Societal Limitations on Grief

Today Luke Perry died after he had a massive stroke and was put into a medical coma. When I woke up (at noon) and read the news I uncontrollably started weeping. Out of all the celebrities that have passed away too soon, Luke Perry is the one that truly hit home for me. Now, may the plethora of people groan and say “he’s just a celebrity”. Here’s where people go wrong when handling the grief of others: people gauge the validity of your grief on how they perceived the person you’re mourning. Even if it’s the passing of your grandmother someone will find a single flaw she had, for some reason, trying to invalidate your grief. Believe me, I know firsthand.

For most people in the midst of grieving, they are not only grieving the loss of a loved one but the loss of life. Whether someone passed away too soon or of old age and natural causes, death has many facets and a spectrum society fails to realize. Death is a part of life, we know that. You’re dying from the day you’re born. It doesn’t change what it is: loss. A goodbye you weren’t ready for. A farewell or an “I love you” you didn’t get to say. A cold hand you didn’t get to hold when it was warm. A physical life that fades into memory, and memories that aren’t easy to hold onto. Maybe the most painful part of holding someone in your memories is the day you realize you forgot what their voice sounded like — then you feel that loss all over again.
If you’re someone who has yet to experience the loss of a loved one or someone you deeply cared for, know that those of us who have envy you. When I was 8 years old my great grandmother passed away and that was one of the first times my parents had to explain death to me. Even when I saw her laying in her casket, she just looked asleep and that she could wake up any minute. When I was almost 14 years old I was at a Halloween party and in a tragic turn of events, my best friend (and crush) was returning after sneaking out of the community center to get a soda from the store across the road and as he ran across the highway he was struck by an SUV that was going 50 mph. I saw his body on the hood of the car, his coat flapping in the wind, then he rolled off and into the ditch. The SUV kept going but later returned to the scene. I rushed down to help him but was pulled away so we could get the adults to call 911 (this was 2000 so none of us had cell phones). At his funeral was an open casket service and if you know anything about open caskets and morticians then you know they try to make the person look alive and look good. My friend’s face had to be reconstructed and it was so impossible they ended up having to put a pair of sunglasses on him. I witnessed his horrible, violent death, and my family gave me a certain amount of time to grieve before they felt it was time I got over it. Remembering correctly they gave me less than 2 months before they chastised me for still breaking into tears when something reminded me of him and punished me for acting out after my therapy sessions. My teachers cared about me and worried about me more than my family ever did. They saw my grades drop, me running out of class crying, going mute when I was a big talker, and tried to tell my parents but my parents only cared because I wasn’t making straight A’s anymore. That was over 18 years ago and to this day I’ll cry thinking about him or talking about him.

In 2005 my grandfather, my Papa Doc, passed away what felt very suddenly. He was my hero and I idolized him. For a year before he died he had senile dementia and couldn’t remember how old I was, what he just said or what he just asked, how to play the piano, how to write… but while he was at the VA hospital I was there with him and in the midst of talking to him he looked at me and asked, “It’s your birthday tomorrow, right?” “Yes, Papa Doc it is, and you’ll be there at my party like you always are, okay?” but that evening after I went home to rest he passed away of a massive heart attack. He didn’t want to die on my birthday. I didn’t know it then, but I lost one of the last members of my family who cared that much for me and loved me as deeply. My mother was a daddy’s girl so she always had some sort of possessive nature when it came to her relationship with her dad, which didn’t end after his death. She took possession of his memory and the amount others were allowed to grieve over him. If she felt one of us was grieving as much as her she was less than compassionate. My mother didn’t put a limitation on grieving him — she gave an allowance. Something that to this day she still does. I don’t hold it against her, he was her father, but I would like for her to stop saying things like “you didn’t know him like I did” when I talk about how much I adored him.

Same thing about my grandmother. In 2009 I held my grandmother’s hand as she passed away after I was the only one left in the room at the hospice. I saw something so rare; the moment a human being leaves this earth. For days she wasn’t awake and couldn’t wake up and I was putting her favorite chapstick on her and stroking her hair and holding her hand. I wasn’t leaving this time. No. No one was going to drag me away, I wasn’t going to go home to get rest, I wasn’t budging from her side. After I yelled at my aunts and my mom for bickering over where the money is and told them to get out of the room, I was still there holding her hand and I said, “I’m so sorry they’re acting like that. I love you so much. I don’t care about anything else except for you.” Not 15 seconds later she opened her eyes, turned her head, looked right into my eyes, then turned her head to where she was looking at the ceiling. I swear to you there is a light when you die. Seeing that look, seeing her eyes, it’s the kind of look you’d give a set of bright headlights heading right towards you. Aside from my mom somewhat taking possession over the grief (she shared it with me) a close friend asked me “How can you mourn her, and say she was a good person when she was racist?” Oh for fuck’s sake, really? REALLY? She merely had a tendency to say some racially insensitive things. She never acted on those things, and she certainly never treated someone as if she were better than them due to the color of their skin. Her and my grandfather used to do free blood work in the malls around town and her favorite people were people of color and gay men. She always told me how grateful they were when they got good news from the bloodwork, and how she was sad with them when the results weren’t good. Sure, she had her flaws, but how can you try to decimate the memory of my own grandmother over a single flaw you truly know nothing about.

Whether it’s society determining if your grief is valid and putting a limit on your grief or another person close to you trying to take it away from you, grief and mourning are not something to be trifled with. Our knowledge of death and what comes after death is incredibly limited which, obviously brings religion into play because it’s something we’ll never know is true or not. As humans, we can merely hope our consciousness doesn’t end alongside our last breath. To judge another for their grief is to force your perception of death onto them.

Photographer, pseudo-writer, mental health advocate living in a haunted house with her husband and two rescue dogs.