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. 

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.