There is a grief underbelly: a dark, cold place swirling with thoughts that many grievers have but are too ashamed to admit. They’re usually only verbalized in the safe spaces of grief groups or honest conversations between grievers when they feel free of judgement.
The first aspect of the grief underbelly that I’d like to go over is keeping score. When you are grieving, you will find yourself creating a mental list of the people who have not connected with you (like those guilty of sympathy by proxy), or those who have let you down, and you will waste a lot of mental energy thinking about these people.
When I visualize my grief underbelly it's on the set of a film noir -
preferably with a light mist or drizzle.
If there were ever a time in your life where you shouldn’t be keeping score, it should be when you’re grieving. When you are deep in grief your brain physically hurts - processing everything that comes with your loss is exhausting and overwhelming. But in one of life’s cruel little jokes, it so happens that living in the wake of personal disaster is when the impulse to keep score is absolutely irresistible. You just can’t help it.
When it comes to relationships with friend and families, I am generally not much of a score keeper. But in grief, all of my normal social habits are out of whack.
In my journal, about a month after my sister died, I wrote, “There are so many people who have reached out in so many wonderful ways and all I can think about is X, who still hasn’t contacted me.” I felt tremendously guilty and confused. I felt guilty that I had many texts/emails/voicemails/cards that I couldn’t/didn’t want to respond to, and confused about why I was hung up on the people who I hadn’t heard from. I also became hyper-focused on the people who knew me as a child. People that I was barely friends with 20 years ago as I awkwardly stumbled through high school became part of my everyday life as I tallied who had/hadn’t gotten in touch.
Score keeping of all kinds
In my experience I’ve found that not only do I keep score, but I also never forget the score. When my dad died 14 years ago, there was an adult in my life with whom I was close. She knew my dad was sick, she knew he died, she was out of town when it happened, and then she never mentioned it. And now, many years later, when I hear her name that is the first thing I think of. I don’t think of the times I was welcomed into her home, played with her kids, etc. I think about how I went through an incredibly traumatic experience and she never bothered to say anything.
Score keeping can come in all forms. During the winter holidays I took great pleasure in ranking holiday cards. At the top of the fridge (the place of honor), were cards that had a note acknowledging the juxtaposition of a bright and cheery piece of mail wishing me happy holidays when I felt so far from happy after the worst year of my life. I also gave high marks to cards that listed the woman in the family first as opposed to the traditional order of man’s name, woman’s name, child #1, child #2 (I have a thing about gender norms). At the bottom of the fridge were cards with notes wishing me a wonderful Christmas with no acknowledgement of my sister’s death, cards with typos, and those that weren’t recyclable (I also have a thing about the environment). My husband pointed out the flaw in this system, that it wasn’t fair for me to be angry with someone for thinking of me and my family and including us on their card list in the first place. I recognize it wasn’t particularly nice to rank family and friends - to pit them against each other when really they were all trying to be kind and thoughtful. I attribute the card ranking as another, albeit strange, manifestation of my grief.
My 2018 goal is to resist the urge to rank holiday cards on my fridge.
Why do we keep score?
My best guess is that it’s a concrete place to direct your anger over what has happened to your loved one and to you. As an added bonus, your feelings can be directed towards a living person, as opposed to being angry at a situation or even at the person who died. You can’t change the events that led to the death of your loved one, but you can direct your anger towards people who you think have wronged you. It’s a a concrete and easy place to fixate your attention.
I am sure that there are people out there who forget the score eventually, or even regret keeping score in the first place, but there are also those of us who hold onto that score card with a white knuckled fist. I’m one of the latter, and I’m still desperately waiting to hear from X. I don’t want to feel this way, but it’s like a reflex that I haven’t learned to control yet.
Have you been keeping score? Are there people on your list that you're surprised to see? Did you eventually forgive the people who let you down? Do you have any tips for tearing up the score card (I could certainly use them!). We would love to hear your thoughts.
Photo credits: movie still from Third Man | cards from marthastewart.com