On Grieving, Part 6: “Better”
We are better people when we try to live up to the expectations of the dead.
I am a better person than I was before my grief. Not faster or stronger, nor happier or nicer (certainly not the latter). But better. As in ‘more good’. I’ve often talked (with some of you) the difference I see between ‘nice’ people and ‘good’ people. Before my father died, I was nicer. I was polite to people who irritated or bored me. I fulfilled my social contract by not being a bother and doing (except in small, superficial ways) what was expected of me. I did not cause a fuss and I did whatever was required to keep the cogs of society turning.
Then the sky fell in and I couldn’t be fucking bothered anymore. It’s one of the first things you lose, these social niceties. The ‘how-are-you-fine’s and the ‘my-what-weather-we’re-having’s. One has no energy for artifice or insincerity when you’re just trying to think over the screaming in your head. I lost all patience for bullshit and so, for a little while, I became kind of a jerk. I am aware of this. I still am, too, in some ways and I’m really okay with that, because I haven’t lost anything that I think I’ll miss. I have traded being a nice person for (I hope) being a good person.
For those of you who have not heard my rantings on the subject, here is a simple breakdown of the difference:
A Nice Person makes a show of doing or saying what they think is expected of them in hopes that others see them in a positive light.
A Good Person does the right thing whether it is expected of them or not and with little to no thought as to how they are perceived by others.
To be clear, I don’t think Nice people are Bad people. Quite contrary, I think Nice people are trying very very hard to not seem like Bad people. But they tend to overthink and keep their real thoughts to themselves for fear that they might lose the approval of those around them. As a result, they have a habit of falling into clichés, which makes them far more irritating than if they had just followed their natural impulses. Observe these two scenarios:
Nice Person: Hey! How are you?
Grieving Person: My parents just died in a car crash.
Nice Person: Oh. Well, I’m sure they’re in a better place.
Grieving Person: Actually, their bodies are still encased in the fiery wreckage.
Nice Person: Well, I’m sure God needed them in Heaven!
Grieving Person: You’re really not getting this, are you…?
Good Person: Hey! How are you?
Grieving Person: My girlfriend was just hit by a train.
Good Person: Wow…That really, really sucks.
Grieving Person: Yes. Yes it does.
Good Person: Would you like this sandwich?
Grieving Person: …yes, please.
Good Person: Can I hug you?
Grieving Person: …yes, please.
Good Person: *Gives the Grieving Person their sandwich and a hug*
See what I mean?
The important thing you need to remember is there is no ‘right’ thing to do or say. No matter what you say you’re not going to get it right. But if you open your heart to someone who needs it, you can at least be helpful. Don’t try to get it right. Just try to be helpful. Think to yourself, “What would I need if I were them?” And sometimes, what someone needs is a sandwich and a hug.
A fringe benefit of this whole grieving business is that nothing can surprise me now, whether in my life or the lives of the people around me. Before, when bad things befell myself or the people I loved I would exclaim “Why?!” but now I just shrug and think “Well, why not?” We are none of us special snowflakes. We cannot make a deal with the universe that if we just recycle and obey traffic lights and send everyone Christmas cards each year that that means we’re exempt from death, debt, violence or addiction. These things can still happen, and they do.
We should not wallow in our sadness, but we should not deny it either. I know that I’m damaged and I make no secret of it, and by accepting this and moving on from it I understand that everyone is damaged in their own way. And that’s okay. It is my hope that I will always be open to accepting other peoples’ damage and that I can give them a safe space to be damaged. That is what we owe each other.
My father was dignified and gracious in his death. He was always honest about his suffering and yet he never complained. He remained kind and good-natured with everyone until the very end. If I can live half as graciously as my father died, then I will have nothing to regret.
Near the end, my mother asked my father if there was any message or advice he wanted to give my siblings and I. He named three things:
“Love each other, be good to each other and don’t hold grudges.”
I’m doing my best, Dad.
I may be a bit more snarky and aloof, but I also love more deeply, I listen more carefully, I offer my hand and I try, as much as I can, to never turn my back to someone reaching out to me. I may have no tolerance for bullshit, but I have traded it for love, honesty and loyalty. I don’t regret it for a second. I may not be very nice, but I’m trying to be good.
It can be hard, but as I said, we are better people when we try to live up to the expectations of the dead. The greatest way we can honour them is to take the love they gave us and give it back to the world. With sandwiches, hugs and above all, with acceptance.
[Contributed by Caitlin Corbett]