Friday, 12 December 2014

The Graveside Crowd

A Note on Depression, Perhaps

Today—the day I post this, not the day I write this—it will have been one month since my father died. As they say, he finally lost the battle against cancer. A short battle, though, with a rapid decline: there were only a few months between his diagnosis with a very treatable form of cancer and the total disintegration of his lungs. We were expecting it, I guess, but not so soon. When I got the call to fly out to Alberta, I knew what it meant, but I had not thought it would happen then.

We are not a family to mourn. What mourning we did, we did in the twenty-six hours between the time he lost consciousness and the time his body stopped. We did that little mourning as he turned from person into mere organism into mere matter. Even so, my mother noted that she often forgot what was going on as we spoke between us; I never forgot that I kept vigil, but it was hard to believe why it was I had a vigil to keep. And then, when he died, we told morbid jokes and we laughed. I cannot speak for my mother and brother, but I was exhausted and, to be honest, relieved that we would not spend another wakeful night in the hospital, sleeping in uncomfortable turns. Maybe this is why I laughed so hard.

When we got home, all three of us e-mailed some to explain what had happened, and we posted to Facebook so that we would not have to tell the rest individually. This is when the ritual began. This is when the world of the family, visited only by tactful nurses, was punctured by the social world. This is when the expectations arrived.

There we were, gripped in gallows humour, attempting to console those who looked to console us. The clichés of grief were all most of our Facebook friends and acquaintances had to offer, and they offered them in earnest, but to me they were mere noises, letters, pixel arrangements. I performed the role, or at least I tried, but it did not come easy; in that moment, I was not sad. But there was a certain injustice to it, I thought, that I should be made to perform this role for which I was not suited even though I was the one, supposedly, in need. Convention cannot encompass the enormity and variety of death; when it addresses the needs of those it addresses, they feel great comfort, I think, but for the rest of us the conventions can seem alien and false, even or especially when meant in earnest. I delivered my lines, as badly written as they were, because I recognized that this script is all my friends had to show that they cared, and I appreciated that they cared.

The only times I felt sadness were when people who knew my father grieved for him, too. These times were hard: cousins reached out, in clear distress themselves; his coworkers, who I had never met but whose admiration for my father was obvious, were shocked and confused; old friends of his did not know how to respond. That does remind me of one bit of tradition that meant something to me: one of his oldest friends, who still attends a church my family attended, promised to ring the bell once for every year he lived. I was not there to hear it, but I can imagine the bell of the old Lutheran tower ringing out across the crisp autumn swamp and farmyards on the other side of the country. In these cases all the social veneer fell away, but those few things which held meaning for us.

After a week I returned to Vancouver. I had classes to attend—but I did not attend them. They did not seem to matter. Death can really clarify your priorities, it is said; maybe this is so, but for me the trivialities were stripped of urgency only because everything was stripped of urgency. I had no motivation. I had no feelings of sadness because I had no feelings at all. Rather than emotions, I had symptoms. Low affect, low energy, high apathy, and disordered sleep I know well: it was depression again. It had been looming all term, and it came without surprises. I tried to finish out the term, and succeeded, but the final assignments I submitted only warranted a passing grade, I’m sure. Most people seem impressed that I managed them at all.

There is good news: other than the continued ruin of my sleeping schedule, my depression seems to have lifted. I regained my energy and motivation in the days before my assignments were due, thank goodness. For the most part, I have faced the people I know in the consciousness of my father’s death, and accepted their condolences, and I do not need to do this again. I have yet to see his sisters, my aunts; that will be hard. People still ask me how I am doing and I try to give them answers that aren’t flippant or facetious. The best answers, I’ve learned, are the vague ones: “Well… you know.” “As well as can be expected.” “Surviving.”

Because what else is there to say? I guess that is what the clichés are for: there is nothing to say, so we say phrases that mean nothing. In their absence of meaning we are left to understand that which cannot be said. But what happens when that which you cannot say differs from that which they assume you cannot say? Then clichés are not mandalas, but masks. And yet there is still nothing else to say.

More Notes on Depression


Pedro said...

I didn't know I was commenting in your blog just in a hard moment for you about a hard subject for you.

I'm glad the depression lifted and I fully agree with you that some moments cliches are unbearable. I never lost someone that close but unfortunately cliches, as you say, are the only things people have to offer socially.

Christian H said...

Don't worry; I was the one to bring up death.

Unknown said...

Found The Thinking Grounds because of Taxonomies for Religions. Am assuming this Graveside Crowd post is the latest. Will definitely visit for your thoughts from time to time. Obviously I'm interested in understanding religion and religious people.

Christian H said...

I am glad you are interested!

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