Grief: Can I Have It or Do I Want It?

Content warning: death, loss, and what might seem like insensitive discussion of them.

It’s clear that I don’t feel or process emotions the way most people do. Without professional confirmation on this, I’m pretty certain I am alexithymic (I don’t see a therapist, but it came up during my ASD assessment), and in combination with or perhaps due to my inability to identify or describe emotions, I tend to not have typical bonds with people. So what happens when a friend or relative dies? So far, kinda nothing.

I see people’s social media posts about when their grandparent or parent or uncle or friend dies, and it’s so much. All of my grandparents are dead, but one died before I was born, two died when I was pretty young, and then one died two years ago. I didn’t have a relationship with any of them, no favorite stories, no shared traits that I know of, so they were just people who died.

I guess before digging into it, let’s establish that I don’t view death as a negative. It really is the only guarantee in life, and fighting it is rather pointless. It’s unfortunate that when someone is facing death, family and friends pressure the dying person to hold on. That might be their way of showing the dying person love, but it doesn’t seem healthy or positive. In the simplest terms possible, I view suffering as bad and death as neutral. I also don’t have any religious beliefs and am comfortable with my assumption that death is just a physical thing. Your energy cycle runs through, the matter that is your body decomposes, and that’s that. It’s not flashy and there’s no prize for being moral, no “better place,” but again, I’m fine with that–I can live with my own moral code, no problem. So, back to it…

In the past month or so, two of my aunts died and Tom’s uncle. The first one, my mom’s little sister Dawn, did babysit me at least once–I remember watching The Dukes of Hazzard with her. She was a Kiss superfan. She was a good person who led a miserable life, ending in cancer and, for far too long, undiagnosed dementia. I hadn’t seen her since the mid-’90s, and didn’t have any connection or correspondence with her, so when my mom told me, I knew my responsibility was to let her express what she needed to express and then do whatever was asked or expected of me. In this case that was sending my cousin money. Easy enough.

The second one, my dad’s older sister Lynn, I’ve stayed in contact with her throughout my life. When I was a toddler, we moved to California and stayed with her briefly while we got established. Then she would fly out to Chicago to visit family and I’d see her here and there. When I lived in New York, my mom came out with Lynn and Lynn’s older sister Char, and we had fun and did touristy stuff. Lynn was a big personality, and she’d tell the stories everyone else was embarrassed to. She’d had so many bouts with cancer and heart issues that her death was no surprise. A few years ago, right when the pandemic was hitting, she’d gone to stay with my parents in Florida for a while, and we joked it was her Make A Wish trip. One can only fight or cheat death so long. But again, once she was dead, I didn’t feel it.

Neither of those had a memorial service to attend. When Tom’s Uncle Joe died, him being a Chicago Polish Catholic, I expected three days of wake and funeral and whatnot, but maybe due to COVID, they did a one-day viewing and mass/service, then I think the next day or so a few people went to the cemetery for the actual burial. Now, he was an old guy who’d been given the “terminal” label and was about to head into hospice, so again, not an unexpected death, but people at the service seemed surprised by the sudden decline. There were lots of tears. The family and friends who spoke at the service told fun stories and he sounded like the nicest guy in the world, but they kept crying. I’ve never spoken at a memorial service, but I’ve also never cried at one. I had nothing to give back to these family members who thanked me for coming–I don’t know why I can’t spout the platitudes. “Sorry for your loss” just won’t leave my throat. Who am I to make assumptions on what they’re feeling or lie about having feelings about their feelings? So instead they get a little bowing of my head in acknowledgement of the interaction. It’s the best I can do.

One service I went to, Aunt Char’s (my dad and Lynn’s sister from the above New York trip), was a heavy one. I don’t remember any tears but it was quiet. We were all very quiet. Tom said he’d never experienced anything like it and he’d been to lots of funerals. She was the matriarch, the oldest sister, and she basically raised the rest of the kids after their mother had died young. My brother and I stayed with her whenever my mom went into the hospital and we watched musicals and Somewhere in Time over and over. She’d almost died a few times (cancer and heart, surprise), and we were all ready for her to go, but she was the head of the family and our traditions sort of revolved around her, as she was very set in her ways. With a decade or so distance from it, I’m wondering how much undiagnosed autism is in that side of the family…something to dig into a little later. This was maybe the closest person to me to have died, the closest thing I’d had to a grandmother, but still, her absence doesn’t affect my day-to-day, so I never felt loss. She was just gone.

This is gonna sound like an abrupt shift, but here goes: I did have a very difficult time when my cat of 16 years, Mädchen, died. Looking back, though, she had a very aggressive cancer and was suffering greatly until I made the decision to euthanize her. At the same time, she got hit with a flea infestation that no treatment would work on, as is apparently common in late-stage cancer cats, so my normal physical affection was taken from her. And we had a month-long houseguest. It was all too much for me, so yeah, I had a major breakdown (meaning I cried for a day and ate pie and got a tattoo and ordered new shoes and booked a trip to Vegas). Witnessing her suffering without being able to know exactly how bad it was and having the responsibility of her life and death in my hands would have been overwhelming alone.

The period following her death, I definitely felt her absence. Throwing away her litter box and cleaning up blood spots we hadn’t realized were there (the tumor was in her jaw, so sometimes it got bloody) were difficult, and this creature that was part of my routine was no longer part of my routine. Maybe that was grief? Seeing the photos of her final months, including when she likely had cancer but wasn’t yet diagnosed, I do feel bad feelings, which might be guilt for allowing her to suffer needlessly. There were definitely no “five stages of grief” I can identify. I was just fine and then I was bad/overwhelmed/exhausted and now I’m fine again.

I suppose I’ll find out more about my experience of grief or loss when a parent or my brother dies, or especially Tom, since I’ve spent almost every day with him for the past 25 years and we have joint bank accounts and such. I’ve rehearsed getting the news about all their deaths and even in those practice runs I’m very practical and problem-solvey. I think I’d prefer not feeling grief–it doesn’t sound pleasant–but it’s one of those things that had always bothered me as an undiagnosed autistic, one of those differences that made me feel like an alien. Reminder to me: Stop comparing yourself to neurotypicals. Sometimes their ways are not better, just different.

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