I remember the phone call so clearly. At a bar with some friends during happy hour, I only answered because it was Smitty. When I told her where I was, she said, “Okay. Well, call me when you get home.”
So as I drove home later that evening [completely sober, mind you. This was during my teetotalling days.], I called her back. She told me that she’d been at her parents’ house, skimming through several back issues of our tiny hometown newspaper. She told me that she’d read an obituary. She told me my friend Darren had died.
This was before Facebook, so I didn’t know he’d been sick. I didn’t know he’d died. I didn’t know anything. I thought of the last time I’d seen him–a couple years ago, at church on Easter, I thought, but I wasn’t sure. Though we’d been close friends for a time, we’d lost touch.
Still, if I’d known–if only I’d known!–I would’ve gone to his funeral. I would’ve prayed when he was sick. I would’ve sent a card. I would’ve cared.
But I didn’t know. And so, for me, Darren’s death has always seemed incomplete . . . or incomprehensible . . . or a little surreal. I didn’t feel like I could very well miss someone I hadn’t seen in more than a year, but finding out after the fact made it feel, strangely, as if perhaps it hadn’t happened at all.
Now that Facebook is pervasive and I. Must. Friend. All. the. People! I find myself wanting to search for him and send him a friend request. It’s as if part of my brain truly believes he’s still out there and we’ll reconnect one of these days.
Grief is complicated.
Loss can be a strange thing.
Mourning is different for every person, and different every time.
I’ve thought about this a lot in the year since my brother-in-law died. See, for most of the 18 years I knew him, I didn’t really like him. Perhaps that seems disrespectful to say now, but it’s true–and I think pretending otherwise would be worse. For more than a decade, he and I stood for everything the other one despised. We rolled our eyes at each other, we avoided each other, we said nasty things to and about each other. We REALLY didn’t get along.
Thankfully, our relationship had thawed significantly in the past few years. He changed some. And I changed, too, realizing that–for better or worse–my in-laws ARE my family, and loving them was not only the right thing to do, but would make everyone’s life more pleasant. Most of all, he loved my daughter. And if there’s a sure way to my heart, that’s it.
So while we had a fairly long history of not getting along, in recent years I’d come to appreciate my brother-in-law and even, after some hard heart work, love him.
That didn’t stop some people from assuming I wasn’t sad when he died last year, though. And though I recognized even then that nothing about death is appropriate, at the time, those assumptions hurt me. Anyone who knows me well knows that I feel things deeply–even when it’s grief for the brother-in-law I couldn’t stand for so many years.
Because in that case, it wasn’t just my own sadness at play–though I was, and still am, personally sad. I was so very sad for my husband and my daughter, for my father-in-law and for my nephew. I was sad, in general, for a life cut short, for a family that can’t seem to catch a break, for the holidays and family dinners to come that, I just knew, would be quiet and subdued and simply different.
And all that twists and turns into a ball of grief that, even a year later, catches in my throat every now and then. Last weekend, after spending the day with my husband’s family, all of us avoiding talk of the reason we were together on that certain day, I was surprised to find myself crying on the drive home. Mark asked what was wrong, and I told him nothing. What was I supposed to say?
“It’s the one-year anniversary of your brother’s death, and I’ve been annoyed about having to spend the day with your family for days now, but we did it and it was fairly pleasant and I think that makes me more sad than anything and oh yeah, I know you don’t think I ever feel sad about this, but I do“?
No. It’s so complicated. It was easier to just say it was nothing.
As I’ve thought about how complicated grief can be, I’ve realized that simple, straightforward, easily understood and explained grief doesn’t really happen. No, more often than not, death and loss are rife with complex relationships and emotions. It’s messy. It’s hard to process. It’s complicated.
I think about my beloved family friend, the one who’d been a third grandmother my entire life–until the day she was upset by something during my senior year of high school and stopped talking to my family. I think about how much it hurt for my letters–and wedding invitation–to be ignored, and I think about how shocked I was to hear not only that she’d died several years later, but that she’d left me a significant (to me) inheritance.
I think about my uncle, who had been in pain and trapped by addiction his entire life–or at least as long as I’d known him. I think about wasted potential and a father, brother, uncle missed–but I also think about how death meant, for him, healing and peace.
I think about my childhood friend’s dad, who died in a tragic accident the week of my wedding. I think about visiting her and trying to find the words and wondering how to possibly explain why I would miss the funeral, as she explained that she’d miss my wedding.
I think about my friend Carrie, who I knew for just a few months. But I think about those few months, those months during our freshman year of college, those months when lifelong bonds were formed and plans were hatched and adventures were made. I think about the phone call and the funeral and the fight with my parents, wanting to just be with my other friends. I think of how amazing she would be today and wonder if we’d have stayed in touch. But most of all, I think about how I blew her off the night before that car accident, because I assumed I could catch up with her on Monday.
Guilt. Relief. Regret. Confusion. Shock.
Grief, loss, death–it’s so complicated, isn’t it?
Have you ever experienced a complicated grief?
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