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Good Grief

On the universality of death, and all that comes with it

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My dad died. Then two of my friends' dads died. And a couple friends' moms. And lots of other awful shit has happened to numerous people I'm close to.

But still, the sting of that first death — my first real experience with someone I love dying — is strong enough to take me out of whatever I'm doing at any given time and make me grieve like it's brand new. But it isn't, and this is the first year that I've felt that way.

It was seven years ago, just a week before Father's Day, and I sat in the middle of a sidewalk in Brooklyn and screamed.

I wasn't sitting when my phone rang — that came later, and at the instruction of my mother, who was on the other line.

"Honey, is there anybody with you?"

There wasn't.

"I wish you had somebody with you — can you sit down?" she asked. The lilt in her voice made her sound nervous, which made me nervous. I looked for a bench and set my jaw.

"Your dad died today."

There weren't any benches, and so it was a blank storefront that I buckled in front of — not directly in front of, but sort of in the middle of the sidewalk — quiet at first, but then repeating a dazed "What?" and crying as loudly as I could in an unusual display of deep pain. My mind, at that moment, had split into two parts: one shut-down in despair, the other sharply focused, observing the first part like a detached stranger.

I've seen that split in so many of my friends since then, and I always wish that I could offer some sort of deep wisdom from the grief trenches that might console them. But there's nothing.

When I flew home to Tennessee for my dad's funeral, I sat in the plane full of strangers with my head in my hands and felt sadder and more scared than I ever had.

"Everyone around me has felt this way, and if they haven't, they will, and probably soon."

I don't know where that idea came from, but I repeated it to myself like a mantra and felt connected to them all. It was the closest I'd gotten to feeling comfort.

But seven years after the shock of that sudden unexpected death, that same thought has started to wear me down. I love having empathy for my friends when they're having a hard time. I love knowing how important it is to send flowers, to call, to do kind things. But the fresh split-mind grief I felt comes back pretty frequently, mostly around the anniversary of his death, but also over holidays, birthdays, family events, late at night and early in the morning. When I'm watching a particularly stupid science-fiction film. When I've just finished a good book.

I think the first lesson of grief is that there's no timeline for it — that's something I've heard from a lot of people. But the subtext for that is that it never fucking ends. And sometimes feeling good is just as bad, because the idea that you've gotten over something so profound is like letting the person die all over again, but in smaller pieces, like a daddy long legs whose legs you pick off one at a time.

Forgive me for that maudlin meandering, but it does make clear that the best way to cope with fresh grief is levity. The worst advice I got right after my dad died was when a friend recommended I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Fuck that shit. Don't even think about it.

If you must read something, get an omnibus of Calvin and Hobbes comics, or reread Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Comfort media, that's what you need. Cartoons and comic books and made-for-TV movies. And don't be afraid to dig deep and find Fraggle Rock or Melrose Place or Murphy Brown. For me, the only thing that did the trick was watching back-to-back episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Hulu, and I could only fall asleep with it playing on a laptop beside me in bed. Only later did I consider that my dad was about my age when that show aired, and I think I might have been comforted to know that he'd probably watched it back then, when his death was a blip in some far off future.

Not long after his death, I had a dream in which my father told me that being dead was like watching TV, but with all the bad parts cut out. Honestly, that's a pretty good way to deal with grief, too. Try to cut out all the bad, dismal shit that can too easily creep into every aspect of the grief-ridden life. And get ready to do it all over again with extra sympathy for your friends when the time comes — we're all in this shitty grief boat together, you guys. Hold tight.

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