Season 3 Episode 2:
Loss & Grief

Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.

Alex: And I’m Alex Berg and you’re listening to

Both: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.

Alex: If you just can’t get enough of I’m From Driftwood, go check out its YouTube channel. The stories have tens of millions of views and over 100,000 subscribers and a new story is uploaded every week. You can also browse every story it’s ever published since it launched in 2009. Speaking of stories, let’s get to today’s episode.

On today’s episode, we are talking about grief and loss, and going into this, I feel like I’m bracing myself a little bit, just because it’s going to make me sad, these stories made me sad, they brought up a lot of stuff. But one thing I’ve also been thinking about is…I interviewed this grief counselor for a story that I was working on a while back and one of the things that she said was, “in grief you can find transformation,” and at the time, when she told me that, and just after the year that we have all endured, at the time, I was like, “that’s bullshit, that is BS.” There is no- [crosstalk]

Phil: I feel like I am not buying that.

Alex:I was like, “No, actually, any kind of loss is actually just horrible.” At that time, I think, I was also really sitting in the grieving and pain that all of us were coping with and addressing. Now, on the other side, I’m starting to understand that idea a little bit more, but that was, kind of, something that I was thinking about as I was watching these two particular stories.

Phil: What I came away with from these stories is, and it’s not something that people don’t know, is how profound grief is, how much of a cloud it creates in your life. It can wield you in this incredible way. It can feel like, at any given moment, it wants to rear its head and you are at its will, you are not in control. It shows up when it feels like it, it does what it wants. It’s like that guest you didn’t know was coming to your house and next thing you know they’re at your door and you’re like, “I’m sorry, wait, what? Did we have a play date?”

Alex: That is such a good analogy, of the guest just showing up whenever it wants, because the other thing too is, I think, a lot of times we love to think about time and everything in such a linear pattern. And I think the idea of the guest that just shows up uninvited, whenever they want, is that grief is also non-linear and you can’t predict how you’re going to feel or when you’re going to feel.

Phil: I mean, you could see that with Michael’s story. It was like, whoa, he didn’t want to pick up those ashes.

Michael: My partner Chase died October 23, 1993, which was 10 years to the day that we met. I had, after that point, sort of, receded behind the walls of our Beacon Hill apartment. Having lost Chase, my best friend Randy, and dozens of friends before them, left me with, sort of, a paralyzing numbness. I cried all my tears and I just packed it away for the winter, behind those walls and really just stopped feeling anything. Feeling was just too difficult at that time. I’d had Chase’s body cremated and I’d gotten several notices from the crematorium to pick up Mr. Leon’s ashes and I just couldn’t do it. I guess it was the finality of the situation but I just couldn’t make myself go out into the cold, brutal, Boston fall/winter and pick those ashes up, so they just stayed where they were.

They were in four boxes because Chase had requested that his ashes be disposed of in four different places and I could foresee a future where I was going to have to divide ashes into four and I wanted no part of such a thing, so I asked them to do that. So, they were holding those four boxes in South Boston somewhere and I was doing my best to just avoid the whole ash situation.

Christmas was approaching and as I said, I was just so depressed. Christmas is my favorite time of year. I was always of the “if it doesn’t move, decorate it” school of Christmas decorating, and crazy with Christmas and Chase wasn’t as much so, but he enjoyed the fact that I enjoyed it so much. Well, it was just me and I started realizing I didn’t buy any Christmas presents that year. I didn’t bake any cookies. I just didn’t do all the things that gave me so much joy usually.

When I realized I wasn’t going to have a Christmas tree, it got even worse. I had never had a Christmas without a Christmas tree, and I thought, “well, that’s what you can do for yourself. Go out and get a Christmas tree.” So I did, I went out and got a Christmas tree. I put it up, started decorating, and I had all the boxes of stuff out. I had carols on, I had malt cider. If I’d planned ahead, maybe I would have invited people over. It would have been better, but I hadn’t. I wouldn’t have been there wallowing in self-pity, but that’s just what I was doing: wallowing in self-pity.

I remember just getting partially done and I just sat down on the chair and, ornaments in hand, surrounded by this mess. I don’t know how long I’d been that way, and the doorbell rang. I couldn’t imagine who it was, but I went, we had a garden apartment, so I had to go outside into the cold, into the garden and open the big gate that I’d been hiding behind for months. There was this skinny man and all dressed in black, of course. A Dickensian looking, man, that, right out of central casting for somebody who would be delivering ashes. There were four boxes in his hands and I recognized them immediately: Chase’s ashes.

I walked back into the house and closed the door and sat down where I was before the doorbell rang with those four boxes. They were all little cubes about that big, four of them, just resting heavily in my lap. All that pent up grief that I’d just been storing just all came out at that moment. Possibly at what was the worst moment of my life, through the bleariness of all this crying, I looked down at those boxes, just holding them in my arms. And I noticed the little yellow post-it note on top of one of them. I just kind of wiped my eyes and read it, and clearly it was meant to be removed before the boxes were delivered, but it said “deliver four boxes of Leon to Michael Anastasio.”

This struck me as funny. In the midst of all that crying…Chase had a great sense of the absurd. All of a sudden it was like, I was seeing that through his eyes “deliver four boxes of Leon…that was his last name, Chase Leon…four boxes of Leon” and all of a sudden I started chuckling. Then I started laughing and then suddenly the laughter was as uncontrollable as the crying had been. It was like I had released so much grief that all of a sudden this one little post-it note that some little office worker must’ve written out and stuck on there saved my life.

I think probably what it did was it resurrected him for a minute, because I saw that note through his eyes: four boxes of him. Just the thought of four boxes of Chase, it’s too funny. I looked around that room, and it may sound corny or whatever, but it was like everything in that room came to life suddenly. There was so much death and dying and sadness in that room, and then all of a sudden it just sparkled with life. Everything. Everything that I saw. It was just like he was in every molecule around me. It was this beautiful experience where suddenly everything had been about death and suffering. Now, all of a sudden everything was life.

I got out the prettiest wrapping paper that I had, wrapped all of them. I’m a very good gift wrapper. I wrapped them all with the best ribbon that I had and tied them up and made these four beautiful bows, and I put those four boxes of Leon under the Christmas tree. That was my Christmas that year. It was that little post-it note. I’m not sure what I would’ve done without that little post-it note, but it changed everything for me. It seemed like that was my hurdle. I had to get rid of that grief somehow. Those four boxes arriving…getting four boxes of your deceased lover’s ashes while you’re decorating a Christmas tree is not going to cheer you up. But the post-it note did.

Phil: We cremated my dad. My dad died in 2002, and I didn’t want to deal with those ashes. It was two-fold for me. One, I don’t think those ashes on my dad, for me, I was like “that’s not him,” right, so I’m like, “I don’t have any attachment to that.” But, also I was like, “that’s so final.” Just like Michael, I was like, “I don’t want to deal with that. It’s final.” It’s like, “that’s the end of the road right there.” It was weird. It’s hard for me, there’s a conflict there. One, I don’t have a connection to it, but two, it’s very final.

Alex: I think the finality is something that I can never wrap my head around. I lost a very close family friend a few years ago, and it was very sudden. There was something about the presence of someone being there one second, and then all of a sudden not having that presence. There’s something so surreal that it does not compute; I will never be able to wrap my head around that.

One of the things that Michael was talking about is that he said that when he saw the box, it said Leon Chase’s ashes are split into four different boxes, and he talked about how that moment resurrected him because it felt like his partner was in every molecule of the room. I think that sometimes for me, in that experience, it was like the absence of this person who had just been there, that filled up the room. So yeah, it’s so much to try to even process or connect the dots on. There’s something so big and overwhelming to me about that.

Phil: I get what you’re saying. There’s no way. You can’t rationalize it. You’re just like, “I don’t know how to make my brain understand this.”

Alex: One of the things that I really appreciate about being culturally Jewish is that you are given a long span of time to mourn and grieve. I actually do like some of those rituals. You sit Shivah, which means there’s a certain amount of time that you’re sitting at home and you’re wearing black, and you walk around with a little pin on, for a certain amount of time, to signify that you are in morning. Then you wait a full year before the unveiling of the grave and that’s when someone’s headstone is shrouded. I guess the thing that I like about that is I appreciate that there are these guideposts that allow it to happen over a longer span of time, so that there isn’t that sense of finality. I think that’s something that resonated with me about ladi’s story.

Ladi: I had been with my partner for about 18 years. The last four years he was fighting a terminal and rare cancer. He had this colostomy operation. It was the last surgery that he had. He would get really sick, nauseous. You could just feel the misery coming off of him. He looked horrible and there was nothing you could do for him, and about a week later, I noticed that I was getting nauseous as well. Then I realized I was actually getting sick as a precursor to him, cause about five or 10 minutes later, he would get really sick, and once I made this connection, the next time I felt this stomach problem, I would get a couple of kitchen towels and get them wet. I sat with one on my head and I crawled around and gave him one, and he just looked at me like, “okay…”

I told him he was going to need it. I sat down like this, and then it hit him, and I could feel it hit him. He just looked at me because he didn’t know what was going on. I just pointed at the towel and he grabbed it, and we both sat there with towels on our head until the nausea finally passed, and then we were both better. And he looked and he says, “how do you know this?” and I have no idea. We both got misty-eyed and he was like, “we love each other so much that we’re joined in this way that we feel each other’s lives.”

Six months later, Chris passed away, and for a month I was absolutely insane. I was ridiculously lonely. I was lost and I was absolutely devoid of help and hope for anything. There was just nothing that was going to make me better.

While I was crazy, I was able to take care of my pets. I had a dog and two cats: Rizzo and Cyclops and Tragedy, and I made sure they were okay. The dog got walked, everyone got fed, and the cats had their litter box changed, but one of the things I forgot to do was take care of myself. I would go days where I just forgot to eat. I was lying in bed, miserable, crying, and trying not to live.

It was during one of those times, that I’d had this self-imposed fast, that I had this dream within a dream. In the first layer, I was in the cemetery after Chris’s funeral, and I was walking around and the sun was setting and it was getting dark, and I was just calling out his name, looking for him. Then I woke up and Chris was lying right beside me. He said, “well, what a silly dream. I’m always here.”

Then I woke up again, and then I realized “he is dead. He is not here.” I am shaking and I am nauseous and I am rolling around in the fetal position on my side of the bed. The cats are sleeping behind me, they took over Chris’s side, and my dog Rizzo sees that something’s wrong. She climbs up her staircase because she had knee surgery, so we got a staircase for her, so it’s easier for her to get on the bed. She was a little pit bull mix, brown with a white stripe down her face and white socks, and she just starts licking at my face.

I’m still reeling, having this memory, and I’m wishing I could throw up, which honestly is the weirdest wish anybody could ever have. My dog is there licking my face, and I look at her, and she’s got the most beautiful brown eyes. Then she turned sideways and she throws up all over the bed. I bolt up and I have to rip these sheets off because my dog has this horrible tendency, and I was wanting to make sure I got everything before she decided to try and re-digest what she had just regurgitated onto the bed.

I got new sheets to put on the bed, I got the old things thrown in the laundry, and I come back in the bedroom. The cats have taken over Chris’s side of the bed again and my dog has just climbed back up there. She’s looking at me, and she’s got that dopey little smile on her face, and her tongue is hanging out, and I realize I am no longer nauseous. I would get sick as a warning for Chris, because that was my way of being able to take care of him. We all knew he was going to pass away, and this was something I could do. It was a warning bell that I have no idea why it went off, but it went off every time until he passed away.

My dog does not have the power to be prescient. There’s nothing she could do for me before the fact, but she could see that I was in pain, and I believe in my heart that she could feel my stomach roiling, but knew that I was not bright enough to have fed myself over the last couple of days. Whereas I made sure she ate all the time, and she says “I’ll throw up for both of us.” At that point, I was ready to just sit up…I don’t remember what we watched on TV, probably nothing, we probably just tossed it on for some company…but I remember sitting with my dog, just being happy of having her. It was nice to be able to not need to bury myself under the covers for a while, and she gave that to me. The world has a weird way of stepping in and making sure that you’re okay. You’re not better, because it takes a long time to get better, but for that one second, you’ll be okay. What I got from it later is it the belief that yes, grief will drive you insane, but love is absolutely magic.

Alex: The thing that he said was “Grief will drive you insane, but love is absolutely magic, which is-

Phil: -I pulled out the same quote, because it was so beautiful-

Alex: -true on all counts. His dog was also cognizant of feeling that pain, so I guess just what I’m trying to say is there was so much connection there and also that he was really living through that.

Phil: I thought that that story was really beautiful. Also, even the conversation he had with this partner about how connected they were…the partner was saying “we’re so connected that you get nauseous before I do, so you’re the warning sign for me.” And what happened with the dog was just incredible to me. He wasn’t feeding himself. He was taking care of his animals, his pets. Ladi was taking care of his cats and his dogs, but he couldn’t take care of himself at that moment. And for the dog to be just like, “okay, well, I’m just going to bring this up and we can all feel better. We’re going to do that together.” Talk about “man’s best friend.” That’s pretty incredible, right?

It’s such a beautiful thing, when you think about how there are these things that happen, just like what happened with Michael with the post-it. It’s just these things that happen that are not things that you can explain logically. What Michael talked about with feeling his partner, seeing that post-it, and then laughing and feeling the absurdity of the post-it and just thinking about how much it connected him to the absurdity of his partner’s humor. It just, wow! The entire room, he said, was enlivened with his partner’s energy, and I was like, “that is incredible.” That’s not something you could ever plan for. That is not something you would expect. And that’s what’s interesting about grief because it takes away, but it also gives. And it’s insane because you think it’s just taking, you think it’s just cutting you down in every angle, but it’s also giving in this beautiful way.

Alex: That’s why I appreciated both Ladi and Michael’s stories, because they’re filled with so many different kinds of strange emotions of stuff that’s happening that’s really unpredictable and how they’re coming to terms with what happened themselves and how they’re working through it now. So, I appreciate that they both were able to convey the kind of full range of human emotion and not just make it so flat, one-dimensional.

Phil: Right, and the thing is it’s anything but flat. That’s the thing about grief, it’s anything but flat. We can connect to the crushing blow of it, but there’s more to it. There’s just much more to it.

Alex: Were there similarities that you saw between their stories?

Phil: Obviously, the weight of grief. They were being crushed by the weight of grief, you could see that. You can also see them – I think moreso Michael than Ladi – that you could see him trying to run from it. You could see him trying to outrun it. And that’s the thing, you can’t outrun it, really. It’s going to catch up with you on some level. So I think those are the two things I saw. What about you?

Alex: I would say yes, loss of a long-term partner, slogging through the pain of it all, depression, trying to find a way to cope, eventually coping. I think that there’s so many cliches also around grief and sadness, but I feel like one that actually is true about grief is that you do learn just to live with the loss, and that actually, I know for me the coping has come from just learning to live and navigate the loss better, and becoming a little bit more desensitized to it in a way. And so I feel like that that kind of happened for them both.

The one other thing that made me think about is, I really hate when something awful happens or someone dies and people tell you it’s going to be okay or it’s going to be fine. You can just say, “This really sucks. I’m here to walk through the pain with you, or I’m here to sit through this with you, if you want me to.” It made me think about that.

Phil: [inaudible] Let me just say, I think you should say nothing if you’d rather say that. If it’s between saying absolutely nothing and saying “it’s going to be okay,” I’m like “it’s okay for you right now, it ain’t okay for me. It’s not okay.”

I literally had a family member die this week. It’s an extended family member, the mother of one of my aunts by marriage, and I called her today. Even making that call, you’re like, “oh my God, this is so scary. I don’t know how to do this.” For me in those moments, it’s not okay not to say anything. I would rather sit with my discomfort with not knowing what to say, as opposed to just not saying anything and showing up and being like “I see this loss and I get it and I am here.” We just got on the phone. We had this beautiful conversation remembering her mom and how much life she had. I was so happy that I didn’t let my discomfort shut me down, right? So yeah, don’t say it.

Alex: Don’t say that. Don’t say it’s okay.

Phil: Don’t say that please. It’s just not okay. You’re not holding space for someone’s emotions, really. You’re shutting it down. You’re like “nope, it’s going to be all right.”

Alex: “It’s fine!” Well, I love what you said about just saying “I’m here.” I feel like sometimes just affirming that something awful has happened-

Phil: Well, a lot of times what the grief feels like is alone. You’re alone in it. You’re not navigating with people so much. You’re trying to make your way through it alone. So if somebody is there and is like “I’m going to walk through this with you. I got you.” That’s so helpful. Not, “it’s going to be okay!”

Alex: We started off this conversation. I talked to this grief counselor who said that transformation can come out of grieving, and at the time I really wanted to just be like “F you, I’m just in the pits of despair. How can that be?” Now, being on the other side, I do kind of see. I think some of my priorities have changed after this past year. I was talking about how this is a moment where I think that we… I don’t know anyone who has really been able to grapple with the loss of this past year. I think we recently passed 600,000 deaths from COVID in the U.S. I think, also we’re reckoning with so many different kinds of grief. We’ve witnessed so much police brutality this past year, so much other kinds of loss, it’s just been really awful. A lot of us have had, in our personal lives, we know people who’ve died from COVID. So to me, that’s kind of most immediately top of mind. So, I’m just curious about the way that you’re thinking about this in terms of what good can come, or what you get from grief.

Phil: I think the darkness of it, like what we were talking about, that pit of darkness, you really can feel like “I don’t even think I will ever feel like myself again.” Maybe I can talk about my own experience. I’ve seen experiences here and there. Take, for instance, when my dad died, I remember we were at his memorial and I had to speak that day, and I remember being like, “this is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” and I did it and it was great. At the end, I’m thinking to myself, “okay, I’m just glad I made it through that.”

Phil: At the end, someone that I didn’t know that knew my dad came up to me and just started telling me all these beautiful stories about him, and it was such a gift. I’m not saying that that was given to me by grief, but there’s these beautiful moments. It’s almost like you’re in this huge land of mud and muck and every once in a while there’s this beautiful shining object that you find, and you prize it out, and you’re like, “oh my God, I don’t even know if I could’ve appreciated this before. I don’t even know if this would have caught my eye before. And today I can see it.” And I’m like, “wow, this is beautiful. This is amazing.” I think it’s moments like that. You can’t plan for them. It just happened. You just happen upon them. I feel like that’s what it’s like.

The I’m from Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil AKA Corinne

Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as a program of I’m from Driftwood, the LGBTQAI+ story archive.

Phil: It’s mission is to send a life-saving message to queer and trans people everywhere: You are not alone.

Alex: I’m from Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. Its program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.

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Phil: This program is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs

Alex: in partnership with the city council.

Phil: Additional funding is provided by the Humanities New York SHARP grant with support from The National Endowment for the Humanities and the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Alex: Thanks for listening, y’all.

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