The SoylentGrief Monster

Grief is a monster. I think about grief a lot with my job. I worry that I’m not helping my families grieve, that I’m not providing the right space for them, that I’m not giving them all the tools to work with, that I’m not doing enough. Mainly that I’m not doing enough. This leads me to thinking about my own grief, which in turn leads me to thinking about the time I mailed three huge cases (a hundred bottles) of Soylent to my funeral home.

Let me take a step back and explain a few things…

We have SHOCK (this is when the event is currently occurring, when we’re in the midst of “the shit”).
We have TRAUMA (this can be a physiological and psychological response and can occur throughout, we can have reoccurring traumas and added secondary traumas, etc.).
We have GRIEF (this is a very broad term that encompasses all mental and physical anguish over a loss).
We have MOURNING (this is the outward expression of grief).

(Think of it like a big circle called Grief. You have Shock and Trauma floating around inside. Sometimes there may be multiple Traumas bumping into everything in there. Then think of Mourning as the exit sign. It isn’t the door to say that you’re done grieving, it is just showing you the way to the next step.)

As a Funeral Director it is my job to take someone (or many someones) who have just experienced a loss and walk them through the trauma, into the grief, and then into the mourning phase (the funeral). Pre-pandemic I could have told you that I felt that I was pretty darn good at this. But post-pandemic… it’s hard to say. Sometimes, lately, I really feel at a loss.

We regularly hold grief support meetings at our funeral home and it has been a huge success in the past. It has created lasting friendships, saved more than a few from taking their own life, and in a few instances it has created “more than friendships.” We haven’t been able to hold these support groups for the past year. This year, I had the honor of taking over the esteemed Bob Ross’s legacy and continuing the grief support groups. I had already been researching and studying grief and its many forms for years, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was in for. At the first meeting, Bob gives the history, introduces me and Kristin (the licensed grief counselor) and we dive in. After the break Kristin and Bob pull me aside and say, “Heather, we really think you should tell your story and share with the group.” Now all of the people who came to this group happen to be families that I’ve served in the past year. I am their Funeral Director. Telling them my personal story of grief felt very personal. But I did. I talked about losing four family members in three months. I talked about losing my childhood best friend when I was young, Abby. And then I talked about losing my best friend Tina, the most devastating of all. This is where Soylent comes in and this is the story I told.

Tina St. Claire (whew! that’s hard to write) or TFail as she was often known in our circles, was diagnosed at age 31 with a very large glioblastoma (a gigantic tumor) in her brain on Christmas Eve of 2015. She died three months later on March 9th of 2016. It was absolutely life-shattering for me.

A couple days after Tina died I was on Facebook and I got a notification that Tina St. Claire had “liked” this product called Soylent. About this time we had discovered that she had “go bags” in her closet for all kinds of scenarios. In hindsight this makes sense, she was very big into conspiracy theories. She had a bag for a zombie apocalypse, she had one for earthquakes, and on and on. She was well prepared. So when I got this notification that she would like this new drink called Soylent my first response was, “Well no she doesn’t, she’s dead. Fuck you Facebook.” But then I clicked on the link and yes, oh yes, she would have definitely liked Soylent. Soylent is NOT Soylent Green, however the name is not lost on the creators. The creators of this drink researched the basic needs of the human body down to essential minerals and nutrients and created a substance that one could technically survive off of solely without the need for food. Absolutely brilliant, right up Tina’s lane. So what does one do who is grieving but doesn’t have time to grieve because she’s working 24/7 and helping others grieve and also really good at compartmentalizing her emotions (*psst, I’m talking about me*). 

I did it. I started the 30-day Soylent Challenge. I thought, I’m going to go 30 days and only drink Soylent and this will somehow be a bond between me and Tina and this is how I am going to honor her… I had three huge cases with the word “SOYLENT” written and nothing else delivered to my funeral home. In hindsight this wasn’t the best idea and led to more than a few questions by families and my boss. 

I made it about 17 days. After 17 days I was like, what am I doing? This is ridiculous. But I also had some kind of clarity to make the realization that this was grief. This was me grieving. This is what grief LOOKS LIKE on me. Weird right?

Remember when I said that grief is a monster? Yeah? Well, monsters come in all shapes and sizes. I feel that as someone who has the honor of helping people wrestle this monster it is important to know the monster personally. My grief monster looks like going on weird crazy diets that subconsciously allow me to feel like I’m in control of something (my body) because nothing else is controllable and I was spinning. Your grief monster might look like something different.

You may not have a SoylentGrief Monster, but I bet you know what I’m talking about. Think about it, sometimes it may be something that we think is completely unrelated to the person or the death or anything. 

What does your Grief Monster look like?

Literally Died

*So you "literally" died of embarrassment last night? Tell me more about the arrangements for your funeral.*

Yesterday, while making funeral arrangements with a wife and her three adult children, it came time to pay. The wife goes to pull out her credit card and the children all start telling her to put it away as they start putting their cards on the table. As the third son puts down his card he and I simultaneously say, “You can make it a three way” “So it’s a three way” …

There was a silent pause that hung in the air as we all looked around the table at each other. 

Then, at the same time, they all started laughing. They were laughing so hard they were crying. The wife got mascara all over her face mask. 

I said, “Oh Lord, that did not come out as I intended.” This of course caused them to laugh even louder and harder. I mean, they were doubled over in their chairs laughing.

Laughter is a helpful coping mechanism. Especially in today’s society where sometimes it feels we are walking on a thin line, we don’t want to offend anyone, or we don’t feel like we’re grieving “properly.” Laughing at unintended dirty jokes is okay. Laughing at embarrassed funeral directors who just want to crawl under the table and die is okay. There’s no right way about this. Allowing yourself to laugh can be incredibly healing. It was like a dam had burst for this family and they were finally able to breathe.

That’s where butterflies come from…

I had an arrangement conference with a woman who brought her very young daughter. I’m bad with ages but let’s say 5? As we are walking into the selection room to look at caskets, the little girl runs over to one of the purple caskets on display. She just stares at it in awe with her mouth wide open. As the mother and I are talking about caskets and options, I am noticing that this little girl is not moving and the look of amazement it not coming off her face. As we are finishing up I walk over to the little girl and ask what she sees. She pulls my sleeve down to her level and whispers in her little girl voice, “This is where butterflies come from.”

“Not everyone is cut out to be a good friend in grief.”

~Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

“Many an opportunity is lost because a man is out looking for four-leaf clovers.”

Author Unknown

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time – the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes – when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever – there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.” ~John Irving