Good Grief

If all my life stories were of fond and amusing childhood memories I would have a much different view on life. I’ve had to deal with loss and grieving in many ways though, from pets to people. In May of 2004 it hit an extreme when I came home from work one day and discovered my partner of over eight years had committed suicide.

Death is such an unknown, and the unknown causes fear. We all react to this fear in different ways. For me it’s always been a self-induced emotional numbing, but in May of 2004 everything changed for me. I became less afraid of death. I had experienced it on such a close level that how to cope with it lost its mystery and it no longer held me in fear. You would think I would have lost fear of it during my high school days of living at the mortuary in Willits, but that was all part of a numbness.

I didn’t recognize it until recently, but the numbness really started at an early age, from having to “do without”. It may seem flippant to compare death with a lack of material goods, but there is a correlation in developing coping mechanisms. Living a gypsy-like childhood meant not having tons of things, but I wasn’t really aware that what I now see as an unfettered freedom was atypical in our culture until settling among an affluent and very materialistic society when we landed in Penngrove during my fourth grade year. Previously, in Guerneville, my experience was within a much less affluent community, and my friends were all on the same page as me. But in Penngrove, I was unique at the school. I was the poor kid, and I coped by introversion. Perhaps a subdued extroversion is more accurate. I learned to focus on internal interests as a means of tolerating daily interactions.

This introversion applies to grief. Aside from a fear of dying, the biggest fear surrounding death is loss. It’s a sadness at being left behind, sometimes a fear of being alone. Another of the ways I’d learned to cope with that early on was through Ma’s many hospital stays when I was growing up. With physical and emotional afflictions affecting her, I had to spend an inordinate amount of time alone while I was growing up. When I was younger I would often be left to stay with friends or family for a few days or a few weeks at a time while Ma was hospitalized. I didn’t understand what was going on, just that I was staying here now. Or there now. Or wherever. But my childhood had already been like that, with us moving around so much. The only difference was that Ma wouldn’t be there with me in some places.

When I was in the fifth grade in Penngrove, Ma had a hospital stay that lasted for several weeks, and for the first time I stayed home by myself. Alone. It was the first time I was acutely aware of the why behind Ma’s disappearances. My introversion helped me cope. Sometimes it’s easier to get through things if you don’t have to share your emotions, and being something of a loner meant not having anyone ask what was going on, not having to share or be vulnerable. We had a couple of neighbors who checked in on me and made sure I was eating and who would take me to visit Ma in the hospital, but other than that I was on my own. I brought the monthly check to Ma in the hospital for her to sign, and she filled out the bills and signed checks for me to mail off. I made my own dinners and breakfasts. I watched what I wanted on TV. At night I curled up with a headband Ma had knitted for me and cried, but during the day I went on like nothing was different: I went to school and did my homework and got good grades and pretended. I coped, and the experience made me stronger. When this pattern would repeat as time went on, I didn’t feel a need to cry anymore. I always knew she would come home, so the fear of being alone was gone. I thought it was strength, but mostly it was just a numbness. Emotions had to be extreme for me even to react, and despite the extreme nature of these episodes the frequency made them seem less so to me.

I’d experienced loss in the form of death earlier in life by way of pets – hamsters, goldfish, dogs… When you’re a child, recovery is fast. The loss doesn’t remain in memory for very long and we rebound. As we age, though, it’s like we want it to linger. We dwell and try to hang on to the way it was, to what we had. We put heavy emphasis on ceremony, and there’s a sense that if we don’t commemorate someone with something of permanence then we are doing them a disservice. That we have failed them. We strive to never forget, and we sometimes even embody the grief. Commemoration is a natural part of the grieving process, but in many ways it can be a hindrance to recovery if we’re not able to accept and move on. Ceremony is meaningless for those who died, but for those who live it provides comfort. We numb ourselves to the notion that recovering is not forgetting. We forget to laugh and acknowledge the impermanence of life – of everything, really…

Throughout my high school years Ma worked at the mortuary in Willits, and we lived upstairs on the compound. My bedroom window had a lovely close-up view of the smoke stack from the crematory, and I was always among the first to know when someone who had died in the region was being cremated. The mortuary is right there in town, next door to the popular teen hangout/convenience store/video arcade. It’s an interesting intermingling of life and death. The apartment came with Ma’s job, to provide a convenient 30-second walk to work. She was the secretary, and her job also entailed keeping the place open at night for visitations when someone had died. Those nights I would make dinner and bring it down to her, and we would eat our meal in the back room while watching the evening game shows, one cinder block wall away from the mourning and the mourned. You have to have a coping mechanism to be able to eat in a formaldehyde-scented room just ten feet away from a dead person. If you’ve ever interacted with a mortuary worker, you can tell by the hollowness of their eyes they’ve developed that numbness.

The detachment I developed at the mortuary persisted in how I handled the idea of dead people. One of my favorite “outings”, as it were, was to scatter ashes. They were no longer people, they were a task. A friend of the mortuary’s owner had a small plane, a twin-engine Cessna. Periodically we would go out to scatter the ashes of those who’d requested it and of those who had no next-of-kin. There was absolutely no ceremony to the process. We’d fly out over the ocean off Mendocino, and I loved looking down at the colors in the water, the many shades of blue and green on a sunny day. I think my quiet appreciation of the natural beauty served as the closest thing to any sort of ceremony. Ma would sit in the passenger’s seat with a clipboard of names, and I’d sit in the back with a banana box full of brown paper lunch sacks. Our cremated bodies fit perfectly into a lunch sack, and a full banana box meant it was time to scatter. The first time out we learned the hard way that you do not open the lunch sack and pour it out the window, or else you end up with a cloud of Mr. So-and-So choking you in the plane and making you frantically wipe down the windshield. I would read the name on the lunch bag, Ma would say “check”, and out the bag would go. It bursts when it hits the water, making a cloud of heavy ash that radiates in a beautiful circle and rains onto the surface. The circle of life, I would think to myself.

Those mortuary years enlightened me about ceremony. One thing that always struck me as odd was the concept of embalming for preservation. A person’s fluids are let to flow down the drain and are replaced with formaldehyde. It’s the same drainage system that carries bathwater, laundry water, sewage. We drain our loved ones and flush part of them away in the name of remembering them. Or, we burn them into ash. It seemed to me, and still does, that the best way to memorialize someone would be to let them go naturally back into the earth. Let their molecules dissolve and cycle back into the natural system. The circle of life, I again think to myself. Let them become once again a part of the earth and thus continue to live on instead of separating them from the earth itself, contained in a box. In life and death we tend to separate ourselves from the natural world.

The first person I had to cope with dying was a girl in my high school who was a good friend. At the beginning of summer she had gone to New Zealand as an exchange student and I was already aware I was going to miss her greatly. The first week of school we got word that the car she was riding had gone into a river off a mountain road and everyone had drowned inside, unable to get out. The nightmare played over in my vivid imagination repeatedly. Her boyfriend, also a friend, was so distraught that he drove himself down the Ridgewood Grade south of town at 100mph and smack into a tree without slowing down. It was a double-whammy for our small school and I didn’t really know how to react. I kept bringing the girl’s mother packets of zinnia seeds, imagining I would see the flowers pop up in the park across the street or around town. That would show that my offerings were meaningful. That would show that I had made a difference in comforting a grieving mother. I felt slighted when I never saw the zinnias blooming. I didn’t intend it as such, but it was a selfish offering, I recognize in hindsight. She just wanted to be left alone to heal and move on in her own way.

I thought I’d been “hardened” already. Besides already living at the mortuary, I had dealt with loss over pets many times. I’d had to put down my beloved dog, Zephyr, a couple years prior. Then we had a series of dogs in a single year (Nazz, Zoe, Zoe 2, Zoe 3, Zoe-Bob) that all had to be put down as puppies one after the other from distemper, parvovirus, hypoglycemia, epilepsy, heartworm. Internally, I thought these things were on the same par as losing my friends in school, and I was consciously perplexed by my emotions when those kids died. I thought I knew how to cope already.

I’ve had a lifetime of dealing with the concept of suicide. Never suicidal myself, but I have been surrounded by it. You could say it’s followed me. Ma has had a rough life – childhood and adult. She made many attempts at suicide as I was growing up, once even in front of me. She tried so hard to protect me from her troubles, but this one time it was too much for her. It was a particularly awful time at the mortuary house where she had been holed up inside with all the windows covered by blankets. We’d experienced that level once before, in Penngrove, when I was in fifth grade… The situation came to a head with her and a police officer wrestling as she tried to get his gun to end her suffering right then. She was unsuccessful, I spent some more weeks home alone, and eventually she came back to resume “normal” life.

A few years later I was living on my own and visited her in the hospital after an overdose attempt. I was fascinated by how the charcoal they had pumped her with was coming out her pores. Or perhaps it had settled there as a dust. In any case, she was pale with little black dots. It was like she was a reverse night sky, lying intubated on the hospital bed. My coping mechanism made me giggle at that thought, but I stopped short of pointing it out to the nurses. It was one attempt out of many and they always ended the same, with medication adjustments and her returning home to resume life. Suicide wasn’t a real thing, in my mind. It was always stopped. It was always fixed.

In high school I was involved in a program called Peer Counseling. It’s a fantastic program where kids are selected to be trained in the basics of counseling. We left school for a few days at the beginning of the year to immerse in a training program at a remote farm, and day and night we did exercises to train us in trust and empathetic listening. The program itself was a great coping mechanism for me and I was fortunate to participate for five years – four as a student and one as a facilitator. It trained me to listen and to observe, and to try to understand where people are coming from. In some ways the awareness has drawn me to people with challenging situations, or them to me, much like my upbringing has done: growing up the way I did “normalized” such behavior. We’re all naturally attracted to what is comfortable to us, and in a twisted way suicidal tendencies were comfortable.

I met Adam when I was 25, and he was everything I wasn’t. I had been a nerdy, introverted hippie kid with a Victorian-esque penchant for aesthetics and propriety. He was a muscled, tattooed go-go dancer with a penchant for addictive behaviors. I didn’t yet have the range of experience to recognize that he had the same troubled past I had internalized. He was different in my book. He was what I wanted to be, had the traits I thought I lacked, yet wasn’t confident enough to recognize I already had. Outgoing, confident, stylish, sexy. It was a tumultuous relationship, to say the least. In so many ways it was my “dark years”. I was introduced to everything I thought I wanted – clubbing, dancing, partying, drugs, drinking, promiscuity – and somehow these things were validating. I “had arrived” and was finally hanging with the popular crowd, as I saw it. But I still felt a bit separate. It wasn’t me. I coped with numbness. Whatever happened, happened. I was just going along for the ride.

Adam had grown up with a very difficult childhood, the product of a young teenage rape and knew as such, and his mother had coped with IV drug abuse. His mother had given him the rapist’s name as his middle name, even. Though no longer using drugs in that manner, she still had (has) addictive behaviors. There was one particular Halloween party at our house (oh, we threw the grandest parties) where she was drunk and horny, and half passed-out on our staircase. Every time someone would come in the door she’d start screaming how she needed a man – A MAN – and would try to pull people onto her as they came up the stairs. One poor young gay coworker of mine was quite traumatized by it. Eventually we dragged her to a bedroom where we later found her unconscious with a 976-number phone call still connected after three hours. Poor Adam never stood a chance of being “normal”.

Apparently Adam had attempted suicide in his younger days, but experience taught me that attempts were just temporary episodes and you come home and things go back to normal. It was always fixed. Even with my years of Peer Counseling training I didn’t fully recognize the signs. Even with him committing himself to the mental ward at SF General Hospital two months prior I didn’t fully recognize the signs. The numbness had taken over years before, and I just didn’t want to be aware of anything anymore. Numbness was easier. The day plays out in my mind frequently. When I called him on my morning break as usual he was slurring unintelligibly. I assumed he was drunk yet again, and I got pissed. (In reality he had taken an overdose of anti-psychotics.) He rattled something and I thought it was him knocking something over yet again, and I got pissed. (In reality it was him shaking bottles of pills to try to get me to understand what was happening.) When he didn’t answer the phone on my lunch break I assumed he was out partying yet again, and I got pissed. (In reality he couldn’t even have known the phone was ringing.) I came home from work and he was unconscious in bed yet again, and I got pissed. (In reality he was not passed out.) This time he didn’t wake up when I shook him. Our dog was curled up with him, trying to keep him warm. Her expression said it all.

When the paramedics finally wheeled him away they left behind debris I didn’t want to have to deal with. I didn’t need to be picking up used absorbent pads. I didn’t need to be picking up defibrillator stickers. I didn’t need to be picking up plastic tubes from CPR attempts. I didn’t need to be picking up a ten-foot printout of a flatline with electrically-induced blips. I didn’t need to be picking up a 911 call report of “acute polypharmacy”. I was numb, and discarded them mechanically. I called Adam’s sister, but I was too numb to feel emotion. Then I called a friend from work and she said she’d come right over, and we hung up.

At last I cried. I was numb, but I knew I could feel.

I met my neighbor across the hall who’d had a similar experience with her ex-boyfriend, who happened to have been the son of the writer Danielle Steele. When I brought Adam home in a box the size of a brown paper lunch sack, my neighbor brought over her lunch sack containing the young Mr. Steele from his hiding place under her bed and we cried together. Then we laughed at the absurdity of the situation. The numbness was starting to lessen. We talked about how you deal with this grief, and she was appalled that she’d been keeping someone she loved so much stuffed under her bed. How twisted to be hiding him yet sleeping right over him every night, she thought. In a way he was like a Telltale Heart.

I underplayed ceremony with Adam. I feel bad I never put an obituary in the paper, but the important thing is his family and closest friends were here to commemorate his death. We had a disorganized, but beautiful, scattering of his ashes off a pier near the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not the legal way to do it, but there’s nothing that can be done once it’s over. Adam was not one for being concerned with the legal ways of doing things anyway, so it was appropriate. It was a sunny Memorial Day and the pier was crowded with people fishing. We found a spot to squeeze in, (wisely) chose the down-wind side of the pier, said a few words, and let him go. The people fishing around us were confused and disbelieving about what they had just seen, but we didn’t care. A friend holding my dog on the shore said the cascade of ashes in the wind was phenomenal to watch. Out with a splash.

In the following weeks, people around me felt the same awkward need to bestow me with gifts of meaning as I had felt when presenting the zinnia seeds for the girl in high school. People with whom I had no deep connection would approach me, their faces all screwed into a comical grimace, to express their deep sorrow for what I had gone through. They had no idea what I had gone through. Over time, through conversation, I would find others who had experienced the same as I had. It was cathartic to meet people who knew firsthand and could commiserate without grimacing. People I worked with. People I commuted with. People like my neighbor, who could come out of it laughing and loving life.

My attitude started to change after Adam. It really opened my eyes as to what matters in life, and put things into clear perspective – to a point of impatience with pettiness and annoyance with shallowness. Adam’s death woke me from my numb state and made me appreciate living. I’d been living in darkness for so long that a brightness began to glow with an intensity I had never experienced before.

There are many phases of grieving – well-documented in psychiatric texts – and how and if we experience them is really an individual process. Anger lingered for far too long with me and I developed an unfortunate cynicism about ceremony, an almost scientific matter-of-fact attitude about life and death. Adam’s nephew hung himself at 16 less than two years later, and it was difficult to feel emotion despite having been close to him when Adam was around. Adam’s best friend died in a motorcycle accident two years later still, and emotion was difficult in coming. It wasn’t until my dog, the one who’d curled up with Adam, died in 2011 that I grieved so wholly that I felt I was finally regaining full emotional capacity.

Those earlier “dark days” were an important part of shaping who I’ve become, and despite the anger I sometimes feel over past actions I have to take ownership and recognize that I allowed myself to be where I was. All these experiences helped create what I am and what I feel today, and I’m grateful for where I am now. They helped alleviate inhibitions, they helped build self-confidence, they helped me to put life in perspective. I have to be thankful and appreciative of that. It’s all a part of me. Adam felt so tortured by his past that he saw no alternative. I’m so glad I have the ability to appreciate what life has to offer…

 

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