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.