Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On Grieving

A friend of mine overdosed and died last week.

He took a few too many anti-depressants, and I, for the life of me, can’t understand why. He was smarter than an accident and he was better than a suicide. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he had nothing resembling an ego. He maybe remains as the only peer I knew as a teenager that actually had “wisdom.” And the dude was pulling jive-talk back in fifth grade before I even understood basic grammar. He was always ready for a philosophical discussion, a prank or a joke. Forever bless his sneaky giggle and his audible “humph.”

I suppose he’s the first one of my friends to pass away, and goddamn, nobody ever guesses that it’s going to be the co-valedictorian that’s the first one to go from your high school. Especially when he rapped his speech at graduation. And while this could very easily turn into a rambling eulogy, I’m instead, in this instance at least, intrigued by the grieving process. My alma mater has lost three students this year. My brother lost his friend (Class of 2006) to a car accident, a friend recently told me about a girl I met on the school paper (Class of 2004) and now my recent friend last week (Class of 2003). There have also been a few passings at neighbor high schools in the last few years, where my friends have already attended funerals of their peers.

I’ve witnessed the grieving of friends for friends as well as family for family, and either way, by any measure or proxy, grieving is a rather chaotic but calm endurance race. There are the five stages, but I have no real knowledge of grieving’s clockworks. I know very little about grieving, though I’ve attended well over 15 funerals in my lifetime, I believe. How close I knew each of them, I’m unsure.

Grieving is an extremely bizarre natural disaster to me. It’s like walking through a hurricane in order to find the ocean. You just put yourself through this trembling sense of trouble, carving out memories and anxiously awaiting worse news, as you march your way to the source. You constantly feel that you should endure a great ordeal in order to sleep well again. You have to walk through the entire monsoon just to see daylight.

And what a person brings along as tools is never the same as the person next to them, even if it’s a relative. I’ve watched similar situations occur on both sides of my family. I went to my mom’s brother’s funeral in fifth or sixth grade and I attended my dad’s brother’s funeral in seventh or eighth grade, both passing from heart problems. I saw how each sibling cried or slouched and I observed my grandparents shake in the church pew. There is hardly any worse feeling than watching a parent bury their son or daughter.

When my grandfather passed away years later, my grandma was handed a great number of books. She didn’t read any of them. At least she didn’t at the time. Instead, she just stacked them on her glass table in her living room and said, “I know how to miss my husband. I don’t need a book to give me instructions.”

She gave a slight noise that was either grief or laughter and stepped into the kitchen. Meanwhile, I sat there nodding my head absently. Who knows what helps and what offends? My aunt once told me that she refused to speak to certain co-workers for years after they went out of their way to not acknowledge my grandfather’s death.

“People avoided me, they wouldn’t even say hello, because they were so uncomfortable with saying, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I’m sorry to hear about your father.’ And that’s all it takes. Just say one of those sentences and that’s it. That’s all there is to it,” she said.

And I’d say that’s pretty accurate.

When my grandfather passed away, I was just about to turn 19. It was the first death that hit home while I was able to really have an adult perspective on grieving. A day or two after my grandfather passed away, three friends came to pick me up and cruise around town. The first friend gave me a big hug on my front lawn and said he was sorry to hear the terrible news, and it was especially comforting because he had actually known my grandfather since grade school. Then there was two other friends, both of whom I had only known for less than a year (from the same mutual friends for the same amount of time): one guy and one girl. The guy came up to me in the street and gave me another huge hug and said that he was sorry to hear about my grandfather too, though he’d never had met him. The girl just sat in the car and waited for me to get in, and she never said a word. She looked at me knowingly and never said anything about it. She preferred to ignore everything instead of having to say one simple line.

It was hard not for me to dwell on her insensitivity. To sit in that car without air-conditioning on that warm May day, I could’ve screamed at her until my throat caved into my lungs. The two guys had clearly just given me sympathetic hugs and one or two sentences, and I felt like I had a support group. They did the right amount, they said the right things and I was thankful for them. But this third person in the car was just a burning loose knot in the safety net.

As we drove around, all I could think was, “You just had to say once sentence. That’s it.”

Now, I would’ve been fine, and I’ve never felt that I ever needed someone to help me get through grieving, but whenever a friend lets you know they’re there, you just have more to be thankful for while you’re growing bitter and resentful at the politics of death. You go from anger and bargaining to acceptance, and there suddenly seems to be some truth to the clockwork of grief.

But that was when I felt I had gathered some perspective on death, maybe a valuable lesson or something along the edges of understanding, maybe even structure. Years before that, however, I encountered death one year after another, and wasn’t ever sure what to make of my own unsettling stomach and heartache.

Just from the time I was 11 to until I was 14, I was counting funerals on two hands. Just in those three years. And I remembered what soothed me and what frustrated me, but even then, I was restless and impatient with people at that age.

“Your uncle’s in a better place now,” I heard on several occasions.

“Yeah?” I said, visibly annoyed. “Prove it.”

There was usually a skeptical silence.

I’m not a religious person and I only sit in churches for weddings and funerals. And it drove me mad to hear people using their spiritual beliefs to comfort me and my lack of spirit. Yes, I know that they were only trying to comfort, but they were doing it on their terms and with their methods. If a religious person comforts a person they know to be agnostic with religion, where lies the line between carelessness, desperation, selfishness or patronizing? Don’t tell me that the dearly departed rests in a better place if we’ve previously had conversations about how I don’t believe in the better or worse places.

What I most appreciated was when someone just acknowledged that they were sorry to hear the bad news. They didn’t need to be a grief counselor or an old sage. I never expected that.

And I still don’t anticipate one’s ability to be resilient in the wake of wakes. Hardly. A funeral is a cataclysmic event, almost a form of polite and endearing torture. Only actual grief counselors are trained, and I even find them patronizing.

Also, the notion of a person wanting to hear that another person has endured a situation similar, to me, is bogus and often self-indulgent. Paralleling deaths is different, and, I think, acceptable. But I suppose it’s the wording.

Good: “I remember when my grandfather passed away, I couldn’t stop crying.”

Bad: “I know exactly what you’re going through.”

When my grandfather passed away, I noticed that my most self-involved friends said, “I know exactly what you’re going through,” and we’d end up talking about everything that happened when their grandparent passed away a decade ago instead of mine two weeks prior. “I know exactly what you’re going through” almost reads as a segway instead of a smile.

No matter how comforting one thinks that statement is to say, I don’t consider it a grand gesture of comfort to hear it. For starters, it better be the same exact scenario. If your neighbor passed away from old age and mine passed away of cancer, you don’t get to say, “I know what you’re going through. My neighbor died last year.”

It almost comes across as, “I’ve done this before and have tips for you if you need them,” and not as a pat on the back, like you might think it’d be. Though I admit it’s maybe harsh to be annoyed with someone who is just trying to be helpful and there for you, but really, at a time when I feel I’m at my most desperate, the last thing I want is to hear someone tell me they know exactly how I’m feeling or that my friend or family is in a better place. One thing that someone rarely does, and I include myself in this forgetful list, is to just ask about the friend or family member that recently passed and just listen to funny stories.

For me, I feel like grieving is a solitary process. I want to have others ready to help me if I lose my nerve, but I have close people in my life that don’t want to be alone when bereaving. They need the comfort of others or they need help going through the traditional five stages of grief.

My five stages seem to be yelling, drinking, remembering, laughing and then acceptance. And I don’t really have a problem if someone joins me for the ride….just as long as they say the right words.

R.I.P. Long Phan
June 27, 1985 - July 22, 2009)

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