I’ve been focusing on my brother’s death a lot here recently. Of course, a shaman did just tell me my brother was…I’m still not sure how to say it. With me? Following me? Fucking with me?
I never really understood the role that his death played in my family, and going over my mother’s letters and notes—even talking to my aunt— taught me it was much bigger than I understood or imagined. I’ve also realized I’m bizarrely steeled against grief, so I’m not great at understanding other people’s experience with it. A few years ago, when I heard the news that my best friend’s schizophrenic sister committed suicide, the first thing I thought was that it was probably for the best. Her sister’s illness had put her entire family (and particularly her) through so much. But when I actually said that out loud to someone, they looked at me like I was crazy. My friend and her family probably weren’t taking such a practical approach to their loss, but the fact that I couldn’t understand why they weren’t a little relieved said a lot about me.
When I try to understand my family and why I didn’t grieve for my parents in the culturally acceptable manner (being really sad), I remember how my father’s death affected my mother. I had my own experience—his death was really a rebirth for me, to be totally cheesy—and my mother and sister had theirs. My dad died in 1996, when I was 16. He’d been married to my mother for 27 years. My mother lived for another 16 years, but the day my father died was certainly the beginning of her end. She grieved hard, slipping into a deep depression and becoming very enthusiastic about drinking. She could keep it together for stretches of time but these periods were short-lived. She worked, had a boyfriend, and she looked great. But she was always grieving and never wanted to stop. She felt entitled to her pain and could “turn it on” on command. Whenever someone else began talking about their problems, it was almost like she wanted to compete. The extent of her grief, and my aversion to it, might have a lot to do with why I didn’t really grieve for her.
Of course it’s not that simple—I was prepared for my mom to die from her alcoholism sooner rather than later. My feelings about my mother during the last two or three years of her life were all based in frustration and helplessness. I was worried about her, but trying to help her was exhausting and infuriating. She lost a lot of my sympathy and compassion (things all based in, you know, love) because she wanted so much of it from the world, and because I felt disgusted by how “weak” I thought she was.
I constantly wanted to tell my mother to “GET OVER IT,” which is the last thing you can say to a grieving person, even when they’re a decade into the process. My mother used her losses as a crutch, but it’s probably also true that you never, ever get over losing a son and a husband, even if your husband was a little shitty.
If my mother had acknowledged her grief but found a way to keep moving forward, I might have been more compassionate. Her alcoholism complicated everything. She already had one set of problems, and then she developed another without the desire or strength to fight either. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to get better and I needed to see her trying. You’re not supposed to blame addicts “because you wouldn’t blame a cancer patient,” but it really seemed like she was making a choice, especially at the beginning. What’s better than crying about your life to whoever will listen? Crawling into your teenager daughter’s bed while she’s sleeping and crying about it to her when you’re drunk.
All this has left me unable to tell if I’m a strong or weak person. Since I’ve lost a lot and dealt with a lot I feel that I am very, very strong, but maybe I just haven’t lost anything that really matters to me. When I imagine the people I love dying—my sister, my nephews, my boyfriend—I end up in tears on the subway in five seconds flat. I imagine people dying all the time in extended, terrible scenarios. Even though I know it’s a common human tendency it freaks me out, and not only because I used to think about my father dying all the time—and then he actually did.
Maybe I want something terrible to happen just to have an excuse to feel weak and accept sympathy. And maybe if something truly terrible happened to me I’d end up just as weak as my mother. It’s scary on top of scary.
It’s strange that I don’t understand grief in others or myself. Grief isn’t a weakness, but even if it were, it would have to be the most acceptable and understandable one. Maybe it wasn’t my mother’s grief that pushed me away, but the way that she dealt with it. And the way that she dealt with it was the same way she dealt with a lot of things—she performed. It would be interesting to know if she had a similar reaction after my brother died. Everything I’ve found leads me to think that she didn’t.
My mother’s grief did play a part in my not grieving for her. I can’t tell if that’s totally reasonable, or totally heartless. Either way, it’s the truth.