April 10, 2017
or, What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Never Feel Okay Again, Ever
I’m no stranger to loss. My dad died in 2003, my mom in 2006. One of my four brothers passed in 2012, another in 2013. And one of my dearest friends offed himself like an idiot in 2012.
But this past week has been hard.
Last Tuesday, after a freakishly quick sequence of unlikely health events, my nephew Dan died at the age of 33. There was no time to prepare, no feeling of reluctant relief at a cessation of suffering. He was fine…then he was sick…then he was gone. He left behind a wife of four years, who moved from South Africa to be with him, to join our vast family. (They met in World of Warcraft—a fairy-tale relationship in many senses of the term.)
Today was his funeral, and I couldn’t be there. (Work obligations, you know; when you’re self-employed you can’t always get bereavement time.) But I went to visitation yesterday, hugged his parents and three siblings as hard as I could, and told them that it will get easier. In time.
That’s a hard thing to believe in the moment. In the moment it feels like things can never get easier. And maybe, as my wife pointed out, on some level you maybe don’t want things to get easier. Maybe it feels like a small betrayal to let yourself heal. But like it or not, we heal. Things do get better. In time.
With that in mind, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned about that process, from my experience going through it—as well as from being raised in the family business of funeral service.
1. However you grieve is the right way to grieve.
This may be the most important thing I’ve learned from my experiences with death. Everyone grieves in different ways; some may get angry, some may get goofy, some may make inappropriate jokes, some may go silent. It takes different forms even in the same person, over time—and no, it doesn’t always follow a handy five-step process. So grieve in the way that you grieve, and don’t give yourself grief over it! The important thing is to let it happen; the only “wrong way to grieve” is to not grieve at all. Don’t suppress it, and by all that is holy don’t be embarrassed by it! Allow yourself to feel what you feel.
And a corollary: Allow your loved ones to feel what they feel, too. There will be situations when your grieving process conflicts with someone else’s. Recognize that both are valid, and try to be respectful of each other: If it’s a problem for you, communicate that you don’t feel comfortable with that approach, and ideally you can find ways to do your own grieving out of each other’s way. But try not to judge. And try to forgive.
2. Take care of yourself.
In this country we have this odd relationship with death, where you’re supposed to be sad but not express your sadness too loudly. Where you’re supposed to put on a brave face but not experience any strain from doing so. Where you’re supposed to look out for every other person in the deceased’s life…except, sometimes, yourself.
You’ve just suffered one of the most horrible, stressful experiences a person will ever have to experience. I hereby give you permission to be selfish for once. That can mean stepping out from the services whenever you feel like it; it can mean taking that vacation you had planned; it can mean unashamedly walking away if you don’t like what the person you’re talking to is saying about your loved one. You do you. It’s what your loved one would have wanted, isn’t it?
3. It will get easier.
I know it’s virtually impossible to picture right now. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it. But I just ask that you trust me: There will come a time—and no one knows when—that you discover that when you think of the person you’ve lost, the good memories have, improbably, started to outweigh the bad. Just a little. I wish I could tell you when that will happen.
4. But it might get harder first.
I hate to have to be the one to tell you, but I want you to be prepared. Right now, you’re probably in shock. And you’re definitely in an unusual life situation: You’re planning or participating in or have just participated in a funeral ceremony, which is weird and totally out of the norm. At some point, though, you have to try to go back to “normal” life. And that’s hard.
At first, you will feel that person’s absence always. You’ll feel it everywhere and in everything you do, like a missing tooth that you can’t stop touching. And that’s hard. You will carry this absence with you, like dark matter: invisible, defined only by negatives, and unbearably heavy. But in my experience, that’s not all that different from what you’ve already been doing.
No, in my experience, when things get hardest is when you’ve just started to heal. Your brain will have begun to block off the pain, and so eventually it’ll turn out that you don’t think about that person’s absence for minutes, even hours at a time.
And then you remember.
Please realize that grief doesn’t have an expiration date. You get to grieve however you want to grieve; you get to take care of yourself; you get to trust that it will get easier—for as long as it takes. Only you will know when you’ve healed enough to feel that you’re “done” grieving. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. And if you find yourself in this situation…
5. Ask for help.
By now you’ve probably lost track of the people who have told you “if there’s anything we can do…” That’s a great sentiment, but you’ve probably realized by now it’s not terribly helpful on the surface. People say that because they don’t know what specifically to offer to do, but if you’re like me you’re not about to just call someone up and say, “Hey, remember when you asked what you can do for me? Listen up.”
But what you need to realize is that people actually mean this. They genuinely want to help, they’re just not sure how. So try as hard as you can to put any awkwardness aside and take them up on it. Here are some phrases to get you started:
“Hey, so, it turns out I actually could use some help…”
“I didn’t think of it at the time, but would you be able to…?”
“Hey, I’m not quite on top of things yet, could you possibly do me a favor?”
I promise you that everyone who cares about you will be delighted to be able to help.
6. Get mushy.
Finally, I want to formally give you permission to be as expressive to your surviving loved ones as your heart can stand. If there’s one good thing about death, it’s that it reminds us that life is finite—but love is not. So hug your loved ones tight, tell them how much they mean to you. Cherish the opportunity to love and be loved. And know that, no matter what happens, that love will always be there.
November 21, 2016
I’m scared. That’s what it is, I guess. I’m just damn scared.
I’m disappointed, sure. I’m disappointed that almost half of the voting public doesn’t place a high value on decency. I’m disappointed that a significant portion of that near-half seems to have been suckered in by innuendoes and flat-out lies, sharing and re-sharing a narrative that can be disproven with the slightest research and/or the slightest critical thinking skills. I’m disappointed that anyone trusted a man who has given us exactly zero reason to trust anything except the fact that he is entirely unworthy of trust.
And I’m angry. Oh so very much yes, am I angry. I’m angry at the half of the voting-age adults who stayed home rather than participate in the future of our country. I’m angry at the subhuman mouth-breathers who took the result of this election as license to trot their racism out into the open. I’m angry at the cozy suburban enablers who are downplaying that behavior—or worse, defending it. I’m angry at the protesters who are letting themselves get violent, who are making us all look bad.
And I’m sad. I’m sad for the credulous voters who believed anything this vile man said; I’m sad that their hopes are already being squashed. I’m sad that it appears we were more right than we knew, those of us who predicted that he would disappoint his supporters early and often. I’m sad that this bumbling conman appears to be “draining the swamp” right into his own gaping, feculent maw.
But mostly, I’m scared. I’m scared for every single one of my non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual friends, family, and colleagues. I’m scared for my Asian, immigrant daughter, and what she might have to face in the coming years if these trends continue. I’m scared by the possibility of a return to the roaring, Red-hunting ’50s, when government nurtured suspicion of one’s neighbor. (Was this when America was “great”?) I’m scared that internment camps are being touted as “precedent” for elements of the incoming administration’s policy platform. (How about then?) I’m scared that a petulant man-child will have control of America’s nukes, its military, its intelligence apparatus. I’m scared by the many, many parallels between that small, mewling man and the worst leaders of history.
But you know what? I’m hopeful, too. I’m hopeful that this election has been a wakeup call to the complacent, to the political abstainers, to the press. I’m hopeful that at least some few in the Congressional majority will take a stand for what’s right rather than only what’s right-wing. I’m hopeful because a greater number of those who did vote actually voted against the race-baiting demagogue—a number that seems to be growing every day. I’m hopeful because the racist fuckheads aren’t the only ones who’ve been mobilized and emboldened by this election.
So yeah, I’m scared. I’m disappointed, angry, and sad. But I’m also hopeful. And that’s no small thing.
May 26, 2014
I woke up last night to the sound of scratching.
Still mostly asleep, I squinted at the clock. 4:15. Ugh.
The sound was like a deep scraping. And then I realized it was coming from inside my ear.
Here’s the thing: In the summer we put a fan in our window; sometimes it sucks tiny flying bugs through the screen. Sometimes they get in your ear a little. Is not a big deal. But this one seemed deeper than usual—it was clearly pressing right against my eardrum. So I sighed and dragged myself out of bed to get a Q-Tip.
Yes, I know you’re not supposed to stick them in your ears. I’m careful.
So I did what I normally do in such situations: very gently and slowly work the Q-Tip into my ear until it touches the eardrum, just barely. Stickiness and such is usually enough to get anything out. And I did see a couple tiny specks. But the scraping sound continued.
I tried again, fluffing up the end of the Q-Tip and swirling it around a bit. The scraping sound continued.
I was starting to get a little worried, but I tried again. A little more fluffing, a little more swirling. The scraping sound continued.
I was getting desperate. I was thinking about jumping in the shower to get some water in there, but checked the medicine cabinet first, for saline. I found something even better: an alcohol-based solution used for drying out stubborn water after swimming or whatnot. So I squirted a few drops in there.
Immediately I felt liquid running out, which was weird as I didn’t think I’d put that much in there. I reached up quickly and brushed the liquid away.
This is when I discovered it wasn’t liquid at all. It was in fact the thing that had been making the scraping sound:
It was a spider.
A spider about half an inch in diameter, including legs. A pale brown spider. In my ear. Scraping at my ear drum.
I did not sleep any more after that. I’m not sure I’m going to.
November 15, 2012
Don’t have much time to write as we’re still settling in, but I wanted to let everyone know that we’re home and all is well.
Yesterday took a dramatic turn for the better when someone (we still don’t know who) made the decision to transfer us down the hall from our four-bed, semi-private “pod” to a two-bed room, where the other bed was vacant and exceptionally unlikely to be filled. So basically, we got what was essentially a private room. With a door. And a bathroom. And densely engineered, cushioned chairs that folded out into not-very-comfortable-but-at-least-mostly-horizontal beds.
El still refused to consider the crib, but she was much calmer overall and would sleep if being held. So we took turns walking her around, sitting down when she fell asleep for as long as she’d let us, and then crashing while the other did the same. It’s not a routine I’d recommend for fun, but it was a hell of a lot better than the night before.
Now she’s asleep upstairs, probably on the rocking chair in Mommy’s arms, who I most fervently hope is also asleep. She’s still in some pain, and very unhappy about the restraints she has to wear to prevent her from digging in her mouth, but overall just immeasurably better.
Me, I’ve got a dishwasher to unload. But I wanted to say thanks to you all for your thoughts and prayers and offers of help. The next few weeks are going to continue to be tough, so we may take you up on your offers. (Who wants to rake our leaves? Don’t all speak at once.) But for now we’re just ecstatic to be home.
Who am I kidding? “Ecstatic” doesn’t even cover it. I showered today after being awake and unwashed for most of the previous 52 hours. I may have cried a little.
November 14, 2012
Not brain power to write. Still at hospital. El hasn’t really slept because her pain is being insufficiently managed. So of course that means we haven’t really slept either, except in bits and pieces here and there.
Very frustrated with facilities and staff here. Even after half a night of El’s screaming, none of the nursing assistants made any effort to figure out what was going on; we had to push them repeatedly to revise pain meds. We also had to make a special request to get a chair that wasn’t hard wood even though they knew she was refusing to be in the crib, forcing us to hold her.
It’s also a ridiculous pain to just get off the floor, thanks to some administrative genius’s decision to make the elevator that leads right to this ward off limits to anyone but staff.
Just lots of short-sightedness going around, which of course is twice as irritating when we haven’t slept.
I’m sure at some point we’ll be getting out of here.
I just have no idea when.
November 13, 2012
As I write this, Kim is sitting next to me, sewing bits of felt into the shape of food, because it’s something to do with her hands and because she is addicted. We’re sitting in an out-of-the-way waiting area in the children’s hospital of the Cleveland Clinic. Our daughter is an hour into surgery to close up her cleft palate. She has half an hour or an hour to go.
This is, as you might imagine, rather stressful for us.
The surgery itself is no big deal. The only part of the palate that’s open is the soft palate, toward the back of her mouth, so it’s a pretty simple procedure as these things go. And the guy performing the surgery is the head of the plastic surgery department so, you know, he’s qualified.
But she’s our kid, you know? And right now she’s completely in someone else’s hands, in a situation that, while routine, still has room for mishap. She’s completely under, and has a breathing tube taking care of that respiration thing for her. I have a beeper in my pocket (a beeper!) but no other connection to her or what’s going on. So forgive me for being a little tense.
I need to go distract myself now, because I don’t have felt food to do it for me. Will update when I can.
August 28, 2012
My friend Brian and I had a complicated relationship from the start — sometime in 1994, if memory serves. He was a former teacher of my dear friend Mike, and so there was something of a power imbalance at the start. But he was welcoming to all, personable and passionate, and we became fast and close friends.
Until about two years later, when I was preparing to move to Chicago. In retrospect, it became clear that he was simply sad that a new friend was leaving town, but the way he chose to express this was…contentious. As personable and welcoming as he could be, he could also be the biggest, nastiest dickhead you’ve ever met. Following an evening when he verbally flayed me for my reasons for the move, I washed my hands of him.
It took about three years for me to realize that a lot of what he’d been saying was spot on. So I wrote him a letter, extended an olive branch, and we renewed our friendship, stronger than ever. Over the next decade or so, we remained extremely close. He was one of the very few Clevelanders to visit us in California. We played a lot of poker. We drank a lot of whiskey. I named him Best Man at my wedding. He gave a killer toast. He was in town for a chilly barbecue on the 4th of July in California when we discussed moving back to Cleveland. He was ecstatic.
But just a couple years later, things started to go downhill for him. He bought a house that ended up needing a lot of work. Then he lost his job just as the economy was imploding. As a teacher in a Catholic school, the jobs simply weren’t there. He successfully completed a Masters program, but it seemed to make no difference for the job prospects. He started drinking more. He fell out with one girlfriend, then another. He started to feel like the world was out to get him, I think, and when he developed a massive misunderstanding about how I and our other friends thought of him, he relinquished virtually all contact with us and would not be persuaded that he was still welcome.
After something like two years of unemployment, he lost his house and moved in with his parents. This was, it turned out, a good development. He told me he felt like he was helping them by being there. Though his relationship with them was never great, I think he felt like he was needed again. He was writing more, he said, and seemed to be using his improving relationship with his parents as fuel for reaching out to other estranged friends. Our relationship didn’t improve much, but it seemed that he was making an effort to be more understanding — or at least more communicative. (His maddeningly cryptic emails are the stuff of legend.) So all in all, it seemed that things were getting better. Slowly, but noticeably.
Then his father died.
And a few days later — sometime around when we were driving to Hong Kong to return from China — he went into the garage and put a gun to his head.
One of the things that makes suicide such a reprehensibly selfish act is that we have no way of knowing at this point what he was thinking. But I have my suspicions: I think that he probably felt, once his father died, that he was somehow poisonous to everyone he was around. This is the way he thought of himself, and I could imagine this loss simply being too much to handle. They say that people on antidepressants have a higher risk of suicide shortly after they start taking the pills; there’s no definite explanation, but the theory is that once they start feeling better, a bad day — or other setback — feels so much worse. It’s a perspective thing; part of depression is that you don’t realize how bad you really feel. So once you start to feel better, it becomes clearer how bad the bad times really are. And some people can’t handle that. I suspect something similar happened here.
That is, of course, no excuse. I don’t know that there is an excuse for suicide — not like this, not for a person with friends and family and others willing and able to help one’s situation. As I say, it’s reprehensible, and another reason why is that it leaves those around you with nothing but questions. Questions, and regret.
Could we have done more to prevent this? The real pisser is that yes, we could have. There is always more that could have been done. Those left behind can imagine so many ways things could have been different, ways they could have tried to help, each more outlandish than the last. Could we have forced him into rehab for alcoholism? Should we have invited him into our homes instead of allowing him to move in with his parents? Should we have kept in better contact, simply not let him pull away in spite of any abuse he may have dealt out in response?
But that’s the emotional response. Practically speaking, I really believe all his (former or current) friends did as much as they possibly could. You extend what help you can, to the best of your ability, and you hope it’s enough. In this case, it wasn’t, but that’s his problem, not ours. I’m sorry if that sounds callous, but suicide is a callous business.
One of the things I hate about this situation is that my feelings about Brian right now are all negative: anger, regret, frustration at not being able to tell him what a dumbass he was for even seriously thinking about it. And that colors my older memories, the better ones. And there are many, because when he was at his best he was a remarkable person.
And so, though he specifically requested no ceremony be made following his death (such a cruel blow to his family, who lost father and brother in a handful of days), these are the memories I plan to keep.
I remember Christmas parties. Brian was legendary for his Christmas parties, which gathered a huge and ever-changing group of smart, funny, talented individuals to eat great food, drink great drink, and sing and play Christmas songs. Friends, family, colleagues, former student, and passing acquaintances were all welcome. For many years it was one of the highlights of the season for me.
I remember poker games, when he would play with brutal recklessness and (usually) good humor. He taught me to play, and for years we gathered a weekly group in my parents’ basement for nights of cards that could last until the sun came up.
I remember sitting on the floor of his house, smoking long-stemmed pipes and debating religion, politics, love, and anything else that seemed worthy of debate. I suspect a great deal of wine and/or whiskey was consumed.
I remember him making bacon-infused mashed potatoes in the kitchen of our rental house in San Francisco. Yesterday I saw the recipe he wrote out for us, to attempt to recreate the majesty.
I remember near-weekly breakfasts at the diner near his house, where he would shamelessly flirt with the waitresses (no matter the age, ethnicity, or body type) and devour corned beef hash and eggs while we gossiped about news of the day. Later I would attempt to resume these get-togethers as a way of jump-starting our relationship, but they never took.
I remember sitting in on one of his classes and realizing that, yes, he really was a phenomenal teacher of religion. Though he felt his relationship with the divine had soured, he was in the seminary once upon a time, and retained a passion for religion, and the knowledge to back it up.
I remember sending letters back and forth from Chicago or San Francisco, often written on the insides of whiskey boxes, full of literary allusions and snippets of poetry.
I have a picture that I took at a going-away party before he went to teach English in China for a year. He’s standing in front of a bonfire, head-high staff in one hand, hand-rolled cigarette in the other, smirking self-deprecatingly at something one of the other partiers was saying.
That was Brian in a nutshell. And though right now I’m angry, frustrated, disappointed, and hurt, that’s the Brian i’ll remember.
August 16, 2012
In case you pop by this blog every now and then, and are currently rubbing your eyes wondering where all the new posts came from, I’ll explain. Over the last two weeks, my wife and I have been in China, adopting our first child. Of course, I wanted to share all this with family and close friends, but at the same time didn’t want to advertise too loudly where we were at any given moment — or more specifically, where we weren’t, which is to say, home. So I hid it all behind a secret invisible magic wall.
But now that we are home, I figured I’d open it back up for general viewing. Feel free to follow along with our adventures.
I’d write more but my body still thinks it’s five in the morning. I’ll have more coherent thoughts soon…ish.
September 2, 2011
Now that that’s out of the way, I wanted to let you know I’m now on Google Plus. This is me. And now that I’ve synced G+ with Twitter and Facebook I’ll probably use that as my main social network, at least for stuff I want to share publicly.
By the way, in case you’re wondering how I did it, I have this article by PC Magazine to thank. After some back and forth with a variety of different options, this seemed like the simplest and most painless method. I’d love to see links and photos get formatted properly at Facebook, but that’s probably being unrealistic.
And now I’m off to crawl back under the rock from whence I came.
April 12, 2011
[I have no idea where this came from, and I don’t really know what it is. A poem? The skeleton of a song? Not really sure. But I thought I’d share it anyway.]
Sponge the dryness from these lips.
Sour disinfectant burns
the rips and cracks and tears,
the gnawing fears,
the hollow absolutions.
For they do know what they do,
and no pious platitude
can save the unrepentant thief,
or shake belief in unbelief.
See: the needle-dicks of rich men
prick the temple-cloth
and rend us all.
Three hours of night?
A day? A year? A century?
(Their camels balk
and sweat holier waters.)
And history repeats
raised from the dead
to shamble down fear-shrouded streets
in deathless search of spongy treats.
Who bears a spear with edge enough
to pierce those bullshit-swollen guts
and spill that reeking discharge?
(We will know the unfit candidates:
they’ll be the ones raising their hands.)
Behold the science of our time,
a secular faith whose communion wine
is spiked with Rohypnol:
Its apostles spread the call
to put faith only in one creed: