“I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt, but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss. My heart was broken by my dark lady, and I wept, in my room, alone; but while I wept, somewhere inside I smiled.”
This quote by Neil Gaiman has been a favorite of mine for years. When Adam died, I remembered the quote and thought, Of course Neilman wasn’t glad his son died. He tried to see a silver lining. At least, his portrayal of grief will be authentic and true to life.
- But what do we do when we feel as though our own expression of grief is well, cliche?
When Adam overdosed for the first time, I remember hearing my scream in my own ears as I ran around the house trying to find the Narcan. My scream reminded me of women in horror movies because it was the only time I’d heard a scream like that before: one that makes your toes curl. The scream ripped through my body without my permission.
Later, when I wrote about the experience, readers asked, “How could a girl screaming analyze her own scream while it was happening? Wouldn’t she be too worried to analyze her own scream?”
I had no answer for them except that it was the truth. While I scrambled to find the Narcan, the narrator in my head analyzed everything that I was doing.
When Adam died over a year later, a police officer pulled into our driveway to notify the next of kin. I screamed and fell to my knees (even typing that out feels cliche although, again, it’s the truth). Like before, I thought of people in movies falling to their knees because it’s the only frame of reference I have for that type of trauma. My knees hit the gravel and I thought: Oh my god. Trauma is this cheesy. I did scream and fall to my knees.
Dissociation hits, and I am not in my body but above, watching myself through a stack of scattered Polaroids. Time stretches, and I move in a series of clips:
- Now she is looking in the back of the police car for Adam because he cannot be dead. He must be handcuffed in the backseat.
- Now she is kneeling in the driveway screaming, “No.”
- Now she is standing up and screaming at the police officer, animated and hostile.
I analyzed myself based on the stack of Polaroids because I was not there mentally or emotionally. Dissociation had removed me from the situation to protect myself.
When I wrote about how I analyzed myself moment to moment like that, readers who haven’t experienced trauma or dissociation didn’t understand. Dissociation turns you into a cold observer of yourself as way of protection. The observer scolded the girl: How could she fall to her knees like a widow onscreen? Why is her shock so unoriginal?
Because the responses to shock and grief onscreen (and in books) are often based off the experiences of real people. We laugh and roll our eyes at the “intense” or “cliche” films of widows when we’ve never been through it. When we have, we tremble at the scenes because we know now. We understand, and we hate that we can no longer smirk and grab another bite of popcorn. It isn’t a movie anymore. It’s our life, and we wonder how we found ourselves in this story.