Grief Speak: Questions not to ask (of or about) the bereaved

“Were you close (with the deceased)?” Think about why you’re asking that question and how you’ll reply if they say “No.” I hate that question because closeness can be a hard term to define and it seems like a way of trying to assess the depth of your grief or whether or not you should be grieving at all.  I’ve lost people I wasn’t close with and when I was asked that question, I felt awkward responding no. I felt like that would make the person think I wasn’t grieving or that I needed to provide justification for my grief. People can feel genuine grief over people they weren’t close with and the lack of closeness can complicate the grief.  I felt similarly dismissed when I was asked if I’d had my dog who died for a long time and I had to reply that I’d only had her for two months.

“Do they have any other children?” (regarding parents who have lost a child) Let’s think about the question behind this question. Perhaps you’re concerned for the welfare of the other children but more likely you’re trying to assess “how bad” their loss is and if they have other children you’re thinking “Well, at least they have other children to live for.” A compassionate response never begins with at least and losing a child with five siblings is as devastating as losing an only child.

“How did they die?” Ask yourself if you’re asking that question for the bereaved’s benefit or for your own curiosity.  The other person may not feel comfortable revealing how their loved one died and how they died is not the point. The point is they lost a loved one and are grieving. If the manner of death is important and they want to share it with you, they’ll reveal it in their own time. If you must ask at least express your condolences first and ask it in a more delicate manner, such as “Was it expected?”

“How do you manage to go on after your loss?” You’re so strong! I could never do it!” It’s meant as a compliment but the subtext is “I’m so glad it happened to you instead of me” and “I love my loved one more than you love yours.”  These people are “strong” because they don’t feel they have any other choice.

Children’s Grief Awareness Day 2018

It was with great trepidation that I approached the yellow building in front of me on that April afternoon earlier this year. The building resembled a large house but it actually contained an organization that provided support to children who had lost a parent or sibling.

I had responded to a call I’d seen on Volunteermatch for facilitators for a support group for grieving children and had scheduled a tour of the facilities but as the date approached, I was having second thoughts. I wasn’t sure I was equipped to deal with grieving children. How would I possibly know what to say to them? I considered cancelling the tour but reasoned that I could go just to see what it was like and if I didn’t want to do it, I just didn’t have to follow through with the application or training.

The man who greeted me and the other people who had shown up for the tour started by saying that a common misconception people had about the organization was that it was a clinical organization staffed by mental health professionals, when it’s actually a social support organization, with support groups run by volunteers.

We were given fliers that listed statistics about childhood grief and loss. The most staggering statistic was that one in seven children will lose a parent or sibling by age twenty. I had been fortunate enough not to lose a parent or sibling by age twenty but a few years later my luck ran out.

I was as blindsided by the grief that accompanied my stepbrother’s sudden and unexpected death as I was by the death itself. The truth was I had not been close with my stepbrother but I found my mind and my body reacting to his death in ways I couldn’t control. I got shingles, I got pneumonia, I had nightmares and daymares.

Our tour guide showed us the volcano room where children could go to throw balls, to tumble around on the floor, to get out their energy, their anger, their intense emotions. He showed us the hospital room where children could recreate and act out the experiences they’d had with a dying loved one on a hospital bed. He showed us the memory box room where children could put arts and crafts they’d created to signify their person who died in to shoeboxes. He showed us the picture wall that displayed photographs of the loved ones who had died. He showed us the hallway in which all the participants gathered in a circle to pass around a talking stick and say the name of their loved one who died. He showed us the individual rooms where the participants divided by age groups to discuss their losses or engage in expressive arts related to their losses.

By the end of the tour I knew I wanted to be a facilitator. I signed up for the training in August.

***

In August I and about thirteen other people spent four days essentially learning that everything we’d previously learned about grief, every idea about grief that our culture reinforced, was wrong.

Grief is thought of as something horrible but the organization’s name, Good Grief, reinforces the idea that grief is actually a good thing. It’s a natural reaction to love and loss.

Our society behaves as though there should be a time limit to grief. After a week or a month or a year the person who’s experienced a loss should stop grieving and move on with their life. Good Grief believes that there is no time limit to grief.

Good Grief also believes that the famous Kubler-Ross stages of grief are not universal nor do they proceed in a linear fashion. There’s no need or pressure for anyone to progress smoothly from one stage to the next.

We were taught that as facilitators, it was not our job to judge anyone for their grief reactions or to try to “fix” their grief.

Society urges us not to speak ill of the dead but Good Grief has a saying that “assholes die too”, so there’s no need to always put the deceased on a pedestal.

Many people think that young children have no concept of death and that they do not feel grief. Good Grief teaches us that this is nonsense. Even children who lose a loved one when they are too young to speak or to remember their loved one grieve.

We are taught the art of empathetic listening and the difference between sympathy and empathy. We are asked to create a timeline of our own losses and not just the losses that involve death.

When asked in a follow up survey if I felt I benefited from the training and if I’d recommend it, I do not hesitate to say yes. When asked which age group I’d prefer to work with, I choose the youngest age group Good Grief serves: the three to five- year-olds.

***

As the children in my group arrive on my first day as a facilitator, it is impressed on me just how young and small they really are. Some children walk in to the room clutching stuffed animals. Others clutch the hand of their surviving parent.

My co-facilitator and I begin the group by asking the children why they’re at Good Grief. Some children loudly and freely volunteer information about their lost loved one. When one boy says that his mother died, he also mentions that his cat died. I know how very real and painful pet loss can be to a child, having experienced pet loss as a child myself.

Other children reply in tiny voices that are barely audible. Then there are the kids who don’t mention their lost loved one at all. One boy says he’s at Good Grief so he can play. His sister says she’s at Good Grief so her brother can be there.

However, when directly asked who in their life died, they all tell us.

I figure that sibling loss is rare, so there will be no kids in my group who lost siblings, but there’s a little girl who lost her brother and a little boy who lost his sister.

Somehow, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there would be children at Good Grief who don’t even remember their lost parent but there’s a little girl in my group who lost her father when she was just one year old. It makes sense that such children would be at Good Grief when you think about it though. Even though those children don’t remember their parent, they feel the absence of that parent in their lives, especially when they compare themselves with their peers.

That’s the gift that Good Grief gives these children-a place where they are not alone and they are not different. A place where they can be around other children who have experienced similar losses.

***

While children do experience grief, they do not experience it in the same ways that adults do and it would be a mistake to address child grief in the same way we address adult grief. It’s just not realistic to expect a group of three to five- year -olds to sit around a circle for over an hour and discuss their grief in depth, like the adults and teenagers who participate in Good Grief do. Therefore, we address their grief through art, play and stories.

We read a story about a monster that’s in distress because he’s got his feelings all jumbled up. He feels better once he learns to label his different feelings. We have the children make heart keepsakes to remember their loved ones by. We have them draw pictures of their loved ones. And we give them time to play freely and just be kids.

Before each group, the directors of the program give us a plan for activities to do and topics to discuss for the night but my co-facilitator and I know that with small children (and sometimes with adults as well), things don’t always go according to plan, so we try to be flexible and realistic about our expectations.

There are times when the kids are distracted and hyperactive. There are times when they don’t pay much attention to the activity we’ve laid out for them, when they don’t seem willing or able to make the connections to grief and loss.

Yet there are also times when the children surprise us with how much they do understand, with how willing they are to engage with their grief and be vulnerable.

When we did a lesson on emotions and breathing techniques using a variety of different animals as examples, we figured we had totally lost the attention of one little boy. He sat in a corner of the room playing with toys and not making eye contact or responding to any of our prompts. Then when we got to the last animal, the lion, he stood up, puffed out his chest and let out a deafening roar.

When we put jars of snacks on the table with labels for the feelings they were supposed to represent and then scooped out a certain amount to put in to the children’s baggies in accordance to how often they reported experiencing that feeling, I figured the kids would only pay attention to the food and ignore the feelings (I also figured that since fear was represented by raisins, we’d discover we had a lot of very brave children.) But after we’d completed the activity, one girl was so interested in the feelings that she asked a facilitator how often she experienced the labeled feelings and scooped snacks in to a bag for her accordingly.

When reading a book called The Invisible String was on the agenda, we figured connecting the concept of an invisible string to the concept of maintaining connections with a loved one after their death was beyond the capability of these children and tried to brainstorm ways we could explain it to them after we’d finished the book, but after we’d introduced the book and before we’d even started reading, a girl in our group volunteered that you can have invisible connections to people after they’ve died.

Then a boy chimed in with, “You can text people after they’ve died. You can text them from your heart.”

***

Before we end group each night we perform a closing ritual. We gather the children in a circle, hand each child a small electric candle which they switch on, and we turn off the lights. Then as we go around the circle each child switches off their candle and says goodnight to their person who died.

The boy who always mentions the death of his cat along with the death of his mother, says goodnight to his cat too. One of the girls says “Goodnight, Daddy. I love you. See you when I get up there.”

***

A few weeks ago in post-group for the facilitators, the leader of the group mentioned that Good Grief  had t-shirts for sale, which we were all encouraged to buy. The t-shirts were blue with the word grief written in white lettering at the top. Underneath it was a black equal sign and underneath the equal sign was the word love written upside down in red lettering.

“Does that slogan have any particular meaning?” a facilitator asks.

“Well, what do you guys think?” the group leader replies, opening the question up to everyone.

“Grief equals love turned upside down”, a facilitator sitting across from me articulates.

We come to a general group consensus that the t-shirt is saying that grief stems from love  and that when you lose someone you love, the love you feel for them is upended, transformed and mutated in ways that wreak havoc on your life, yet it is still ever present.

As soon as I get home, I go on the Good Grief website and order a t-shirt.

***

I realize that while it may be awhile before the kids I work with at Good Grief can fully understand all the forms love can take and all the ways it can warm, break and mend your heart, the concept of loving someone is one they seem to intuitively grasp and love is a feeling they genuinely experience, along with their grief. The two are, after all, inseparable.

The book I read about the monster and his jumbled feelings ends by saying that there’s one more feeling that hasn’t been mentioned. I show the children the big, red heart illustrated on the page and ask if they can guess what that feeling is. The children are all smiles as they shout out “Love!”

One of the questions we’re repeatedly told to ask the children is what activities they enjoyed doing with their loved one who died. When I ask the boy who lost his sister what he enjoyed doing with her, he replies softly with words that are unintelligible to me but I hear an L sound and an- er sound.

“You played Leveler with your sister?” I reply uncertainly, thinking that perhaps Leveler is a new video game I haven’t heard of.

“No, I LOVE her,” he corrects me emphatically.

Later that evening that same boy is playing with a toy phone and tells me he’s going to make a call.

I’m about to suggest he call his sister but I stop myself. It is my job to follow the child’s lead in play and facilitate what Good Grief calls their grief work. It is not my job to lead the child or to impose my own ideas or suggestions on them.

“Who are you calling?” I say instead.

“My sister,” he replies.

“What do you want to say to her?” I ask.

“I love you,” he says in to the phone.

These kids seem to intuitively understand that death ends a life, not a relationship. I’m not sure whether they understand that grief is the price you pay for love. While I wish they had not had to experience such tragic losses so early in their lives, I hope that when they do understand that grief is the price you pay for love, they consider it to be a price worth paying.

***

Last night in post-group, the communications director for Good Grief reminded us all that today is Children’s Grief Awareness day and she requested that we share our stories of the work we do for Good Grief on the internet, to raise awareness.

So that’s what I’m doing.

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Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated

I must apologize to anyone who assumed I was dead as a result of my absence from this blog. I’m alive and well but school’s been keeping me busy.

That’s actually not the reason for the title of this blog though.

For a while I was getting daily emails about funeral insurance. Each morning I would be implored to make sure my family wasn’t burdened by expenses for my funeral after I kicked the bucket. I’m a big fan of both puns and gallows humor but somehow taglines like “leave grave concerns at the cemetery ” and “don’t let your family be buried in funeral expenses” failed to amuse me.  The emails said that although it can be hard, it’s never too early to start planning for the future. I’m going to have to disagree and say that your thirties is too early to plan your funeral.

Eventually I became sick to death of being reminded of my impending demise every time I opened my email so I unsubscribed from those funeral insurance emails (not that I’d ever subscribed to them in the first place.) When I did so I got a message implying that I was crazy for not wanting to get funeral insurance emails and informing me that I may continue to receive funeral insurance emails for ten more days.

That’s actually not the reason for the title of this blog either though.

Since I don’t drive myself, my father, bless his heart, is great about assisting me with transportation. He’s not always so great about arriving on time though. Yet he usually has a legitimate excuses for his tardiness. Two weeks ago he was late because he went the wrong way on a one- way street, was stopped by the cops and incurred a $500 traffic ticket. Last week when he picked me up he told he was late because he’d just gotten a letter from his car insurance company that he was really upset by.

“What did it say?” I ask.

“See for yourself. Can you believe this?” he exclaims as he hands me a piece of paper.

“They canceled your insurance policy?” I remark after my eyes skim the paper.

“Yes but look at the reason they canceled it.”

It takes me a minute to find it in the chart that’s printed on the letter but when I do I gasp and say “Oh my god!”

Under “Reason for Cancellation” it says “Insured Deceased”.

“Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

“They sure have been.”

“I guess when you get to be my age people just assume you’re dead.”

“The best part is that they sent you a letter informing you of your own death.”

I accompany my father on his visit to the insurance agency’s office to clear up the misunderstanding over his death.

“Are you guys a serious company?” he asks incredulously as he deposits the letter informing him of his death on their front desk.

The guy sitting at the desk looks over the letter and says “Oooh…that’s not good…you’re clearly not dead.”

The insurance company mostly takes the laugh it off and blame it on someone else approach. After making a phone call they inform my father that he will be getting a new letter in a few days and assure him he is no longer considered dead.

Those funeral insurance emails continue to arrive for a few days after I’ve unsubscribed from them. “At least they’re not assuming I’m already dead” I say to myself.

Top ten things I do not want to hear right now

1. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people – No, people with guns kill people. It’s not like guns are only dangerous in the hands of evil people who want to cause harm either.  Just look at all the kids that are accidentally killed by guns that have not been properly secured.

2. Gun control violates the second amendment-  No, actually it doesn’t. The second amendment gives us the right to bear arms. It does not give every single person an inalienable right to high power assault rifles. Most freedoms in this country are not absolute. The first amendment says we have the right to free speech. However, we do not have the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater or publish lies about our neighbors in the newspaper. Why? Because those actions harm people. Unrestricted access to guns harms people. If only those people who are so hung up on honoring their interpretation of the second amendment were as concerned about honoring those other amendments or the spirit in which the constitution was written.

3. If guns are restricted people who want to commit murder will find another weapon to use- If they’re really determined to kill they might find another weapon but it’s highly unlikely that they will find another weapon that will allow them to pull off killing such a large amount of people in such a short amount of time. When was the last time you heard about a knife attack that killed 60 and injured 500 within 15 minutes? It’s nice that these anti gun control people have such faith in the inherent human determination to murder but I have faith in man’s inherent laziness, stupidity and impulsivity. I would bet that being deprived of a gun many of these would be murderers would abstain from murder (and suicide) altogether.

4. If you’re going to ban guns you should ban knives, cars, planes and pillows too because they also kill people- Maybe the people who use this argument could use a little help from Big Bird. One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.  Can you guess which one of these things is not like the others before I finish my song? Well, if you guessed the gun was not like the others, you are absolutely- right! The gun is the only item on that list designed for the express purpose of killing. The other items on that list are mostly used for things like eating, sleeping and transportation.

5. Now is not the time to discuss gun control- Someone says this after every mass shooting and it’s such bullshit. On the contrary, the aftermath of a mass shooting is the perfect time to discuss gun control. When someone dies in a senseless tragedy, it usually comforts their loved ones to know that they did not die in vain, that something positive came out of something overwhelmingly negative, that their death might prevent others from suffering the same fate in the future. Right after a shooting is when people will be most emotionally impacted by pleas for gun control and most likely to take action. However, I will confess that when 20 first graders being shot and killed at Sandy Hook failed to bring about gun control changes, I began to suspect that nothing would. (And I do realize that when GOP leaders say now is not the time to discuss gun control, it’s not out of respect for the victims or an attempt to maintain decorum. They just don’t want to acknowledge the tragic results of their opposition to gun control. )

6. Just because people are getting shot doesn’t mean I should have to give up my gun shooting hobby- No one is asking you to give up your hobby. I’m sure you can shoot targets or animals without the kind of high powered assault rifle capable of killing dozens of human beings within a matter of minutes. If you’re a responsible gun owner with no criminal history, in the end you should have nothing to worry about. If you’re whining about the fact that increased gun control might subject you to stricter background checks or it might make it take longer for you to purchase your guns, then I’m sorry but the violin I’m about to play for you is so small, I’m having trouble locating it right now. It’s kind of selfish to say your right to practice your hobby is more important than the rights of other people to remain alive and safe. You should probably reconsider your priorities.

7. This shooting was a government conspiracy to deprive citizens of their guns- I guess your head is shoved so far up your ass you’re unable to loosen your tinfoil hat.

8. There was this horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas, which reminds me of this horrible person named Kira who said mean things to me online a few months ago- That’s a very bizarre, disgusting and creepy false equivalency (I wish I was kidding with this one.)

9. America is the best country evah!!!1! Just be grateful that you live here rather than protesting against any of its injustices- This notion that America is better than any other country is very outdated and inaccurate. There are many countries that are better places to be than America in many respects. One of the ways in which countries such as Australia and The United Kingdom are better than the U.S. is that they enforce gun control and thus have little gun violence, whereas we do not enforce gun control and thus have a lot of gun violence. Yes, there are also things to be grateful for in America but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protest the things that are wrong with America. Protesting injustices that go against the ideals our country was founded on and is supposed to represent is not disrespectful. Au contraire.

10. Give blood to help the victims of the Las Vegas shooting- Unlike the rest of the shit on this list, this is a message I wholeheartedly support. Personally I’m just not in the mood to hear it right now because I’m feeling frustrated by a failed attempt of mine to give blood yesterday.  I filled out a long survey about my sex life and drug use, answered another series of questions confirming that I had not had sex or done drugs since I filled out the survey 20 minutes ago, endured two painful needle pricks to test my iron levels, followed by 15 minutes of the nurses poking and prodding at my veins while complaining about how difficult they were, only to ultimately be told that I could not give blood. When I got to the car I started crying. However, the grief and frustration I felt over not being able to give blood are nothing compared to the grief and frustration I feel, that many of us feel, over all the senseless gun deaths and our country’s failure to do anything about it.

 

Losing a Stepbrother

I have this memory in my mind of a young man with spiky, dirty blond hair sipping soda from a straw, as he carries his drink in one hand and a bag of tacos in the other hand and heads upstairs. Normally a memory of someone carrying takeout from Taco Bell up to their room would not be very significant but it’s significant to me because it’s the last time I ever saw my stepbrother Brandon alive.

The next morning when I wake up I hear the words “My son’s not breathing.” It’s my stepfather calling 911. I walk over to Brandon’s room. My stepfather is standing in front of Brandon’s open bedroom door and my mother is too. “Oh my god, Brandon’s dead” she says. I glance in to Brandon’s room and see Brandon lying motionless on the floor. I’ve never seen a dead body in real life before but Brandon looks pretty dead to me. Still, I think that perhaps my mother is wrong. Perhaps Brandon is unconscious and when the paramedics arrive they will revive him.

The paramedics arrive. They strap Brandon on to a stretcher and carry him out of the room. He does not move at all and he shows no signs of life. Still, it is not certain to me that Brandon is dead. I will not know that he is dead until I hear someone say that he is dead. A woman from the police department is talking to my stepfather but she is not saying anything about Brandon being dead. She is talking about the lists of drug deals and drug dealers that were found in Brandon’s room. Finally she says “I’m sorry for your loss” and I know that my stepbrother has died.

My stepfather calls someone on the phone and says “I don’t know how to say this but Brandon is gone.” The person on the other line is confused about what gone means and thinks that perhaps Brandon has run away. When my mother calls my brother she does not beat around the bush. She says “Michael, I have some bad news for you. Brandon is dead.”

As the hours pass on our living room fills up with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and loved ones. Some people talk about how shocked and devastated they are, while others just sit in stunned silence. My stepfather’s best friend arrives. I’ve never seen him cry but as he hugs my stepfather tears are streaming down his face.

Later that day, my godmother picks me up and takes me out to eat because I need to get away from that house. I need to get away from that atmosphere of sadness,awkwardness, disbelief. The next day my godmother takes me out again because I still need to get away from it all. I talk about how shocked I am that Brandon is dead. I talk about unrelated topics and I tell stupid jokes to try to take my mind off of Brandon.

Funeral arrangements are made for Brandon. My mother tells me that my high school teachers will be coming to the funeral. I don’t understand why they’re coming since I don’t think they know Brandon and the fact that they’re coming makes me kind of uncomfortable. These were the teachers who taught the class for emotionally disturbed kids that I was in. They helped me very much and I love them very much but I don’t want to see them.  I don’t want to see or talk to any of my friends. I have not seen or talked to any of my friends for years, even when they’ve reached out to me. Once I left high school, I did not have the level of support I’d had in high school, I did not have the level of support I needed. Therefore, I did not do very well for myself. I had brief periods of success but eventually things all came crashing down. A few years ago they’d come crashing down in a very bad way.

For years I felt as though I was dead myself. I was still alive and breathing but I did not feel as though I was living a real life. I did not feel as though I was living a life that had any kind of meaning or that was fulfilling in any way. I felt as though I was a walking zombie living a shell of a life. I would not speak to my friends because I was so ashamed of what my life had become. I wanted to share my life with as few people as possible. Eventually, with the help of ECT, things began to improve for me. I certainly was not happy or fulfilled but I was beginning to take some interest in life and do some things with my time besides sit around the house all day. I had started reading books for pleasure again and taking college classes again. Now with an actual death in my life, it felt as though things were completely falling apart again.

Before the funeral started the rabbi gathered a group of people together to work out the logistics of the funeral procession, such as who would carry the coffin. The rabbi concluded the meeting by saying “This is such a tragedy.”

As I waited for the funeral to begin, I glanced around at the other people in attendance. I saw Brandon’s mother. I thought of the death of a child as being the worst tragedy anyone could possibly experience. I wondered how his mother was coping. I wondered how much she had seen and talked to Brandon in the year before his death. I wondered about her grief, guilt, shock and anger. I noticed relatives of Brandon’s that I had not seen in a while and friends of his that I had not seen in a while but who were once regular fixtures at our house.

One of the friends that was there was the friend who was with Brandon the night he died. When asked about what happened, he said he was not aware that Brandon had died. By the time Brandon was found dead, the money and drugs were gone from his room. Some people suspect that Brandon’s friend took the money and drugs. Some people suspect that Brandon’s friend knew more about Brandon’s death than he let on. About a year later Brandon’s friend died too. Some say it was a drug overdose. Others say it was suicide. We will never know what exactly happened but it really doesn’t matter.

Regardless of what may or may not have happened on the days these young men died,both of their deaths are tragedies. Assigning blame will not bring either of them back. Judging them for what they may or may not have done will not achieve anything  positive either. A drug addled brain will cause people to behave in bizarre, erratic ways. Their actions are fueled by an addiction that makes them increasingly desperate, an addiction that they feel compelled to go to greater and greater lengths to satisfy. Their actions are not a reflection of who they are as a person, they are a reflection of an illness they have been overcome by, an illness that has taken over their lives and may very well result in their deaths.

I do not personally know what it’s like to struggle with drug addiction but I do know what it’s like to struggle with mental illness. I would hate for people to judge me for the things I did when I was in the throes of mental illness, the things I did when I reached my lowest points. I do not consider those actions to be the actions of the person who is the real me. I consider them to be the actions of someone who was experiencing an illness that  overwhelmed her, an illness that had become greater than her, that had managed to control and suppress the person she really was. I believe the same thing about my stepbrother and his friends, the same thing about many other people who struggle with drug addiction. I saw the person Brandon really was. The person he was when he was on drugs was not that person.

Shortly before the funeral began my teachers walked up to me. They said it was great to see me but they wished they were seeing me under better circumstances. If I’d seen them a few years earlier I would have hugged them long and hard. I would have talked to them and laughed with them. Now I barely even acknowledged them. I made promises to visit them that I did not plan on fulfilling any time soon and turned away. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized these people had not come to the funeral because of Brandon. They had come to the funeral because of me. Most of the other people at the funeral knew Brandon better than they knew me but even so, funerals really are for the living.

There may have been more than two speakers at the funeral but the only ones I remember are Brandon’s cousin and his mom. I don’t remember much of what they said. I remember his cousin repeating a wisecrack that Brandon had made to her. It was exactly the kind of thing Brandon would say. It was the kind of comment he’d made to me and that I’d heard him make to other people many times. I remember his mom mentioning the term of endearment she had for her son. I remember my stepfather being asked if he would like to speak and him saying no, it would be too difficult. As Brandon’s coffin was lowered in to the ground, I remember my father hugging my stepfather.

I had to miss my first college class of the semester because of the funeral. When my professor asked why I hadn’t been there, I told her I’d had a death in the family. She then asked me if I could bring proof of the death to the next class, an obituary or a copy of the funeral program. I know that it is customary to ask students or employees to provide proof that they have experienced a loss. Yet I couldn’t help but imagine my professor having it in her head that I’d lost a grandparent. I imagined her reading over the obituary I handed her and realizing I had in fact lost a stepbrother who was only 23 years old. I imagined her deciding to excuse my absence, deciding that obituary was sufficient proof for her to make a little red mark in her grade book. I imagined her wondering what had caused my stepbrother’s death. The whole thing felt invasive and wrong. I switched in to a different class.

Brandon’s death was the first time I had experienced the death of someone I knew well. Several years ago my grandmother had died but she lived in Romania and I could count the number of times I’d seen her in my life on one hand. I think I was around 17 years old when she died. I was also 17 years old the other time I experienced the death of a person who was in any way connected with my life. My stepfather walked in to my room, handed me a newspaper and said “I have some bad news for you.” I glanced at the headline. It talked about a girl who had been killed in a car accident. A picture of the girl accompanied the article and the face that was staring back at me was a familiar one. I gasped. “Oh my god, I know that girl!”

I didn’t really know that girl though. I knew of her. I’d never had classes with her and I’d never spoken to her but she was popular and well liked at my school. She seemed like someone who was intelligent and kind. When I’d pass her in the hallway she’d smile at me. When the senior superlatives were awarded she was posthumously awarded the title of renaissance person. The boy who got the title had a  yearbook picture taken specifically to show that he had won that superlative. Since this girl had died before the superlatives were handed out, they had to use her senior portrait. The caption read “Is there anything they can’t do?” I thought to myself “Yeah, unfortunately she can’t survive a car accident.”

In my blog about losing a pet, I wrote about magical thinking. I wrote about the magical thinking that tragedies happen to other people and that if you worry about tragedies happening to you, it will prevent them from actually happening. I wrote as if the deaths of my pets showed me the error of my ways and I never engaged in that kind of thinking again but that’s not true. Even though I logically knew that kind of thinking was very flawed, the emotional part of me still engaged in it. I imagine that’s the case for a lot of people.

Yes, I knew tragedies happened in the world.  I knew that sometimes people died before their time.  Sometimes people in my school that I knew of tangentially  died in tragic accidents and I felt kind of sad when I saw their pictures in the yearbook but that would be the extent of it. In my lifetime I would probably experience the deaths of all my grandparents and one day I would experience the deaths of my parents. Those deaths would be devastating but they would not be unexpected.

Brandon’s death was largely unexpected but in a way it was not unexpected. A few weeks before his death my mother was telling me that she was worried that he would die of a drug overdose. When he did end up dying of a drug overdose, I had this sense that the world had treated us very unfairly. It had decided to bring tragedy to us when we were the kind of people who worried about tragedy.

If tragedy had to happen, it should happen to those fools who thought tragedy could not happen to them. Okay, in a way I was that fool who thought tragedy couldn’t happen to me but I also worried about tragedy happening to me so…magical thinking can be rather bizarre and contradictory. Still, worrying about tragedy should have insulated me from tragedy, stopped tragedy from striking me. We all know it doesn’t work like that though. It doesn’t work like that with our pets and it doesn’t work like that with our human loved ones either.

My mother and I both saw psychologists as we struggled to come to terms with Brandon’s death. I don’t remember exactly what my psychologist said to me but I remember her saying things that were compassionate and wise. The first psychologist my mother saw felt that Brandon’s death was more than she was equipped to deal with so she sent her to another psychologist. My mother spent the first session with that other psychologist talking about all the grief, guilt and anger she felt over Brandon’s death. When she mentioned Brandon in the second session the following week, that psychologist said “What’s going on with Brandon again?” She would have been better off sticking with the first psychologist.

Shortly after Brandon’s death, itchy, painful red rashes appeared on my back and torso. I was diagnosed with shingles, a viral infection people are susceptible to during times of stress. Shortly after I recovered from shingles, I was diagnosed with pneumonia.  I was surprised by how deeply affected I was by Brandon’s death and in a way I felt guilty. Brandon was someone I had known for several years, someone I had lived with and someone whose company I had enjoyed but he was not someone I had ever been close with.  Brandon was not my child, my best friend or my biological brother. I had this sense that I was grieving too deeply for a loss that wasn’t truly mine, appropriating someone else’s loss.

Grief is a very difficult and painful emotion to deal with but humans in all their stupidity find ways to make it even more painful and difficult for themselves. I was doing that to myself with my silly thought patterns. No one ever needs to feel guilty about feeling too much grief.

As the years passed on, we all continued to struggle with Brandon’s death in our own way. We miss him and we are constantly reminded of him. We walk by his bedroom, the room in which he died, every day. The “Please knock before entering” sign is still on the door and his things are still in the room. We rarely enter his bedroom because it is such a powerful and painful reminder of the person he was, the person we lost.

We try to honor his memory. Our town soccer association refused to set up a scholarship in his name because of the manner in which he died. Our state soccer association either does not know or does not care about the manner in which he died and they have set up a scholarship in his honor.

On the state soccer association website the opening paragraph of the description of the scholarship  reads”Brandon played soccer from the age of five until he graduated from High School.  He began by participating in the Rec Program in at age 5 and continued playing on travel and school teams.  His love of soccer grew along with his ability to perform on the field.  The camaraderie and teamwork that are reflected in this wonderful sport were his inspiration.  In 2010 Brandon tragically passed away at the age of 23. His devotion to his friends, effervescence, and intensity on the playing field were earmarks of his personality.”

We struggle with the would haves, could haves and should haves surrounding Brandon’s death. We think about how Brandon’s life might have turned out and how his death might have been prevented if we had behaved differently and made different choices. We think about what he would be doing today if he was still alive.

Dwelling on the past can emotionally destroy you or it can help you by preventing you from making the same mistakes in the future. The sad and painful truth about death is that it’s not a mistake that can be fixed. Even if from that day forward you change your ways and strive to be the best person you can possibly be, your loved one is never coming back. They are gone forever.

When torturing ourselves over what we could have done differently becomes too much for us, we focus on what other people other could have done differently and on what god, fate or whatever force is out there could have done differently. In May 2013, about three years after Brandon died, Governor Chris Christie signed The Good Samaritan Law also known as The Overdose Prevention Act. It states that anyone who calls 911 seeking assistance for themselves or someone else experiencing a drug overdose will be immune from facing charges or convictions regarding their involvement with illegal drugs. As, I said before, we will never know exactly what happened between Brandon and his friend on the night of Brandon’s death but we can’t help but wonder if perhaps Brandon’s would still be alive today if that law had been in effect then and his friend had been aware of it.

Since Brandon’s death, the opioid crisis has continued to grow. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. In an effort to address the crisis, efforts are being made to treat drug addiction as an illness that needs to be treated rather than a crime that needs to be punished, to distribute narcan, an opiate antidote to first responders, communities are making an effort to provide drop off boxes where unwanted prescription drugs can be disposed of, no questions asked. Although these actions cannot help Brandon at this point, we are glad they will be helping other people.

September 5, 2016 was the six year anniversary of Brandon’s death. The night before the anniversary of his death, my mom and I went to Taco Bell. We said that the reason we were going was because of the “Taco trucks on every corner” comment that had recently been made by the Trump camp. When we remembered that Taco Bell was Brandon’s last meal it seemed even more appropriate. A friend asked me if going to Taco Bell shortly before Brandon’s death made things worse. I replied that no, it felt like a way of honoring him. In previous years we had commemorated the anniversary of his death by ordering from Chicken Holiday, one of his favorite restaurants.

The next day as we drove to the cemetery Song for Zula played on the radio. The lyrics go like this:

Some say love is a burning thing
That it makes a fiery ring
Oh but I know love as a fading thing
Just as fickle as a feather in a stream
See, honey, I saw love,
You see it came to me
It puts its face up to my face so I could see
Yeah then I saw love disfigure me
Into something I am not recognizing

See the cage, it called. I said, come on in
I will not open myself up this way again
Nor lay my face to the soil, nor my teeth to the sand
I will not lay like this for days now upon end
You will not see me fall, nor see me struggle to stand
To be acknowledged by some touch from his gnarled hands
You see the cage it called. I said, come on in
I will not open myself this way again.

You see the moon is bright in that treetop night
I see the shadows that we cast in the cold clean light
I might fear I go and my heart is white
And we race right out on the desert plains all night
So honey I am now, some broken thing
I do not lay in the dark waiting for day here
Now my heart is gold, my feet are right
And I’m racing out on the desert plains all night

So some say love is a burning thing
That it makes a fiery ring
All that I know love as a caging thing
Just a killer come to call from some awful dream
And all you folks, you come to see
You just to stand there in the glass looking at me
But my heart is wild, and my bones are steel
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free

 

Both of us got teary eyed because the song seemed appropriate for the situation. The next song that came on to the radio went like this:

The tires are the things on your car
That make contact with the road
The car is the thing on the road
That takes you back to your abode

The tires are the things on your car
That make contact with the road
Bummed is what you are
When you go out to your car and it’s been towed

I woke up one morning in November
And I realized I love you
It’s not your headlights in front
Your tailpipe, or the skylight above you
It’s the way you cling to the road
When the wind tries to shove you
I’d never go riding away
And come back home without you

 

I turned to my mother and said “What the hell is this?’  She said “I don’t know but it’s a pretty ridiculous song. It sure is a contrast to the last song we heard, which seemed so meaningful and appropriate.” But then we realized that this song was also appropriate. This song was so like Brandon. It was so typical of him to interrupt a serious moment with his ridiculous and yet bizarrely appealing sense of humor.

As my mom and I gathered at Brandon’s grave along with my stepfather and some friends of Brandon, some of the people gathered around the grave shared memories they had of Brandon On previous gatherings that were held in Brandon’s honor I had not shared memories of him but this year I decided I would.

I talked about how when I first met him he had a watch that turned TVs on and off. He would use his watch to turn TVs on and off in his middle school classes. Some teachers were annoyed by it but others found it funny. (Speaking of teachers, I recently read the online guestbook for Brandon’s obituary and I lost it when I got to this post from his 5th grade teacher: “I am so, so sad to hear about Brandon. I can still see his sweet face and those beautiful blue eyes as he sat in my 5th grade classroom. Although I have trouble remembering the names & faces of many of my former students, I never forgot Brandon & often wondered about him. He had such a gentle soul. I regret that our paths had not crossed in recent years.”)

I talked about the family vacation we took to Puerto Rico. Me, Brandon, my brother Michael and I all shared a room. Brandon and Michael each got their own bed while I slept on the floor on a cot. During that vacation I was being cranky and irritable so Brandon decided to start referring to me as the B.O.C.-bitch on cot. I talked about how Brandon’s quirky sense of humor had rubbed off on me. One day while he was playing a video game I remarked “That’s a crappy video game” and he replied “You’re a crappy video game!” I thought it was hilarious and to this day I’m known to reply to a request to clean the table with “You’re a table!” I thought of another funny comment Brandon had made but I decided that considering the audience it would be best not to share that memory.

I have other memories of Brandon that stick out in my mind that I did not share at his grave. I will share those memories now. When I was in college I struggled in some ways with social interaction. When I was around people I felt like I didn’t know what to say to them.  I felt like I was bad at small talk with both casual acquaintances and friends, like I didn’t know how to make people want to be around me or make them feel like I wanted to be around them. My mother mentioned my struggles to Brandon and he volunteered to help me. He said that he could hang out with me and show me how to make small talk with people and how to interact with them in a positive manner.

Brandon was the kind of person who made friends easily. He had a certain charm to him, a certain open and friendly personality that drew others to him like a magnet. I never did end up getting formal social skills lessons from Brandon but if I had he probably would have done a better job than some of the people who were trained and paid to teach those skills to me. I’d like to think that I learned social skills from Brandon just by having him in my family.

Another memory I have of Brandon that sticks out in my head involves an event that occurred shortly before he died. It is a memory that is both upsetting and poignant.  One night as I’m lying in my bed I hear yelling in the hallway. Brandon is very angry about something. He is in my mother’s face screaming a torrent of harsh words at her. My stepfather is trying to get between the two of them and mediate the conflict but that only seems to be making Brandon angrier. My mother is very disturbed by his anger and is reacting defensively. She comes in to my room and grabs me by the arm. She says “We have to get out of here. We have to go to your father’s house. There’s something wrong with Brandon. He’s high on drugs and out of his mind. He’s getting really angry and I’m afraid he’s going to get violent.”

My mom tries to pull me out of the room but I will not go with her. I say “We’ll be okay. Brandon’s just angry now. He isn’t going to hurt us.” I believe what I’m saying. Brandon has become very verbally aggressive and he does appear to be high on drugs but beneath his drug fueled rage I can still see the person he really is and the person I’ve always known him to be, a person who would never do anything to hurt me. Brandon storms in to his room and slams the door. My mothers tells my stepfather that Brandon is not himself anymore, that he’s becoming increasingly aggressive and she’s feeling increasingly unsafe in the house. A few minutes later there’s a knock on my bedroom door. I expect it to be my mom but it’s Brandon. He still appears to be high on drugs but his anger seems to have dissipated. He says ” I lost my temper and caused a scene that upset you. I apologize.”

I said before that the songs my mother and I heard on the radio as we were driving to Brandon’s grave seemed appropriate for the occasion and reminded us of Brandon in some way but if I’m being honest we might have found a way of associating any song that came on the radio during that time with Brandon. However, there is another song that we associated with Brandon long before he died and that became especially poignant to us after his death. That song is Everlong by The Foo Fighters. It goes like this:

Hello
I’ve waited here for you
Everlong
Tonight
I throw myself into
And out of the red
Out of her head she sang

Come down
And waste away with me
Down with me
Slow how
You wanted it to be
I’m over my head
Out of her head she sang

And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You gotta promise not to stop when I say when she sang

Breathe out
So I can breathe you in
Hold you in
And now
I know you’ve always been
Out of your head
Out of my head I sang

And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You gotta promise not to stop when I say when she sang

[Whisper:]
“So Dad would take the Sundays off,
And that’s the only time he could ever get any rest,
And so, because we were loud on Sundays,
He’d make us hold his construction Boots over our head, till we’d sleep
And they were really heavy Boots and I’d used to say dad come on please
And like start crying, cause they’re too heavy.”

And I wonder
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when

Brandon loved that song and he played it all the time. These days when I hear that song I experience a tightening feeling in my chest and a shiver runs down my spine. As someone with a strong interest in reading, writing and psychology, I have a tendency to want to find the meaning and symbolism in everything. I wanted to find out the meaning behind that song and I wanted to figure out why it meant so much to Brandon. I wanted to find the ways in which that song symbolized his life and his death.

I looked up information about that song. Some people say it’s about love, others say it’s about drugs. Some people don’t know what to make of it and feel it’s best left open to interpretation. I could form my own interpretation of the ways in which that song applied to Brandon’s life and death, I could try to explain why Brandon was so drawn to that song but I now realize that it’s not really my place to do that.

Brandon is not a fictional character. If his life and death can be thought of as a story, I am not the author of that story. I cannot go back in to the past and turn all the facts of his life and death in to clues and symbols. I cannot neatly tie all those clues and symbols together to form a coherent picture of the tragedy that happened.  I cannot give a reason for why it happened. I do not know why Brandon was drawn to that song, why he was drawn to drugs or why his life turned out the way that it did. Any speculation as to his feelings and motivations would be just that-speculation.

Allow me to say a few things about that song, Brandon’s life and life in general though. According to Songfacts.com Dave Grohl wrote that song during one of the lowest points in his life. That song is said to evoke a feeling so strong that you want it to last forever, even though you know nothing lasts forever. I know that Brandon had some very low points in his life. I know that he must have experienced some intense feelings in his life that he wanted to last forever but that would not last forever.

We all know that life itself doesn’t last forever, no matter how much we want it to. Life really is short, even when you live for 100 years. Even if you expect to live 100 years, your time on earth seems rather limited. Even when you expect your loved ones to live 100 years, your time with them doesn’t seem long enough. A death at any age can be a painful and sobering reminder of our vulnerability and mortality but when that death occurs at age 23, the reminder is especially painful and sobering.

My brother, who recently did a rotation in Psychiatry for medical school told me that there is always an underlying psychological reason behind addiction, a need and desire that the person is seeking to fulfill. I do not know exactly what need or desire Brandon was seeking to fulfill through drug use but I know that it must have evoked some strong feelings in him, feelings that he wished he could hold on to forever. I know that he could not hold on to those feelings forever and I know that his drug use must have also evoked some horrible feelings in him, feelings that he wanted to end as soon as possible.

My brother also told me that at the time of Brandon’s death he was trying to cut back on his drug use. Making the decision to cut back on drug use is a positive step but unfortunately it can also be a dangerous one if it is not done in a controlled setting. As your drug use decreases so does your tolerance for drugs, making you more susceptible to drug overdoses when you do use drugs. Last night I was talking to a friend of mine who struggled with and overcame addiction.  I told him that I was glad he had overcome his addiction and that I wished my stepbrother had done the same.

My friend told me that if people can realize that they don’t need drugs anymore, the outlook is good. I’d like to think that Brandon had reached a point where he was beginning to realize he did not need drugs. The problem is that sometimes when your mind realizes you don’t need drugs, your body has other ideas because you’re physically addicted.

I had some hesitations about writing this blog post. Drug addiction is a sensitive, complicated and controversial issue. I know that no matter how lovingly, sympathetically and compassionately I’ve portrayed Brandon, there are people who will judge him for being a drug addict and a drug dealer. He will be seen as someone who destroyed his life and the lives of others through his horrible decisions. The people who feel the need both to judge and to find meaning in everything, will decide that the meaning of Brandon’s life and death was to serve as as warning to others.

That is not a viewpoint I agree with but it is a viewpoint I can understand. No one can deny that Brandon’s and other drug addicts have caused a lot of pain and suffering to themselves and other people. No one can absolve drug addicts of all responsibility for their actions. Drug addiction, mental illness or any other kind of illness can explain behavior but it does not excuse it.

I won’t pretend that I never felt angry at Brandon, never had any negative thoughts about him or never judged him in any way because I certainly did, both when he was living and after he died. Even today I’m no saint when it comes to compassion and forgiveness for drug addicts and Brandon is certainly no saint in my mind. There was one comment of his in particular that filled me with disgust, disdain and revulsion for years. Every time I thought about him saying that he was proud of all the money he made selling drugs, I cringed. What kind of low life scumbag is proud of the money they make off of destroying peoples’ lives?

Maybe he really was proud of selling drugs but maybe he was just saying that and deep down he was ashamed of it. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. When drugs have so taken over your life that they take up the vast majority of your time and have seriously impaired your ability to succeed at and enjoy other activities such as work, school and hobbies, what else are you going to say you’re proud of?

I read somewhere that the key to having compassion is to realize that no one says to themselves “How can I make myself as miserable as possible?” There are issues and obstacles that they have trouble overcoming and that get in the way of happiness and fulfillment. I would like to think that no one says to themselves “How can I make others as miserable as possible?” either. A friend of mine recently said that people tend to love and take care of others to the extent that they are able to. Drug addiction impaired the extent to which Brandon was able to be loving and caring to others but to the extent that he was able he was loving and caring to others before his drug addiction and during it.

Whatever I may think of drug addicts, drug dealers or anyone who makes questionable decisions and causes great suffering, I will not reduce anyone’s life or death to a warning to be served to others. If existence or the ceasing of existence even has any purpose or meaning, I don’t think anyone exists or ceases to exist in order to serve as someone else’s lesson, whether that be a lesson in what to do or what not to do. That’s not to say that you can’t learn lessons from the lives of others because you certainly can. There is good to be found in everyone and everything. Brandon did many things wrong in his life but he also did many things right.

Brandon is not around to read what I’ve written about him and he is not around to raise any objections to it. I have told a story that it is his and that I wish he was able to tell himself but as our lives were interconnected in ways, I have also told a story that is mine.

Brandon’s life on earth is over but his effect on other peoples’ lives is not. As long as people who remember him still exist, as long as people continue to hear about him, to be directly or indirectly touched by his life and death in some way, he lives on. Much of the effect he continues to have on the lives of others will be painful, harmful,and  negative but some of it will be helpful, positive and meaningful.

Writing this blog has been painful, harmful and negative for me but it has also been helpful, positive and meaningful. This blog may cause pain, harm and negative emotions to others but hopefully it will also achieve something helpful, positive and meaningful. In life as well as in death we are bound to cause much of the former and much of the latter but in the end we can only hope that we achieved more of the latter. I’m sure that’s what Brandon would have hoped for.

 

 

Losing a pet

It was Rainbow Bridge Remembrance day a few days ago and unfortunately my godmother lost her dog a few days ago.I have lost many pets myself so I thought now would be a good time to discuss pet loss.

Some people have moments in their lives that they define as the loss of their innocence (Not that kind of loss of innocence. Get your minds out of the gutter.)  I think I lost my innocence when I was 11 years old. One morning I heard a scream. I looked out the window and saw my fluffy white puppy that I had just gotten two months before lying in the middle of the road with a pool of blood widening beneath her as my brother stood crying on the sidewalk.By the time I rushed down the stairs and out the door my dog had been brought to the other side of the road where my babysitter and some construction workers were standing over her limp body. The person who hit my dog had not even bothered to stop the car after she was hit. I asked my babysitter if my dog was dead and she said yes. And with that my world came crashing down.

That was my first real experience with death. I often hear it said that small children are not able to understand that death is tragic and permanent. I cannot recall a time when I did not realize death was tragic and permanent. However, while I logically knew that one day I would experience the death of a pet that I loved and the death of a human that I loved, I engaged in a kind of magical thinking, that tragedies were things that happened to other people, not to me.

I went to school late that day. Many people expressed sympathy for me when I told them my dog died and many people just didn’t know what to say. I held it together until the end of the school day but when my mom came to pick me up and gave me the look that acknowledged that our dog had died I lost it. I put my head down on my desk and sobbed.

No one had ever told me that life was fair but this seemed particularly unfair. I had been begging my parents for a dog for years. I finally got one and then two months later she died in a tragic accident. There was also the issue that I’d only had her for two months. When I told people that my dog died they would often ask how long I’d had her for and some people flat out asked me if I’d had her for a long time. I felt uncomfortable telling them I’d only had her for two months because it made me feel as though I was not entitled to my grief, as though there was no reason for me to be so upset over the loss of a pet that I’d had for such a short period of time.

I felt that I understood death pretty well as a child but there were some things about grief I did not fully understand. Just like there is no time limit on how long you can grieve the loss of a loved one, there is no minimal amount of time that you’re required to spend with a loved one in order to grieve the loss of them.  Losing a pet that you had for two months might sometimes hurt less than losing a pet you’ve had for ten years but sometimes it hurts just as much and sometimes it hurts more.

My lack of understanding of grief caused me to say something that really makes me cringe when I think about it. A friend of mine who was consoling me about the loss of my dog told me she needed to go console her other friend who had lost her hamster. I replied “Losing a hamster is not as bad as losing a dog.” Yikes.

I was a very uncoordinated kid and would have failed miserably at any sport I played but I would have been better off attempting soccer than attempting to compete in the grief Olympics because that is one shitty sport to play. I was only 11 years old when I tried to compete in the grief Olympics but unfortunately there are many adults who have done the same. I’ve seen online debates about whether a miscarriage is as bad as a stillbirth and I can not think of a more pointless waste of cyber space.

I think Emily Rapp said it best in The Still Point of the Turning World. It’s her memoir about losing her son Ronan. When Ronan was 9 months old he was diagnosed with Tay Sachs, a degenerative and fatal disease. She watched as Ronan experienced physical and cognitive decline, as he lost his ability to see, to eat on his own, to breathe on his own, to sit up, to move his arms and legs. He died shortly before his third birthday.

I knew it would be emotionally difficult to read a book about a small child dying from a horrible disease but I thought it might help me come to terms with my own losses, both animal and human. I thought that in watching  Ronan die Emily had experienced the worst loss anyone could possibly experience.  I thought that reading about her loss would put my own losses in perspective. This woman had lost a child. I had just lost some pets, grandparents and a stepbrother. My losses were insignificant compared to hers. This woman had managed to deal with the loss of a child so it should be easy for me to deal with the loss of a dog. Emily showed me how flawed my thinking was.

While Ronan was dying, Emily would read memoirs about grief and loss but she would often come away from those books feeling furious. Those books were about losing a spouse, a parent, a dog. She was losing a child. Her loss was so much worse. Then she realized that this  idea that grief existed on some ladder of loss with the loss of a goldfish at the bottom rung of the ladder and the loss of a child at the top rung of the ladder was a ludicrous notion. What if the goldfish that died belonged to a five-year-old who was having his first experience with death and his parents had to explain the concept of death to him?  Did that bump Goldie’s death up a few rungs on the ladder? What if the child, parent or spouse was suffering for a long time before they died? What if they weren’t suffering at all before they died? Did that bump the loss up or down on the ladder? Did the people who were on the top of the ladder experience authentic, earth shattering grief while the people at the bottom of the ladder were just super sad? She concluded that loss  like any profound human experience is not quantifiable and if there did exist a competition for grief, who would want to win it?

I read that as someone who had never had a child but I was still a bit incredulous. There had to be a “grief ladder” and anyone who had lost a child had to automatically get placed on a higher rung than someone who had lost a pet. They just had to because losing a child was so much worse. And yet the more I thought about this concept of the “grief ladder” the more I realized just how right Emily Rapp was.

I realized that even if we did decide that someone who had lost a child automatically got a higher rung on the grief ladder than someone who lost a pet how would we then divide up the rungs among the types of child loss? Why would a stillbirth be worse than a miscarriage? What if the woman who had a miscarriage desperately wanted children and felt strongly bonded with her baby from day one while the woman who had a stillbirth had never felt much of a bond with her baby and had never really wanted children? Would they then have to switch rungs on the grief ladder? Would Emily Rapp get the higher rung for losing her small child to a devastating disease that had been taking her son from her for years or would that rung go to the guy whose three-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident?

Why had I decided that losing a dog was worse than losing a hamster? A hamster was a tiny animal and a dog was a big animal but if that’s the case was losing a golden retriever worse than losing a chihuahua?  In general dogs tended to be more responsive and affectionate than hamsters but what if we were talking about an exceptionally affectionate hamster and an exceptionally aloof dog? Dogs were canines and hamsters were rodents but then I would have to decide how I felt about people who lost their pet mouse, gerbil or guinea pig. Did they get a higher or lower rung on the grief ladder than someone who lost a hamster? I felt like I was not entitled to my grief because I had only had my dog for two months but this girl had her hamster for longer than I’d had my dog.

While I was in the process of writing this blog and after I had written the section on the concept of the grief ladder my mother decided to express her belief in the existence of the grief ladder. She told me that someone who had experienced a stillbirth did not have it as bad as her friend who had lost a child to SIDS when he was five months old and losing a child in utero was even less bad. Was she fucking kidding me with that shit?  After I expressed that sentiment to her in slightly nicer words she informed me that she knew what she was talking about because she thought she might lose me to ectopic  pregnancy and she thought she was going to lose me again to premature labor. The thought of losing me to premature labor was so much worse. So because she knew how she felt about her own threatened losses she got to decide how someone else felt about their actual losses? She got to decide that one person’s loss wasn’t as bad as another person’s?

It doesn’t work like that. Emily Rapp nailed it. The concept of a grief ladder is nonsense. Complete and total nonsense.

As the days, weeks and months passed after the death of my first dog, I began to feel a bit better. There was still sadness but the sadness didn’t feel as crushing or all encompassing. Still, there were times when I was hit by waves of intense grief. One day a group of seeing eye dog trainers came in to my classroom with the seeing eye dog puppies they were training. I was reminded of my puppy and I started crying. I had to leave the classroom and see a school psychologist. That psychologist was a kind and funny person who made me feel better.

A few months after my first dog died I got a second dog. There are people who think you can just replace one pet with another, that once you get another pet you won’t miss the first pet because you won’t even notice the difference. I have never felt that way. Getting a new pet can help with the grief and you may love the new pet as much as you loved the first pet but the second pet is not a replacement for the first pet. You will notice the difference because every pet is different. Every pet has qualities and characteristics that cannot be entirely replicated by another pet. Not many people would say that you could replace a human friend with another human friend, a lover with another lover or a relative with another relative. I feel the same way about pets. Many years later when I was facing the prospect of a pet loss not from death, but because a relative of mine was threatening to keep the dog someone else told me to give up on fighting for the dog because I could just get another dog. I told that person that would happen over my dead body.

I did love my second dog but in addition to her not being a replacement for my first dog, I was terrified of losing her in the same way. There’s a memoir about grief called The Year of Magical Thinking*. I think that the year after my first dog died was a year of magical thinking. Before my dog died I engaged in the magical thinking that tragedies happened to other people, not to me. After my dog died I decided that she had died because I had never thought anything like that would happen to me. God or the universe or whatever force was out there had punished me for that type of magical thinking so I substituted it with another type of magical thinking: If I constantly worried about my dog being hit by a car that would protect her from being hit by a car just as much as the fence we put around our yard would. My year of magical thinking came to an end in the worst possible way.

One day we came home and couldn’t find my dog. We didn’t understand how she could have gotten out since we had a fence around the yard. Than we saw that construction workers had left a pile of rubble near the fence and realized she had used that pile of rubble to jump over the fence. My babysitter and I searched the neighborhood for her while my brother and my mother stayed home. When I got home my brother was sobbing. He screamed to me that our dog was dead. The nightmare was happening all over again.

An animal control worker had called to deliver the bad news. She had seen my dog running on the streets and had tried desperately to catch her but had been unable to do so before she was hit by a car. Once again the person who hit her didn’t bother to stop the car. The animal control worker approached my dog as she lay bleeding on the street and my dog, who had never bitten anyone before, bit her. She tried desperately to save my dog’s life but was unable to. She told us how sorry she was. She knew about the death of our last dog and when she saw that we were putting up a fence she thought this dog would be safe. My mother asked if she knew anyone else who had two dogs who were killed by cars and she said she did not.

There’s a quote that says something along the lines of “To lose one parent is a tragedy, to lose both parents looks like carelessness.” The quote is meant ironically and it’s meant to poke fun of the kind of people who would actually say something like that but being the literal minded child that I was, I took it literally. I had lost two dogs in the exact same way within a short period of time. No one else had lost two dogs like that so it had to have been my fault that my dogs had died. It had to have happened because I was so careless and irresponsible.

When I lost my first dog I told everyone at school about it. When I lost my second dog I did not tell a soul. This time in addition to grief and sadness I felt shame and embarrassment. My family members and I were fools who were foolish enough to lose two dogs in the same manner. Some of the people at school knew about the death of my first dog. If I told them about the death of my second dog I could imagine them thinking “Seriously? You lost another dog in a car accident? Did you learn nothing the first time?’

Unfortunately this was not just a thought in my head, it wasn’t an instance of thinking people were more critical and judgmental than they actually were. When my mom sent an e-mail to an animal rescue inquiring about adopting another dog the woman in charge of the rescue replied by saying that she would not give a dog to someone who had lost two dogs in the manner that we had because we were obviously irresponsible pet owners. We obviously had a lot to think about before we adopted another pet.

Last year I was talking about my dogs who had been killed by cars and about my bad luck with pets. Someone told me that I would have trouble adopting another dog from a rescue. She said that she’d lost multiple dogs in a short period of time but her dogs had died of disease or old age. She said the rescues were okay with those kinds of deaths but they looked at repeated accidents very closely. Someone else told me I should stop thinking of the deaths of my pets as “bad luck” and start thinking of ways to prevent the deaths of future pets. At that point it had been about 20 years since my dogs had been killed by cars but those comment really raised my hackles.

You see that kind of thing all the time. When a little boy falls in to a gorilla enclosure at the zoo and is grabbed by a gorilla many people decide that it’s because his mother was negligent and was not watching him closely enough, was not taking the proper precautions to prevent something like that from happening. Things like that only happen to the children of bad parents, irresponsible parents, parents who are not careful. That kind of thing would never happen to the children of these people because they are good parents. They are careful parents, responsible parents, parents who take the proper precautions to ensure their child’s safety. Therefore something like that would never happen to their child and their child will always remain safe.

It’s another form of magical thinking. People engage in it because they don’t want to acknowledge the truth. The terrifying truth about living is that bad things don’t just happen to good people. They happen to careful people, responsible people, people who take all the proper precautions and do all the right things. You can do things that will reduce the probability of tragedy occurring but you can not prevent tragedy from happening. Despite all your careful plans and precautions, tragedy can strike at any moment and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The person or animal you love most in the world might suddenly die in a tragic accident. You might get no forewarning of their death and you might not get the chance to say goodbye. None of the thoughts you have or don’t have about the possibility of tragedy striking will cause tragedy to strike and none of them will prevent tragedy from striking.

Since the loss of my first two dogs I have lost many other pets. Some losses were more difficult than others but there was not a single loss that did not hurt me in some way. There was not a single loss that I did not grieve in some way. With some of the losses came some difficult, messy, complicated, feelings. Sometimes I questioned whether I was entitled to my grief. When I lost my parakeets I questioned whether I had a reason to be so upset over their deaths when they were just little birds, not dogs or cats. My therapist then told me about the hamster and the goldfish that were buried next to her son.

Sometimes when my pets died I didn’t blame myself for their deaths but I blamed other people. There was the time my babysittter poured my tadpoles down the drain because she thought we had insects swimming in a fish bowl in our bathroom. There was the babysitter who swore that she had just fed my fish fish food, not neutralizer but the color of my fish said otherwise (those babysitters had never been the sharpest tools in the shed.)  There was the time my cleaning lady killed my parakeets by closing the door after she sprayed her cleaning lady fumes. There was the time my dad decided he had found the perfect solution to the squeaking noise my mice were making by running on their wheel and that solution was to coat the wheel with oil, oil that got all over the mice. I told my dad the oil was going to kill them and he said that for every mouse that died he would buy me three new mice. He did not keep that promise but twelve mice would have been a bit excessive.

At first I was angry at those people for killing my pets but I realized I needed to let go of that anger because holding on to that anger was not going to bring my pets back and it was just going to damage my relationships with those people. Those people had killed my pets by accident. If they had killed my pets on purpose it would have been an entirely different story. If you come home one day and find your friend, lover or relative boiling your pet bunny on the stove you have every right to be angry at that person for a long time and it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from that person.

Speaking of pet bunnies, my mother is a saint for expressing nothing but sadness and compassion when my rabbit died. She hated that damn rabbit and found her to be the biggest pain in the butt. She was dreading having to take care of that rabbit herself when I went away to college. My rabbit died shortly before I graduated high school. When we buried my rabbit I knew that my mother was thinking “Thank god that stupid rabbit died just in the nick of time!” but she put on a sad face and said that she loved my rabbit. If someone you love experiences the loss of a pet that you hate I suggest following my mother’s lead.

Today was the anniversary of my stepbrother’s death. My stepbrother died shortly after we got Dakota. Dakota was there for me when I was grieving my stepbrother’s death. Dakota was my best friend and my constant companion at a time when I did not have many human friends to interact with. Five years after my stepbrother died Dakota also died in a tragic accident.

Dakota slept with me on my bed every night and there was nothing I found more comforting than the feeling of her warm body snuggled up next to mine. I have a new dog named Lily that I like to snuggle in bed with but my stepfather takes her away from me and brings her in to his room. We have a deal that before I go to sleep Lily comes back in to my room.  Sometimes my stepfather puts up a fight about sticking to that deal and I will usually fight with him tooth and nail to take Lily in to my room. Last night I let my stepfather keep Lily in his room because he was going through a difficult time.

I woke up this morning without a warm, fuzzy animal snuggled against me. I thought of my stepbrother and of his death.  His absence was palpable and it filled me with sadness. I thought of Dakota and her death. Her absence was palpable and filled me with sadness. I felt a bit guilty because for me Dakota’s absence was just as palpable as my stepbrother’s was and filled me with just as much if not more sadness.

After Dakota died we searched Petfinder for another dog. We were drawn to a black dog who had been waiting for a home for over a year. Her description said “She LOVES to be snuggled! All of her. She isn’t satisfied just sitting by you, touching you, getting pet. She wants both hands, eye contact, and if she can, her whole entire body on your lap!  She is both obsessive and tenacious!”

This sounded like our kind of dog. When we called about her her foster parents seemed thrilled that someone was expressing an interest in her. When we went to see the dog she was wary and cautious of us at first. She barked at us and she kept her distance. Her foster mother said that because of the way she barked and snarled at people when she first met them they had stopped bringing her to adoption events and had just hoped that someone would read her description on Petfinder and decide to give her a chance. Her foster mom acknowledged that she could be shy, guarded and aggressive at first. She acknowledged that sometimes when you did something she didn’t like or she wanted something from you she could be sassy and demanding.

However, once she got used to you and you gained your trust, she was very sweet, loving and affectionate. We began to gain her trust with dog treats. After a few minutes she began to warm up to us. As the minutes passed on she began to live up to her description in her adoption profile. She sprawled herself across all of our laps at once, she leaned her whole body in to ours, she pawed at our hands, she showered our cheeks with kisses and she gave us love bites on our chin. Perhaps this was part of the reason she had gone so long without being adopted. Perhaps other people were turned off by a dog that was so intensely affectionate and so demanding in her need for affection but she seemed like the perfect dog for us. We had an appointment to see another dog the next day but we canceled that appointment because we knew that this was the dog we wanted.

I wanted this dog not just because she was a great dog but because she was me in canine form. I tend to be shy, guarded and sometimes even aggressive at first. If someone does something I don’t like or I want something from them it’s not uncommon for me to give them a sassy and belligerent attitude. People sometimes perceive me as being cold and uncaring.

Yet if you gain my trust and if I decide that I love you, I might remind you all the time just how much I love you. I might shower you with a million hugs and kisses a day, I might want to touch you and cuddle up against you at all times. I don’t think I’m exactly the best friend anyone could ever have, the best relative anyone could ever have or the best pet owner anyone could ever have. However, I think I am capable of loving with the kind of love that is fierce and unconditional, the kind of love that is non-judgmental and emotionally honest, the kind of love that pets often give. There have been some animals in my life and there have been some people in my life who have been lucky enough to receive that kind of love. I do not think I would have been capable of giving that kind of love without my pets.

When Dakota died and I was talking to a psychologist about how devastated I was over her death, the psychologist pointed out that Dakota had taught me unconditional love. I inwardly rolled my eyes at that psychologist and pointed out that while Dakota may have taught me about unconditional love, she could have easily taught me about unconditional love by dying peacefully of old age. The only thing I had learned as a result of her suffocating on a chip bag when she was about 7 years old, a month after I had moved halfway across the country, a month after I had faced the prospect of my stepfather taking her away from me, was that life could be very cruel and unpredictable.

For a long time I thought that it was only the lives of my pets that had taught me about loving honestly ,unconditionally and demonstratively. I thought that the deaths of my pets, especially the deaths that were tragic and untimely, had caused me nothing but pain and suffering. Now I realize that I learned something about love not just from the lives of my pets but from their deaths as well.

When Dakota passed away I was very sad that she died in the manner that she did and I was very sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye but my mother pointed out that I did not have to regret not letting Dakota know how loved and appreciated she was, how grateful I was to have her in my life because I reminded her of that every day just like she made me feel loved and appreciated every day. I think that since Dakota’s death I’ve become capable of loving even more deeply and appreciatively.

I’ve realized that since  life can be crazy, cruel and unpredictable, since at any moment an animal or human that you love and cherish can be snatched away from you by a car, a chip bag or whatever random tragedy the world throws at you, since you might not get a chance to say goodbye to your loved one, you should keep reminding them just how much you love them and just how grateful you are to have them in your life.

*To be perfectly blunt, a lot of people who have experienced loss write grief memoirs and a lot of people who read those memoirs pretend that they like them and that they’re good books because they don’t want to say anything mean to someone who has experienced a devastating loss. The truth is that while the pain of those peoples’ losses is very real and the lessons they learned from those losses are also real, the books they write about those losses are just not good books and they’re not well written. The Year of Magical Thinking and The Still Point of the Turning World are very good books that are very well written. I would consider both of those books to be essential reading for anyone who is interested in learning about grief and loss.