#2. It's All in the Details (Except Not)
Someone I was close to once died in an accident. I found out about it when they were in the hospital. I had missed any opportunity to see them again, alive, but I wanted to go and be there, for my friends and the family that were present. I never made it there that night because I was stuck at trying to decide how to get ready to go. Should I just go with what I had on? Do you wear a tie? A dress shirt? I had shorts on, did I need long pants? Long pants are respectful. A tie is respectful. But it's not a funeral, not yet. I didn't need to change yet, did I? Who the fuck spends this much time deciding on a wardrobe? An hour had passed. A whole hour, just looking at my collection of novelty T-shirts and colorful silk ties and accomplishing nothing. This didn't even take into account my internal debate about picking up coffee and doughnuts.
Nothing I focused on that night meant anything. It was bullshit in the most extreme way, but it's where my mind went. Tiny, pointless details. What if I did bring doughnuts -- would people think I was awful for making a stop and not rushing over? But what if they'd been there for hours? They'd be hungry, and I'd be thoughtful. No jelly doughnuts, you can't have red stuff squishing out. Can you eat in a hospital, or is it unsanitary? Boston cream looks like pus, that's horrible.
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images
You insensitive shitbag.
While the potential existed that I had briefly lost my mind and spiraled into a bizarre OCD fit of T-shirts and baked goods, I've noticed since then that this kind of behavior, as much as I can tell from the external behavior of others, is not all that uncommon. When you're really affected by a death, when it really hits home, you need a distraction, and your brain will run hog wild trying to find one. I once watched my mom, after her own mother's funeral, rearrange sandwiches on a tray about a hundred times, and she wouldn't let me take one because it would mess up the pattern she had made. I stole a few later, but for a while there I was really hungry and it was pretty tragic. I've heard some people get all horny and have sex. It's an odd time in a person's life.
Focusing on tiny, pointless details is clearly a coping mechanism. It's probably helpful in its way. Don't freak out, and don't second guess doughnuts, because doughnuts are great.
#1. It's OK to Laugh
Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
You have to acknowledge that as appropriate as tears may be for loss, so too is laughter. Maybe not the actual act of a person dying -- if you find yourself chuckling over car wrecks and leprosy, you may want to seek professional help, because you're a bit of a creepy ghoulie, aren't you? However, it's worth noting that you don't need to deal with death by becoming an emotional wreck.
In times of stress, I become almost unbearably goofy. I enrage others in tense situations due to my tenuous grasp on seriousness that becomes more and more ephemeral the angrier people get with me until the point where I either get hit or have to hit someone else. I'm not proud of it, but it happens. I will smile like a drunken Cheshire Cat making it rain at a strip club when the shit hits the fan and have little to no ability to somber up for the sake of maintaining decorum. It's not necessarily that I think it's funny if someone died, or you lost your job, or the city is being locked down due to the presence of mutant isopods -- it's just my natural reaction. I suppose on some level even my writing is an outlet for that, for my desire to make people laugh. I enjoy it, I want to be entertaining on a basic level, and, even when wholly inappropriate, I still try to do it.
Now the problem here is that I am acknowledging it as wholly inappropriate when I don't even feel it's inappropriate. I feel that others feel it's inappropriate. But there's plenty of evidence to indicate that not everyone thinks you need to wear black and mope around in the face of death. A mourning period, a time of sadness to reflect on pain and loss, is normal, but at a funeral, for instance, you don't need to all be weeping to "Amazing Grace" and wishing Grandpa Cankle godspeed. If he was a happy man in life, celebrate his death. Tell funny stories. Put on his favorite obscene puppet show. Show that super-8 film of him and three hookers in Saigon. Whatever he would have liked.
Our sadness comes from a sense of loss, but there's just as much precedent to experience joy when you reflect on what you had and what made that person so important to you in the first place, and in the end, you're likely to feel better making death a final celebration of all the experiences you did have, rather than a lament of all the ones you won't.