(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)
Humans are afraid of many things, but death probably ranks the highest. Whether embracing the pragmatic/repressed approach that insists we keep off such upsetting subjects or delving into the artistic/philosophical fascination with all things morbid, almost no one talks about the realness of grief. It’s too much of a drag.
This week marks both the birthday and the death day of one of my very best friends, Bill Palinski (1984 – 2004). My life changed forever when he left without warning. I had lost close relatives and acquaintances before him, but he was supposed to grow old with me. He was supposed accompany me through life, doing what he had always done: enthrall me with his superstar adventures, teach me lessons through his wisdom and his flaws, celebrate with me, listen to me complain and cry, and make fun of me the entire time. Bad things can happen, but you never truly believe it at the most visceral level until one of your closest loved ones is ripped away from you. He would be supremely annoyed were I to use his death as a source of self-pity, but he would be pleased to know it has helped me understand grief and those it consumes.
When you’re in bereavement, you constantly feel on edge. You want to punch strangers on the subway for going on with their lives and not realizing what an amazing person is missing from the world. You feel constant guilt whenever you try to do something that doesn’t involve mourning your loved one. Almost everyone, including your closest friends, says something that strikes you as deeply insensitive. (Sometimes it is insensitive, other times your anger picks targets at random.) For the first several months, you avoid parties or any social situations where people will ask you “What’s new?” because you’re constantly on the brink of tears and anyone’s problem unrelated to loss seems incredibly petty to you. Many people like to talk about death in the abstract—the prospect of dying, the politics of war and violence, famous murder cases, existentialism, Halloween, the songs they want played at their funeral—but almost no one enjoys talking about someone you know who died. And everyone is ready for you to “move on” and “get over it” way, way before you are. Getting over it is out of the question. Growing from it is the only alternative to being paralyzed by your newfound proof that bad things can and do happen, and may very well happen again. The only way to keep ourselves from letting this fact drive us mad is to engage in what bereavement counselors call “healthy denial.”
And for all the summarizing I just did, grief varies profoundly with different circumstances. Losing your best friend and losing your mother and losing a child and losing someone to a long illness and losing someone in an accident and losing someone to murder are all very, very different experiences. People in grief are usually desperate to hear from other survivors, but they never want the different circumstances shaping their grief to be dismissed for the sake of relativizing sorrow. The phrase “I know what you’re going through” should be used with caution.
I didn’t know any of this before I lost him. I always wanted to help others in bereavement, but I was that awkward person who was scared whenever I didn’t know what to say and believed any sort of grieving beyond a few months was probably unhealthy. Staying away from social gatherings certainly sounded like a bad idea. I’m sure I said many careless things that were hurtful. I probably still do when reacting to someone else’s loss. But I now find it heartwarming, not sad, if they want to tell stories about the person who’s gone. And I know to let them call the shots. If they want to talk about it, listen actively. If they do not, don’t prod. Only offer advice or philosophy when they ask for it. Otherwise listen, listen, listen. As a friend said after a loss, death highlights how often we forget the importance of listening in all aspects of life; how much we prioritize having an opinion ready for any sort of subject we encounter.
The grieving process takes up to two years, and of course, the pain never goes away. There’s not a day that goes by without my missing Bill, but I no longer feel guilty when I push tears aside to pursue something I truly believe in. Time has brought me to this more productive state of mind, but so has his inspiration.
At his funeral, his sister said, “We’re all going to have to be a bit better than we had planned on being now that he’s gone. We have to take on some of the good works he was going to do.” I’ve carried him with me on every adventure I know he would have loved and never got to have: finding true love, taking in the Tokyo skyline, meeting David Sedaris, learning naughty words in Swedish, belting out “Wig in a Box” a hundred feet away from where the Berlin Wall stood, appreciating the beauty in all the wonderful friends I’ve made since his passing who will only ever know him as photographs and stories. But I have also let him remind me that I rarely have an excuse for not supporting a cause I believe in.
Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet,” and no one embodied this as well as Bill. By the time of his death at age 20, he had been an exchange student to Ireland, a volunteer for exchange students to the U.S., done volunteer home renovation for a poor black community in South Carolina, donated and signed petitions for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, and worked for almost 10 years with the Quakers for peace, non-violence and human rights. (In trying to summarize all this in a letter of recommendation, a guidance counselor wrote that he did volunteer work to aid poor Quakers.) He made friends left and right—in every sense—while simultaneously being known far and wide as the coolest of the cool. To him, being hip was all about a scathing wit (“Oh, Emily, your little dwarf arms just can’t reach!”) and a refined sense of the absurd (a few times he insisted we pretend to fight at parties just to see everyone else’s awkward reaction). But it was never about being too cynical to care or work for justice.
Okay, he hated the rainbow flag—“Where was I when they voted on that?!”—preferring the sober tones of the Human Rights Campaign logo. The medium is the message, of course. But whenever I slump into cynicism, daunted and wanting to do nothing but complain about humanity’s capacity for cruelty, the ubiquity of ignorance and the overwhelming number of flaws in the system, he is always quick to answer: “So? You’re alive. You can do something about it.”