No one is “good” at grieving, but I believe you can be bad at it. Like if someone dies and you go on a murderous rampage or start raping your way through the pain, I think it’s safe to say that’s “bad.”
I, like most people, grieve somewhere in between. I’m awkward and I tend to flail. I make jokes. They’re inappropriate. It’s a defense mechanism. I don’t realize it’s happening until it’s too late.
On 9/11, I invited a bunch of people over to my place. There were rumors California was going to be a target, and my friends and I figured we might as well go out together, so we bought supplies and watched as the horror played out on the news. After a few hours, I couldn’t take any more death and destruction. None of us could. The newscasters started throwing out possible suspects. They mentioned Oklahoma City, American militias and terrorist cells from the Middle East.
I said, “How do we know it’s not the sharks?”
They had been in the news recently, biting off limbs near the Florida coast. Who’s to say they didn’t learn to fly a plane?
It was absurd and stupid, but it was a swift blow to the misery in the room. We started laughing, a little too loud, mind you, because my landlord heard us cackling like maniacs. He evicted me a few weeks later.
I haven’t changed much. I doubt I will. Suffering from bipolar II, I can’t tell you how many times finding the funny has kept me from stepping off a ledge.
I don’t believe laughter is the best medicine, but it is necessary to survive.
And I’ve learned that even though my brain searches for a joke in the darkest moments, I don’t always have to voice them, and they definitely don’t belong in letters of condolence.
Last week my best friend as a kid killed himself. The cops tried to talk him off the bridge, but he jumped. I hadn’t spoken to him in almost five years. He’d gone off the grid. He didn’t like to take his meds. Now, he’s gone, and I never got to tell him how much he meant to me.
I wanted to go to the funeral, but it’s in Kansas City and it’s not possible right now. Instead I decided to write a letter to his parents. Growing up, I spent almost as much time at their house as my own. There were a lot of good memories, and I tried to list them off as best as I could recall. But after a while, the pain was just too great. I’d failed him as a friend. I should’ve reached out when I heard about his diagnosis of schizophrenia. I should’ve been there at his side, sharing my own struggles with mental illness. But I didn’t. I couldn’t stop crying, but I needed to get the letter into the mail, so I quickly thanked them for being wonderful people and for making me nachos whenever I spent the night. The nachos were always greasy and gooey and magnificent.
Just as I was about to pop it in the mail, I decided to show it to my wife.
She read it, then said, “Wait. Are you seriously saying, ‘Sorry for the loss of your son, but thanks for the nachos?’”
I realized an edit was in order, so I took out the jokes and simply told them that I loved them and that I miss my best friend.
What say you? Have you ever said something inappropriate to someone in mourning?
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