Today is Harry Potter’s birthday! Did you know that? As a Potterhead, I always thought it was cool that Harry’s birthday is the same as my nephew’s. Like Harry, Sean was full of magic and fantasy. His heart was bigger than his head and like Harry, he had a lot of inner demons. Today would have been Sean’s 37th birthday but unlike Harry Potter, he wasn’t the boy who lived. He died exactly four months ago.
Sean’s cause of death is officially recorded as peritonitis from a perforated ulcer. You’d be right to wonder how something like that could happen in 2014 in someone only 36 years old. Sean had been an alcoholic since his teens. He’d been hospitalized for bleeding ulcers four years before he died. He was told then to stop drinking before it killed him. He couldn’t – or didn’t want to, even though he knew what would happen.
I share this with you today for two reasons. A death like this is often referred to as a high stigma loss. There’s a lot of judgment surrounding deaths related to addiction as if the person deserved it or was somehow less than. Why didn’t he just stop? (As if it were that easy and even recovering alcoholics have said that to me.) Why didn’t the family do something? He must have been weak-willed. Oh what a waste.
“Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. Goddamn it Otto, you are an alcoholic. Goddamn it Otto, you have Lupus… one of those two doesn’t sound right.” ~ comedian Mitch Hedberg
You don’t blame someone who has Lupus but as a society, we certainly blame someone with alcoholism. And when someone dies from alcoholism, fingers point everywhere. (Those of you who will quickly say he could have killed someone driving need to know that Sean never drove and never had a driver’s license.) The end result, we don’t talk about it . . . which leads me to the second reason for sharing this today . . .
People truly don’t know what to say to a bereaved person but after a high stigma loss, it’s even worse! We all have a “big book of grief rules” where we rank losses based on some kind of inner metric that tells us how much compassion we give to someone based on where the loss ranks (and everyone’s book of rules is different and arbitrary). For example, a 6-week miscarriage falls at the lowest rung for most folks and the murder of a 6 year old child is probably at the top. But, you don’t know what that woman who had the 6-week miscarriage went through to achieve that pregnancy or that she may have lost 10 babies before that one and will never have another pregnancy. We can’t know all the ripples of loss in any bereaved person’s life to fully grasp how much someone will grieve any type of loss.
So, for me to lose a nephew (as opposed to someone I birthed) to an alcohol-related death (as opposed to cancer) is probably on the low end of anybody’s compassion meter. But this nephew wasn’t some guy I saw now and then. This was a child who spent a lot of his growing up years with my family, who was a brother to my sons, who lived with me as an adult and cried as hard as I did when my mother died. This was a funny, talented, magical person who understood me in a way no one else did and I’m sure he’d say the same about me. This wasn’t just a distant relative. He was like my little brother, especially when my brothers died and then my parents. And it matters not to me how he died because I choose to remember all those funny goofy memories we shared (and thankfully there are MANY!). I will always be pained that I couldn’t save him (as if I had that kind of power) and having people suggest that I’m making too much of his death adds to that pain because he IS worth remembering.
Please, rethink your big book of grief rules. Please, don’t disappear from someone who has experienced a high stigma loss (it’s really not contagious). Ditch the platitudes . . . I heard things like, “Well this isn’t a surprise.” Why do people say that? Is that supposed to lessen my sorrow? Please . . . Hug a lot, listen a lot, and talk about the dead. Remember the funny and special memories with me!
Sean was a talented writer and was beginning to get his work out into the world of fanfic. We encouraged each other in our writing because no one else in the family did. And now, I’ll use his legacy as my “big why” for writing. I know he’s cheering me on because he was an awesome cheerleader.
Happy birthday Seanie!