason we die and that somehow our death is connected to the quality of our virtue. I don’t have to sit around worrying about the state of Ezekiel’s soul. The state of his soul was never anyone’s business but his own.

The fact that millions of people die every day means that millions of people are grieving every single day, same as I am right now. That’s kind of awe-inspiring. This grieving experience is something most of us who are living will share in common at some point.

Being born into this world comes with a tremendous amount of baggage. And once you’re in it, there’s only one way off the planet, death.

I find these thoughts soothing to some degree. Death is what it is. So if it starts feeling normal that my brother’s dead and I will never see him again, it’s just because it IS normal. It doesn’t mean he’ll ever be forgotten or that his time here wasn’t remarkable (because it was). It will just mean that I’ve accepted what is incontrovertible and have decided to mentally and emotionally move forward through the grieving process.

Use Honest Language to Talk About Death

I don’t approve of this current anti-death culture where everyone treats death as though it was some horrible event that’s never meant to happen to any of us.  People have forgotten how to respect death, to acknowledge its rightful place in our lives as the natural other half of life.  No one gets to live without dying.  No one who’s died has been denied the chance to live, even if only for a minute.  They come together.  You can’t have one without the other.  Life and death are part of one whole experience.

I’d like to address how we all talk about death when it happens to someone in our lives or in our circles.  No one is ever expected to repress their feelings of sorrow, surprise, shock, or to not fall apart.  We all react differently to the news that someone we know has died and I’m not trying to take away honest feelings.  However, I would like to suggest that the language we use to discuss these feelings be one without denial, without inanity, without false balm.

The basic fact is that there’s no such thing as a time that someone is “supposed” to go.  All of us would like the people we love to never die but they will.  Most of us don’t want to die ourselves, but we will.  Let’s agree that most of us are hoping for the most amount of time to live possible.  We are hoping we will live to be pissy old men and women who see everyone else they know die and finally, when there’s nothing left to do, we pass peacefully into death in our sleep.  Hoping is one thing, expectation is another.

No one has a right to expect to live to be old nor does anyone have a right to expect their loved ones to live to be old.  That is our hope, but it is not based on any rights or any facts or any promises the universe or God has made to anyone, because, of course, no such promises have ever been made to a living soul.

So when you lose someone it’s using a language of denial to say “It wasn’t her time” or “He died too soon” or “They weren’t supposed to go like that”

There is no “supposed to” and no “too soon” because none of us are in control of these things.  We all go exactly when we are meant to go.  We all go when the time is right or we wouldn’t go.  There are no accidental deaths where god “oops!” took someone by mistake.  I don’t believe in God but I’ve heard a lot of people who do say things like “Susie was taken before it was her time” and it strikes me as grossly sacrilegious that anyone accuse God of making mistakes.

What I’d like to see more people do is use more direct and truthful statements about how they’re feeling.  Instead of saying “Susie wasn’t supposed to die this young” (not factual or remotely true, since she obviously died ‘this young’) how about saying “I’m devastated Susie died so young!” (true) or “It’s so sad she didn’t get to live longer” (presumably true) or “I’m so fucking angry that Susie is dead and I was never going to be ready to lose her!!” (probably most true of all is anger at losing someone you liked).

No one is ever ready to lose the people they love.  That’s the bottom line.  That’s what most of us are feeling.  So let’s put more truth and strength and acceptance of our feelings in our language about death and erase the inane platitudes that don’t really make anyone I know feel better.  There is so much more power in saying what you really mean.

There is an urge in humans to distance themselves from death.  We do it in our language before we do it anywhere else.  I hear people say things like “I don’t know how to make sense of his death” and I want to shout out  that you don’t have to “make sense” of it.  It isn’t confusing.  It’s just personally painful.  I think dealing with loss would be much easier if we all stopped trying to make death mysterious and understand why it has to happen.  Do people really not get it?  Or is it that they just don’t want to express death in personal terms like saying “Death sucks!” or “I’m angry that people have to die!” which is very honest and most of us could relate and agree with those sentiments.

Death just is.  It is as much a fabric of all of our lives as births are.  It’s generally one of the least comfortable parts of life but it’s necessary.  Why?  Cause people insist on having tons of babies and if none of us ever died this planet would have been overcrowded to mass starvation point before Christ ever came along.  It’s that simple.  People die because if they never died they couldn’t keep being born.  You like birth, right?  You all feel warm and fuzzy when life is ejected from wombs but that cute and fuzzy event comes with a price.  Someone must die for the new life to thrive.  We all have our turns.  Some of us get a few seconds on earth.  Some of us get over a hundred years.  The fact remains- every single birth is also an eventual death.  When I hear of babies being born I already understand that the baby caries a burden of death into the world with them.

In summary:

Instead of saying the inane useless crap like “Henry died too young” let’s all be more truthful and say what we’re really feeling which is “I feel slugged with sorrow that Henry’s dead because I’m going to miss the hell out of him” and then we can proceed right on with the natural stages of grief and in being more directly honest about what’s happened and how we feel about it I think we do more honor to the person who’s died.  We get right to talking about what we’ll miss and what we loved about them.  Let’s start creating a culture of acceptance and honesty and respect around death.  This doesn’t diminish the sorrow and pain we all feel, in fact, it brings us straight to the heart of our devastation and that’s where we are able to actually honor both ourselves and the dead.

As a last note:

I am definitely hoping to live long enough to get my book published and to see my son become a well adjusted adult member of society.  I am hoping for more time than just today, however, if I die today I will be a fiercely angry ghost if anyone who knows me DARES to suggest I died too soon or that I wasn’t meant to go that way or anything patently stupid.  I promise that if I can figure out how to do it, I will haunt your ass until you stop talking in such useless shabby platitudes and just accept that this was always going to happen whenever it was supposed to and please watch over Max and get my books published posthumously.

Other topics I wish to discuss about death, dying, and mourning:

How to mourn: different methods to suit every taste.

How to eulogize without telling lies about dead people.