Felix Quiñonez Jr.
What is it about grief that people find so appealing? Why are people so drawn to someone else’s suffering? Sometimes when you lose someone, you just want to be alone but your grief acts like a light tower that guides people towards you like ships in the night.
Grief has a way of uniting people, bringing them together. Even people who have stopped talking to you will reach out to tell you that they are there for you even if their previous actions would have led you to believe otherwise. They will even tell you that their offer of affection doesn’t expire.
The thing is people want to take care of someone in grief. They want to be the one who puts you back together. And the bigger, the loss, the bigger the grief is supposed to be. And because of that, the bigger the reward they expect for their troubles.
But what happens when you don’t actually feel any grief? Some things, like losing your father, are supposed to be devastating. But what happens when your father is a stranger? How do you mourn someone you don’t know?
Like all things in life, grief doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s part of something bigger. And with it, comes a societal contract that has strictly defined, performative roles. And even though you are the one grieving you’re just part of the act.
And your loved ones or even just acquaintances all want to play their role in this sad, little theater. But that puts a certain expectation on you. People expect you to feel a certain way and think it’s weird if you don’t. Even if they don’t mean to, it’s like they’re asking you to dance for them, to put on a show. And they don’t like it when you don’t behave the way you’re supposed to. You have to be sad, you have to be broken, and you certainly can’t be fine. That’s not allowed. And if you try to tell them that you’re fine, they explain to you that you’re actually felling numb. They tell you that it’s ok to be sad, it’s ok to not be ok, as if they’re revealing some sort of secret to you or granting you permission.
But what happens if you can’t do what’s expected of you? What happens when you can’t do the dance of sadness for them? What happens when you can’t put on the show they all want to see?.
People don’t seem to understand that good intentions aren’t always enough and even if they mean their best, their actions also seem to imply that you’re not grieving the right way which just makes you feel worse. And then you also feel guilty for your inability to provide them that catharsis they seek.
So, you unwillingly play the role, hoping they’ll believe your performative grief. But unfortunately there’s also something appealing about all the attention and affection.
There’s something intoxicating about all these people wanting to take care of you. So, it’s not hard to fall into the role. It’s quite easy, actually. All it takes is a little push and the rest comes naturally.
You find yourself performing for people, giving them what they want. You perform tricks of grief for them the way a dog will sit or heel with the hopes of earning a treat. Except here, you aren’t working for a dog treat, you’re working for affection.
You cry, you share memories of your relationship with the deceased. You find yourself going through the motions of grief. And it makes everyone feel better. It puts things in order, the way they’re supposed to be. It puts the situation in a way that everyone understands. And it allows people to play their respective roles. This allows both of you to get what you want.
But eventually the guilt returns. You feel guilty that you aren’t going through the things you’re acting out. So, you tell yourself that everyone grieves in different ways. You tell yourself that it takes longer for some people. You convince yourself you’re not lying but instead taking out an advance on the grief that you know is coming. Any day now, you’ll feel all of the things you’re supposed to feel when your father passes away. Any day now, your heart will break like it’s supposed to.
And each day that passes, you feel more doubt that it’ll ever come. And you can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with you? And you start to feel trapped by the attention that people are giving you. It feels like a spotlight is being held above your head.
And you feel guilty for accepting all of the affection that you know you don’t deserve. All the care that you know you’re unworthy of. And you start to wonder how long it will be until you are found out. Until people realize that they have been wasting their time on you. Until you are exposed for the heartless, cold shit that you really are.
And there are nights when you can’t fall asleep so you lie in bed, engulfed in darkness as all the clichés you’ve been told about love and loss run through your head. Aren’t you supposed to feel loved ones after they’re gone? If that’s the case how come you feel nothing but an empty void? Then you toss and turn in bed until the sun comes up. There are other days where you can’t drag yourself out of bed. No matter how much you sleep, you’re tired. You also find yourself wanting to eat all the time even when you’re not hungry, hoping to fill that emptiness you feel, any way you can.
It’s now been about two weeks since my father passed away and there’s still nothing there. I haven’t broken down. I haven’t felt anything close to what I imagine I’m supposed to feel. (Or what I keep being reminded that I’m supposed to feel)
I still remember the moment I found out that he passed away. My brother called me. He was crying, his voice was cracking, he could barely speak. But eventually he got it out.
And when I found out, all I could say was, “are you sure?”
He paused as if trying to understand what I was asking. Then he told me that, yes, he was 100% sure, our father was gone. And before he could continue, I said thanks and told him I had to get back to work and I did.
I went back to work as if nothing happened. I smiled, I talked to people. When someone asked me how I was, I said “can’t complain.” Who says that? Why would I say that? Am I a terrible person for saying that?
The thing is I never knew who he was and I guess now I never will. And I find myself dreading people asking me to tell them about him. Because I feel like I don’t know him at all. So, I store anecdotes on hand, ready to share at a moment’s notice. But I don’t think we ever really had one full conversation together. He and I never got to the other side of the parent/child tunnel. We never reached the place where you can see each other as two fully fleshed out human beings, flaws and all.
I’ve seen that happen so I know it’s possible. I know people who have developed healthy, real relationships with their parents and are actually friends. They are able to hang out, open up and have real conversations with one another. But my father and I never got there. He never became a real person to me. He was just a vaguely drawn figure looming over me.
And I find myself wondering who he was. I try to map out a history of our relationship in my mind. I scour through the collection of memories in search for moments of genuine happiness. But I end up frustrated in my inability to come up with anything meaningful. We spent a lot of time together, so statistically speaking, it couldn’t all be bad. I know there are moments there, but all I remember are fragments, hurt feelings.
I remember the large shadow of intimidation he cast over me and the rest of my family. I remember the eggshells we walked on, hoping he wouldn’t get mad at us. I remember how it often felt like walking through a landmine field, trying to avoid stepping on anything that would set him off.
I remember how the house, so often, felt so big and everything seemed so far away. It often felt like an island that I was stranded on or was held hostage on. There were good moments. There had to be but they slip through my fingers like grains of sand as I reach out for something to grasp.
I remember the way he would push me away when I’d try to hug him. And as a seven-year-old child, that denial of affection felt so hurtful. It also probably had something to do with the reason I’ve always had difficulty establishing meaningful physical and emotional connections. And I can’t help but see that as, at least part of, the reason I have spent a big part of my life pursuing the affection of people who don’t have any to give to me. In fact, it’s usually their lack of affection towards me that fuels my interest in them to begin with. But he also instilled ideas in me that of what a man should be. And his ideas of what a man should be stood in stark contrast to the person that I am. That put a wall between us and made me feel insecure.
When he left 11 years ago, I didn’t feel anything. In the time since then, I mostly forgot about him. Out of sight, out of mind. He was mostly just an empty spot in my life and heart. So, it wasn’t too different than when he was around.
It was then that the anger I felt towards him, calcified into indifference. He would call the house every now and then. And if I happened to be there, visiting, I’d wave the phone away and walk out of the room when I was offered the opportunity to speak to him.
It was in those moments that my veneer of indifference melted away and I realized that I still cared. And that embarrassed me, as if, somehow, he still held some sort of power over me. I felt weak and didn’t like that so I became angry. It was an anger I was never able to work past.
I let it stop me from reaching out. I let it stop me from opening myself up. I should have been the bigger man but I didn’t know how to. He never taught me how.
But now, I realize that it doesn’t matter anymore. Of course, now it’s too late. I let my own pain and anger stop me from realizing that he was just a person too. He was just a person with his own problems and flaws.
And I can’t help but wonder if, in the end, it mattered to him that we were complete strangers? Had he been expecting me to, one day, reach out? And when he realized that wouldn’t happen, did he hate me for it? Did he think of me at all?
I never got to meet him as a person and I realize that was and will always be my loss. I look around the people who are saddened by his passing. There are people on two different continents mourning. There are people who I will never meet whose lives he impacted. And I think about my own indifference and I am again reminded by what I missed out on by never getting to know him.
And in those moments, I can’t help but feel jealous of those who are genuinely heartbroken. I get jealous that I can’t feel that. And I wonder why he was so important to them. Why were they able to establish a meaningful relationship with my father when I couldn’t? If he mattered to them, they must have mattered to him. And if I couldn’t matter to him, do I matter to anyone?
Then I think about my own life. And how closed off I choose to be and what little impact I’ve made on anyone’s lives. I think about how few people really know me. I think about how, were I to die today, how little would it matter?