In my response to my friend’s death I somehow ended up sharing my grief on social media (which is very not usually something I would do). I discuss this in the final section of this post, but first, the posts themselves, culled from my social media for that week:
From my Instagram/Facebook:
From FB, one hour later:
I’m feeling calm this evening (mornings seem to be worse: morning mourning?). I want to say a couple of things about regret.
First I want to be clearer and more specific about what I regret:
I don’t “regret” being unable to help my friend stop drinking. I went full-bore on that one, mulling, organizing together with friends, and one fateful afternoon deciding that the time was NOW and essentially betting our friendship on one roll of the dice… (Despite what ensued, I feel sure he would be proud of me for “throwing it over the edge”). I recognize that nothing could help him but himself – this is one of the tragic ironies of addiction.
What I regret is not realizing in the last year or so that he had gotten much weaker, that the anger and aggression was gone, that he was safe for me to be with again . By “safe” I mean in terms of his demeanor: he was never once physically violent towards me, tho he was angry enough that for a while I was scared of things that might happen (but never actually did).I didn’t realize that the friend who scared me had faded, and that therefore it would have been safe to renew our friendship in the time we had left.
I recognize my reasons too: I’ve never lost anyone close to me before, so I had no inkling what that would be like, how painful the regret I would feel would be, how much I would miss him, how important it was to spend time with him while I still could. With hindsight, I wish I’d had more foresight……
And I recognize that as much as I did ultimately pull away, it was only in response to his behaviour, increasingly volatile as alcohol corroded his personality (biochemically alcohol has been show to induce agression and reduce judgement, even in fruitflies). Another of the tragedies of addiction is that addicts often drive away the very people that they need the most, the people that love them the most (and ESPECIALLY those people who, out of love, try to help: as someone with experience said to me at the weekend: “Addicts don’t want help”).
I also recognize that we DID recover our friendship part way: I visited him in hospital quite a few times, he came to a couple of my events (I even danced around the room with him at one of them). I visited him at home just recently. We traded messages sporadically.
I also recognize that in the last 4 days of his life I nailed it in ways that surprised even me. I believe I helped ease his passing, by making peace between us, telling him how much everyone (including me) love him and that none of us blame him and even helping his daughter talk to him (another “throw it over the edge”: this one i landed) mere hours before his death.
But I wish I’d gotten back into the habit of calling him for a chat. And (in particular) I wish I’d thought of taking him out for a drive, maybe to a surf spot or two, and soba for lunch, just like in the old days. I just….didn’t think of those things. And now I painfully regret that oversight. I feel an intense regret that I lost the opportunity to spend more time with him, and it is now gone forever.
Finally though, I realize and acknowledge that it’s easy with hindsight to say I should have had better foresight. That’s just part of the process of grief: regretting, then eventually letting go of those regrets, because (as Buddists would tell me, and as my brother did tell me just today via messages) a lot of (emotional) suffering comes from trying to change that which cannot be changed.
Likewise with regret: I can’t change the fact that I regret, it’s a fact of my emotions right now. Attempting to “not regret” will only lead to more suffering, not less.
(or at the very least, suffering later instead of now: probably best to do it now, while I am in the moment and can give it my full attention).
Which is not to say I am not grateful to my many friends who remind me that I did my best, that I WAS a good friend, that I should remember the good times. Your comments help me remember that my regret is an feeling, not a statement of fact, not a “truth” of the world. That reminds me that it will pass, in time, which makes it a little more bearable in the present.
I wish I’d repaired the friendship more completely earlier. That’s the truth of my emotional feeling right now. I’m going to sit with it, let it come, let it make me cry, write about it on Facebook, receive gratefully the encouragement being open brings, and as I do all of this, my regrets will fade (like tears in the rain?) and eventually all that will remain will be sadness, and love.
I regret, but I don’t regret that I regret.
Thanks for reading.
Woke early, but that’s not so unusual – I went to bed pretty early.
Crawled into bed (futon) with the wife and kids for a while, but I was lying there thinking not sleeping, so got up again.
But I found I was thinking about the nature of grief, rather than about my friend, which I take to mean that the truly painful, how-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-get-through-this stage is receding (and that “how-the-fuck?” question, tho reasonable, turned out to be a silly one: the answer was that getting over it was inevitable, a simple function of time and pain felt). If grief comes in waves then the swell is now dying.
And I find I don’t want it to. Part of me wants to cry forever. (Ride those waves forever?). It turns out that (for me) grief is like massage: it hurts like fuck but then I press even harder, change the angle, keep searching for more pain-that-feels-good. Like massage, grief is a perfect pain that I never want to stop, even as it crushes me. Probably the purest kind of pain I have ever felt: maybe because there’s no contradiction, no twisted and stuck parts of me fighting it out. The emotion of grief turns out to be a very simple one.
But like surfing, when the swell is pumping it’s hard to get anything else done. It’s probably best that all swells do die, or I’d never get anything else done: never go to work or spend time with my (now oh-so-precious) family.
Or hobbies. And passions. My friend would be pissed if I neglected those. Balance…
It turns out life does go on.
And it turns out all the stuff I’d seen about death and bereavement (but never really understood) is true: he does live on, in my head, on my shoulder, on the shoulder of the wave whopping me in as I try to make the drop, or comedy high-fives as I surf by him laughing at how sketchily close I’m passing (how sketchily close we are?). In the passenger seat of my car. In my ear on the phone on my balconey when I’m having a bad day. In the way I act in the world when I know what he would say to me.
And as my brother told me: in the way other people act in the world, when they see me act. Yesterday I woke up to a (utterly beautiful) message from my brother. He never met my friend, but said he was inspired by my recent posts to “climb above his grade, push down, smash it hard” (climber speak, not a language I am particularly fluent in so I hope I have that right). He said my friend lives on even in him….
That I never ever thought of, didn’t conceive of. Totally, totally unexpected….
….it turns out there are still waves: I’m riding one now, tears pouring. Tho the swell is definitely smaller: not so much snot now. No more than a brief sob or two…
Err..or three or four….
Fuck dude I’m going to miss you forever.
I’ll finish with the same story I told to his wife, the two of us standing over his casket, final moments before we closed the lid. (Don’t worry, I did remember to stand back, and let her have the final, final moments):
We were on the beach out at Zampa one sunny day a decade or so ago, kids and friends and beach gear, and there were these two old Okinawan guys wobbling a fishing kayak down to the water. And I said to my friend: “Hey, that’s us in 50 years…”: too old for surfing, but still messing around on the ocean. Still him saying “let’s go do it”, still me cautiously provaricating (“it’s pretty windy…”) then being swept along by his zest.
But it turns out that’s not the way the story ends. That’s now never going to happen. It turns out he had to leave early (46: way, waaay too fucking early). It turns out that the consciousness that was my friend had to fade and vanish, while mine carries on.
I expect I’ll find someone to carry the other end of the kayak, but (at no detriment to the efforts of that person – I’m sure I’ll share my regrets with them) I’ll aways regret that it isn’t my friend. I’ll always regret (in the purest sense of the word, no self-recriminations implied) that he had to go so early.
I’ll always miss him.
I’ll always love him.
Ok, got some snot flowing now….
Thanks for reading. And thanks in advance for your comments, likes, hearts, and love. Something else I’ve learned about grief is why people offer condolences: it turns out they help enormously…..
Blimey what a week (nearly: one week ago right now I was at his bedside). Whatever else you might say, bereavement is certainly quite a life experience…..
(well, except for the deceased, obviously🤣🤣🤣😇😎😁)
From FB: reflecting on sharing my grief
Good mourning Okinawa.
It’s been a week (and 3 hours) since I woke in the night, decided to check my phone (which I wouldn’t usually do, but I was concerned) and saw that my friend had died.
Definitely the wildest, most emotionally intense week of my life. Nothing else comes close. No individual day comes close, let alone a whole week.
(The only comparable experiences I have are being kicked out of experimental educational projects…twice…. I wonder why that keeps happening?) (My theory is it’s because I speak truths people don’t want to hear….that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).
(Oh and when my dog Pepper died. Which turned out to be….not quite as much preparation for my friend’s death as I’d initially naively thought it would be)
The wild ride seems to be winding down though. I can feel the other parts of my life starting to wind up again (in a good way). Including, as you might have noted from my FB, my sense of humor…
Today I want to offer some thoughts on one, perhaps rather odd (odd enough that it warrants further examination), aspect of this week: my decision (if that’s the right word) to share my grief so openly (including teary selfies) on social media.
The tribute (“Today the world lost a fucking fireball…”) was relatively straightforward: I wanted to write something, I wrote it (while crying a whole bunch), posted it, and people offered their condolences. Fairly straightfoward thus far.
It’s on the cremation day that I….departed from the norm. What happened was that, as I said at the time, I’d gotten totally ready to leave the house (including shoes on, stood in the entranceway of my house) fully an hour before I was due to be picked up…because I couldn’t think what else to do. And standing there, in my brand new shirt and shoes, there wasn’t anything else to do but cry.
And I realized that, inadvertently, I was presented with a choice, a decision. Either I was going to hide my crying, or I was going to show it. You’d think there’d be some middle ground to that, but there wasn’t: be open, or closed, those were the choices.
Because my initial instinct, borne of long habit, was to be closed: to hide my tears, make sure I washed my face before Owen got there, not tell anyone I cried. I guess that’s just how I grew up, what I see in (and unconsciously copy from) the culture that surrounds me.
As an educator, one of my (pet?) theories is that we learn far more by copying what we see than we ever learn by being told or taught: to deliberately invert something my dad used to (jokingly, and yet not) say: we do as others do, not as they say. I’ve spent my life (in England and Okinawa) seeing people…not crying….so that’s what I did.
(Other cultures treat grief more openly: although way too small a sample to draw firm conclusions from, it’s interesting to note that the only other person at the cremation crying quite as much as I was is a native of Venezuela: my limited understanding is that Latin culture shares emotion more readily).
And for some reason, I realized in that moment in my entranceway that I didn’t want to go down that route today (Sunday). I wanted to do something different. I wanted to share.
So I took a selfie in the mirror, of me in my funeral gear, with (deliberate choice: I looked straight at the camera lens) my red, tear-filled eyes clearly showing.
And I described the reality of my situation in the comments: tears and snot included.
And I posted.
Sharing my raw painful emotional reality with the whole world.
Weird, and basically unprecedented in my life.
From there on in I almost created myself a little meme (a mini-meme?): #tearyselfies, in various situations through the week. I didn’t mean to, and am not sure I’ll do that ever again (hopefully I won’t even need to consider it for a lonnnnnggg time), but this week, in this situation, somehow having picked my line (down the wave: surf talk again) I went with it, and it worked for me, so I kept going.
And in the last few days, I’ve been writing some stuff, my brief comments getting longer: reflections of my grief, and now reflections ON my grief: getting a little more meta each morning, as I find I have more distance, more ability to see the wood as well as the trees, more perspective.
I’m now going to fall back, willingly, into a pattern you will all recognize: Simon with wild ideas, trying to save the world.
I really wonder if I didn’t do something useful this week (for the wider world, as well as for myself). I wasn’t trying to (for a change), and honestly it wouldn’t be nearly as useful if I had been trying, but here’s what I think I might have done (and credit to my brother for also pointing this out).
In our culture (British Anglo-saxon? but also Japan – these are the only two cultures I know) we hide how we feel, and spend our lives putting on our brave faces to show the world, no matter what turmoil or anguish we might be feeling inside. Doubly so on social media, where (it has been noted many times) we share only the good bits of our lives. But also in meatspace – here’s a conversation that never ever happens:
You: Morning Simon How you doing?
Me: …. to be honest I’m feeling frightened, and lonely, I feel like maybe my friends don’t actually like me all that much….
I’ll concede that it perhaps never happens partly for practical reasons: we don’t always have time for a heart-to-heart first thing on a weekday morning (but isn’t that a damning indictment of the priorities of our culture? Time and money and work are more important than human emotional connection….)
But it also never happens because we spend our whole lives hiding how we feel. Putting on brave faces, and big smiles for the camera.
This is especially true for men of course. As I tell my students when we discuss gender issues, the most likely cause of death for men under 50 (in industrialized nations and cultures) is suicide: men would rather take their own lives than admit vulnerability.
And that is ultimately what happened to my friend: for all his truly wonderful qualities, he had very fixed (and ultimately unhelpful) positions on what “manliness” involved, and vulnerability did not feature. My final conclusion for the “Why?” of why my friend was never able to quit drinking (despite many valiant efforts), the “why?” of why he had to die, was that he was unable to ask for help: all his efforts were solo. The trouble is, alcohol addiction is far far too big a problem for any one human to be able to address alone.
If you came round my house and found me in my driveway struggling to pick up and carry my car, you would laugh and say “What the fuck are you doing?” The problem would be so obvious as to be barely worth mentioning: a car is way too big and heavy for a single person to pick up and carry.
And if you watched me fail, then watched me collapse in frustration and self-recrimination, berating myself for being “too weak”, telling myself “I should be stronger” you’d think I was nuts.
But this is what addicts do: blame themselves for not having enough strength to conquer a problem that is so much bigger than they are that individual efforts are utterly futile. Society also does this: regards addicts with pity and scorn, as “weak” (though this seems to be shifting, a shift I hope I am contributing to).
(Credit to Gabor Mate for providing this analogy in “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”,though the specifics of the car analogy are my own).
My friend was not “weak” for being unable to solve his problem. He was (as a meme says), on the contrary too strong for too long. He got caught in a (“manliness”-related) trap of needing to solve the problem himself. He didn’t/couldn’t realize that what he needed was to let go, stop being strong, and instead admit his vulnerability, and ask for help. (And, to be clear, that is not his fault either: we all have a lot less free will than we think, and my friend was no exception).
That, in my personal analysis, is why he died. Because he was unable to let go of being strong and instead be vulnerable.
This week I turned that convention on it’s head (another one: I admit I do seem to have an affinity for controversial ideas).
This week, instead of hiding away my pain, I put it up on facebook for all to see.
To be clear, this wasn’t a conscious decision, and I certainly wasn’t trying to make a social point when I uploaded my funeral-wear selfie (and as I say, it wouldn’t have worked, or certainly not as well, if I had been). It was just a sudden realization that I had two paths before me, and a decision to take.
And for once (and rather unlike me: I am a creature of habit, likely because habit feels safer) I took the path less traveled (at least by me).
But there is a background to that decision: I’ve been thinking about these issues (how we hide our emotional truths) for a long time (in relation to both myself and to my friend, wrestling for a long time to try to understand why he was so unable to stop himself self-destructing). I’d done a lot of groundwork, and all of a sudden on Sunday morning everything came together, and I shared my grief.
And again a day or so later: I posted asking for help, for phone calls, telling everyone I was struggling and needed help. And I received in return many offers and several calls, and many more messages of support. Every single one of which helped enormously as I struggled through the first few days of this week. I asked for help, and got what I needed. Learning from my friend again, though this time, learning what not to do (sorry dude! But I think you would approve…)
I said earlier that it’s one of my pet theories that we learn far more from what we see than from what we are told, that as humans we learn primarily by imitating: culture is passed down and perpetuated (and changed) by what we see, not what we are told. I even wrote in my JETpack (a book I wrote about English teaching in Japan): “Never explain, always demonstrate”.
Looking back on this week, I think (and hope) that I showed another way of grieving, of being with emotion. I showed that being open is an option. I want to stress that I am not in any way recommending this – partly because that would be me “explaining” not “demonstrating”, and partly because I barely know how to live my own life, so I certainly would not presume to tell anyone else how to live theirs. (Recently the importance of humility has been a theme of mine: I suspect that may grow)
This is an important point: anything I have to say that can in any way be construed as “advice” is intended as tentatively as possible:
“Here’s what I did, and it did work for me, in this moment in my life, but YMMV: your life is your own, so only you can judge what’s best for you.”
This is a lesson it took me a long time to learn with my friend: that it was his life not mine, that I had to let go of my need to try to stop him drinking.
So, if it feels right to you, you might like to give being more open about how you feel a try. Whole hog, or a little, or tentatively. Or even not at all: I believe you would be far better off following your own instincts than taking advice from me. But perhaps what I did will help inform those instincts, and your choices.
If my week is ever of any help to anyone at all, or even more generally helps in any way to shape our culture’s approach to emotions and feelings, then I am truly grateful. I’ll be putting all of this on my blog in some form, so it’s more easily found if anyone ever wants to (stuff gets lost on FB).
And if my week turns out to help no one else at all, that’s fine too. It certainly did help me….
Thanks for reading, everybody. And thanks once again for the all the messages of support. For a brief while there I was basically disintegrating (or at least that is how it felt). You all helped me get through it.