The Spectator’s Guide To Grieving

I just had a lively discussion with some people about grieving and some of the awful platitudes we’ve gotten. “Everything happens for a reason” and “It’ll be okay” being the two that seemed to trigger the most scarlet-eyed anger. And that got me thinking, when Dustin died, what did I need and want the most from those around me?

Here’s my list:

  • Say you’re sorry. If you don’t have experience of your own with traumatic loss, stop there.
  • Don’t try to explain it or put it into perspective. That will only come with time, and in the beginning, perspective is the last thing a grieving person is capable of seeing.
  • Don’t tell them their lost loved one is better off now. That is cold damn comfort when your heart’s just been ripped out. Let them come to that conclusion on their own.
  • If you offer help, mean it. Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep. If you say he or she can call anytime, be prepared for that to mean 3 a.m.
  • Don’t push them to get better faster-it doesn’t work that way.
  • Don’t offer religion unless you’re damn sure that person shares your views.
  • Don’t offer to listen if you’re going to get exhausted by it-certain grieving people need to talk a LOT, and will repeat themselves quite a bit. If that isn’t your thing, don’t offer.
  • Be prepared for the process to take a hell of a lot longer than you think it should.
  • When they get angry (and they will), don’t take it personally. If they need to throw things, hit up Goodwill for some old plates and let them break every damn one.
  • Educate yourself on the grieving process, and how it changes depending on the type of loss and the level of trauma associated with it.
  • Be prepared for the anniversaries (birthdays, date of death, date of burial, installation of the headstone, holidays, marriage/dating anniversaries) to be absolutely awful.
  • Be patient. Let me say that again: Be patient.

It will get better. Eventually. Grief happens on its own timeline, not anyone else’s. Keep in mind that in your zeal to help, you could be causing more harm than good, so try to keep the grief-stricken person first in your thoughts. Sometimes a person may need professional help and you may not know how to broach that subject; I would contact a local grief support group or center to get advice on how to proceed.

*I do not expect this is the end of the list. This was a spur-of-the-moment post, so I will be adding to it as I’ve had time to consider the issue.

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The Sins of the Father

Dustin stood in the middle of my bedroom, shaking. Sure, there had been an unpleasant incident with my father a minute ago, but that had been directed at me, not him, and I was confused as to why he was upset. I was not only used to it by now, but I gave as good as I got.
“You told me once your dad was kind of a prick, but I didn’t really get it until now. No one should speak to you that way.”
He was angry – angry that someone would be disrespectful to me, and he resolved then and there that he was going to get me out of that situation, no matter what the cost.

It cost us everything, as it turned out.

I should have written this post last night, when the anger and the disappointment were still fresh, but I didn’t, and had nightmares all night instead. Okay, lesson learned.

I was laid off from my job in 2009, while I was still involved with Neal. As I struggled to find work, Neal continually ran me down until I could hardly function. My savings dwindled, then ran out as Congress played chicken with my unemployment benefits. Eventually, the twin realities of being unemployed and trying to unload an abusive boyfriend who would not leave me alone drove me to give up my apartment and leave the city I loved so much. I went back to my parents’, to try to rebuild my life.

I finally got a job a few months later, and although I have a great employer, my job doesn’t pay a living wage. Subtract the money I give my parents to help them make ends meet and the money I spend on the bills left over from being unemployed for nearly two full years, I don’t have much left over, and it tends to go into my gas tank. Then my car blew up, and life is life, and I’m still here. Unhappily.

Of course I’m not happy with it. I’m too old for this, but I am working to make a better life for myself, to make a living wage. And that’s partly where the rub comes in. My mom works full-time, but my dad is essentially unemployed. He does odd jobs and restoration projects, but it isn’t steady or reliable. Between work and school, I am out of the house more than both my parents combined.

My life is difficult. I am perpetually sleep-deprived and studying constantly, trying to find a moment here and there to create the art that helps keep me going in the first place. I don’t have the time or the money to even hang out with friends back in the city I left. I am a good student and I am doing well so far, but I’m still stressed, and all of this is encompassed by the loss of the one person who would have understood.

Dustin was always loving and supportive. A champion cheerleader, he would always tell me how proud he was of me. So when I come home tired and cold and wrung out, I look for the arms that would have made everything better, reminded me that this is all worth it. I look for the chest to rest my aching head upon, I listen for the words of encouragement, the offers of help and support. I look, I listen, but there’s nothing to see, nothing to hear.

I have cheerleaders among my friends and Inspire Art who are beautifully and enthusiastically supportive. I get notes and messages of encouragement, and they help keep me going. But here…there is very little of that.

My mom is supportive as she can be, considering. She is not emotionally expressive and never was, but she asks how my classes are going, how my grades look. She doesn’t ask me how I’m holding up, however. And Dad…well. Dad just does not care. It doesn’t benefit him in any way, so he got off the Give-A-Shit Bus.

I missed my first class Monday morning due to an alarm clock mishap. I was still going to be able to make my second class and my lab, but that first class wasn’t going to happen. My dad’s response? He called me a ‘fuck-up.’ Pot and kettle, Dad, pot and kettle.

These last few days have been constant grousing about the things around the house I haven’t been able to keep up with thanks to my crazy schedule. I don’t feel bad or guilty about it-I don’t waste time feeling guilty for things I don’t deserve to feel guilty for. What I do feel is angry that he’s being so selfish and insensitive.

I don’t know why it still comes as a surprise. He’s always been this way. Always. He isn’t suddenly going to wake up one day and realize he’s been a jackass for well over 30 years and change his ways. He isn’t going to suddenly understand why it takes me so long to find a Father’s Day card that doesn’t praise him for being the good father he never was. In fact, his selfishness and anger drove me to move to Michigan in 2000, which frankly was not the wisest choice I’d ever made. He had come home drunk, and came over to where I was doing the dishes and poked me rudely in the arm.

“Everyone in this house hates me, and it’s all your fault,” he said.

I moved two months later.

I don’t seek his approval anymore; I really don’t value his opinion. It’s probably much too late for him to become a good father or to ever really repair this relationship. What I really want from him now is to at least get out of the way, because I don’t need any more obstacles. What I really want is Dustin back, to hold me and tell me it’s going to be okay.

As for Dad, he can wash his own damn dishes.

I Will Carry You

Whoever said love is blind is dead wrong.
Love is the only thing that lets us see each other with the remotest accuracy.

~Martha Beck

Put out my eyes and I can see you still;
Slam my ears too, and I can hear you yet;
And without any feet can go to you;
And tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
And grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
Arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
And if you set this brain of mine afire,
Upon my blood I then will carry you
~Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been accused, more than once, of putting Dustin on a pedestal, and being blind to his faults and flaws.

No. Oh, no.

Our life together was never going to be easy, and the time we did have was fraught with moments of disappointment and tension as well as love and joy. His impulsiveness was a problem, as well as finding and maintaining proper treatment for his illness. His addiction made him erratic and confounding. Loving someone who is mentally ill forces a reset of ‘normal’ and ‘reasonable’. I know he loved me, and I know exactly how much, and a love like that was worth fighting for, worth almost any cost.

I understood fairly quickly-as did he-that in some respects I would have to be both lover and mother, partner and keeper. I would have to be strong, and steady. This in no way means he was incapable of being strong in his own right, capable and willing to support me when I was in pain, hurting.

I had to have a root canal while we were together. Actually, I had to have the root canal reworked by a specialist when the original treatment did not heal properly. My first visit to the endodontist was painful and nauseating.

Afterwards, I stumbled out to the car, bleary eyed and exhausted. Dustin had been taking a nap but shot out of the car when I knocked on the window. I leaned on him, too wrung out to pretend to be okay, letting him hold me, comfort me.

“Let me see,” he said, brushing my hair away from my face, tilting my chin up. He gave me a long look and ran his fingers, so gentle, feather light, over my swollen cheek. “Let’s get you home.”

As we walked inside, I leaned on the counter, determined not to be sick, breathing slowly.

“Just tell me what I can do to help you,” he said.

I looked up at him, my sore mouth hanging open in absolute shock. I was so used to being on my own, conditioned to never expect anything like sympathy or help, that I couldn’t even comprehend what he had just said to me. No one, ever, had made me such an offer, and in his eyes I could see him suddenly understand what my life had been like. He took my hand, led me to bed, helped me undress.

He tucked me in, and as he got ready to crawl into bed next to me, he said the one thing that will ring in my ears and bring tears to my eyes for the rest of my days:

“You know, most of the time I’m happy to be your boyfriend, but right now, I’m glad to be your friend.”

It was the first time I realized he sincerely wanted me for me-not out of lust or loneliness or need. Me. Just as I was. I had been resisting the tidal pull of the attraction between us, held back by fear and skepticism-fairy tales aren’t real, this doesn’t happen to people, love at first sight is a myth, this isn’t a goddamned movie-but I gave it up right then and there. All my doubt and fear, the leftover nightmares of my last relationship, of a lifetime of being let down by the people who are supposed to love and care for me, broke apart and fell away. If he had asked me for the moon at that moment, I would have stormed NASA with a teaspoon.

Where am I supposed to go after losing that?

I have little doubt that in most ways my life will be easier now. Less worry. Less unpredictable. But, God, I’d give it all up-everything, anything-to be with him again. To feel his hands in my hair, his voice in my ear, the smell of his cologne.

I will never stop wanting him back.

Dustin, March 2012