Classes hadn’t started yet, I don’t think. We were all just moving into campus housing, barely settled. One afternoon we were getting ready for dinner and she came downstairs sobbing. A man who was obviously a relative was with her. He walked her out to the street and they left in a car.
I never saw her cry again after that. We made friends with different people and I didn’t get to know her well.
Many months later, amid a conversation about her and how Okay she seemed, someone said, “She and her father must not have been very close.”
From another conversation about the same person: “She needs to…let it out already.”
“A violated woman is expected to fall apart, and not just privately, either; she must disintegrate publicly, in front of friends, in front of professionals, in front of Starbucks. It satiates our craving for arena-style pathos. We want to cheer our gladiators for bravery while they hack themselves to bits in the ring. If a woman chooses not to play, but to find her own private way back, we say she’s ‘in denial.’ If we don’t see her fragment, we say that she’s not ‘dealing with it.'”
– Vanessa Veselka, “The Collapsible Woman”
I’ve thought many times about the woman I talk about above and how to write about her, even though I knew her very slightly and more than 10 years ago, even though I can’t imagine the pain and rage she would feel at discovering that not only had people gossiped about something as private as her grief, but to see that I’m gossiping about it myself, and about their gossip, to my very tiny public. And while those conversations struck me as strange even at the time, and in memory seem almost unutterably cruel, I have to remember that they were had by young women, college students, unlikely themselves to have experienced any major loss. The only thing more surreal than staring at a box and realizing it contains the body (embalmed or burned) of someone who stroked your hair when you couldn’t sleep at night, is going home and realizing that there are still boxes to unpack, still tests to take, still deadlines to honor.
Places I have broken down weeping: my desk at work. The bathroom at work. My boyfriend’s couch. The Pied Cow. The sidewalk in front of the Starbucks.
I am the woman who ended a relationship, lost a job and compromised most of her close friendships and family ties in the throes of grief. I am the woman who went days at a time without changing into normal clothes or eating regular meals. I am the woman who fell apart.
Veselka, in the essay I quote above, is writing about how women in our culture are expected to react to sexual assault. She also writes:
“If you have been raped or abused, you’re scarred for life. You will never be as you were before the experience. This is also true for falling in love, getting your heart broken, going to war, having a child, or reading a great book. Everything that cuts deeply marks us. We’re all scarred for life the second that we intimately relate to the outside world. With rape, the difference is in the nature of the wound.”
As one who fell apart, I have wondered how people talk about my grief (um, and this isn’t an invitation to tell me). Now that I’m starting to feel a little more like a person I recognize, and I’m working again, and the work is in social services, I am now able identify my 2008 self as at risk for poor coping. Meaning the timing was really, really bad. Meaning it might not have been inevitable that something nearly everybody goes through tear me apart. Meaning the losses and miseries I am bound to experience in the future won’t necessarily take a chainsaw to the entire rest of my life.
I do know what people said to my face, the only one of which I’ll share with the present audience is a man’s surprise (expressed months after ending a fling with me) that I would have been interested in sex At Such a Time. The general trend of many conversations I had in the months after Mom died was that any time someone starts a sentence with, “There’s no wrong way to grieve,” the last half of the sentence is going to be, “except the way you’re doing it.” The therapist I saw briefly was fond of that platitude, adding the seemingly incongruous observation that I hadn’t really grieved the friend I lost in high school, because I didn’t know how.
I feel pretty safe saying, anyway, that rape survivors aren’t the only women whose emotional lives are public property. I feel safe saying that a single, visible breakdown followed by months of public stoicism is just as much Doing It Wrong as spiraling as far out of control as possible without dying oneself. I suspect the more accurate platitude is that there is no right way to grieve, and I don’t mean this even remotely in an “I’m OK – You’re OK” kind of way. I mean that if the universe has just sucker-punched you in some way, prepare for the assumption that whatever grief is, you’re not doing it.
I decided to blog every day for the rest of the month of June. Tomorrow I’m going to post a small and cheerful story about irises. Apparently tonight it was necessary to remind myself why I still find it necessary to be so unpleasant at times. And right out in front of everybody like this, especially now that most of my days are pleasant and I’m no longer living in a way that I’m completely ashamed of. Now that I’m no longer walking around wondering how anybody really manages to do anything, because it’s not even remotely true that I’ve suffered more than most people. Yesterday I saw a woman on the bus ever so discreetly wiping tears from her face, quite possibly looking at the rest of us wondering how on earth we manage to do anything without falling the fuck apart. If you’re that person, know that someday you actually will be all right, without having to pretend that it is or dramatize how much it isn’t.