PUBLIC DISPLAY OF PERFECTION

I work hard to keep the protective walls up around me, to shield my heart whenever possible. Instead of reacting wildly to insensitive remarks like I did right after Ben died, I’ve trained myself to cut some slack to those whose insensitive words inadvertently stab me directly in the heart. Nowadays, I can usually listen to the blurb, put on a passive face and act as if it’s simply flown over my head. That little shield goes up around my heart and I turn away, not wanting to hurt or confront the one who was insensitive. You see, I want to be a kind and gentle soul when it’s all said and done…as much as that is possible. I don’t want to be remembered as an old and cold and bitter woman when I am gone. And how can I expect others to know that my brain is still (and obsessively so) consumed with the after-effects of Ben’s death? Most probably think I am “better” but I am just oh so good (well trained) at hiding my true feelings. How can I expect them to know that every word I hear, every word I say and every relationship I have is still directly related to and processed in the context of my son’s death?

In the nearly two and a half years (how can it already be that long ago?!?) since Ben died, I’ve learned that there’s only so much outwardly displayed grief that’s permitted in most environments. Only when I am with a precious few of my loved ones do I feel free to be myself, to share my grief and also laughter with them. It’s a strange thing, but I’ve come to realize that once a person has allowed me to cry in their presence and allowed me to be real with them, there comes a sense of freedom to also share a good from-the-gut laugh with them, a laugh that surprises even me when it comes out of me. I guess it’s because they’ve allowed me to take off my mask, to be real, to be me. They’ve let me know that they love me in spite of my often despairing and ugly inner workings. No need to put on a public display of perfection for them!

At work this morning, I actually allowed myself to behave in a manner contrary to my usual self. My boss was meeting with a client. He walked into my office and asked me to prepare a receipt for him to sign acknowledging to the client that we had received the client’s estate planning documents. As he turned to go back into his office, my boss said to me, “He needs a receipt so that his family knows where his documents are….just in case his body cools down to room temperature before he gets his documents back.” I sat there for several moments, digesting those words. Wondering how they could have been said to me. Were they actually spoken to me, the still-devastated mom whose son died? As soon as those words slapped me upside the face, my thoughts went to Ben….I pictured him laying in the middle of the road after his accident. I know my boss. I know him very well after working for him for decades. He is one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. If he had stopped to think, I’m sure it would have registered that those words had the power to hurt and he would not have said them. But, after allowing similar but different remarks to fly over my head for months, I just had to rid myself of the ugly feelings that had been generated by his not ill intended but yet “un-thinking” words.

Because I so desperately needed to tell him that his words had deeply affected me and that I was hurt by his insensitivity and because I knew I would not be able to control my emotions if I chose to talk to him, I wrote a little post-it note for him that read something like this:

“I cannot say this out loud because I will end up crying, and I surely don’t want you walking on eggshells around me, but I just needed to let you know that I am very sensitive to words like ‘…in case his body cools down to room temperature.’ Since Ben’s death, words such as those have the power to stab me deep in the heart. Usually I can play tough, but not today. Sue”

I handed him the note and ended up crying anyways as I listened to him try to explain his rationale for saying those words. But I do wish to give myself a little pat on the back. Today I chose to not let that insensitive remark fly over my head. I chose to speak up to let my boss know that I am not simply a metal robot who walks around without a heart remaining in her chest. It’s not easy trying to function in the same manner that I did before. I can play tough, but sometimes watching and listening to those around me as they continue living in their un-shattered worlds overwhelms me. I don’t believe I emit the deep, unsettled emotions that I feel when I watch them live their perfectly ordinary lives, happy for them yet saddened by what I can no longer take for granted. I am not impervious to what goes on. I have become hyper-aware of what happens around me and super-sensitive to words tossed out into the wind without thought, words that aren’t meant to hurt but which do hurt this super-sensitive soul trying to balance the happy with the sad in her life.

I believe I handled the situation kindly and maturely (in spite of the post-it note delivery). I always worry about and am sensitive to others’ feelings, even in my altered state, but my feelings matter too. No public display of perfection for me today!

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4 comments

  1. Way to go you. I get so fed up being hurt my peoples unintentional remarks. The latest was ironically another mom who had just lost her son in a terrible accident, I don’t know her very well but I wanted to reach out in return she hurt me deeply by saying that her grief was worse as he son wasn’t sick or anything like my daughter was. I know she absolutely didn’t mean to hurt me but it did and brought back the many months of suffering she and I went through during her illness. Sometimes just sometimes people need to be reminded how fragile we are these days.

    1. Thanks for understanding, Sharon (I’m guessing that’s your name??). I read your post today on Grief. Absolutely heart-wrenching. I feel your pain. It never goes away, does it? It just gets buried deeper on certain days, waiting to erupt at a later date. Others just don’t know the depth unless they’ve been hurled into this hurricane. Hugs to you.

  2. i also find that words, phrases we used to say in an offhand way, make me feel the same way. My 35 year old daughter was on life support, and we had to make the decision to take her off because she was “brain dead,” as the doctors put it. When I hear someone say “You’re brain dead”, it just send me right back to those days. Also, I have caught myself catching my breath when people say I died laughing or I love them to death but….and like you, I have learned to hide my emotions.

    Mary

    1. Thanks for reading, Mary. I, too, have been guilty of the same…speaking in an offhanded way, until now. My 5-year old nephew was also on life support. What a gut-wrenching decision to remove our loved ones. I remember shortly after he died, my co-worker said “Oh, I feel brain dead today!” Those words, which we never used to think twice about, now scream at us! Hugs and prayers for you

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