My grandfather passed away at 6:16 a.m on a cool, crisp September day. When the phone rang a little too early in the morning, we knew what had come to pass. Without saying a word, my family and I got dressed, bundled into the car, and headed over to hospice, which had become our home away from home. I entered my grandpa's room with trepidation; I had never seen a dead body before, and the prospect of seeing my grandpa in that condition did not sit well with me. When I first looked at him, I remember thinking that he literally paled in comparison to my robustly tanned cousin sitting by his side. I spotted a band-aid on my grandpa's left ear and didn't want him going to the grave with a band-aid on his left ear, so I inched closer and started to rip it off, but it stuck, and my mom yelled at me to leave him alone, and I couldn't help thinking this cut would never have a chance to heal. A few minutes later, a man from the funeral home showed up, hoisted my grandpa onto a stretcher, and tucked him into one of those black body bags. I stared blankly at the stretcher as it disappeared down the hallway.
We then bundled back into the car and drove to my grandparent's apartment. It started out peacefully enough. Each of us (except for my grandma and me) fell naturally into performing a particular task: cleaning the refrigerator, polishing the furniture, calling relatives to inform them of my grandfather's passing, and taking care of various funeral-related logistics. My grandma sat at the kitchen table, intently watching a repeat of Walker, Texas Ranger. I sifted through stacks of photo albums until the black and white images fused into a big, blurry blob. I wanted to help but just couldn't bring myself to do anything else. Or perhaps I didn't know what else to do.
Suddenly, my mom and aunt started arguing about whether or not to bury my grandpa with his glasses. My aunt (and I'm paraphrasing here): "He always wore glasses. When people think of him, they think of him wearing glasses." My mom: "But what's the point? Why not donate them to someone who could actually use them?" My aunt: "But he doesn't look the same without his glasses." My mom: "But he doesn't look the same now anyway." And so it went. This argument spawned a host of other arguments until the mounting tension left me feeling incredibly hot. On the verge of passing out, I kept rolling up my sleeves to experience some relief from the heat. I was so uncomfortable and so exhausted from the weeks of sitting vigil at my grandfather's side. Without even realizing what I was doing, I stood up and emitted this guttural, primal scream that shook my body to its core.
The bickering instantly stopped; my family became speechless. If not for Chuck Norris, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone looked at me like I was some untamed creature who hadn't yet mastered the fine art of civility and refinement. I saw myself as a stranger in their eyes. My mom quickly regained her power of speech: What are you thinking? You're scaring the neighbors. They're going to call the police. My poor grandma, whom I most certainly did scare, kept repeating: "Why did she do that?" I could feel my face turning beet red. Why did I do that? I ran out of the apartment feeling utterly humiliated and misunderstood and, for the first time that day, released the tears over my grandfather's death that had been holed up inside of me for the past couple of weeks.
This experience may have been a bit heightened, but it made me realize that my communication skills were probably in need of improvement. I didn't want to be the sort of person who squelches my feelings until they built up inside of me to the point of explosion. I didn't want to be the sort of person who scares the neighbors (or even myself). If I had simply expressed my frustration with the bickering, I could have avoided bursting at the seams as I did.
For whatever reason, I had never been a fan of confrontation; I much preferred to keep things polite, pleasant, and peaceful. The prospect of expressing unpleasant feelings generally left my stomach in knots. What if people didn't like what I had to say? What if they became angry and rejected me and never wanted to speak to me again? I felt like my world might just collapse if any of these what-if scenarios came to pass, so I'd typically pretend that everything was okay until I couldn't uphold the illusion any longer.
Upon inspecting my beliefs a bit more closely, I asked myself what would happen if someone reacted harshly or stormed off in a huff. Would my world really collapse? Would I even want that person in my life anyway? Instead of agonizing over how other people may or may not react, why not take care of myself and honor how I'm feeling and what I need to say? Once I started pushing through my discomfort and expressing myself more truthfully, I found that my relationships, surprisingly, started to deepen. Most people actually respected me for standing firmly in my truth. Hiding behind a veil of niceness may seem constructive at first, but that approach inevitably backfires and can, in fact, cause relationships to crumble. I'm not advocating emotional anarchy where everyone feels free to express their emotions as soon as they experience them without any sort of filter -- there's a time and place for everything -- but presenting a false front that all is fine and dandy doesn't serve anyone.
It may have taken a death in the family for me to reevaluate my communication skills, but, hey, at least I saw the light.
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