I had an NPR driveway moment on Sunday. No surprise, I was listening to This American Life (with Ira Glass, my life coach). I had just dropped my husband off to pick up his car and we planned to meet at home. I had to make a quick stop at Target to pick up a prescription and, as I sat at the light on Boston Street, I hear the comforting voice of Ira Glass introducing David Sedaris reading his October 2013 New Yorker piece, Now We Are Five, on the death of his sister to suicide, and was immediately sucked in.
Seventeen minutes later, I was still sitting in the Target parking lot, car running, totally engrossed. There is something about connecting with the grief experience of another person, hearing your story in theirs, that brings a strange comfort. It is that reminder that, as alone as we feel, we are not alone. Who could turn off the car and run in to Target at a moment like that?
In case you aren't convinced, here a quick overview of why I love love love Sedaris's essay:
1) He tackles relational changes that come with grief.
We define ourselves by our relationships with those around us. I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend. When someone dies we think about the obvious - the pain, the loss, the enormity of the grief. But what Sedaris captures so simply is the painful change in identity. It is a change that can make even the most basic of chit-chatty questions a grief trigger: "How many children do you have?", "Are you married?", "How many brothers and sisters do you have?". They all seem so harmless, but when someone has died, the answers to these questions suddenly become complicated, emotional, personal. How many children do I have? Am I still a wife? A parent? A sibling? Any griever who saw the title "Now We Are Five" probably knew where Sedaris was going...
"...I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever-shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my younger brother was born. 'Six kids!' people would say. 'How do your poor folks manage?' Now, though, there weren’t six, only five."
2) He doesn't sugar coat it.
Families can be a
mess hot mess. No one wants to be the first to admit it to outsiders, so we avoid talking about our problems and sugar coat issues until we are all adequately convinced that we are the only family with any dysfunction. The cycle is obvious: Being convinced we are the only family with issues makes us far less likely to even consider talking about those issues. Luckily, David Sedaris has never been one to sugar coat. In this piece we learn Sedaris hadn't talked to his sister for 8 years before she died. We learn her relationship with her family was up and down. We learn she died by suicide. We learn her body wasn't found for 5 days. We learn that in her will she said her family couldn't have her body and were not allowed to attend her memorial service. We learn all the things families usually hide in the closet and, as bad as we feel for Sedaris, I suspect we all find some small comfort peeking into his dysfunction, knowing we are not alone. (Okay, or maybe just I feel that way and am a really bad person for it? Whatever, there it is; take it or leave it).
3) He talks about how bad we are at talking about suicide.
Like so many types of disenfranchised grief, when it comes to suicide we are really bad at talking about it. Like, really, really bad. I can't count how many families I have supported over the years who have struggled with how to share that their loved one's death was by suicide. Sedaris shares the struggle that is oh-so-familiar of what to say in an obituary when someone has died by suicide, by overdose, or other disenfanchised loss.
The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany’s obituary ran in the Raleigh News & Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old, and had a house. But what else could you do?
It seems so benign, a short statement in an obituary, and yet so clearly keeps us believing these types of death are far less common than they are. But there is no blame because so many of us know all too well that in that moment you are left thinking, what else could we do??
4) He talks about the confusion and the guilt.
Suicide brings its on unique grief. There is shock and confusion and guilt and blame that can overwhelm and devastate families. He captures this confusion so perfectly, going over the boxes of her belongings and photos of her apartment for "clues." He gives us a glimpse again in the moment that he and his family first talk about the "why":
“Why do you think she did it?” I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight. For that’s all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news. Mustn’t Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she’d taken wouldn’t be strong enough, and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you’d take your own life?
“I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?
5) He impulse buys a beach house.
Seriously. I love this because grief makes us all do crazy sh*t sometimes. With grief your inner existentialist meets your inner emotional teenager, and the result is some erratic, YOLO choices that you never would have made six month prior. Of course most of us don't have the funds to impulse buy a beach house, but scale this back and every griever probably has one or two (or ten or twenty) of those questionable, impulse decisions that came with their grief. *Note that I may start referring to this grief phenomenon as the "proverbial beach house purchase", so get used to it.
A few days later, after the buyer’s remorse had kicked in, I’d wonder if I hadn’t bought the house as a way of saying, See, it’s just that easy. No hemming and hawing. No asking to look at the septic tank. Rather, you make your family happy and iron out the details later.
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