Survivor Guilt

There are times when naming things creates problems. We name something, then we think we know what it is. I mean, I’m looking at my barn-wood six-foot bench that I use as a coffee table. In this instance, I can’t even exactly name it – is it a bench, or is it a coffee table? But what is it? It’s made from painted wood. If I was a scientist I might know the molecular structure of that wood. But that still wouldn’t tell me what it is. Things have an is-ness that can’t be named. If we didn’t name everything and then assume we know all about it, we might get closer to what that is-ness is.

We name “conditions,” too – we get diagnoses and begin to treat the disorder. Conditions have symptoms attached to them, and it’s not uncommon for people to think they have a condition and manufacture the symptoms to match it. I bring this up because it was suggested to me that I have “Survivor Guilt”. My reaction was to recoil, like, oh, please, that’s something other people get. I’m way beyond that sort of thing. Because sometimes my sense of cool still gets offended. Because I have a habit of wanting to be different. Like I don’t want to do death like the rest of the world.

It makes no sense to me, this Survivor Guilt. For decades I swore I wanted to opt out of this life. Swore I hated it here, that I didn’t belong here. I felt too much pain in this world, with not much peace to offset it. So how I could I feel guilty being here when Philip was wherever it was I’d been wishing myself to be for so damn long?

But what explains the way I short circuit when I notice I’m happy? And what does it mean for me to be happy? I’ve had a problem with that word since way before Philip was even a thought. It seemed silly. “Happy?” Like jump up and down for joy, like everything is okay? My philosophy was something like if you’re happy you’re not paying attention. Unhappiness gave me an edge – I saw things the way they really were. Happy was cheap and weak. Surface living. Naive. And not cool – definitely not cool.

As for guilt – for what? Guilt requires having done something wrong by choice. I felt so wronged by life I swore it wasn’t possible to feel guilt. Life should feel guiIt because It was indifferent to my unhappiness. I didn’t consider that if I felt life was beating me up, I must’ve thought I deserved it – hence, guilt. As far as feeling guilty about Philip’s death – it had nothing to do with me. There was nothing I could have done and I don’t make believe that there was. I’m trying to live with the reality of this, not a fantasy.

I had an idea about happy the way I had an idea about guilt. Thoughts in my head about what those words meant. I didn’t allow myself to feel them, either. I pushed those feelings into the background and let unhappiness be the foreground. But that rid me of nothing. It just let me not pay attention.

A couple weekends ago Natalie and I went to a wedding in Manhattan. My cousin was getting married, and my family was spending the night in a hotel. The ceremony and reception were held in a restaurant, and while the food was delicious, the service impeccable, and the bride a thing of beauty, the place was bathed with an eerie blue light and the acoustics required conversation to be loud and strained. The “dance floor’ was a tiny square with a DJ that had  two five foot speakers and a rough, ridged rubbery floor that stopped your shoes from doing what they really wanted to do. No matter – there were too many of us crowded on to it to move very much anyway. Who cared? We were in each others’ company to celebrate. So we did.

There were people there – family – I hadn’t seen in a long time. I forgot how much loved them, how much they loved me back. How are you, they asked? And I wasn’t sure if they were asking me how I was like everyone asks of someone not seen in a while, or if it was code for how are you since Philip died. God knows I wished they would ask that of me, but they didn’t. And I acted like that was what they’re asking me by answering with a slow blink and a pointed nod and saying, “I am okay.” I was letting them off the hook and was glad to do so. I’d no interest in making anyone uncomfortable.

Except that later, returning to my seat from the dance floor, I sat alone and wished I could cry to just one of them. They were laughing and talking the way I was laughing and talking. So where was Philip in all this? Did they think I forgot him? Were any of them thinking of him? Why am I so hungry for a witness to what I suffer?

Or did I just think I needed to suffer as a testament to my love for him? And if I think I am losing him in my moments of pleasure then what’s really going on is that I feel guilty that I could laugh while he’s dead. Survivor guilt isn’t what I thought – it didn’t mean feeling like I should have died instead of Philip. I’m not so arrogant to think I know who should be dead and who shouldn’t. What it is is the way I sometimes catch my breath when I realize I like what I’m doing or I’m enjoying the people around me and I stop it all to think, how could any of this matter when my son is dead?

The idea of Philip’s death is not the reality of it. The idea of it is that he’s gone and I cannot live in peace without him. The reality is he’s around me all the time. I have a relationship with him, the kind that matters – that of the heart. That doesn’t change, and what doesn’t change is what’s real. In other words, love. If we are not here to love, what can anything matter?

I have changed since Philip died. I have become more friendly. I smile more. I’m interested. In you. I think that happiness is a gift we give to others. My happiness is more about you than me, but if I can share it with you it’s because it is inside of me. I can somewhat handle happy in a more controlled environment. Like work. I’m all about helping, I’m cheerful, calm and steady. When I see a call coming in from someone I don’t want to talk to, I might sigh and roll my eyes but when I answer I am pleasant and helpful. And I’m okay with that until I hear my co-workers talking about their kids who are in college or have graduated from college and are flying off to new jobs and new marriages and I am reminded I will never dance at Philip’s wedding and that I can’t share with them the relationship I have with him now.

What do we owe the dead? Nothing, I would argue. They are past owing. To owe is to be obligated to – but if I believe I can’t be happy without Philip here, then I must think I owe him my grief. And my guilt. As if that’s anything he would want.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 3)

Last year, holiday time, Max was on my mind, seemed to be all around me. I’m not even sure what I was thinking about him – just some sense of him, along with something vaguely disturbing. Driving home on a late Friday afternoon, I heard Philip say, “Call him.” In that heart-racing-stomach-clenching moment I knew that’s what I had to do. The rest of the way home I had time to think about it. I wasn’t sure what to say…I could wish him happy holidays, tell him I was thinking about him…I could tell him I wasn’t angry, ask him what he’s been up to…but most importantly, I had to understand that I could not expect a Kumbaya moment out of this. I’d love for us to bond over my love and good will, but I couldn’t call him for that reason. No expectations, I warned myself. I’m doing this because it need be done. Period.

Good thing I warned myself. When I called, Max was withdrawn, hesitant. He didn’t say much, not when I tried to chat about what he was doing, certainly not when I told him I wasn’t mad at him, that he was part of Philip’s life and that meant something. Not sure what to do with his awkwardness, I ended the phone call as gently as I could. But I was there for it. I was there for the discomfort of the call mixed with the lightening of a load I wasn’t aware I was carrying. And even though I’d failed at getting Max to open up, I was left with the quiet excitement of being in life.

I told Natalie about it, and she said I had no idea what effect I’d had on Max. Maybe nothing now, maybe something. And if nothing now, maybe one day years from now, a more mature Max would think of this and be relieved. He was, after all, the one who found Philip, the one who felt guilty for introducing him to heroin in the first place. But as I told him when he cried to me at the wake, he didn’t stick it up Philip’s nose and he can’t spend the rest of his life feeling guilty about it.

I offered Max absolution I don’t believe I have the power to give. I am not God. But I am Philip’s mother and as such have a power I don’t often understand. Forgiveness is a tricky thing. If I truly believe you did something wrong, how can I forgive? It feels so high-handed – I’ve decided you’ve sinned and now I will absolve you. But what word is there for what that was? I was freed from a resentment that I didn’t realize was background noise. I’ve no interest in Max suffering – if I knew his suffering it would only add to mine. So if forgive is the word for what I did, then the definition has to be “freed from resentment.”

And then there are those moments – time stops and all there is is what you know. It’s not intellectual – it’s the deep wisdom within, finally, elusively, surfacing. Shattering the monkey mind, however briefly. Why can’t I live in the light of that? Maybe it’s just too bright to be constant. Maybe if it was, I’d burn.

Or maybe I’m just too afraid.

The first year after Philip’s death I was still living with Nadiya. One Sunday night I was in the first floor bathroom, Natalie was up on the third floor, the floor where we lived. Looking in the mirror, I felt a pain in my chest – it was toward the left side and for a moment, I shivered. What if I was having a heart attack? I didn’t believe I was – more likely gas. But I took the opportunity to act it out. I’d been saying how much I wanted to die…what if this really was a heart attack? I bent over and let the pain take over, let myself believe my heart was giving out. Then the shock of reality – Natalie needed me. She needed me. She was not ready for me to die. Her world would be shattered and I could not do that to her. She mattered – she was all that mattered. I stood up to a world that had shifted. Could I? Could I not? Clarity is a shock that humbles. I can’t say I never thought that I wanted to die since then – but I can say I never thought it without seeing Natalie along with it.

Then this. I’ve been watching “House.” If you’re not familiar with the show, House is a doctor in a hospital whose team diagnoses patients with puzzling illnesses. And I can’t watch a show about a hospital without envying the patients. This is an old, old habit. In my fantasy, there is relief in not having to do anything but let the staff take care of me. In fact, when I was a teenager and my friends talked of their fear of giving birth, I’d tell them, I’ll have the babies, you’ll raise them. Because that fantasy also involved a hospital – there I’d be, resting in bed, surrounded by flowers, for just a short bit of time being relieved of the burden of living.

Except that’s not where relief lies. Relief lies in realizing truths. Watching House one day, the shock of what being ill really means hit me. These people were sick. Their lives were on hold, their bodies were out of control. They were frightened. They could become disabled. They could die. And so another fantasy turned inside out, another opportunity to live in truth.

Apparently that particular truth took some kind of hold. Because the next day, outside walking, there rose a thought that was odd and strange and alien to all the things I’ve been thinking since Philip died. I say “rose” because it came from my gut, not from my head. And the thought was this: I am not ready to join him.

For a moment I had faith. Until the murmuring mind began. Are you sure? What if you have 20 years ahead of you? Can you live that long without him? Can you really make that commitment? Do you know what you’re getting into? And Philip chiming in to remind me, Mom, I am right here.

I could go on about the way I struggle with the past in the present, I could say that that’s the voice that always takes over…and maybe it is, but its motivation is something I haven’t explored, something I hadn’t even considered because I didn’t understand what it really was: Survivor Guilt.

And next time I’ll be reckoning with it.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

When We Connect (Part 2)

Grief is a spiral, not a line that goes from here to there. There is no “there,” only here. I still bristle when I hear people talk of “moving on,” though I know it’s said out of a naiveté about death. I am not nostalgic for that time in my life, when death was a concept, not an experience. I have no wish to be innocent. That’s what I love about a wide-eyed child, a nursing baby, a puppy, a kitten – their purity and innocence. Maybe why I ache for them is because it won’t last. Life will make sure of that. Whatever I’ve gone through has been inevitable, and none of it is anything I want to go through again.

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What is it that happens when we feel the relief of connection with others? I talked about that in my last. I think what happens when we feel that close to someone is that we recognize something within ourselves. We feel our worth, our value; we feel love. To feel that love is to understand that is what we’re here for. If we can feel that through another, then we know it exists within – and so we feel connected to ourselves. But how strange is that – when I feel love, I feel connected to my-self. So who is the I, and who is the self? Am I two, or am I one? I think of the “I” as the watcher, the constant presence. It’s different from my personality, from my reactions. It is the presence that observes what I do and what I feel. Think about it. Think about the past. When you do, you’re remembering moments that occurred in time. But the “I” that is remembering is outside of time – it is always there and has always been.

As a human being I am subject to rules and conventions. As a spiritual being I have an aspect that’s timeless and changeless, where the laws of this world do not apply. It’s up to me how to integrate these two. It’s up to me to take that spiritual dimension as seriously as I take my humanity.

I’ve had moments that are breaks with the world as I see it. A truth is realized, there’s a shift in perception. And a shift in perception of the world is a relief. Those moments connect me to life and do not necessarily require the presence of another. The question, then, is do I trust enough to take the risk of belief? My ego is not so keen on truth.

I have a niece who died from brain cancer. I wrote a bit about it here. Nicole was only four years old. She’d developed a rare cancer that at the time had only been seen in 60 children in the country, all of whom died. The doctors tried an experimental protocol with her – remove the tumor, then four months of chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. Three months later the cancer was back. In another three months she was dead.

After that, trying to find some perspective about death, I started to read “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine. I did not consider that one day I would be in the same position as my brother – I was simply trying to understand. At the time, I lived in a large five-room apartment in Brooklyn. This particular day I was in the back of the apartment, in my bedroom, reading Levine. Outside my bedroom was the hall that led to the kitchen, where my mom, who had come to visit, was cooking. Philip, then four, and Natalie, about one-and-a-half, were in the living room watching TV.

It was a winter evening; such a lovely word for the transition between day and night. There’s a mental winding down, a break from the day’s madness. Lying on my bed reading, I could hear the vegetables being chopped, the furious boiling of the water as it waited impatiently for the pasta. The sounds of being taken care of – for just a while I could be the child, waiting for my mother to have dinner ready.

In his book, Levine has a Tibetan meditation on the process of dying. You imagine yourself dying, imagine your body dissolving. So I laid on my back, closed my eyes and relaxed, let go of my body until it no longer felt like pretending. That’s when I started to panic. I was too deep in the darkness to come out of it. All I could think of was my kids. Who was going to raise my kids? My husband would work it out, but no one would love and tend to them like me. Wait, stop – I can’t die yet. They’re going to grow up – I’m not going to see them grow up. This can’t be happening. Except it seemed to yes, really be happening and I could not control it. They were slipping away too quickly and my arms were not long enough to reach them.

Yet in an instant there was a shift. I took a breath and let go. What was happening to me was happening. No point arguing. My children would be fine. My time had come and they were no longer my responsibility. My work was to take the risk of letting all that I knew go, because there was no other way. And I did and I knew peace – the peace of being with what is so. The great and willing leap into the darkness. Swiftly it came, and swiftly it went.

When I have to die, that is the way I want to go. The practice is here, now. The non-resistance of the circumstances of my life. Accept it, leave it, or change it. I recognized that moment of peace, and I have had many since. But swiftly they come and swiftly they go. That great peace of just being. Of breathing. And that is the way to deal with Philip’s death…but that is a darkness I’m still arguing with.

Next, Part 3.

© 2015 Denise Smyth