What Grief Looks Like

Weeks after the death of my mother, I fled the country. I laughed, I smiled. I enjoyed Innsbruck, Austria. I drank, enjoyed time with friends, studied and improved myself. 

Weeks later, I would have an emotional breakdown in an Italian cemetery while draped over the bust of a long dead Italian general. I was grieving during the entire thing but I may not have looked like I was grieving. I never said much about missing my mom, rarely complained about my sadness or depression and to the untrained eye, I was just a young woman out enjoying her college years.

I watch a lot of true crime, like…too much true crime; and one common thread I keep noticing is that there is a lot of attention paid to how someone grieves. Especially in shows focused on female murderers like Deadly Women. Cases where women are involved are particularly rife with commentary about women moving on with their lives too quickly, or remarrying too quickly or trying for another baby too quickly or even just appearing to be normal too quickly. 

Not to defend women who have murdered their families but…what that even means puzzles me to this day. Even when my father died 20 years ago I went back to school as soon as possible, continued in extracurricular activities as soon as possible, sought routine as soon as possible. Hell, the day of, my aunts took me to the zoo as no one was quite sure how to break the news to me yet that my father had passed on. I remember that morning being one of the happiest of my life coated in fun safari animals, sweets and laughter until I came home to see my mother crying and surrounded by all of her friends. After that I don’t think I truly processed any of his passing until months later as I was literally 11 years old. What was my grief meant to look like? 

Was I supposed to throw myself into the grave with my father? Was I supposed to weep? Was I supposed to skip months of school and put my young life on hold? Better yet, let’s compare to my mother because at least by then I was a 20 year old college student. I was told frequently that I was brave for going back to school and possibly even a little reckless for studying abroad. I was told that I should take more time but I never understood what I should be doing with that time. I apparently wasn’t meant to be spending that time out or with friends, I shouldn’t have gone to school, I wasn’t supposed to like going shopping or enjoy pancake soup in Innsbruck. 

I was supposed to sit and grieve I suppose in the most dramatic sense of the word. I should have been ripping my hair out and sobbing and building semi-pagan altars to my dead mother and wearing a locket with a piece of her shorn hair in it. 

Not to say I didn’t cry, sure I did. I cried a lot. I was catatonic one day in college because I just hadn’t processed anything but one thing that I kept thinking of day to day as I missed my mom, arranged funeral plans, called family and kept friends in the loop was that I missed my routine and was desperate to return to it. Sometimes grieving was laughing at jokes that only my family understood or eating peach cobbler in the kitchen and demanding that it was to only be served with Bluebell ice cream. Sometimes grieving was telling my friend that he couldn’t cry during the service knowing that I’d lose it if he did. Sometimes grieving was picking the song list for my mother’s service with my grandfather’s in mind and choosing to bury her catholic despite what would likely be her wishes. Grieving was deciding to donate her organs moments after her death knowing that it would be the one decent thing my mother could do after having died in the most dramatic way possible.

My grief didn’t look normal because normal for grief doesn’t exist.  Everyone processes things differently and everyone moves on differently. Some never truly move on at all. 

Resenting Rachel Greene

Yes, we’re talking about ER again. No, I have no regrets. 

Rachel Greene, daughter of Mark Greene and his first wife, Jen, is a brat. That’s all I have to say. I know she’s a fictional character but she’s a brat. But watching Rachel grow up, at times, with me during my own childhood and seeing how she reacted to stressful situations as both a child and an adult with my own heavy emotional burden and doing my best to work through my trauma: mostly thanks to the assistance of medication and therapy. But looking at Rachel’s character made me feel something I haven’t felt for a fictional character in a while: resentment. 

Rachel Greene is first seen in ER as a child in the middle of a less than kind divorce between her parents. Jen is tired of Mark working too hard being a literal damn doctor and Jen wants to be a lawyer for some reason. Of course their daughter is caught in the middle of the messy divorce as Jen moves to Milwaukee and uproots her daughter’s whole life so she can go be independent, I guess.  Rachel doesn’t take the divorce well, no kid can, really. She misses her dad, her school and her life in Chicago. 


Mark isn’t guiltless; he’s forgetful, scattered and constantly overworked being a literal damn doctor. He forgets her engagements, doesn’t know her new friends and is fairly out of touch in her life due to the divorce and trying to move on with his life. Rachel feigns illness once saying that her dad’s patients were the only ones that got his full attention. It’s a biting line but also, very true: Mark’s attention never fully belongs to anyone but his patients; it makes him a fantastic doctor but a less than great lover and parent. 

By the time we see Rachel again, she’s a teenager and she is horrible. I guess because my teen years were relatively quiet and I never went through a seriously outward rebellious stage thanks to being clever enough to hide my indiscretions on internet forums and LiveJournal posts. She was hanging out with the wrong kind of boys, doing drugs, listening to obnoxious music (okay, same but not the point) and was back in Chicago with her dad, his new wife: Elizabeth (played by the badass Alex Kingston) and their new daughter, Ella. Mark finally found love and is dealing with the last parts of having brain cancer and has most of his family together. Nope, Rachel ruins a lot of that by just being an impudent teen. Her rebellion ends up with her baby half-sister nearly dying when the toddler finds Rachel’s drugs and is poisoned. 

She gets what is effectively a slap on the wrist for nearly killing a baby and almost ruining her father’s second marriage because…you know…baby almost died. She continues to be a brat and gets her normal life as much as possible while everyone else has to deal with the fallout of her actions. 

Fast forward and Mark’s cancer is back and he has precious little time. Rachel deals with it the way I’m assuming most normal teenagers would and she continues to be selfish until she is spirited away to Hawaii, where her father is from, to spend his final days together learning about their family history and legacy. And how does Rachel respond to this? By ignoring her father, stealing his medication that may I remind you he needs for his brain cancer, drinking, listening to more obnoxious emo music and sulking. The episode is called On the Beach and it’s a masterclass in making you hate a character. Towards the end, Elizabeth, who by this point in the series has no reason to even acknowledge that Rachel exists after almost killing her child, finally sits down with her and says she has to grow up and that it’s unfair her father is dying but to take the time she has. 

That’s where the resentment came into play. You see, I didn’t get the chance to watch my father go quietly into that good sweet night. My father died alone, unceremoniously in the middle of the night patiently waiting for an ambulance outside of our apartment door as to not wake his family when he started feeling funny. I was woken up by my aunts who already knew the news but didn’t want to shatter my 12 year old world just yet. I was allowed to do something fun, to play the game like this was just a slightly less than normal day and then later I would be filled in properly on the events. I was told by my grieving mother that my father died and that my life was never going to be the same. I didn’t get the luxury of watching my father fade away on his own terms with dignity like Rachel did. And if I had the chance, I’d do anything to get the time she did with her father, knowing that he was dying, to tell stories, make memories and spend more time together than they ever would be able to if both were to go about their normal lives. 

Watching that episode, watching Rachel waste time left me seething with hatred: if only I had that chance, if only I could, what I’d give and before I knew it I was angry at a fictional character. When at the end of the day, there’s no promise of what I’d do if I did have that time with my father. I can’t promise that at 12 I’d have the maturity to spend the time I so wish I had now at 30. I don’t know if I’d be better than Rachel; my resentment comes with the luxury of  having decades of hindsight. 

We see Rachel again a few times in the series before the end, she’s older and heading towards college. She’s still alternative in some ways, making all the choices a young adult with a less than stellar childhood does but she’s mellowed out and matured. 

I’ve made my mistakes during my teen years, my young adults years and even now; I’m still learning and growing. My resentment and anger at Rachel is really resentment at myself and others. There’s a joke in my friend group that if trauma and having a less than great childhood is an excuse for bad behavior that we all deserve a Purge-style hunt once a year. I’ve been very strict in my approach to separate my bad behavior from my trauma. If I am excessively flirtatious or bad with men, I don’t blame my father’s death: that’s on me. If I am sullen and weepy: I don’t blame that on the insecure attachment of a child that had to parent their parents; I blame the current flavor of depression that day. And the way Rachel Greene is written, constantly using her less than great circumstances as an excuse for poor behavior; I just can’t stand it. Maybe it’s the white privilege that allows her to openly rebel and feel so outwardly when I was never given that chance; maybe it’s just jealousy, maybe it’s just grief but I learned so much about myself and how much I still have grow when I began to examine my feelings about the very fictional Rachel Greene.

I’ll end this post with Dr. Greene’s final coherent words to his daughter, words I hold in my heart since I couldn’t get meaningful last words from my father: be generous; be generous with your time and your love and your life. Just be generous. 

On Being a Crybaby

When I was younger, I cried a lot. Mostly the kind of spoiled crying most children do when I didn’t get my way. I rarely cried over things that deserved crying. Even breaking my wrist at 12 was not met with tears but naive stoicism. That changed when my dad died. My mother told me repeatedly that crying would be a poor reflection of her parenting skills; even going so far as to tell me that I was not to cry during group therapy as I was meant to be working through my grief. I internalized that for years because it was not the first time during a death my mother had told me such a thing. It actually happened first when I was 9 and my grandfather died. My mother told me I had to be strong for my younger cousins and thus, as the oldest, I could not cry. I had to be strong. I remembered that lesson at 12 and I held onto that for years. 

My aunts were better at letting me express feelings during therapy but when I was home such “outbursts” weren’t usually met well. I assumed my tears were weak. So many went through so much worse than me. What did I have to cry about? I had lost my dad, sure, but there were other things to be upset about. What was the point of crying? 

Around 17 is when I found Gravitation and quickly fell in love with the series and more importantly with a certain Cool Beauty that uttered a line I’d repeat in my day to day life regularly: Sorry fixes nothing. Yuki Eiri refused to apologize or accept apologies from people and he had a saunch view of shedding tears citing them as weak and pathetic to the extent that he questions his own masculinity when he finally reveals his trauma to his lover and cries over the years of pain he endured in mostly silence. 

I felt those feelings. I related to wanting to ignore the past and wanting to shun tears as they did nothing but keep present long-held griefs. I used charm, humor, sarcasm and more to deflect how I truly felt culminating in a moment that I did not think would ever come.

When my mom died, I was given power to make a lot of the choices. I don’t think I had time to be sad, I was so busy. Planning a funeral is hard work and I mostly smiled and made jokes to break the tension. I greeted guests as nicely as I could, deflected my feelings by asking about normal things and mostly did my best to ignore the fact that a part of me seemed to die with my mother. I was an orphan and I was not handling it well. 

When I spoke to my therapist before going to Austria, she looked me in the eye and said 

“I had no idea how much you overcompensate with humor.”

I laughed off her comment before going quiet. I sat on that as I boarded a plane to another continent. 

In Italy after a few travel mates decided to visit a cemetery in Sorrento (a terrible idea for a recent orphan) I found a statue of a long-dead Italian general and I sobbed. I draped my pathetic form over the cold bronze and openly wept. I lamented missing my mom, not revering her as much as I could in life and not being able to see her headstone be placed. I left loose in that moment all the emotions I had ignored. 

I returned to the U.S. and continued to not cope well with the death of my mother, mostly laughing until I just couldn’t laugh anymore.

I’m bad about suppressing my emotions but working in career positions meant ignoring my feelings to be strong and stoic. As a black woman, my emotions are particularly scary in the workplace. Too angry and I am the angry black woman white people are told to fear. If I am too passive or sad then I am weak for being a woman. It’s a lose-lose situation that I internalized by just bottling up my emotions.

But a few years ago: I became a crybaby. If I was put under too much stress or felt too many things bubbled up, I couldn’t keep myself from crying. I felt miserable the first time I felt my cheek dampen with liquid failure and as I continued to find myself crying at even the slightest of inconvenience either professional or personal I would just burst into tears. Usually silent, usually soft, usually almost without my control. If I felt too overwhelmed, too sad, too anything: I would just cry. 

Crying in public is an odd thing. It disarms people in all the wrong way. Professionally, it’s a nightmare. No boss knows how to handle a crying subordinate. Even close friends rarely know how to handle crying. It’s just an odd thing. What does one do? Are they to hug? Should they offer tissue? Should they just walk away and hope everyone just forgets it happens?

I fought this weakness for years and resented myself for being useless despite a few things being against me. One is that I have a pretty decent amount of trauma behind me and that two: I am incredibly empathetic. When I saw a person get into a low impact car accident downtown, I lamented to my sensei that I hope that others would care about me if I was in such a scenario to which my sensei was surprised and frankly troubled by my ability to empathize and internalize a scene that did not physically impact me. But in that moment when I saw that person get hit by a car at low speed, I immediately felt that shockwave, immediately felt that pain and immediately my heart sank knowing that we are all just a step or two away from being hit by a car and having others around you not care enough to stop or ask you if you need help. 

To beat a dead horse but when I was watching Devilman Crybaby that was something I always resented Akira for. I found his desire to save humans as weak. I wanted to be Ryo. I wanted to be jaded and cynical and think that humans were just as bad as demons so why not make a hell on earth. I wanted to think that I didn’t care about people or good things or heroes. Dear reader, I was wrong. I am Akira. I am an emotional and empathetic crybaby who wants so badly to see all the good in people; even if it means the end of me. 

I’m coming to terms with being emotional and with being an empath. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I just cry…and maybe that isn’t all bad. I’m getting better at holding it together when needed but also letting go of my emotions when I’m around people I can be vulnerable around and that I trust. 

Now that I think about it: I do cry a lot. 

I cry during movies when characters I love die or honestly, when the scenes make me feel too much of my past. I cry during anime series at home when I feel too much. I cry when songs are too much or hit particularly close to home. Lots of things can make me cry. 

I suppose, what makes it not so weak, is what I do afterwards. I try to be honest about how I feel and realize that tears don’t make me a bad person. I try to be better at piecing together what has me emotional or overwhelmed. I’m honest with myself about the fact that I’m usually holding onto feelings and more importantly: I’m trying to find better methods for channeling my empathy into being present, kind and listening. 

Maybe being a crybaby isn’t so bad after all. 

Mom’s Old Photos

I never thought my Mother was pretty when I was growing up. She was a big woman who needed oxygen to survive and I was resentful of her weight, her mostly sour attitude as she battled the demons of mental illness and of her oxygen tanks that brought her all the unnecessary attention that later drove her to agoraphobia.

I never thought my Mother was attractive and I spent most of my childhood wanting nothing more than to distance myself from her. I relished in being compared to my Father while shuddered at being compared to her. My earliest memories of her were comparing her to Ursula from The Little Mermaid as the two in my mind had a similar haircut, built and attitude.

But my Father was not the only one who took a lot of photographs. By nature of who my Mother was, she was photographed. And it took nearly a decade of her being committed to her eternal rest for me to realize something: my Mother was beautiful, but that doesn’t mean she was perfect.

Mother was, from what my family has told me, always someone who cared deeply about her appearance. She was the first of five children and being the oldest had its perks and responsibilities. I never got to hear many stories of the woman she was before she married my Father but from what I knew, she wanted not for men or for male attention.  Most of the photos I have of my Mother from the time that existed before my Father and well before I was even a concept were her with one of the many male callers that dotted her life experience.

I never understood what my Father saw in my Mother in all those strange Electra complex ways a young girl does when she thinks about her parents.  

My Mother wore a ton of makeup. Personally, as a child, I resented such a thing. She was always so heavily painted that it angered me. It was like mask she wore to hide something, she was invincible because of eyeshadow or she was omnipotent because of blush. I always wondered what she was hiding or why she felt the need to wear so much makeup. The photos I have of her only seem to remind me that she had always been that way.

When I was in middle school and was getting ready for Halloween that year dressed as Maid Marion she gave me such aggressive blue eyeshadow that went from the bottom of my small lash line to the top of my eyebrow and that couldn’t have been appropriate for a ten year old. And it wasn’t I remember being scolded some at the school function I was attending for such heavy makeup on a child.

But almost all of my Mother’s photos had such heavy eyeshadow. And it was either an electric blue color or it was done to echo whatever color she was wearing. I used to think such a display was garish. Why call so much attention to yourself? Men should want to give you attention without makeup. It didn’t enhance the woman; it was a mask, a sham, a lie, a deceit.

I seldom wore makeup when I was younger. I carried much of that resentment through my life. My Mother was no saint, especially after my Father died and the way she fell reliant to male attention after her husband’s death made me resent my own femininity. She spent so much time on her hair and makeup while she dated men to fill the void that her husband’s sudden death left behind. I didn’t recognize that I carried that much hatred for makeup that was mostly rooted in a projection of angst over my Mother’s shallowness.

My Mother was dedicated to making sure she always left the house looking her best. Even when she didn’t feel good, she still did her best to look good. When planning for her funeral, my aunts and I made sure to bury her in a dress that she would feel proud of being seen in. My Mother was vain in all the ways most Southern women were. Her vanity oftentimes meant we were late for church or for appointments and I’ve always been a stickler for punctuality. It was irksome to have to wait for her to look just right when I never saw her as looking better for doing so.  

But that dedication to her looks was none of my business. It was no one’s business but my Mother’s. Her doing so didn’t hurt anyone and honestly, doing so her made happy.

It took me many years to be mature enough to say that.

I started wearing makeup a few years ago and more importantly, I started wearing eye makeup last year. And recently, I’ve been going quite heavy on the eye makeup. Beauty trends tend to go in a cycle and heavier eye makeup is back in style just like the casual racism of the 1950s is still en vogue. And each time I find myself placing not one but at times two or three colors of eyeshadow onto my eyes or the delight I get now by collecting pallets of eyeshadow like a painter hoards paint; I’m reminded of the complicated woman whose strewn makeup cluttered many a childhood homes’ bathroom. I’m reminded of the woman who so dedicated to her personal level of beauty that she was willing to run late for work lest she be seen without blush. I am reminded of my Mother every time I open up a palette of eyeshadow and am delighted about what I can do with all the colors.

My Mother was not perfect. Our relationship was not perfect. My Mother was a complicated woman to love and to be accepted by. But there’s a reason that we managed to get closer after I had finished high school and was mature enough to realize that holding a grudge wouldn’t solve any issues. Time does not heal all wounds but it certainly does increase one’s propensity to simply not waste new tears on old griefs.

And when I finish doing my makeup now for a convention, a costume, a date, a special occasion or even just because I feel like doing so, I find myself wondering if my Mother would think I was doing a good job. I find myself wondering if my Mother would think I was beautiful. I find myself wondering if my Mother would still be so committed to her personal style if she was still here.

My Mother was no saint. But seeing her through the eyes of her sisters, cousins and friends who describe her so vividly, lovingly and with such a genuine heartfelt grief that she is no longer here with us helped me finally realize that she was in her own complicated way beautiful.

I’m finally glad to have my Mother’s old photographs.

The Day They Burned Their House Down

I talk a lot about Fullmetal Alchemist, don’t I? I’ve gone on record and said it’s probably one of my favorite series and it has some of my favorite characters of all time within it. I think the major reason it means so much to be is because of when this series hit for me. Like a comic book main male, I have to say again: this series hit me right after my father passed away. When FMA started its run, my dad’s death was a very recent memory. So having a main cast that all dealt with the loss of a parent and what it meant to be human in a world of loss was important to me, formative for me. I suddenly had someone on TV that understood my grief. I didn’t grieve in the way that all the books I got from my family and teachers did. I skipped sadness and moved straight to cynicism and trying to find logic to replace the hole in my heart. As far as series that are important to me, you can look to FMA as one of the most. Because I’ll say it again for those in the back, you don’t need a character to look like you to feel represented.

This post is coming out during a special time of the year for me (I’m pretty good about scheduling things out far in advance. Don’t judge me.). October 1st is my Mom’s birthday and she would have been 58. October 11th is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 54 today.  My Dad was a complicated man and I’ve talked about my Father, his legacy and his memory plenty of times. I don’t talk about my Mother as much maybe because that grief is still such a recent memory for me. I don’t like talking about it because that’s a wound that hasn’t closed up all the way yet.

October really is a strange month for me.

My family (both sides,really, if I have to think about it) usually looks to me and then checks on me on these days in particular. And in the past, these days have been difficult. My friends knew to take special care of me and to get me out of the house on these days so I could keep my mind off the negative thoughts that tend to creep in on significant dates surrounding those you’ve lost. My family wants to look to me as some effigy to my parent’s memory.

But really, after all of these years: I’d love to reclaim these days.

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October 3rd for FMA fans is a very important day. It’s the day Edward and his brother Alphonse burned their house down. They made this choice after committing the ultimate sin and paying the price as a knee-jerk reaction to the loss of their beloved mother. They will for the rest of their foreseeable days carry the weight of their sin and the weight of the grief that clouds their hearts. They had lost their beloved mother and their father as far as they were concerned was gone forever. They had no reason to stay in their family home that had been so corrupted by sin and death, so they burned it down. But they didn’t just turn away from their past and ignore it, no. Edward upon receiving the pocket watch that marks him as a State Alchemist scratches the date into his watch.

Don’t forget 3 Oct. 11

It’s probably one of the most important dates in the series and Edward carries it with him everywhere he goes.

I also carry that date with me because like the good State Alchemist that I am, I also have my pocket watch. Travis gave me that watch when we took over our college’s anime club. And even though I had cosplayed as Mustang and as Edward before, I never had my own watch. It was a great irony that Travis gave me the watch that I am now so proud of. In our friend group I was always Col. Mustang, the charismatic leader and he was my loyal Hughes. He was there to keep me grounded and help me move up the ranks and make our club the best we could.

I’m a fully functioning adult and I still wear my pocket watch on occasion (and I still get plenty of compliments on it). And that weight in my pocket, that date in my pocket is a reminder of the date that means so much to an anime I love and so much to my family and my actual family.

So today after 15 years since my father passed and just a little over 5 years since mother joined him; I want to reclaim 10-1, 10-11 and hell, the entire month of October while I’m at it. My family still looks to me a bit to do something grand. To post something inspirational. To show that I still remember. To show that I’ll never forget. To show that I’m doing okay. And trust me, with no sense of irony I can proudly say that I’m fine. I will be fine. And even on the days I’m not, I have more than enough coping skills and loving support to quickly pull myself back up after a rough day.

Today, I burn down the emotional house. And what a perfect day to do so? It just so happens that days after the Elrics burned their house down and the dates of my parent’s birthdays coincide.

If I post something that honors my parents, fantastic and I have posted for them a few times. If I don’t, also fine and despite my blog postings there have been years that I choose not to memorialize the day. A big step in the grieving process is just moving on and I think after so many years, I’m ready to treat these days like they are any other day. The weight will always be with me. I will never forget this day. But I’d also like to move on and try and forge my own path. That’s what my Dad would have wanted and I can hope that it’s what my Mom would have wanted, as well. 

Happy Fullmetal Alchemist Day, to my fellow otakus. Remember to keep moving forward and never let your past dictate who you are.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I didn’t forget.

And Happy Birthday, Dad. I’m a little bit early but now you know that I didn’t forget you, either.