Trust me, it’s connected.
Some of you may remember the blue hair, it had its share of fans. It was a fun, frivolous and impulsive thing to do, but there was an underlying reason why I did it. Let me explain.
I dyed my hair two months after my dad died. He’d left me some money and the instructions to do something fun with it after he was gone. Not with all of it, most of it was to go to my savings, but I was allowed some leeway to use a bit of the money to make life suck a little less. I started thinking about the things I needed most and looking for ways I could use the money that would have any impact on how I felt.
So I dyed my hair blue.
I needed to look as different on the outside as I felt on the inside. Through the effects of one awful cataclysmic event, I was no longer the person I had been. I had changed profoundly and irreversibly. But there were no physical signs of it. I felt like I had been hit by a truck and skinned alive, but there were no marks, no visible wounds or scars. So I had to bring those changes to the surface. I was tired of people looking at me and thinking that nothing was different.
So I dyed my hair blue, changed my nosering from a stud to a ring, and got a new tattoo.
I wanted to be unrecognizable. I wanted people to get to know me from scratch. That, or I didn’t want them to know me at all.
Here’s what’s exhausting about grieving: every person you have to talk to about it. You don’t realize how many people you know until something newsworthy happens to you. Again and again and again, you will run into acquaintances, former workmates, well-wishers and hangers-on and again and again and again they will ask you, “How’s it going? What have you been up to?”
And that’s when you learn that repeating the same piece of sad news over and over will drain the life out of you. But you can’t lie about being fine either because your heart is being eaten by sorrow and that’s all you can think about. How could you possibly discuss anything else from the bottom of the pit you now call home?
Telling the people I loved was hard enough, but the people I didn’t really care about? This was a hurdle I was not expecting. I wasn’t close enough to those people to tell them anything so personal, and yet there was nothing else to talk about. I did not have the energy or the will to carry on with small talk. I needed people to know how terrible I was so that they would stop asking me how I was. I was exhausted.
This is what I discovered about our society in general. We (not just young people, all of us) are incapable of dealing with death or grief. When someone dies, neither the grieving or the well-wishers know what to do about it. We know we have to have a funeral, but after that it all falls apart.
We don’t wear black. We don’t shave our heads. We don’t go into seclusion. Nothing is different.
Except, of course, everything is different. We just have no way of showing it.
Now, I could have worn black or shaved my head, but everyone would have just taken it as a new fashion choice. It is not that these things are not acceptable, it is that they are no longer cultural markers of the grieving (thanks a lot, Goths). Perhaps we can blame it on our culture of the individual that we prize so highly. Since everyone can wear or do pretty much whatever whenever, we don’t have a specific action/costume set aside solely for when someone has died. Now, for the most part I’m not complaining about that. I’m glad that I wasn’t forced to shave my head. But I would have appreciated some way of advertising my situation to the world at large without having to go through the pain of talking about it for the 700th time. For whatever reason, we as a society have no universal symbol that says:
“This person is grieving, heart-broken and incapable of functioning as a normal person for the foreseeable future. Please handle them with care and understanding.”
Wearing black or ‘widow’s weeds’ was like wearing a banner to say just that. It was a way of skipping over all the hard bits of a conversation so that a grieving person wouldn’t have to deal with the gut-wrenching question:
“So how’s it going?”
I did the next best thing. I radically altered my appearance, and though that didn’t advertise that I was grieving, it did (at least subconsciously) communicate to people that this was not the same Caitlin as before. Any behaviour that may have changed was something they could attribute to the fact that I was now the sort of person who dyed their hair blue. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.
And it had another effect too. Old acquaintances stopped recognizing me on the street. Strangely, by making myself so visible, I blended into the background. I looked interesting, but I didn’t look like an interesting person they knew.
One day, in the summer of 2010, I was grocery shopping and I noticed that standing right next to me in the aisle was someone I’d worked with a few years before. I knew that if they noticed me I’d feel obliged to talk to them and that of course it would quickly move into the awkward territory of:
“So how’s it going?”
“Well, my father just died and life seems pointless and empty. How are you?”
I started getting anxious. I hated these interactions. They were always a combination of boring, stressful and awkward and no matter what, we would both regret having to talk to each other. I gritted my teeth and prepared for the worst.
She turned around.
And she looked straight through me.
She didn’t know me. Not anymore. I had succeeded in making my outside as different as my inside.
I was free.
[Contributed by Caitlin Corbett]