“ Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing or that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing”. – William Butler Yeats
October 13th 2013 marks the 4th year anniversary of my brother’s death, and my brother being 3 years older than myself, I grew up following him. As I begin to write, the feelings of chaos, complexity and inadequacy that encompass my attempts to express this swarm over me, like phantasmic wasps answering their call to arms. My father had died the previous year from pancreatic cancer. Between my Dad’s death on August 10th 2008, and my brother’s death on October 13th 2009, a good friend was killed in a motor vehicle accident.
I spent the year following my father’s death in a state of relatively open bereavement among those close to me. After my brother’s death I didn’t want my grief to manifest in any way that people could recognize or assume to fathom. At that point, it was as though expression would have only served to affirm others’ preconceptions of what it means to feel pain and loss. I preferred “they” assume I was “taking it well”, which to me, served to magnify their ignorance. About a month after my brother was killed, dead skin inside my cheeks and on the sides of my tongue began peeling off in layers. This was due to having kept my mouth clamped shut and immobile during most of that time. Sometimes I feel vibrations at different points in my body; sometimes I have a strange sensation while walking of my hips being in my chest, or of having another head above my head. Sometimes I can only take very shallow breaths; it is a suffocating sensation.
The strength of a person is not defined by how much they can carry or withstand. I’m very absorbent. After some time I began to realize that my ability to absorb does not qualify as strength. A sponge has no solid boundary; it is thoroughly accessible and exposed. Also, the exposure from sharing something so visceral becomes a dangerous act in itself. To romanticize circumstances and people displaces them from the realm of reality into that of fantasy. Apathetically entertaining the projections of other people lures the unstable soul into a hopelessly unsatisfying state. Foreign projections are ineludibly crude and all are biased according to personal experience and exposure to media, stories, and fairytales. Pretentiousness and condescension presupposes an omniscient understanding in the real world of people’s points of reference. The inconsistencies between my self-perception and the identity projected onto me by friends, family and peers caused a writhing discomfort within me that I became accustomed to. Followed by a wooly and detached horror-fascination when I observed that I could really disappear in front of people and no one would stop me, no one would know. I appreciate the subjectivity of individual understanding very keenly.
Sometimes I feel as though even attempting to elevate myself beyond or within this grief is a sacrilege. There have been times truly unbearable, but somehow they were borne and I’m still here, but that does not make me feel strong. Somehow it makes me feel weak. I understand this disposition to find roots in the Catholic value/hoax, that martyrdom is the ultimate expression of love. I struggle with which memories to protect and keep private, and which to share and how. It has taken a long time to take the most fundamental step of committing to a life in the living world. Now I try to accept the responsibilities that come with that decision.
Grief, trauma, and mental illness are incapacitating. I stayed in university for four years, not wanting to “give up”, or let go of another piece of my identity. Early on, I decided on a degree in English Literature because stories were the only things that still made any sense. Each semester followed the same pattern, goals, procrastination, paranoia, self-sabotage, and guilt, until in December 2012 I finally flunked out.
For a while there was nothing I could have done but go round and round in the chaos. There is this terrible joke; how do you make a baby crawl in circles? Nail one hand to the floor. I would liken the hand nailed to the floor to my experience of remaining in school. The anchorage to a spinning top at least keeps it moving, if only around and around. There are worse things a baby could get into; there are better things. There are no shortcuts when it comes to grief, but time widens the gyre. Mostly I feel compassion for myself now that I realize the irony of my maddened logic; that due in part to my unwillingness to be misperceived by others, I became dissociated to the point of my own self-loss. I believe in relativity and in process. I believe in my own truths as they emerge under my perception of this complicated framework I’ve been bearing witness to all along. Aspects of this framework are still very blurry, but tending to those places, deconstructing and constructing are among my responsibilities. Truth will emerge during the process.