Warning: This blog post contains a lot of talk about feelings, loss, and discussion of a suicide.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about loss. My nephew died just a few months ago, after a short life with Duchennes Muscular Dystrophy. A neighbour recently took her own life, leaving a husband and two children behind. And today I learned that someone I have known for 15 years in the open source world recently passed away through a mailing list post. In each case, I have struggled with how to grieve.
My nephew has been ill for a long time, and we have been open in my family about taking advantage of opportunities we have to spend time with him for the past few years, because we knew he would not live much longer. And yet, death is always a surprise, and when we got a phone call one Saturday in November to let us know that he had passed away in his sleep, my first instincts were logistical. “I have a work trip coming up – when will the funeral service happen? Can I travel to Asia and get home in time, or do I need to cancel my trip? What is the cheapest way to get home? Who should travel with me?” When I got home, the funeral is a multi-day collective grieving, with neighbours, cousins, uncles and aunts arriving to pay their respects, express their condolences, spend time with the family. It was not until we were shovelling dirt on top of the casket that I really thought about the finality of the burial – I will never see my nephew again.
And yet, I was not overwhelmed with grief. I have never really known him intimately. How well do you know a child 25 years your younger, after you leave home and live abroad? How close of a connection do any thirty-somethings have with their teenage nieces and nephews? I second-guessed my emotions. Should I feel sadder? Is there an appropriate way to grieve? In the end, I decided to allow myself to feel the feelings I felt, and not to try to figure out whether I “should” be feeling differently. But avoiding self-judgement was difficult.
Last week, when we got the news about our neighbour, it hit me pretty hard. We knew the family well, had been to barbecues and play-off games in their house. I had coached basketball with her husband, one of their sons was in the team. Initially, we read that she had “passed away suddenly”, it was only through school bus stop gossip that we learned that she had committed suicide. We learned that she had been suffering from depression, that her life had not been easy for the past few months. I felt a great sadness, and also a little guilt. We had enjoyed her company in the past, but I knew nothing of her life. I was about to leave on a work trip, I would miss her memorial service and funeral. I was told that the ceremonies were very emotional, and really felt like the community coming together. The priest leading the service spoke openly about suicide and depression, and my wife said that his ceremony gave her a great sense of peace, removing the veil from some of the awkwardness that she felt around the topic. It gave the community an opportunity to start healing.
But I was not there. Now, I have all of these other thoughts about the appropriate way for me to grieve again. My instinct is to call to their house to express my condolences, but I am afraid to. This time, I find myself comparing my feelings to those of her family. I imagine how they must be feeling. Surely they are devastated, probably angry, maybe even feeling guilty. I think about her sons, the same age as two of my own sons, and I wonder what their lives will be like now. What right do I have to feel grief, or to impose on their grieving to express my feelings to them? How would I react, in the same circumstances, if this acquaintance called to the house a week after a funeral ceremony? And then, I also feel guilt. Sure, we didn’t know each other that well, but could I have been there for her in some way? Was there some way that we could have helped? I think about how alone she must have felt.
And now, today, I have learned of the death of someone I would have called a friend. Someone I would regularly meet at conferences, who I got along very well with professionally and personally, two or three times a year. I was not a part of his life, nor he a part of mine. I’ve found myself tearing up this morning thinking about our interactions, realizing that we will never meet again. And once more, I struggle to find the appropriate way to grieve.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to write this – I have debated saving it as a draft, deleting it, writing it in a private text file. But I am sharing it. I think I feel like I missed a part of my education in dealing with loss. I feel like many people missed that part of our education. Maybe by sharing, other people can share their feelings in comments and help me further my own education. Maybe by reading, others who struggle with dealing with loss will realise they’re not alone. Maybe it will achieve nothing more than helping me deal with my own feelings by verbalizing them. Let’s find out…