How To Mourn Someone Who Is Not Yet Dead
There was the time when you were eight years old and you accidentally killed a bug. You didn’t mean to — you were only looking at it, trying to find something on its belly, maybe — but you bore down with your curious affection just a bit too hard. You felt its little life go out in your hands, saw it go very still and knew, in a way you had never known before, that it wasn’t going to crawl away. You hated yourself then, hated what you were capable of doing when all you wanted to do was to say hello. There was nothing elegant or measured in your movements, you were just a stupid kid who can’t do anything right. You cried, and your mother told you it wasn’t your fault. She made you a peanut butter-and-marshmallow fluff sandwich, and you felt better about it.
You didn’t know what you were mourning, of course, but you knew that something very, very sad had happened and it made you feel badly about yourself as an extension. You had never before cried over another being — at least not when there was nothing in it for you — but there was something about that bug going so still so suddenly that made you realize there were so many things it could no longer do. You realized that, just moments before, it was hopping on bushes and lying in the sun and meeting its little bug friends for coffee. Now, it was going to have to lie in the dirt and it couldn’t have any more fun. It was that absence of life, of minuscule bug hopes and dreams, that you were so sad about having taken.
Then, many years later, you sat across the table from someone who looked and sounded just like the person you had known for years. They swept their hair out of their eyes in the same way, they put two sugars in their coffee the same way, they played with a fray on their jeans the same way. But there was an invisible inner part that you could sense had evaporated from them, maybe even overnight, that was not going to come back. It felt like a set on an old western film, the storefronts that would fall over if you pushed on their fake doorknobs too hard. You wanted to cry. “No,” you thought, “What are you doing? What are you talking about? Don’t you know who you are?” But you couldn’t say it. The thing is, when this part of them left, it wiped all of its footprints from their mind. They have no recollection of being this person, or how to go about feeling the same way they once did. Their old self is a stranger, someone they can no longer relate to.
And we don’t acknowledge these lost parts. When someone looks at you with indifference where they once looked at you with love, there is no secret combination of words to make them remember how they used to see things. You cannot scream them into coming back. Their physical presence — the fact that everything, to the uninitiated viewer, would seem the same — is almost the worst part of it all. It’s holding that little bug body just moments after it went still and not understanding, in all of your eight years, why it won’t come back even though it is right there in front of you. You want to shake them, to tell them how things used to be, but they wouldn’t understand you.
After you ate your peanut butter-and-marshmallow fluff sandwich, your mother asked you to show her where you put the bug. You had lain it off to the side of the stone walkway so no one would step on it. She scooped it up in a little paper cup and let you pick a couple of flowers to put in with it. She folded the cup up and the two of you dug a hole to bury your bug in. You said “I’m sorry that we can’t play together anymore, I will miss you,” and put the last handful of dirt on the tiny grave. As you turned to walk inside, you hoped that he could hear you, even though you knew he probably couldn’t.
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