Talking about death in the age of Twitter

Yesterday was weird. On the one hand, it was painful. The anniversary of Janie’s death always is. But then, yesterday’s post is the without a doubt the most traffic I’ve ever received on this or any blog I’ve had. So that’s a bit mind blowing. Most days I’m lucky to get ten views. I had 5,000 or some change yesterday.

How did that happen? A little over a month ago, I heard that the wife of one of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt, had died. Like me at one time, he suddenly found himself a widower and raising a child on his own. He wrote about it, much like I did when Janie died. What he wrote crushed me, because it brought back those early days of torment, of raw anguish.

So how do you reach out in this day of social media and short attention spans? I tweeted at him. He re-tweeted. I don’t tweet or whatever – I’ve tried and I’m rubbish. But I was stunned – thousands of people re-tweeted that. A few even messaged me.

Yesterday I decided to write a post on here. I’ve held back from writing other times about this topic because, well, I’ve written on it so much. It’s such well-worn territory for me and, frankly, I’m tired of being bummed out about it. That might come off as callous but it’s not meant to. You lug around grief for long enough, you get tired of it. The lump in the throat that’s always just there, like a hair trigger, becomes this unwanted guest. I used to find writing about Janie cathartic. It’s become less-so with time. Maybe people were sick of reading about me being sad or hearing some other gut-wrenching anecdote about how a three year old processes the loss of her mommy. I mean… ugh. Who carries this shit around indefinitely? It’s like a life sentence or something.

But five is a big, round number. It’s half of a decade, which makes it something of a mile marker. To my mind, it’s significant, and as I’ve finally started to feel like some semblance of myself in the last year, this anniversary of Janie’s passing felt momentous in a new way. I wanted to mark it, and so I wrote what I wrote yesterday. I tweeted Patton, he re-tweeted it and I suddenly had way more visitors than I’ve ever had the right to expect.

It was oddly thrilling and felt somewhat… off. There is a part of me that wonders about capitalizing on this story. There’s the worry that this could be seen as grief porn.

I’m not sure about what the rules are in this age of content sharing. I don’t view this as content. As far as a category, that’s what it is, but to me it’s more. Once there was the impulse to make sense of it, for her death to mean or matter or something. I’ve now gone well past trying to find a reason in Janie’s death – there was none. She died and there’s not much I can do about it. Her life – that was meaningful. She still means so so much to me. But her death?  I’m not in this to give her death any more meaning.

I’ve consistently found people through these posts who will throw out a note, a thank you or comment that something written found purchase in their souls. Sometimes we want to give voice to something that aches because we just do. It’s a need. Maybe that’s why songs of heartbreak are forever popular – we relate.

No one wants to relate to survivors, ever thought about that? In order to relate to someone who survived the death of a loved one you’d have to go through the same ordeal, and no one wants that. It’s logical. Death will hang around the survivor often, too. Much in the same way the herd pulls away from the weakened wildebeest (the better to bait the lions!), we instinctively pull away from those wounded by the death of a loved one. No one means to do it, it just happens. Maybe the subconscious fears is it’ll rub off. Who knows.

How the survivor deals with that really just depends on that person’s makeup. In my case, I wrote about it and found a community of people that way. Grief support groups were big for me early on. My closest friends hung in there, as did family. But there’s only so much I can throw on my nearest and dearest. At some point, you have to process the hurt and sadness. Counselling helped. Writing about it helped more.

It still does, and so does writing about everything else. Life does carry on. Eventually, you string together enough good days and you wake up one morning and the ache has subsided somewhat. It’s odd because when that happened to me, I immediately felt distressed, as if I had dishonored Janie in some way by not waking up in pain.

That’s another one of those traps, a trick the mind plays on you. I’ve learned that if Janie could speak to me, she’d say she is happy I am moving on. Life does not stop. Her presence in my life, the blast crater Patton correctly described it as, is slowly filling in and new growth can be found there. This is the way of the world, it has always been this way. Sometimes I hear that time heals all wounds or whatever. Time alone does not heal anything, but it is a factor in and among many in an individual’s recovery. The day will come when you wake up and it hurts less. Sometime after that, it hurts less still.

Then one day you think of the departed and there’s not this swell of pain. There’s a sweetness there in that thought, even. When it happened to me, I had an attendant emotion – gratitude. You see, she was my wife. She picked me. I got to be hers. I was really, really lucky. It’s awful that she’s not here. But then again… it’s a miracle she was in my life at all.

Things do come full circle. Life does re-emerge from destruction. It takes time, but it takes effort and maybe a bit of creativity. I was gratified by yesterday’s uptick in interest and a little taken aback. I was reminded that if I just reach out a little, there’s plenty of other people slogging through this mess of life with me.

Finally, watch this video. The poet’s name is Michael Lee. This is still my favorite poem on the topic of death and loss.

And as always, hang in there. One day at a time.

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