When I first received the news of Matthew’s death, I laughed.
The universe had orchestrated things in the best possible way. I didn’t find out through a random person at church or in the grocery store, or – worst of all – from an obituary in the newspaper a few days later. I found out from my best friend.*
She had probably heard from her mother, who had heard from another mother, who had heard from Matt’s mother. I don’t remember.
But I do remember answering the phone in the dining room, being told to go into my bedroom and sit down, and then she told me as I sat on the bed. It was a dreary day and there was a lamp on in the room. I remember the light in the house being rather haphazard but my bedroom being cozy and warm.
I chuckled. He finally did it, I said to myself.
The rest of the phone call has merged with my thoughts over time and I don’t remember which things I thought and which things I actually said out loud. But it was a combination of:
- I’m proud of him (for finally going through with it)
- I’m happy for him (for ending his suffering)
- Congratulations, Matt, you did it!
When I told my mother he had committed suicide, I did it with a big smile on my face. I even laughed a little as I said it, as if I were telling her the punchline of a joke. She screamed at me for having such a freakish, inappropriate reaction and then burst into tears.
I’ve never, ever forgotten that.
So here’s what I want to say about my reaction:
- I’m not a total psychopath. I don’t jump for joy when people die, especially the ones I know (and love).
- In hindsight I think we could probably define my reaction as shock, which is totally normal.
- I definitely didn’t remain in this state of shock for good.
- Sometimes I like to give myself credit and think, my initial reaction was perhaps more sane and appropriate than all of the reactions that followed. My first instinct was one of support and celebration rather than of lamentation. Maybe all of the thoughts and emotions that followed were more about me than about him. My first reaction was about him.
- My mother’s reaction, though it hurt me at the time and in the years that followed, was just as valid and “appropriate” as mine. If we define her reaction as shock, and respect that shock looks different for everyone (as does grief), there’s no reason for me to take offense to what she said. Nor should my reaction be taken offensively by anyone else.
When we think about the grief process, we tend to focus on the sadness and the tears. Understandable, as for many of us the sadness and tears last longer than the other stages. But we can’t forget that there are other times. Awkward, messy, ambiguous, sometimes inexplicable phases that have earned the right for just as much space as the sadness.
The sudden death of a loved one rips the ground out from beneath your feet. Suddenly you’re living in a world that no longer makes sense.
I’m tempted to say that some short-term mental “unhinging” may be a good survival mechanism when this new world is too much for the brain to process.
May we make space for each other in all stages – even accepting and respecting each other’s coping process when it looks like freakish, inappropriate laughter.
* I would like to think someone would have told me before I would have seen an obituary, but in the days after a traumatic death, there are certainly no conventions, expectations or rules for how and when to inform family and friends. I suspect that, in the era of Facebook, people have even less of a chance to be told lovingly by a comforting friend, but rather will be smacked in the face with such news while checking their news feed at breakfast. My heart goes out to the ones who are informed by a casual acquaintance who has devoted themselves to gossip and being the “first to report” news like this as a means to get attention, rather than by someone close.