Grief is a tricky bastard. You are doing the most benign task, have a casual or sweet or amusing thought, and reach for the phone to share the moment.
Then, you remember.
The other person, in this case my friend Kerry S. Kennedy, isn’t there to read the text or answer the phone or listen to the voicemail. He died last month. That’s when the wave of pain, sadness, and anger hit my chest like an avalanche of water, leaving me gasping to breathe and wanting to do anything but stay in that moment.
It has been several weeks since Kerry’s body was discovered, alone in his apartment except for his poor little terrified dog. That is barely enough time for shock to wear off, much less to build a new Kerry-free reality. But in three weeks, life goes on. People go back to work, cook dinner, and even go to New Orleans for a pre-planned trip like I did. Every day moments require us to pay attention to this new world without Kerry. We have to move forward.
When I grieve or have any strong emotional response, I typically want to start a project. Projects help me stay focused. I can connect to a fundraiser or a collection or a drive to honor someone’s memory without having to connect with my own feelings. The projects are important, but they are also a convenient way for me to channel my own emotional response.
In this case, that did not happen. I stayed busy the first week by being helpful. I called mutual friends, passed along suggestions or offers of tangible help, and tried to stay in touch with his immediate circle.
What I did not do was go to the calling hours or the funeral. I fully intended to do so, but instead I stayed in bed for well more than a day and slept. My brain wasn’t allowing myself to feel grief or sadness or anger so my body gave out. It wasn’t depression so much as repression.
While I was flying to New Orleans the following Monday, I was composing a tribute blog post to Kerry in my mind. I took notes. I even jotted things down. And I came up with nothing. I could write a lovely tribute that people expected, but that didn’t feel sincere. And it needed to be sincere blogging.
My blogging was something that connected me to Kerry. He always raved to me about my writing, urging me to pursue more opportunities. And it was the one area where he seemed to quietly appreciate my ferocity when most of the time he wanted me to be more upbeat and positive. I suspected that sometimes I blogged the things Kerry wished he could say.
When his dog Lucy died earlier in the summer, I was going to write a blog post about this amazing little pup who had endured too much in her life and deserved the love Kerry poured upon her. My thought was to make a tribute video of Lucy photos with the song ‘Material Girl’ as a nod to her trip to NYC (with Kerry) to deliver flowers to Madonna. But I didn’t complete it before Kerry died. I know he would have liked it. I feel bad that I didn’t write about Lucy’s death on my blog. It is a regret, but also a distraction that allows me to feel bad without really delving into why I’m so sad.
Then I had a dream the other night, a regret dream that included Kerry. My gut tells me that I have unfinished business with him, not about a blog post but something left unspoken – something he wanted me to say because he could not?
Our relationship was flawed and sometimes on thin ice when we disagreed, but some of the most truly magical moments (not happy, but magical) of my life these past ten years have been with him or because of him. His name is still one of the top suggestions on Facebook when I go to tag content. I drive by his shop pretty frequently. There are reminders of Kerry everywhere, but that’s it – reminders.
But, his death was not romantic or inevitable. We do him and others a disservice when we succumb to romantic notions of a man who died peacefully in his sleep with a beloved pet at his side without proof that was the case.
Because the proof we do have suggests otherwise; he may have suffered a great deal before passing. Even the comforting image of Kerry passing away with his faithful pet at his side isn’t based in reality; this was a traumatic experience for the dog, something Kerry would not have chosen for him to experience.
This glossing over and distancing tactic is the flip side of Kerryville, the byproduct of mid-century optimism clashing with an America that has never been great enough to care for its most vulnerable citizens. Kerryville was kind of a myth, in its own way a rejection of those values.
Today, my column about Kerry was published in the Pittsburgh Current. I hope Kerry’s legacy leads to more people accessing insurance. I also hope more people who want magic in the world to take concrete action to create it, rather than just fantasize about it.
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