A Comparison of Grief, 23(-ish) Months Out

Over the past few weeks, I’ve inadvertently found myself on the receiving end of commentary from Mom and RJ about their respective grief processes. Though the situations were completely different, the implications were similar.

Unsurprisingly, RJ’s candid mini-confession came when she was drunk. For the first time in 5 years, she didn’t have to work at the bar the night before Thanksgiving. So, naturally, she chose to drunk at said bar, instead, enlisting me as her designated driver. On the way home, RJ started ranting about Mom, as she is wont to do. This time, she told a story that Mom had relayed: Mom ran into one of our uncles, Dad’s older brother, at an education conference. For whatever reason, Uncle told Mom that his younger son was having a hard time with 3’s death (said son was 3’s age, and they had been close). Mom replied that Son and RJ could “compare notes.”

Mom meant this in all earnestness (Mom is a remarkably uncynical woman), and probably thought she was being helpful in telling this story to RJ. RJ, however, wanted none of it. She was insulted at the presumption that Son’s grief as merely 3’s cousin could possibly compare to her own. Of course, RJ didn’t explain the story with quite this level of introspection, but she’s pretty easy to read when she’s drunk.

Then, just this past weekend, during my weekly phone conversation with Mom, she casually mentioned how the holidays are hard and told a story of a transferring coworker who would give her sporadic hugs after 3 died.

While I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear such comments from Mom or RJ, it was still a bit unnerving. Nearly 2 years later, here I am, still having a way easier time dealing with my brother’s death than my mom and sister. Hell, at this point, I don’t even consider it something I’m “dealing with.” It’s just something I live with, something that’s part of me.

It’s frustrating, of course, hearing about my family’s pain and not being able to do anything about it. Especially RJ – I’m convinced she’s not being healthy in coping with 3’s death. She’s angry at virtually everyone (it’s a constant balancing act to keep from getting pissed at me), and I know she hasn’t gone to any therapy or support groups. She has good friends, and has kept in close touch with 3’s incredible group of buddies, but I don’t think it’s enough. 23 months later, and everything is still there.

A Finale

I had another post planned for this week, but, as I’ve been getting increasingly lazy about posting regularly, another, more immediate thought presented itself.

It’s nearly midnight on Tuesday, and I just finished watching the series finale of Sons of Anarchy. Most of you probably don’t watch it (and if you do, you should probably stop reading – I might decide to include spoilers), but I think it’s an incredibly well-written show. It’s one of the better anti-hero dramas that have become popular on television recently. It’s about a motorcycle club in a fictional town in California and it’s been described as “Hamlet on Harleys” for the Shakespearean nature of the plot.

Anyway! It just ended after 7 seasons. It was a poignant finale, full of beautifully-acted emotion, culminating in the lead character trying to atone for him innumerable sins. As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of self-awareness, and, while I can’t say I have any understanding of what it’s like to live as a motorcycle-riding outlaw, I admired the character’s sense of personal responsibility.

What does this have to do with 3? Well, as unsurprising as it may be, SoA isn’t exactly the kind of show I choose to watch on my own. 3’s the one who got me hooked on it, back in between seasons 3 and 4. I don’t even know how he talked me into it; we share some tastes in TV and movies, but it’s not a complete overlap. Regardless, I quickly became addicted. I would text 3 with my reactions on Tuesday nights, ranging from “FUCK THIS SHOW WITH A CHAINSAW I HATE YOU FOR EVER TELLING ME TO WATCH IT” one week to “HOLY CHRIST THIS IS THE GREATEST SHOW IN EXISTENCE” the next (true story – actual, back-to-back texts I sent my brother).

I considered, as this episode approached, that this finale would mark the ending of yet another thing that tied me to 3. It’s small, of course, and largely inconsequential, but the actual viewing ended up hitting me a bit harder than I expected. [Spoiler alert, for those who care about that kind of thing] As the main character, after years of crime and tragedy, prepared for his own death (which ultimately ended up being suicide, though viewers were left in suspense about how – or even if – he would die for most of the episode), I found myself mourning the end of the character, the end of the show, and my own brother.

3 didn’t get a beautifully-scored music montage before his suicide, nor did he have a murderous history that he could use to justify his choice to a group of understanding friends and family. Watching the show, I let myself, vaguely, unrealistically, project my brother onto the lead character – now, he could put things in order, he could say his goodbyes, he could hug his family for the last time. It’s such a small thing, but I’m OK with allowing myself a few small things anymore.

Class Reunion, Part II

As is to be expected with holidays, lots of things happened over the past week, but I’m going to start with my 10-year class reunion. 

I imagine many people get nervous before high school reunions – what will people think, will we all revert to our behavior from years ago, etc. Since my experience at my 5-year reunion started with one former classmate threatening to tickle me (I responded exactly like my 16-year-old self would have: by saying that if he did, I’d kick him in the balls), I was understandably apprehensive about heading out to the event. I was not, however, really thinking about 3.

I spoke with a few old acquaintances, mostly enjoying myself. About halfway through the night, I referenced 3’s death when telling a story. It made sense; we held 3’s calling hours at the high school, and many teachers attended. Still, it was a passing mention, and I’m almost positive one of the two listeners knew about 3’s death already.

Then, after a surprisingly successful group picture, I ended up in a conversation with an old friend, a girl I spent quite a bit of time with in middle school before we joined different cliques in high school. She passed along the greetings of her mother, and then, to my surprised, started talking about 3. I hadn’t realized that her mother worked in the high school office while 3 and RJ were students there, so she knew 3 personally. My former classmate asked empathetic questions, describing how sad she and her mom were at the news of 3’s death and asking how the entire family was doing.

It was an incredibly gratifying experience for me, and I thanked her for letting me talk about 3 so candidly, even though it’s been almost 2 years. Honestly, though I certainly wasn’t expecting it or even really thinking about 3’s death on my way to the reunion, that kind of conversation is something I’ve quietly yearned for. Many times, before heading to see old friends, I find myself hoping that one of them will have heard about 3’s death and will offer their belated condolences. It’s selfish, of course, to want to add to my confirmed list of people who have thought about and prayed for me and my family since 3’s death, but it’s comforting. While I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve long since exhausted my quota of comfort and support from my close friends, I deeply appreciate being able to squeeze another condolence or two from acquaintances.

Extended Family

Back in August Mom, Aunt K, Gram, and Grandpa drove north to visit Grandpa’s siblings. I always enjoyed spending time with Mom’s cousins and their kids growing up, so I jumped at the chance to join them. We met at a bar and grill by the lake and spent over 2 hours talking, laughing, and trading stories – about 30 of us, covering 3 generations. Mom and her siblings were pretty close to their extended family growing up, so her cousins didn’t hesitate to bring me into the fold when I drove up. (Side note: Mom’s cousins are among the few people left in the world who still think I look like Mom) Even though I’m a generation younger, I got to sit at the grown-ups’ table, conversing with the adults.

Near the end of the meal, as Mom was engaged in a different conversation, one of her cousins pulled me aside and asked, in all earnestness, how Mom was doing since 3’s death. At this point, it had been nearly 20 months, but the cousin was just as concerned as ever. I answered honestly, saying that the second year has been easier than the first, but that Mom still has her bad days.

It was oddly comforting, hearing this kind of concern for Mom over a year and a half later. Of course, we all still live with 3’s death every single day. They’re certainly not all bad days, but the fact remains that my brother, Mom’s son, is dead, so it was nice to realize that people are still thinking about Mom, at least occasionally. I’m glad, because Mom definitely deserves the thoughts and prayers, but it also made me wonder if people are still asking about or thinking about me.

Two huge caveats to that thought: 1) Mom obviously deserves concern more than I do. I know she has more bad days, and I know the experience of losing a child is entirely different from that of losing a sibling. And 2) my friends have been off-the-charts incredible. I’m thrilled and exceedingly blessed with all they’ve done for me. It was just a thought I had. Personally, I know that I didn’t think about KP’s dad after he died, so it’s unrealistic to think that anyone who doesn’t have first-hand experience with death would know that it still matters, even almost 2 years later.

These Dreams, Part IV

A few nights ago, I had another dream about 3. We, along with RJ and S, were on an ice floe in the ocean. We were paddling, trying to get to shore, but the waves somehow kept pushing us further out to sea. Finally, we managed to ride out 2 waves in a row and made it back to land. Much excitement ensued, and 3 made his way down the line, hugging each of his sisters in turn.

As soon as 3 hugged me, I realized it was a dream. Of course, I wanted him to stay. I wanted him to come back to me, to talk to me, to tell me that he’s OK. He gave me a knowing smirk as he continued toward RJ, as if I’d come upon him playing a role in a theme park and he had to stay in character, keeping up the pretense of the dream. Since I haven’t mastered the art of lucid dreaming, I couldn’t stick around to see what would happen once the scene was over, and I woke up.

I know I’m incredibly lucky to have 2 dreams where I got to hug my brother within a few months. I don’t know a whole lot about the science of dreaming, but I can’t really think of a reason for why 3 has popped up in such a positive manner. The spiritual side of me wants to think that these dreams are gifts (OK, regardless of reason, I definitely think the dreams are gifts), but with nothing particularly exciting happening in my life, there’s really no call for presents, dream or otherwise. Yes, job hunting is making me a bit anxious, but certainly no more stressed than writing my dissertation, applying for the last round of jobs, or any of the international moves of the past 2 years.

Like I said, I’m grateful nevertheless. Part of the reason I started this blog is so I could write down and remember the events after 3’s death: my thoughts, my feelings, all the incredible things people did to help me. I’m pretty good at remembering dreams (seriously – I still remember a couple of dreams I had when I was 5), but when it comes to posthumous encounters with my brother, a little electronic backup can’t hurt.