Part 3: On Grief and Guilt

Now that I’ve shared my experience of loss, how I felt in the moment, I want to take some time to discuss and explore the After.

We like to say that everyone processes loss differently, but is that really true? I doubt it. I doubt that anything we experience is entirely unique. And that, my friends, is a damn good thing—because it means you are not alone.

I want to peer inside my own head in order to witness death from the perspective of the bereaved. See, I feel uncomfortable even using that word—bereaved—it sounds so dramatic, and I am naturally dismissive of my own trauma. As if it matters how I feel when I am not the one who is lost. I’m still here. I can’t help but think that it is unfair to shift the focus onto myself and my pain. It seems self-absorbed and self-indulgent. I lost a friend, a loved one, a family member. But they, they lost everything. I often find myself wondering: do I have the right to grieve? Was I a good partner, a good friend, a good granddaughter? I certainly could have been better.

So, now, I would like to examine some of the subjective experiences that accompany Grief—namely Guilt. If only to try to understand them a little bit better myself. And hopefully, by doing so, I might come to accept that it is ok to feel the loss, the unfairness, the anger, the bitterness, the sorrow, the suffering of it all.

***

In the last post, I spoke about Theo; and I told you that the 5-year anniversary of his suicide is fast approaching. But, I didn’t tell you about who he was to me. I didn’t tell many people. I talked about him with my friends; I’ve been told he did the same. But I am generally a private person and keep my relationships to myself. I’m trying to open up. It’s impossible to encapsulate a meaningful connection within a couple of sentences, but here goes:

We met at a summer pre-college program for prospective art students. We were 17. We clicked and quickly fell in love, as those things tend to go. But summer ended, and he returned home to California. We tried to maintain our relationship, but we were just kids and after a brief time we became estranged. At 18, I moved to California. We tried to reconnect, but youth and curiosity (promiscuity would be more accurate, if I’m being entirely honest here) got in the way; so, we lost that closeness for a time. But, years later, we rekindled that friendship, began to poke at the embers of an intimate relationship, which responded and ignited.  I was falling for him again. I was wondering why we had ever broken up in the first place, how could I have been so stupid? And then in a moment, it was all gone. Not because of a word or a fight, not something we could work through, but an unrecoverable loss. And I would never speak to him or see him again, except in dreams. I would never know just what that love might have been, given time to grow.

Then came the “What If’s”.

This is a guilt that manifests itself in the form of unanswerable questions: “What if I had just called him that day, What if I had gone to visit him instead of canceling because I had too many midterms, What if I had simply revealed how deeply I felt for him instead of playing stupid, childish games?” Etc. You get the point. It’s a bizarre, narcissistic form of guilt to think you could have done something to stop it, or that it was somehow your fault. Even after all these years, I still haven’t been able to fully let go of those thoughts, although some part of me knows they aren’t true. And that they don’t matter. Because there is absolutely no way I will ever get an answer to them.

When he died, I became so depressed that I could barely find the motivation to get out of bed, to go to class, to eat. And his friends were so nice to me—inviting me to their own special memorial, saying I could come stay with them, allowing me to share the poetry I had written for him…which was all wonderful and beautiful and a restorative testament to human kindness.

But, at the same time I felt this sort of performative pressure that weighed me down when I was already so far down. I began to fear that I wasn’t displaying enough thought, or emotion, or love—Grief—for him.

So, I didn’t go.

Because I couldn’t. I could not muster the emotional courage nor the physical motivation to drive down to Los Angeles and bury him and speak to his friends and family. I could speak to no one.

And I’ve always felt a deep sense of guilt and regret for not going to that memorial.

For not keeping in touch like I should have, for not reaching out like his friends did for me.

And I’m still that person, who doesn’t reach out as often as I should, but I’m trying harder now. I think. Although, I’m not entirely sure if it is a genuinely empathetic gesture or if it stems, rather, from remorse, a sense of duty, or from sheer loneliness.

Fear, guilt, and uncertainty have silenced me, held my tongue and stayed my hand, made me hesitant to reach out.

Now it’s nearly 5 years later and it’s different, but it still kills me. And now, more than ever, I feel afraid to speak about it, to admit that I still reel at the thought of never seeing him again. Plagued by regret. Afraid to cry, to show emotion. Afraid that someone will say, “You should be over it by now. It’s been long enough”. But has it? Will it ever be?

I’ve never really talked about it. Not enough, not fully. At the time, I was overwhelmed, the cut ran too deep and I couldn’t deal with it. I just wanted to turn away from it. Because I knew that if I looked, I would gag and probably pass out. It was gory, it was gruesome. I couldn’t stand the sight of it. So, I ran hard in any other direction. I never came to terms with it, and as time passed, I began to believe that it was too late to do so. Too late to reach out. Too late to speak up. Too late to address. As if there is a time limit on Grief, and once you’ve reached it, you’d better have resolved it or moved on. I felt shame? For thinking about it, for being affected by it after all these years. I still do.

***

I also spoke to you about Will: one of my closest and oldest friends who died in April. In that post, I glanced briefly over this notion of Grief and Guilt which I felt surrounding his death as well. I remember when it happened. I was sitting outside when a sudden rush of sound and siren fled past, heading in the direction of Ideal—where Will lived. He had been out on the river that day; I had just seen his post on Instagram. I experienced a portentous feeling of dread, that something was off, the very same sensation I had felt when I answered that phone call 4 years ago. Mere hours later, my friend Ian called me. Told me he had heard some disturbing news, but we didn’t know for sure yet. I remember wanting to cry, but being unable to. Not until it had been confirmed beyond any doubt that he had really died. I suppose I was hanging on so hard to a world in which that wasn’t true.

But it wasn’t as visceral as it was with Theo.

And that is a stone-cold truth I am finding hard to stomach. I feel a profound guilt that I didn’t react in the exact same way to the loss of this cherished friend of mine. That I didn’t give these two people the same size and shape of Grief.

Here was a friend that I had known for so many years, gone. It hurts and I miss him and I think about him often and when I do I get an awful feeling in my gut. But I haven’t cried as much. Instead of feeling full, I feel empty.

I’ve tried to console and absolve myself with the following logic:

This must be due in part to a distance that had grown between us. The normal kind that happens as friends grow older, move to separate places, and slowly disconnect with time. Part of it must lie in the differing nature of the two relationships: I love them both, but I was in love with Theo. But, part of it has everything to do with how I’ve learned to cope with Grief over time; what my society, my culture, my parents, and my peers have inadvertently taught me. That is to push it down, down, down. Deal with it on your own. To feel is to fail. Suck it up, move on. Such is the American way.

Where do these standards and customs of grieving derive from? Why have I burdened myself with this harsh set of rules and stipulations? Why can’t I shake the feeling that there is somehow a right way to grieve?

And why, why do we even spend any amount of time consumed and preoccupied by these beliefs? Why are we so obsessive about what others are thinking? As if they are actually watching you and judging your grieving process, or a perceived lack thereof.

Obviously, many of these speculations, these questions, these fears come from within. Projections of my own insecurity and paranoia. But, that is certainly not their only source. There is without doubt a culture surrounding Grief here that promotes this kind of repressive dogma. All of these perceptions, these stigmas surrounding Death, Loss, and Grief floating around in my head…Someone must have put them there. It’s not just me.

We’ll touch upon this theory (and more questions without answers!) next week as I attempt to delve into the Culture of Grief.

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