My brother Chris died. He had a motorcycle accident in the early hours of April 7th 1997 and died instantly. Yet for the longest time, years in fact, I was not allowed to say that, let alone actually take time out of my life to feel the loss and process its impact on my life. I am still not able to talk about it to anyone.
Why? Because at the time it happened and for many years afterward I was a partner, mother, employee or friend to a whole slew of people who had either never experienced a loss or who simply expected me to keep it to myself and get on with things. Now, all these years later, if I bring up the subject of his death and how I feel, I am apparently ‘wallowing’ because it happened so long ago and I should have moved past it.
The impact this has had on me over the years wasn’t something I began to understand until recently, and in many ways I am still figuring it all out. I simply assumed that my inability to be empathetic toward other people was a personal character flaw. That my lack of patience was simply a part of my makeup. That my sudden and unexpected rages and furious crying episodes were my hormones playing up, or worse perhaps the start of a mental illness or breakdown.
I am just on 51 years old now and it has been nearly 21 years since Chris died, and I still find myself doubling over with the keenness of the hole his death left in me. His birthday and his deathday both leave me a soggy, miserably lonely heap every year. I have no friendship network anymore. I am single (again).
Slowly, as my life has fallen apart and I try and figure out how to rebuild it to some kind of normal, I have come to recognize that the day my brother died has had an impact in every single decision I have made since then, and has been a simmering cauldron of negativity in every relationship — either with my partner(s), my children, my friends, my coworkers. My resentment and anger at not being able to take time out to absorb his loss has coloured my every moment since that awful day.
I have asked myself this question many times, “Why didn’t anyone let me grieve?”
There is no simple answer to this, but a lot of blame can go toward how our current society functions and the pressures heaped on women to be the perfect daughter, partner, mother, employee and friend, all at the same time. Add to that the fact that we almost never discuss end of life issues and what you’re left with is…… is ME.
On the day he died, it was strongly suggested that as the good daughter I should ensure that my parents didn’t hear the news from anyone impersonal like the police, and that I would temper their own grief somehow by being the one who broke the awful news. On the day he died, as the good mother of 3 children under 5 yrs of age, it was expected that I would carry on with the care of my kids, which meant cooking to feed them, bathing and putting them to bed, and getting up during the night to feed my youngest who was just 4 months old at the time, along with all the myriad other tiny tasks that make up a mothers day. On the day he died, I was still having to pick up after my then-partner as he trailed a dozen used coffee cups around our home, left his dirty clothes on the floor of the bathroom and generally assumed I would do as I had always done. On the day of his death, as friends found out about the tragedy I was required to answer endless phone calls and seem stoic and strong as I heard them struggle to find words over and over and over again, forcing me to fill in their long silences with assurances that ‘really, I’m fine’ so they wouldn’t feel guilty about not knowing what to say. On the day of his death, I was schooled on how I was supposed to behave.
As the days went on, I discovered that my parents were nowhere near as strong as I always believed they were, and so I took on the responsibility of organizing my brothers funeral and settling his estate, as I faked being functional and able. I faked it so well that I was congratulated repeatedly by everyone around me for my composure and calm in the face of such an awful tragedy. My parents thanked me for relieving them of that terrible task. My partner patted me on the back and told me how much he admired my ability to cope with our family and kids. My friends sent sympathy cards urging me to ‘stay strong’.
Under all of this recognition of my awesome self-control was a the generally understood requirement that I not burden anyone else with talk of his death or anything related to it. So I didn’t. There was never the ‘right time’ for me to attend the recommended grief counselling sessions because that would have meant neglecting something I still had to be doing. So I didn’t.
After Chris’ funeral, I did actually try to talk to my family and close friends. When I opened the subject with my mother and father, both of them completely dissolved into crying heaps and I quickly learned that I shouldn’t have added to their grief. How insensitive! When I tried to speak to my partner his response was to instantly change the subject, which I now know was due to his complete lack of understanding of the emotional issues surrounding death and loss as well as his horror that I might not actually be able to take care of him and our children if I had a breakdown. I began to resent his seeming carefree life, while mine was so burdened! Trying to speak to friends was a whole different nightmare of catatonic silences on both sides, as they tried to think of meaningful things to say while I attempted to reassure them I was ok. And one by one, as I began to hate them each for not being there for me, my longtime friendships dwindled until I had none left.
Not much has changed about how we expect people to cope with death, loss and grief. We still urge sufferers to stay strong even while we silently hope they don’t pick us to unburden themselves to because we still don’t know what to say. We let them off work for a couple of days, and then ask that they return in the same mental and emotional capacity as before their tragedy.
So my question “Why didn’t anyone let me grieve?” has the glimmer of an answer…. I wasn’t allowed to go to pieces because then everyone else would be burdened with the responsibility of supporting me, which is something I have been conditioned into accepting as FAILURE. As a strong, capable, modern female, society has taught me that I must cope with every role that has been thrust upon me — even in the face of unbearable sadness and loss — because that is HOW THINGS ARE. But it doesn’t have to be.
As a whole, we need to change from praising the strength and capability of functioning with death to congratulating those who take the time to face and deal with the emotional fallout that comes from experiencing loss. We must allow people to take more than the employer-allowed 3 day bereavement leave to process through their pain (and by the way, who was it that arbitrarily decided three days was enough time to cry?) We must begin to talk about death as easily as we discuss birth, life, food and everything else. By maintaining such a taboo about a subject each and every one of us will face at some point, we do ourselves a huge disservice and contribute to the same restrictions I faced in dealing with it as a life-event. We must learn to be open about grief in all its forms, because what we have at the moment leaves a trail of angry, resentful, lonely, self-destructive and disfunctional people wallowing in a quicksand of emotional turmoil.
What we’re left with….. is ME.
(Note: I wrote this from the perspective of a female because I personally have no experience of how a man would see it. Please forgive my very one-sided narrative. It is not intended to discount the grief of anyperson, regardless of gender.)