Putting the Fun Back in Funeral

(Sally: I think this is mainly ok for you to read. There may be a little harsh language throughout, but I hope you get a chance to enjoy. And for all the people who know Sally and read my blog, let her know)

There are a few areas in life where I am not fully adept at coping in the proper ways. I am lucky enough to know this about myself and am glad I can recognize this as my flaw. I have never been the best with handling breakups, either as the dumper, or the dumpee, which is why I don’t date anymore. I would rather just hang out with someone until we mutually get tired of each other and then amicably split ways. I have found it is much less messy that way. When real labels and emotions are placed on relationships is when people’s feelings get hurt. This drags on way too long and eventually I am either breaking up with you in a fashion where you will call me a narcissistic sociopath (Shannon), or you are breaking up with me and I have to struggle through months of alcoholism in order to come out on the other side realizing you are a terrible individual who has the ability to be the Typhoid Mary of every STD known to man and the only benefit to our relationship was that I didn’t end up with some disease that would have cost me my (and some friends of mine, their) favorite body parts. Normally, though, one can tell when a relationship is about to end and can typically brace themselves for the shock of losing someone they considered someone who would be a positive influence in their lives. What I don’t deal with is when you don’t see a relationship of any stature ending. This can apply to significant others, parents, family members of any variety, friends, Romans, countrymen and so many other types of relationships. What I don’t cope with properly is when people pass away. 

I have come to this realization as I have gotten older. As I have aged, just like with everyone as they age, different people of varying degrees of closeness in relationships to me have passed away in a bevy of different ways. My grandparents have all passed due to health related issues that typically affect the elderly. I have lost friends in car accidents. I have lost friends to cancer. Some have fallen victim to drug addictions. For most of these occasions I have dealt with the issues the same way. I am usually awoken by a telephone call to alert me of the news. I answer normally, wondering why this particular person is calling me at such an unbelievably early hour (this could be sometime after noon), and groggily say, “Hello?” Whoever is on the other end silently judges me for still being asleep, since they have been awake for hours, taking care of their children, working, or whatever people who don’t work as self-employed, single, writers do during the daylight hours. “Hey,” he or she says. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” I lie, because I, for some reason, am ashamed of being asleep in the middle of the day, even though I just went to bed a few hours previous. “I’m just lying here reading the news online.”

“Oh, ok,” he or she says, knowing I am lying. “I have some bad news.”

This didn't upset me as much as Mark Zuckerberg playing Lex Luther
This didn’t upset me as much as Mark Zuckerberg playing Lex Luther

This is when I sit up. I need to figure out what level of bad news I am about to receive. Is this something along the lines of Ben Affleck being cast as Batman in the new Superman movie, or even worse, Jesse Eisenberg being cast as Lex Luther? Did the Yankees sign one of my favorite players, like, say…Jacoby Ellsbury (that one I knew was going to happen, the Kevin Youkilis one hurt though)? Actually, did anything bad happen with the Red Sox? Am I not getting paid for a job I did for some reason and now I will have to fight for the next few months, even though the pay is almost not worth the fight I am about to put up? I am attempting to mentally, and emotionally brace myself for the news that is about to be delivered, and every time I internally pray (figure of speech) that nothing bad has happened with the Red Sox or any of their players. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s no easy way to say this, but __________ passed away,” he or she says.

This is where I have my first internal battle of not dealing well with death, because part of me is actually relieved nothing bad has happened with the Red Sox. Then I feel bad because, obviously, I should care more about the fact that this person has passed away than the knowledge that Dustin Pedroia isn’t going to be missing a start that day. So, right out the gate, I hate myself. 

Knowing basic social cues, I ask if the person (who has now had the unfortunate task of informing someone who is  filled with self-hate for caring more about a starting lineup than he does about the subject at hand) if they are ok, to which I always get the vague ramblings of someone unsure of what to say about the loss of a family member/friend/acquaintance. I assure them I understand (which I don’t), then I ask them what happened. This question gets a plethora of answers, which makes sense, being that most people don’t die in the same way. I send my condolences to the person on the other end of the line (even if they are the ones who should be sending their condolences to me) and hang up.

It is here where I don’t really know what to do. I typically lie back down in bed and stare at the ceiling and try to cry, depending on how close I was to the deceased. When I received the news my grandmother on my mother’s side passed away I remained in bed for hours waiting for the socially acceptable emotions to come over me like a wave of sorrow and regret for not being closer to her. I remained in bed for hours, waiting, until I eventually had to get up and go to work, without ever shedding a tear. There I went through the motions until I got off and  moved to the bar and drank (which was/is my normal day to day activity) in hopes of being able to conjure up some sort of emotion that can be related to sorrow and depression. 

Not the best Cameron Crowe movie, but fitting for the subject matter.
Not the best Cameron Crowe movie, but fitting for the subject matter.

Weeks passed and on a night where I decided to stay at home and watch the Cameron Crowe cinematic classic, We Bought A Zoo. I teared up five minutes into the movie, and cried so much by the midway point I had no idea what was going on in the ever so difficult to follow plot line (seriously, they bought a zoo, that’s about it). After that night, I didn’t really think about it anymore. That is how I typically deal with death. I ignore it, and ignore it, until an episode of Boy Meets World comes on my television and somehow I really connect with whatever problem Corey is having in that episode, and I break down like a baby who misses the person who passed away days, weeks, or months prior.

This isn’t crying that occurs to normal people either (I don’t know if that’s true or not, I don’t know what normal people do). What occurs is full fledged, damn opened, waterworks, ugly crying where I am gasping for breath and having trouble orientating myself in any position not referred to as “fetal”. I sob and sob, wishing I could have known the deceased more, or had a better relationship with them, or not placed all of his or her emails into the spam folder because I was tired of daily devotionals coming to my inbox (sorry, Grandma). I regret my selfishness, and my aloofness toward everything and anything in my life, while I think about how I could be a better person, even though I know I will wake up the next day and be the same son-of-a-bitch I am every other moment of my existence (sorry, Sally, you’re not a bitch, it’s just a nickname many have given me over time). 

I have often wondered why I don’t know how to react to death the way I see others react. My older sister takes it to heart. She seems

This, or Ashes Over Fenway (Band Name! Called It)
This, or Ashes Over Fenway (Band Name! Called It)

to revel in the sorrow. In a conversation we one time had about death and what we wanted to have done with our bodies (Viking funeral for me, either that, or I want my ashes spread over Fenway Park, good luck to whoever has that task assigned to them), and I stated I did not want an open casket. She demanded I needed to have one (which if you know me, I respond well to people telling me I need to do anything) because if she wasn’t able to see my cold, lifeless, dead corpse she would never be able to come to grips with the fact I had died. I personally don’t want anyone to remember me with that slightly bluish hue and clammy demeanor, but rather they all remember me from the last great memory we shared together. She refused to accept that I wouldn’t allow her to see my dead body before I was cremated, and I have since added that condition to my living will.

What I have figured out (or am hoping for rather than me being a truly soulless individual) is that when I was in high school a friend of mine, Grant Denhurder, passed away. He wasn’t really a friend. He was more of an acquaintance. He and I went to Young Life together and most of our relationship was centered in a group I didn’t want to be a part of but went to so my parents wouldn’t make me wake up early in the morning for church on Sundays. Out of the people who went to Young Life though, he was one of the ones I liked. 

I saw things differently at that point in my...well, you know.
I saw things differently at that point in my…well, you know.

Grant was a nice guy who was always smiling and had a friendly greeting for everyone he saw. Everyone in Young Life liked Grant. He was a junior. I was a sophomore. We went to two different schools but he always treated me (and, as far as I could tell, everyone else) as though I was his equal. Maybe this wasn’t unusual for most high school students, but for me if anyone treated me as though I was an equal they were good in my book. It always seemed to me as though so many people thought they were better than me for one of a million different reasons I had concocted in my mind. So, god bless anyone who looked past all of the imaginary maladies I suffered from. 

I would see Grant once a week, on Tuesday nights, when Young Life would meet in the basement of one of the attendees’ houses. He always asked how I was doing, and what was going on in my life. With the exception of the friends I went to the meetings with, I looked forward to seeing him, and the girls that came to the meetings as well (many of them I developed crushes on throughout my tenure in Young Life, although I didn’t really date any of them until much later in my life). I couldn’t have cared less if anyone else had shown up besides that elite group of people (I needed my older sister to be there as well since she had a license and drove a woody wagon to cart all of my friends around).

The morning I was awoken with the call is a morning I’ll never forget. My friend Darci called me on a Sunday morning. This was weird since she went to the same church my mom went to, and instead of being in service she was on the phone calling me. I was told I had a phone call and I grabbed the handset, “Hello?” 

Darci’s normally confident voice came through the receiver with a quiver and uncertainty I had never heard in another human voice up to that point. It was as though she was questioning everything she had been taught as truth by every role model she ever had. She was crying as she spoke the words I have heard so many times since that day, “Matt, did I wake you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sort of…are you ok?”

“I have some bad news,” she said.

“What’s going on?” I asked, not worried about the Red Sox because I was pretty sure Darci didn’t know anything about baseball.

“Grant was in an accident last night,” she said through broken words and mild gasps for air. “He was hit by a drunk driver, and he died.”

Yay for prom season.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe he was gone. We hadn’t been the best of friends, but we were close enough that this news was altering in some semblance. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react. I just sat there, waiting for an answer on how I was going to react to this sort of news. 

“Are you ok?” I asked. Taking the role of a caring friend was the only logical response I could possibly come up with.

“I don’t know,” she said.

What else is there to say? Nobody can ever really say “Yes” to that question, otherwise they’re heartless. You can’t say “No” because you have to appear strong in the eyes of the people who care about you. There lies a black area in-between the two answers and within that area rests confusion, anger, questioning, hatred, sorrow, and depression. All we can ever hope for is that once we reach a level of acceptance we haven’t scarred our souls by living somewhere in the middle of “Yes” and “No”.  

In the days that followed people told me they were sorry for my loss, even though I didn’t really understand why they were telling me that. Grant wasn’t one of my best friends. The people who needed to hear these condolences were his family members, and those who he would have considered a friend, not an acquaintance in the absolute purist definition. With every person that sent me their regrets I felt more empty due to my inability to process what had happened. I would sit and read the newspaper article over and over again, hoping something would bubble up inside of me and let me know I was as human as everyone else who seemed to be suffering so much over the loss of this great, young man. 

We all grew up a little that day
We all grew up a little that day

The day of the funeral I put on a pair of khakis, a blue button down, and an American flag tie (it wasn’t until much later in my life when my wardrobe would consist of clothing that would be considered much more funeral appropriate).The viewing was going to be taking place after school and all I could think about throughout the day was how I was going to react to seeing someone I knew in a coffin. I wasn’t as excited as the boys in Stand By Me to see a body, to say the least. I was filled with a sort of worry, culminating into a fear of facing, not only the lifeless body of someone I regularly saw but, my own mortality, which as a teen was slowly making me realize I, too, could possibly pass away unexpectedly (a fear that still petrifies me).

The turnout was impressive at the funeral. Many people (understandably) had come out to show their support to the family. I waited in the long line of well wishers, nervously looking around, wondering if whenever I unfortunately passed away if I would have this many people come and show their respects. Back in those days I was not nearly as arrogant as I am today, which probably means I would have had a much better turnout than I would today. 

The line moved methodically through the large Northern Virginia church. Friends, family, church leaders, teachers, administrators, all walked along the outside wall around the pews, puffy eyed and red faced waiting to spend the obligatory amount of time with the body without causing a scene. I could feel my stomach moving upwards into my throat the closer I got the coffin. I wasn’t ready, mentally or emotionally, to see someone I knew in this state.

I was standing there with my sister, our friends Jen, Kris, and Sarah when we got to the front of the line and I laid eyes on Grant for the first time since a drunk driver swerved onto the shoulder, overcorrected, crossed the double yellow line and hit him head on, just as he was about to make it home in time for his curfew. His skin looked like hardened plastic, with a ghostly bluish hue to it. His eyes were closed, hiding the vibrant life that had burst from them only a week before. He was wearing a suit, which was a different look from the polo and jeans I remembered him always wearing. There was no evidence of a smile anywhere. This was the disturbing part. Grant always had a smile. This lack of a smile was what truly caused me to break down.

I could feel the lump in my throat growing with every passing nanosecond. I knew I was about to break down in front of my sister, my friends, my teachers, god, and everyone. I turned and sprinted out of the sanctuary, not concerned in the slightest I was making a scene (I don’t know if I actually did, but in my memory I was not in control of myself). I pushed through the crowds of people just wanting to get outside, I couldn’t breathe and I needed to get out of that greeting area, into the fucking sunny, beautiful day that was occurring, unfairly, outside. Our Young Life leader was standing in line and I tried to push by him, he reached out to grab my arm to make sure I was ok, but I pulled it away violently and ran out of the building.

Movie cliches have lied to me
Movie cliches have lied to me

Darci ran after me, also concerned with my, admittedly, inappropriate overreaction in the church, calling my name. I heard her, but ran as far from the church as I could (to the parking lot) and sat on a ledge and just started to cry. I don’t know if I have cried like that ever again in my life. I cried a dehydrating amount in a short period of time and Darci, sweet Darci, sat down next to me and hugged me. She just held me while I sobbed and told me the lies we all tell people when they are upset; 

It’s going to be okay.

Time heals all wounds.

God has a plan.

And each one of those lies was comforting at the time. It was what I needed to hear, which is why people say them during distraught times. I was glad she was there. I was glad she was my friend. I don’t know how long we sat there, but by the end of it I felt better about going back into the church. Now completely aware I had just run out of there with no concern of anything else going on around me (is it really  shocking I was self-involved in that circumstance as well?).

I couldn’t walk back into the sanctuary. I stayed in the greeting area. I talked to a few people and waited for the time when I could get a ride home and leave that memory far behind me. I decided while sitting there, outside of the church, I would attend funerals, I would be there to show my support for the family, but I will never go back to a viewing. I don’t need to gain closure that way. I want to remember Grant in the way I want to. The guy filled with life, and with a smile on his face. I remember something Kris said while we were sitting in the greeting area, “I don’t care, that wasn’t Grant in there. That’s not how I will remember him.” I agreed with her at the time, but unfortunately, that is the only way I can remember him.

I don’t want this to come across as I think viewings are bad or inappropriate. That is the decision of the person who passed and the family members who unfortunately have to deal with making that decision. I am saying I don’t want to remember my friends and family members in that way. I like my memories. I kind of revel in them. Which is why I think I don’t deal with death. Forever the people who pass will be living in my memories just the way I remember them, with no tarnish on the pristine gleam that I see them with, every time I sit down and think of them. They will always be perfect in the stories I have with them. It is how I prefer to cope with death, by allowing them to live on forever, in my mind and in the stories we share.

Also, Darci, wherever you are, thank you for being there that day. Truly. 

And Grant, you are missed, everyday, by many people.


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