Monday, May 30, 2011

Reactions to death

Watching my father react to death all my life was enough to make me believe I was heartless and morbid and unnecessarily cynical, all at the same time. But now I'm able to See him for who he is, I realize it's not me. It's never been me. It's always been him.

The first time death was seriously mentioned in my home was when ummm... my mother's birth father's second wife died. My mother's parents had divorced when she was 10, her father died when I was 4, and I'd only seen this woman a few times in my life. I was seven. My father summoned me with "We need to talk to you about something". That was the "something's wrong and you're probably in trouble" speech. So I immediately asked "Is this about me?" (see why I thought I was narcissistic? It usually WAS about me. It's much akin to the old question: "If you're indeed being persecuted, are you still paranoid?" If it's usually about you, are you narcissistic for thinking everything's about you?) He said "No. It's about Auntie C." Relief. The first serious news of death I received was accompanied by my relief that I wasn't in trouble, that nothing was my fault. My father proceeded to very cautiously inform me of her demise, sighing, acting very tender towards me, all the while looking me straight in the eyes, as if examining me. Would I break down and cry? Could I handle it? Or am I insensitive? I just said "OK." I was sure I was cold and evil for feeling nothing but relief, and my father obviously thought I'd be shaken to hear the news, like a normal person would be.

For years it was the same. With each death in the family, my father acted in this solemn, sighing manner about it, he was all official mourning and saccharine telegrams with condolences, all the while treating me as a child who needed protection from the harsh news. And I went along, certain that people will find out I'm really not devastated by this death, but not faking anything. I really thought of myself as the most morbid and cold of people.    

It was only later that I realized my father wasn't devastated either. He didn't seem to grieve at all after his parents and his sister died. In fact, he seemed to blossom psychologically after their deaths. Which, of course, I understand now. It's hard to really miss a controlling, dysfunctional, narcissistic family. Back then, I again only felt relief that I wasn't the only one who was cold and evil. Maybe I started believing most people felt nothing when their family members died, but they had to fake it. Now I understand most people's family members aren't mostly narcissistic, and people do miss warm, loving, real people, for real.

Lately, I've had the privilege of Seeing more. When our next-door neighbor died, I informed my father, who'd known him for years and seemed close to him. His reply was "I'm sorry you had to be near when it happened. I hope you won't have to help the widow with anything." To his girlfriend he said (she reported this to me later, in shock): "He died because he wasn't getting any from his wife" (he died after a horrible battle with lung cancer, through which his wife nursed him).

This was finally bizarre enough to help me understand I'm the normal one and can trust myself. 

A few days ago, my father called to inform me that my cousins' mother had died. They'd lost their father just a couple of years ago, and their mother was pretty young, and I asked him "How? What happened? She was so young, wasn't she?" and he had no idea and it hadn't occurred to him to ask. Each instance of death was, I now understood, identical to him, an occasion for solemn, sighing formalities, and nothing more. He sent a telegram, he told me, expressing his condolences and saying she was a devoted mother and a few other disgusting commonplaces. I should send a telegram too, he said. I asked if he was going to phone, and he said "No, I don't want to bother them, they must be busy now with the funeral and everything". I finally realized he was just clueless and awkward and the really cold one. An alien among humans.

So I decided not to listen to him. I phoned. I talked to my cousin. Asked him questions, told him I was really sorry, told him I really thought about them a lot, sent my love. After I hung up, I cried. I like my cousins a lot and they're sane and I haven't seen them many times in my life, but we can connect and we did and I actually do feel sorry that they lost their mother. I had no idea that was all there was to being human.

I know this preoccupation with my own feelings and reactions seems narcissistic. But to me these are such weird discoveries - the capability to feel and trust and express normal human emotions - that I have to treat them in this way.


  1. "Each instance of death was, I now understood, identical to him, an occasion for solemn, sighing formalities, and nothing more."

    I read "The Sociopath Next Door" which I was reminded of when I read the above statement. The book was fantastic, I highly recommend it. Anyway, socios and narcs fall in the same sliding scale. They both learn how to behave by observing the world around them. They gauge their responses to events on how they have observed everyone else behaves. So, it sounds like your father didn't actually feel for the people who died (or their living family members!) he was merely acting the part of a "sad, sighing loved one."


  2. Yuck indeed. It struck me that this is exactly how he would act if he received news of my death - no difference. Except that he'd be the one accepting condolences and attention, so it would be more fun.

  3. ugh. when my neighbor's eighty-something year old mom died, a natural death, my mom was allll crying and sad like a little girl. she insisted that we send them flowers. when i wouldn't help her to get them online, she got all pissy at me. (NObody was going to get in the way of her showing what a caring dutiful little girl she was). so she did it herself anyways and proudly showed me the thank you card she got. oh she was so proud of herself. she tells me all the time, oh how sad she is when someone dies, like a little girl, is what she looks like. tearing up, she says 'oh you know, i'm so sensitive. your dad's friend and i really clicked. we used to be close' (she was bragging. about her own softness and her own 'clicking'ness with dad's friend. who she doesnt even really care about.). it was sickening. she's full of shit.
    a lot of my dad's friends have died over the years, and it is the same thing every time. mom and dad argue over every single 'technical' proceeding of how to socially interact and deal with the surviving family. they gossip about how the guy is doing, my mom clucking away with her usual sweeping statements about shit like she knows something. they pretend to care. my mom just loves the chance to interject all her asinine opinions. my dad does get actually sad. in a very 'poor me, why does this happen to me' kind of way. in a VERY "POOR me" way. when he hears of someone we know getting cancer, his reaction is always the same "oh what a bad day i am having."

    when my aunt, my dad's only sister, was dying of cancer, my mom would not stop talking shit about her. it was her chance to complain about every single thing that she did or didn't do for us while she was alive.

    ugh this makes me sad. how can i live with people who are so freakishly self-absorbed, heartless, and fake.

    i dont UNDERSTAND. why are they like this??? its not that hard to be human!

    and PA, I dont think you seem narcissistic. and i think at 7, not caring about someone you dont know dying is a normal kid reaction. they'll probably be like okay! and skip off. anyway your dad's weird way of telling you is the real creepy thing. i mean, you didn't care about that lady. why even tell you..

  4. Hmmmmmmm.... My mother's biggest injury and sadness about her sister's death was the fact that "after all she has done for that family" the only mention of her (my mother) in my cousin's tribute to his mother at her funeral service was what a wonderful sister my mother had been to his mother... OMG!!! (And that is a whole lot more than will actually ever be said about her when she finally decides it's time to grace the "other side" with her narcissistic presence. I doubt I will even attend to be quite honest. It's with total panic that I wake up each day to hear her still moving around and switching off the hot water tank just to make sure no one else has a comfortable shower or adds to her electricity bill...

  5. being preoccupied with yourself when you first realise you exist is not narcissistic. when little children do it we think it cute, when grown survivors of abuse do it , somehow that's a very good reason to judge them all over. be yourself. if all goes well you and i will grow out of it :)


I encourage comments!!!