06/17/2010 08:19 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Adventures in Grieving

On movie screens around the world right now, people are dying dramatically. Memorable deaths. Breathy, sad, ironic deaths. Spectacularly violent, torturous deaths. We are drenched in and numbed by video game make-believe, stuntmen, prop guns and fake blood.

But in real life, people die every day, according to the newspaper. In riots and protests and freak accidents. Of old age, of starvation, of horrible diseases. In Gaza, in France, in Russia and in India. In train accidents and mine collapses and of cancer. It is horrible. We put the paper down and turn off the news.

And then it happens to you. In your family. And it's surreal. It's the mother of all record scratches. It is the mother of all unchangeable facts. It has ripples that will be felt down the years. Your birthday. His birthday. Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mother's Day. Father's Day.

I am busying myself trying to get back to normal in an attempt to blunt the excruciating pain of the loss of my brother four weeks ago. Four whole weeks. Four weeks and one day since he was on this planet. And now he is not. It's still unbelievable to me. Unthinkable. But more and more the fact that my brother is dead -- such an ugly word -- is becoming a fact, not a mind-bending impossibility.

Suicide is the mother of all woulda-shoulda-coulda -- the why the why the whys. Suicide is the howl that sucks out your breath and hollows out your insides in one jagged pull.

Dealing with a person in the throes of serious clinical depression is like paddling madly on the starboard side of the Titanic, trying to get that huge ship to avoid the looming iceberg. You just can't slow down that kind of momentum. Paddle ceaselessly toward the green light as you might. And with each dip of the paddle this can't happen this can't happen this happens this can't happen. And then it does. And the icy water gushes in and the ship is fatally wounded. And you watch it go down, panting and exhausted. And furious. And helpless. And guilty. I could have paddled harder.

I look at the picture on his memorial pamphlet and my heart clenches up hard. This can't happen. But it did. Gone. Dead

Grief is a strange, many-faceted thing. It creeps up on you at odd moments, on little pig feet, and takes you by surprise like an undertow. Other times, when one is, say, having a laugh, one realizes one should be grieving and not laughing and one reminds oneself of the horror at hand and simmers down guiltily.

I exclaimed at the dozens of floral arrangements that filled my home with their uniformly white, sickly sweet smell, and the cards that kept coming every day. How loved I felt! How special! Until I remembered that this is the result of the immovable fact that my brother is dead. He's dead. Gone.

I have learned that one should never shop grieving or one is liable to come home with three pounds of organic gumdrops and two bottles of Belgian beer. One should never drink Ouzo grieving, and I think that is self-evident.

Grieving presents four key challenges in these, our modern times when we are so distanced from death that we hardly know its name or how to meet its eyes:

I'm SO sorrrrrry!

This always, paired with a look of bottomless pity. As if one sees a kitty with a broken back or a bird with a torn wing. It leaves me with nothing to say in return and the distinct feeling that I am an object of pity and curiosity. Death will happen to you too, someday. It doesn't break your back, it just hurts like hell and leaves you unable to finish sentences or feel good for more than a few minutes at a time before you remember. Dead. Such an ugly word. Gone.

Are You Okay?

This rhetorical question sometimes closely follows the I'm so sorrrrrry but sometimes is served a la carte. It lobs the ball at me and depending on the situation, I either feel guilty that I am okay in that moment, or it leaves me gasping in a void as silent as space for a reply that will also not encourage more conversation. No. Yes? Sort of? Should I unleash the tears or go for quiet dignity? We seem to have a tremendous guilt in our culture regarding admitting we are not doing well. As if saying we are not okay is not okay. I hate to see you this way. Yeah? I hate feeling this way. I am not okay. I'm not. So don't ask.

How Much Grief is Enough?

Should I be smiling? Enjoying my coffee? Is this grievey enough? What is appropriate for grief? Certainly not laughing at a joke. Certainly not grooming oneself stylishly. What does grief look like in these, our modern times? Is it brittle and silent or wailing and gnashing of teeth? Should I be able to function? Because sometimes I am in fact functioning and this brings on the requisite guilt. On the other hand, these days, hanging around in stale pajamas and chain smoking when I quit one year ago doesn't seem such a bad way to spend a Tuesday. Coffee grounds in the sink, piles of dishes, unanswered emails. Seems reasonable in this brave new world.

I'm Not Crazy. I'm Grieving!

Your hands are held. Your eyes are peered into, deeply. In a very quiet voice so as not to scare the wild animal, the person says How are you? When you mumble that you're not great, the speech goes on. Do you. Need help? Stare. Blink. There are groups out there to help with this. Special groups. One goes through a set of feelings rapid-fire: annoyance, defensiveness, embarrassment. Did I laugh too much? Did I cry too much? Am I talking too fast? Do my socks not match? Is my hair a rat's nest? Do I have the equivalent of emotional spinach in my teeth? AM I A HUMAN TIME BOMB IN DENIAL?!

So where does it all end? It doesn't. It just gets incrementally more bearable and less bizarre. The increments are immeasurably small. Like grains of sand on a vast beach slipping and sliding under your feet. One step forward, two steps back. The bizarre begins to take on a hint of normalcy. The unthinkable has come to pass. It's over, despite my constant imaginings in which I roll back the tape and try to change the ending. Paddling ceaselessly.

What you CAN say to a grieving person:

I have found that some gestures have been profoundly meaningful to me. The quotidian becomes arduous in mourning. Taking a shower. Picking up the thing from the place. Making small talk. Here are some things that people have said to me that actually did help:

What do you need?
What can I do?
Here is food.
Here is wine.
Forget that appointment/task, I've already done it for you.
We should get a pedicure.
I'm your grieving buddy for today, where will we have lunch?
Wanna watch Pirates of the Caribbean?
We should shop for bras on Melrose! (yeah that's right, I linked that, fellow busty girls of LA!)
When is your next screenwriting class?
Who do you think will win your competition?
Seriously, mani/pedi, I'm buying.
Here is candy. And a book by Pema Chodron.
Why don't you blog about it?