Making a List

How the Bereaved Keep Score

Kellyn Shoecraft
Dec 13, 2019 · 7 min read
When I visualize my grief underbelly it’s on the set of a film noir —
preferably with a light mist or drizzle. Photo Credit: Movie Still from Third Man

There is a grief underbelly: a dark and damp place swirling with thoughts that many grievers have but are too ashamed to admit. If these thoughts are ever spoken aloud it’s almost never in every-day conversation with ordinary people.

Instead, you may hear them uttered in the safe spaces of grief groups or in an honest conversation between grievers when they feel free of judgment. This is where you realize that the thoughts you were previously ashamed of are actually not shameful at all, and a lot of people are thinking the same things as you.

One of the more common reactions to a life-altering event is keeping score. The bereaved maintain a mental list of the people who have not done what was expected (like those guilty of sympathy by proxy) or those who have let them down in whatever way, and they will waste a lot of mental energy thinking about these people.

Illusration credit: author

If there were ever a time in your life where you shouldn’t be keeping score, it’s when you’re grieving. When you are deep in grief your brain physically hurts — processing everything that comes with your loss is exhausting and overwhelming. But in one of life’s cruel little jokes, it so happens that living in the wake of a personal disaster is when the impulse to keep score is absolutely irresistible. You just can’t help it.

I felt guilty that I had many texts/emails/voicemails/cards that I couldn’t/didn’t want to respond to and confused about why I was hung up on the people I hadn’t heard from.

When it comes to relationships with friends and families, I am generally not much of a scorekeeper. I never kept tabs on gift-giving, who-called-first, who went to the party…but in grief, all of my normal social habits are out of whack. I have a long list of people who have ‘wronged’ me, and I spend a substantial amount of time thinking about them.

In my journal, about a month after my sister died, I wrote, “There are so many people who have reached out in so many wonderful ways and all I can think about are the people who haven’t…” This obsession left me feeling tremendously guilty and confused.

I felt guilty that I had many texts/emails/voicemails/cards that I couldn’t/didn’t want to respond to and confused about why I was hung up on the people I hadn’t heard from.

My list zeroed in on a few candidates — a former coworker, one of my husband’s exes (yes…seriously!), a sprinkling of extended family members, and the rest were the people I grew up with. People that I was barely friends with 20 years ago as I awkwardly stumbled through high school became part of my everyday reality as I tallied and then obsessed over who had/hadn’t gotten in touch.

I wish their siblings had died…not mine

That girl from math class who contacted me out of the blue one day about buying skincare products? Eerily silent now that shit has hit the fan. My 3rd grade best friend? I guess she thinks that my sister dying unexpectedly wasn’t a big deal because she congratulated me when my daughter was born but vanished 10 months later when my sister collapsed. I now hate these people with a fiery passion.

It doesn’t help that many of them have siblings my sister’s age, three years was a popular spread and there were dozens of families from my hometown with children whose ages matched Alison and me. I wish their siblings had died…not mine (that’s another common sentiment among the bereaved that they’re often reluctant to admit).

In my experience, I’ve found that not only do I keep score, but I also never forget the score. When my dad died in 2004, I had a disappointing experience with my friend’s mom. She knew my dad was sick, she knew he died, she was out of town when it happened, and then she never mentioned it. Since this essay is all about keeping score, I’ll eagerly point out that I went to her dad’s funeral in the late 90s. I was a self-absorbed teenager, but I still went to the funeral of a man I’d never met who died of old age. He outlived my dad by a solid 30 years.

And now, many years later, when I hear this woman’s name the first thing I think is that she let me down tremendously. She ignored my dead dad and everything that came with it. I don’t think of the times I was welcomed into her house for sleepovers, played with her kids, or the dozens of times she drove me home. I think about how I went through an incredibly traumatic experience and she never bothered to say anything.

When Scorekeeping Infiltrates Everyday Life

During the 2017 winter holidays, I took great pleasure in ranking holiday cards. At the top of the fridge (the place of honor), were cards that had a note acknowledging the juxtaposition of a bright and cheery piece of mail wishing me happy holidays when I felt so far from happy during the worst year of my life.

Unrelated to grief, but I also gave high marks to cards that listed the woman in the family first as opposed to the traditional order of man’s name, woman’s name, child #1, child #2 (I have a thing about gender norms).

At the bottom of the fridge were cards wishing me a wonderful Christmas with no acknowledgment of my sister’s death, cards with typos (It’s Bakers, not Baker’s!), and those that weren’t recyclable (I also have a thing about the environment).

One card had an extra handwritten note that said, “I bet this Christmas will be magical.” That card went right in the trash. It’s clear that the sender either forgot that Alison was dead, or perhaps thought that I would be over it 4 months and three weeks later.

My 2018 goal is to resist the urge to rank holiday cards on my fridge. Photo Credit: marthastewart.com

My husband pointed out the flaw in this system, that it wasn’t fair for me to be angry with someone for thinking of me and my family and including us on their card list in the first place. I recognize it wasn’t particularly nice to rank family and friends — to pit them against each other when really they were all trying to be kind and thoughtful. I attribute the card ranking as another, albeit strange, manifestation of my grief.

Why do we keep score?

As an added bonus, your feelings can be directed towards a living person, as opposed to being angry at a situation or even at the person who died. You can’t change the events that led to the death of your loved one, but you can direct your anger towards people who you think have wronged you. It’s a concrete and easy place to fixate your attention.

Forgiveness

I Didn’t Know What to Say empathy card by Emily McDowell & Friends

I had no expectations for college classmates to reach out because they’d never met my sister, but my elementary school classmates knew my Alison when we were little and I thought they would’ve cared.

I believe that forgiveness is possible. Anyone on my list could reach out now and I would forgive them. I would appreciate the gesture because I do know that it is hard to know what to say, and I also know that it’s easy to think that your words don’t matter. I know because I’ve thought that many times and have stayed silent when I shouldn’t have.

I am sure that there are people out there who forget the score eventually or even regret keeping score in the first place. There are those who move on — live and let live.

But I also know that there are those of us who hold onto that scorecard with a white-knuckled fist. I’m one of the latter.

Have you been keeping score? Are there people on your list that you’re surprised to see? Did you eventually forgive the people who let you down? Do you have any tips for throwing the metaphorical scorecard into the metaphorical fireplace (I could certainly use them)?

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on Here For You in April, 2018.

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Kellyn has been trying to change the way people support each other in grief since the unexpected death of her sister, Alison, in 2017. Her work can also be found on her blog and Modern Loss. She reluctantly posts on Instagram.

Kellyn Shoecraft

Written by

Navigating sibling & parent loss and trying to change the way people support each other in grief. Founder at www.hereforyou.co

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