We are supposed to stop talking about our loss and grief once the funeral is over, but some pain and memories stick with you forever.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
“I’m here for… I guess I’m here for Al Brisbane?” I said hesitantly, for I had no idea how to word the situation. Luckily the receptionist seemed to be privy to the situation and nodded in understanding. It was about 4 am so there probably weren’t a lot of other people in this area of the hospital. I expected to see Al waiting in the lobby area, but I looked around and all the seats were empty.
“Sure. Just go through those doors and follow the hallway down. He will be on your left.” She explained, pressing a button to open the automatic doors next to her desk.
I didn’t understand where I might be going. Shane was dead, it’s not like he needed a hospital room. I was just there to pick up his dad. After the police showed up at his door and explained what had happened to his son, he was too upset to drive and they offered to take him to the hospital to identify the body. He called me after he arrived there to ask for a ride home.
Shane and I had dated on and off for years and we were always good friends in between, so his dad and I had gotten really close over all that time. I was “his favorite” girlfriend of Shane’s and I think he always knew we would end up together, so he had always treated me like his future daughter-in-law. I was the first call he made that night when he found out, and I was the only one he wanted there to take him back home.
As I walked through the doors and into the hallway, I tried not to think about how upset Al would be and how much it would pain me to see him that way. I had to be strong for him, he had lost a child; one of the most unnatural things someone can experience. I took a deep breath and tried to steady my shaking hands. I could hear light talking not too far in the distance, coming from one of those triage rooms that had no walls, just curtains along a track in the ceiling. It was the only one that looked occupied.
“Al? It’s me. Is that you in there?” I called gently as I approached the triage room.
“Yeah, come on in.” He quietly called back.
I pulled back the curtain and sucked in a sharp gasp of air. I was not prepared for what I saw… Shane was lying there on a medical table. Not Shane, my Shane, just Shane’s dead body. My boyfriend’s corpse.
“Do you want to hold his hand, say goodbye?” His dad asked me through strained eyes, red and overtired from a great deal of crying.
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to yell “How could you do this to me?! How could you not warn me that this was what I was walking into?!” But I couldn’t say a single hurtful or selfish thing to this man, this man I had always known to be light and humorous and strong, now looking so frail as if the last few hours had added decades of aging onto his kind face. So I didn’t say anything. I just pulled him up from his chair and hugged him for what felt like days. I buried my face into his shoulder and let my tears wet his shirt. I held onto him as if I never let go, I wouldn’t have to turn around and face what else was in that room with us: the truth lying there on the table, the fact that the lives he and I both knew before this night were turned upside down.
I must have finally let go at some point because I was looking down at him in his seat again. He squeezed my hand as if reassuring me that he would be alright, that it was okay for me to turn my attention to Shane now. I kept my gaze on the floor as I walked towards the table, the sterile linoleum felt so secure and safe when my emotions did not. But I couldn’t avoid him for long, it only took a couple steps to cover the space in that room. I found myself staring at his shoes. They fascinated me in a whole new way, as if this was the first time in my life I put together that people’s feet were inside shoes, that a part of their actual body was housed in them. How odd that seemed to me all of the sudden. And then I realized that they were different than normal, they were burned on the bottoms. Al must have noticed me watching them.
“They were burned when the electricity went through his body. Because he was standing on metal.”
“Oh.” Was all I could manage to say. I felt lost, like I wasn’t supposed to be there. I must have taken a wrong turn and this was someone else’s life. This was someone else’s story and I was just a temporary substitute.
I slowly allowed my view to follow up from his feet to his legs, to his torso. I found and took his hand in mine as if it meant something, and I tried not to focus on the fact that it was unnaturally cold and hard; not human feeling. I followed from his chest to his mouth (which was a bit jarring as it still had the intubation tube holder in it)… and then I came to his eyes. His piercing blue, open eyes staring up unfocused on the ceiling above him. My heart sank in a way I had never felt before. Those eyes, my favorite part of him. I couldn’t even recognize them anymore. They didn’t have that playful gleam to them. They didn’t look deep into me with the love I was used to seeing in them. They were, well, exactly what they were: dead.
I immediately wished I hadn’t looked. I wish I hadn’t seen him this way. It ruined the picture I had in my head of him. Now whenever I thought of him, of my favorite moments we shared, when his beautiful bright blue eyes would crinkle on the sides when he laughed and held me tight, now I would see this eerie version of them instead. It was like the power of such a deeply horrible thing burrowed into my brain and had overridden my existing memories.
I felt like I was no longer in control of what or how I remembered things. I suddenly felt terrified that my favorite memories would fade and I would lose the only thing I had left of him. I felt frantic, I had to get pen and paper and start writing down every single memory we ever had over the years. If that was the only control I had left over the situation, I needed to get started right away. I thought I could somehow actually feel them drifting away every second that I remained standing there in that room, doing nothing, staring at this empty shell until his father was ready to leave.
I did end up making that list over the next couple days. And it did help a little as it gave me something to focus on between that night and the funeral. It made me feel like I was being productive when all I could do otherwise was sleep or sit silently with my family, staring numbly at the T.V. I moved back in with my mom for a while as I couldn’t afford to stay in the apartment we had together, nor would I want to. I couldn’t bring myself to be there long. I helped his dad pack up his stuff and made a box of my own. I didn’t want to keep many of his things, just the few photos we had, a ring of his that he always wore, and my favorite sweater of his. I couldn’t bring myself to wear it right away, but I have worn it so many times since that it’s barely suitable for pajamas any longer. I wish it still smelled like him.
I was so angry at the lack of pictures I had of us together. We never stopped to take the time to snap any. Cell phones and social media weren’t an obsession then like they are now so it wasn’t at the forefront of everyone’s minds. We just lived in the moment, enjoying everything, thinking we had all the time in the world and the future to take pictures. I think that is why I have become the documentarian of sorts in my family and friend circle, I am terrified of feeling that regret again with someone I love.
It was nice being at my mom’s during the first few days because there was always someone there, always something to distract myself with. I remember the first time she had to leave and no one else was home, the first time I would be completely alone since it happened. She gave me a gentle hug and told me she would be back soon, she just had to run a few errands. I told her I would be fine, it was no big deal. But I could see the look of concern in her eyes as she left. I was an adult, not some baby, I could handle being alone. But it wasn’t 20 minutes after she left, when the silence and emptiness overtook me, that I called her.
“I can’t… breathe. I can’t breathe. I just- I don’t-” I frantically gasped between bouts of hyperventilation. I felt like the air around me had become thick and toxic, that it was seizing my lungs.
“I’ll be right back. I’ll be right back! Just hold on. Ten minutes.” She assured me.
I don’t know what I would have done without her during that time. She knew what I needed when so few people did. She didn’t look at me as though I made her uncomfortable with my pain, she didn’t look as if she was wondering if she should cry along with me to assure me that she cared enough or if she should politely ignore my vulnerability for sake of dignity. She didn’t make me feel like an inconvenience. It felt like she cared genuinely, not out of obligation. She knew all that could help was time, that there really wasn’t any one perfect thing anyone could say, they just needed to be there in a real, unforced way. She didn’t hover, but she remained reachable if I had one of those days where it really hit me.
Some moments I was fine or didn’t feel anything at all. So fine that I would feel guilty that I was able to focus on something else besides Shane and what had happened, that I wasn’t playing the “grieving widow” correctly. I felt like I shouldn’t be able to smile again or function without agony, as if it wasn’t right to feel anything without an undercurrent of pain ever again. And there were moments where I felt anything but fine or numb, moments where the realization of what had happened would hit me like a tidal wave. It would crash over me and I felt like I was drowning in it. “He is dead. Dead dead. Not coming back. Ever. The last time you saw him was the last time you will ever see him. Forever.” my mind would play on repeat.
And I hated myself for the last time I saw him, what it consisted of, or rather didn’t consist of. It wasn’t some epic goodbye like it deserved to be, there was nothing special to it. There was no moment of me telling him how much he meant to me, how much I appreciated everything we had been through, how much I was looking forward to our future together. It was barely an anything at all, the kind of moment I normally would’ve never thought about again. But then it became a moment I immortalized.
“Hey, I’m heading out to my sister’s now. I’ll be back at the end of the weekend.” I remembered leaning down, putting my hand on his arm, and whispering to him as he slept. He stirred and gave me an indiscernible sleepy grumble in response. I kissed him on the cheek, grabbed my bag, and left. That was it.
It was while I was at my sister’s that I got the call about his death. It was around 2 or 3 in the morning so my sister and I were already sleeping. I heard my cell phone ringing in the distance as it gently broke through my sleep. The sound slowly became clearer as it rang, again and again, over and over. In a sleepy haze, I shuffled over to it across the room. I looked at the display and I had multiple missed calls from our roommate, Carie. “Oh, great. What kind of trouble did everyone get into this time? Can’t be good if it’s this late and she’s calling me. Punks.” I took my phone and walked upstairs to the main floor. I never had good cell service in my sister’s house so I went out onto the porch, into the cold night air. I dialed Carie and sat down on a porch chair. What an inconvenience this was, how inconsiderate of them.
“Hey, what’s up?” I yawned.
“I don’t know how to tell you this so I’m just going to tell you…” She said.
I started imagining what Shane and his friends may have broken of mine, having had a couple too many beers and playing cards all night, if they spilled something on the carpet again.
“Shane is dead. I’m so sorry.”
I had a swift chill run up my spine, spread up into my scalp and out into my fingers. I had a shiver spell begin that had nothing to do with the chilly weather outside. I stood up and started pacing. I still remember the exact feel of the rough wood under my bare feet, the kind you normally worry about getting splinters from if you aren’t paying attention and rub it the wrong way.
“What do you mean? If this some kind of joke? Because it’s not funny.”
Shane had a dark sense of humor sometimes but this seemed out of reach even for him. He would know better than to piss me off this bad, and Carie would never have gone along with it. But I so desperately clung to that unlikelihood rather than the unlikelihood that what she said was true.
“No, it’s not a joke.” I could hear the exasperation in her voice. I was not the first or last call like this that she had to make that night and I imagine we all reacted similarly. It could not have been easy for her.
“Dead… you know for absolute sure? He’s not hurt or in a hospital? What happened?” My mind raced to list off all the ways someone might be presumed dead when really it was just a simple misunderstanding, a mistake from not having all the right information. Surely that is what happened here.
“He died. He was electrocuted.”
“Electrocuted?! Electrocuted? How the hell…”
“He and some of the guys went for a walk around the train yard behind the apartments. You know, just for something to do. You and I have been out there before, no trains coming through, just those few stationary ones that sit there.” She paused to give me a second to remember the area. “Well, they went walking on the tops of the trains like we did last time. But I guess as they were walking along, there was a low hanging wire and as they were going under it, Shane jokingly grabbed it as he ducked underneath. It wasn’t coated like he must have thought. It killed him instantly. Charlie tried to give him mouth-to-mouth and continued to until an ambulance came. They paramedics tried but he was already gone.” A long pause passed. Maybe she was waiting for me to say something. But there was nothing I could possibly say. I sat back down. “Sorry, I’ve been trying to call you since I first found out.”
“I have bad reception here… I have to call his dad. He already knows, right?”
“Thank you for telling me. I’m sure I’ll talk to you soon.” and I hung up.
I stared unseeingly at my phone screen until it went dark again. I slowly got up from the chair and somehow managed to put one foot in front of the other until I was in my sister’s room. I sat on her bed and gently shook her until she woke. She could tell something was wrong immediately. Probably by the look on my face, whatever it may have been.
“What?!” She asked, her eyes widening.
“He’s dead.” And I broke into sobs so heavy I could barely take breaths in between, crying harder than I can ever remember crying before or since.
Everything for the next few months reminded me of him. Every song on the radio, every character in a movie, every smell brought to mind a memory of something we shared. To this day there are still certain songs I can’t listen to without losing my train of thought and feeling like, for a moment, I have gone back in time to when it first happened. There was a period of time where I would see him in anyone who looked even remotely like him. I was at a show with a friend and I stopped mid-conversation, my heart stopped, I was absolutely sure it was him standing at the bar.
“What? What is it?” My friend asked.
“I… I thought…” And then the guy at the bar turned more towards me and I realized he looked nothing like Shane except for his shaggy dark hair and tall, slender body.
I remember clinging to any dreams that he made an appearance in, knowing better but still hoping that they had some deeper meaning than just my neurons firing at random. I’ve only ever had 3 dreams of him and in each one, I am aware that he is dead but he is not. His dream self has no idea why I am so shocked to see him and my dream self is petrified that if I tell him, if I say it out loud, he will disappear back into some form of an afterlife where I cannot follow. I hated and loved those dreams. It was my only “real-time” connection to him ever again. I would awake simultaneously euphoric and miserable. They were like a cruel trick that I couldn’t get enough of.
But as time passed I stopped seeing him as much, things reminded me of him less and less. Songs and characters in T.V. shows went back to being simply what they were, no longer a means of teleporting me into the past. I struggled with my guilt less often, stopped thinking that if only I had stayed home that weekend, if only I had been there that night, I somehow would have prevented it. I struggled with my anger less often, stopped being mad at him for stupidly joking around when he shouldn’t have. I met up with his dad less and less often to reminisce and speculate on what kind of man Shane would have grown up to be, if he and I would have gotten married and had kids together. I slowly lost connection with the other people who knew him. People asked about him less, and I talked about him less. There was no longer any reason to bring him up and if I did, it felt like I was begging for attention. When really, I just wanted to feel like I was keeping him alive in some way, acknowledging the impact of his life in the world.
He slowly faded into a ghost that no longer haunted my every thought and experience. It started to feel like he never existed in the first place, that it never happened, that he and I never happened. I didn’t have a reason to talk about it or him anymore. When it first happened, it was too hard to talk about the details and it felt like it was wrong to say such things about someone who died. To talk about the effect seeing the dead eyes of the first man you loved will always have on you, how would someone react to that? And now it’s been so long that it feels like there is no appropriate space to talk about those moments that will always stay so vivid for me, will always have a hold on me. For example, I recently mentioned what the feel of human cremation remains felt like, as it had relevance to the conversation I was in, what it feels like to run your fingers through it and it’s consistency. I realized I had never once brought that up before, even though I found it interesting and worthy of discussing a unique sensation like that. I discussed it so effortlessly, I saw no reason to repress the urge to share it. Everyone either looked at me in a perturbed way or avoided looking at me at all, moving on without acknowledging my comment.
It seems to be that way when something tragic happens, you pay your respects and then you’re supposed to move on. Show enough suffering and grief so that people know you cared, but stop just short of making others uncomfortable. An “appropriate” amount of despair. A quiet, solemn kind, not a graphic, torturous kind. I think people should be more free to lose their composure, cry without regard to how it makes other people feel, talk about something besides the happy memories, say something besides “I’m okay” if it isn’t true or “he’s in a better place” if you don’t believe that. We shouldn’t feel the need to succumb to the pressure to let go and move on as soon as the funeral is done for the sake of soothing others, for the sake of avoiding the uneasiness of death.
I encourage others to talk about it whenever you feel the want to and to talk about it in whatever way you need to. Maybe if we talked about these aspects of loss more openly and more often, people wouldn’t feel the need to suffer through them in silence. We could realize there is no “right way” to grieve or process loss and there is no expiration date to do so. There is no wrong way to remember someone or the impact they had on you. You are not alone if you have experienced loss and yearned for a better platform to discharge the socially undesirable thoughts and feelings associated with it. You are not alone if you want to acknowledge their importance and/or release their hold on you. You are not alone if you feel a need to unveil the less often discussed details and share a deeper part of yourself and your experience. Loss can be an ugly thing and it feels ugly to go through, we shouldn’t try to pretty it up with pleasantries at the expense of being true to what feels right for us.
Stay tuned for a candid cultural analysis & opinion blog post about the absurdity of funeral practices and other death rituals: coming soon in a future entry!