Traditional American masculinity did little to help Miller Williams handle his profound grief. Here’s a glimpse into his process, and the experience that brought him to it.
One new voicemail.
It was from a guy I went to high school with and I knew something was up because when I listened to it I could feel the dread in his voice.
No details. I was just getting back from a workout with my girlfriend. Glistening in sweat, spirits high. I had never really clicked with this guy in High School. But we had a mutual friend, my High School sweetheart and best friend–a wonderful mess of a girl. A wild sharp-witted beauty filled with quixotic compassion and hell-bent on self-destruction, complex beyond the constraints of any epithet. Why else would he be calling me? I haven’t spoken to him in years. My stomach churned and I willed myself not to jump to any conclusions until I called him back. One ring, then the same voice from the recording. His words winded me like a kick to the stomach:
“Sarrina is dead. She was found in her apartment last night.”
We each experience death differently, and the effect our social context has on that experience cannot be overstated. The way I handle death will be drastically different than a middle-aged woman (or man) of the hunter-gatherer Otjhimbas tribe in Namibia, let alone a young woman my age with my sociocultural background. As a Gen-Y man, the social conditioning that is the norm in the USA has severely stunted my grieving process following each death I have faced in my life. When cathartic tears would have been healthy and relieving, there was choking down a lump in my throat. Where reaching out for social support weeks and months after the death would have been soothing, there was turning inwards in isolation and shame. Where compassion would have been healing, self-judgment was dominant.The irony is that I was acutely aware of these unhealthy conditioned behaviors even as I was acting them out. Like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, and although I could recognize them in real-time, I simply couldn’t consciously undo all the years of social conditioning. Awareness is only the first step in the journey of un-conditioning ingrained habits. The rest of the process, I’ve found, takes courage, patience, vulnerability, mindfulness, and perseverance.
Calling the experience of losing someone you love “agony” is like calling the hell of Dante’s Inferno an unpleasantly warm place. Agony is shutting your finger in the car door or having your elbow hyper-extended to the point of breakage. Agony is mangled and shattered bones, but flesh and bones tend to heal quickly and predictably. Maybe an ugly scar or aching scar-tissue will linger. What about wounds you can’t see? What about wounds of deep loss and heartbreak? Though intangible they’re no less real, and healing from them can be infinitely more complicated. Dealing with death is more insidious than simply waiting for the pain to stop.
After being relayed the logistics of Sarrina’s funeral and details known surrounding her death, I fumbled through a goodbye.
I found myself staring at the cottage-cheese ceiling and my girlfriend’s concerned face from the bed. The next moments are a blur in my memory, but how I remember it is this: After hanging up the phone and uttering an explanation to my girlfriend, as if possessed, I pulled down a filing cabinet from the closet shelf and tore through it until I came across a creased manila file. In it was an assortment of post-cards, hand-written notes, wrinkled pictures, seashells and other sentimental mementos. I swallowed back the knot in my throat, not willing to indulge it, and rifled through the stack until I came across the items that connected me to Sarrina. My memory of her was disintegrating at a frightening pace and I felt that it was at risk of disappearing altogether if I didn’t find some physical reminder of her.
I found a magnificent crayon drawing she had doodled for me as I read to her from Joseph Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness one night in Oregon; a three-page letter she had scrawled onto notebook binder paper and mailed to me from Vermont, where she had been sent to attend an all-girls’ boarding school; a weathered picture of us, her sitting between my legs on the steps of a locomotive train engine, our arms entangled one blissful summer day that seemed to last an eternity. Just months past my 16th birthday, I had worked up a ravenous hunger after splashing around in the Mary’s River swimming hole for hours and stealing yearning glances at Sarrina in her bikini. Back in the present, I felt a profound longing to feel her presence in some tangible way once more before accepting her eternal absence. My hands, through a will of their own, pulled open my laptop and found Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which had been “our song” in High School. As David Gilmour started to pluck the slow, mournful, twelve-string guitar intro, the lump in my throat softened, and I began sobbing uncontrollably. Then, entirely too soon and by force of habit, I choked them back even as my girlfriend embraced me encouragingly.
Crying is hard for me. It hasn’t always been, but at a certain age, probably around four or five, I learned that at best tears would be ignored or pitied by a passerby, and at worst they would be met with rage, ridicule, and vitriol. A friend recently told me “Tears are like your soul pissing out of your eyeballs,” and as hilarious as that analogy is, I’ve found it to be pretty damn accurate. Crying fulfills a biological and spiritual need to release pent up emotions. To not cry is like denying yourself the right to use the bathroom. You can hold it in for awhile, but eventually you’re going to piss all over yourself or cause organ damage. I see this handicap as symptomatic of a legacy of oppressive masculinity passed through recent generations.
Once the news of a death sinks in, our minds inevitably circle back on fading memories, where we are faced with a string of “lasts”–For me it was the last all-night conversation. The last lingering hug. The last argument. The last radiant smile. The last goofy idiosyncrasies that reminded me of her. The last kiss. The last shared silence. I will never get to see her or hear her voice, ever again. Not outside of pictures, memories, recordings of times past.
With her I was able to feel real intimacy for perhaps the first time since childhood, before the suffocating and confusing pressures of the teenage years and American masculinity were forced upon me full-strength. Without her I might not have made it through High School; she was the only one at that time that I let into my inner sanctuary, the place where I could retreat from the harsh world in order to remember my true self. Even when the walls of that sanctuary were under siege, there she was: holding my hand, giving me the courage to fight on.
The Kübler-Ross model of the grief process, which has entered the apocryphal world of pop-psychology and is often presented as a straightforward and linear process, describes the journey like this: denial and isolation come first, then anger, then bargaining, followed by depression, which is finally replaced by acceptance. However, as Kübler-Ross made a point of articulating, grief is a nonlinear and non-discrete process, meaning that it often circles back on itself as a rickety wooden roller-coaster might. When your whitened knuckles unclench from exhaustion, you realize that you’ve just made it to the apex and now you’re looking at the outstretched track in front of you. You have no choice but to let gravity do the work, and you might as well try to enjoy the ride. Only grief tends to be less thrilling. In any case, I have found myself moving in and out of each of the Kübler-Ross stages, sometimes doubling back and revisiting a previous one or skipping ahead or dwelling in several simultaneously. Each one of them presents its own challenges. In each there are healthy and unhealthy coping behaviors. Grief is hard for everyone, I know, but it presents a special difficulty for men in a culture that’s still largely supportive of oppressive masculinity. I have found the Kübler-Ross model to be a good roadmap on my journey through grief, but as the Korzybski axiom goes, “The map is not the territory.”
Denial. Denial is a natural self-preserving reaction to intense trauma. No, that couldn’t have happened… it’s too crazy. She can’t be dead. This must be a sick joke… I just chatted with her on Facebook last week and everything seemed fine. I won’t be fooled. After learning of Sarrina’s death I actually texted her, half expecting a response and of course not getting one.
Isolation. Nobody wants to listen to me bitch about my hurting. Besides, they won’t understand. Better to suck it up and be a man. Real men don’t complain. Real men don’t burden others with their problems. Real men exude rays of positive vibes at all times. I’ll turn off my phone, retreat to my man-cave, lick my psychic wounds, eat a ton of comfort food, and wait for the pain to go away. I don’t want to deal with other people right now. Alone time can be just what the doctor ordered sometimes, but I think it’s too easy for men to cross the line here. “Be vulnerable” is the new “Man Up”–it takes real courage to let your wounds out in the fresh air. Through this courage I have often found the strength to heal from my wounds exponentially faster.
Anger. Why didn’t she reach out to me for help? Or to the dozen odd other friends who I shared stories and tears with on the day of her funeral? They too loved her so dearly. She was so selfish. She was so careless. She could have taken a different path. Why was her funeral at a Catholic church? She was adamantly agnostic… this is outrageous. Why wasn’t that guy more sad? What’s wrong with him? Did he even care about her at all? Men tend to find their anger easily, but on the other side of the same coin I’ve encountered plenty who struggle with tapping into it at all. It’s the rare man I’ve met who has accepted his anger and expresses it in a non-destructive, cathartic, assertive, and authentic way. But it is possible. And to witness it is eye-opening. I’ve learned that anger is not good or bad, it’s simply an emotion, and how we choose to process and express it is what really matters.
Bargaining. The bargaining was most pronounced in my case the night after Sarrina’s funeral reception, when a group of her closest High School friends got together to share pictures and stories. The bargaining came out collectively: If only we had checked in with her more often maybe this wouldn’t have happened. If only our society had better support structures for those suffering from mental illnesses, poverty, and addictions. If only I hadn’t been so judgmental to her that one time five years ago. If only…. This stage emerges out of a strong desire to regain control. To convince yourself that you actually had control over the death.
Depression. Depression tends to set in when you realize you really did not and do not have control of the trauma that’s causing your suffering. There are many kinds of depression. The depression that arises from grief shares some qualities with the others; a black abyss envelops you, you might be vaguely aware that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but just as often you’re not. Hope is just an empty word and an abstract concept. Life as you know it feels like it is over, never to be the same. The gaping wound created by your loss shows no signs of healing. I’ve found that the key to moving through this kind of depression is to simply feel your feelings. Be kind to yourself. Be patient. Remember that this too shall pass. Don’t get stuck in isolation. Take care of yourself physically. Allow yourself to be vulnerable around people you can trust.
Acceptance. The pain does subside. The storm passes. Time does heal. What happened was a tragedy, but I can see the silver-linings. Acceptance doesn’t come without allowing yourself to move naturally through the other stages and any other emotions that come up during the process. For many guys this is just about the scariest thing ever. They would rather eat, drink, pop, snort, smoke, inhale, or inject themselves into numb oblivion than face the cruel and relentless gauntlet of anguish that stalks them. The reality is that numbness prevents learning and growth from occurring. Ironically, having the heroic courage to work through the pain and discomfort of emotional turbulence in a non-destructive way is actually one of the “manliest” displays of strength I can think of. I’ve begun to see feelings as a lot like the ocean: they come and go as the tide does, and reliably build, surge, or recede in waves as long as they’re not suppressed.
It can take awhile, but in accepting the tragedy for what it was, you realize that a lot of good things can and do come out of the grief process. Suddenly the precarious mortality of living friends and family is brought into crisp focus. I began to appreciate the small blessings in my life that much more. It sounds cliche but it’s true: the flaws of friends and family or minor annoyances we endure on a daily basis are put into boldly contrasting perspective during the grief process, and if we’re wise, we carry some of that new equanimity with us for the rest of our lives. The walls we construct around ourselves to harden our vulnerable interior from the oftentimes insane world we live in are momentarily softened and from their ashes authenticity emerges. In my fragile grieving state I sometimes found that I couldn’t muster the usual habitual responses expected from strangers when they asked “How are you?” But when I gave myself permission to let people see some of the pain I was experiencing, I was often pleasantly surprised by the warmth and compassion I encountered.
I thought a lot about my own mortality after Sarrina’s death, too. I spent some time on the bucket-list that I had been meaning to make since watching that Morgan Freeman movie. I made a point of making peace with people. I started writing down my goals in life. When sincerely happy, I smiled at more strangers.
I don’t mean to romanticize death, but I think that learning to deal with the inevitability and finality of death in healthy ways is one of the most spiritually and emotionally rewarding lessons we can learn as human beings. Childbirth aside, what other life event is so inherently painful and transformative? What else in the human experience is so shrouded in mystery? Ultimately, the grief process provides us with an opportunity to come to peace with our own fleeting transience in this world, and that can be a beautiful gift no matter what’s between your legs.
Tempus fugit; memento mori; carpe diem. Time flies. Remember your mortality. Seize the day.
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