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On grief, with Ashley Feinberg
Two sad ladies talk sadness.
Content warning: This post contains discussion of death and suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
When someone you love dies, people tell you how brave you’re being, and they mean it. They see you at the funeral, or going out to meet friends, or just getting through the day, and they admire your ability to Carry On. It feels strange to hear it. You know it’s probably true, but it doesn’t feel like you’re being brave. It feels like survival—which maybe is in itself brave. But, like the fact of your loss, it is mostly just what it is. You are just doing what you have to, what you need to do. A lot of the time, they just don’t see you in the moments that aren’t brave, the moments where you’re wailing at a blank wall in your bedroom that has nothing to say to you.
Ashley Feinberg, my good friend and de facto grief counselor since my mum died last year, is braver than anyone I know. Her father killed himself when she was two weeks shy of 14, and her sister killed herself just as Ashley was about to graduate college. Just living with this experience would be very brave; it’s likely that when she reads this, she’ll feel the way I did when people said it to me. In the past few years, she has taken another courageous step and written about her experience, first for Gawker and then for HuffPost. From her Gawker piece:
Suicide is uncomfortable, it’s a downer. It makes people cast their eyes away, to the left, to the right—anywhere but at you. “Oh… I, wow. That’s really—jeez. I’m sorry.” They apologize. Their eyes dart back to you, pleading. Shit. Were those the right words? Did it go away? Are you broken?
Whether or not this is actually what they’re thinking doesn’t matter. Because as soon as the word “suicide” falls from my lips, the air becomes heavy, conversations strained, and all the negative space in my head fills with one, sinking thought: “They look so uncomfortable. Are they wondering what’s wrong with me?”
And, later in the piece:
The deaths of my father and my sister certainly don’t define me, but they’ve played a huge role in shaping who I’ve become, who I am today. And it’s something I’ve desperately hid from people—even lied about on occasion, and it’s exhausting.
When I do tell people what’s happened, it’s uncomfortable to varying degrees for varied lengths of time, but the relief (once the anxiety and the discomfort of explaining have passed) is indescribable. I’m off the minefield. I’m no longer weighed down by the persistent worry of what happens if they ask about my family. It’s done. They know me. And we can move on.
As she articulates, it takes a lot of effort—courageous effort, I would say—to break the silence, go through the uncomfortable moment where people look at her funny or don’t know what to say, and share the burden, even if it does feel better afterwards. To take this awful fact inside her and present it to the world is extremely difficult. Grief wants to stay inside; it wants to drag you into its abyss, to tell you that it’s too much, you’re too sad. Avoiding those impulses takes strength.
Ashley is currently working on a book about suicide—so I didn’t feel too guilty when I asked her to have a discussion with me about grief for this newsletter. I knew that all of this is close to the surface for her right now. I wish I could protect her from it, and make it not true, just like I wish I could make Mum alive again; I’m not brave enough to stop wishing that yet.
In the absence of the power to defeat Death and make him my goblin servant, all we can really do is talk. It is brave, and it’s also just what it is. So that is what we did.
Libby: So, Ashley, thank you for agreeing to have a horrible conversation with me, your horrible friend. I guess let’s start with: How is your grief?
Ashley: No one I'd rather talk about my profound emotional trauma and resulting shortcomings with.
Do you mean right now or just in general? Although I guess the answer to both is "bad."
Libby: Let’s do both!
Ashley: Well to provide some more context, I have spent the past eight years very carefully suppressing any real effort to come to terms with my grief and now that I am trying to write a book about it, the floodgates have really been opened. Turns out, suppressing something does not make it go away.
Do I need to mention who died or will that be in an intro?
Libby: I will cover that. Do you find it difficult to say who died?
Ashley: I wouldn't say difficult, more that I am just tired of having to go through the motions of the explanation. Which I think mostly has to do with the book, because whenever someone who I'm not particularly close to asks what I'm doing right now, I have to give a whole preface and then usher them through the very awkward response they will inevitably have etc. Gets old!
Libby: Absolutely. It’s very interesting how much I’ve been able to learn from you about grief even though our experiences were very different—I had years of warning, ample opportunity to say goodbye, and lost someone who you can reasonably expect to lose at some point in your adult life (even if it was much too early), none of which was true for you.
But I still feel like so much of what you’ve said to me since Mum died has rung true, including that—it truly hurts having to sort of wave people through the “oh I’m so sorry” intersection, like you’re a crossing guard. It’s not that it’s unappreciated, it’s just that the acknowledgement of her death itself is painful.
Ashley: See I think you actually take it better than me. It's not that I DON'T appreciate the sentiment, but for whatever reason I still just really really hate people saying "I'm sorry," even though I know what they mean by it and that they're not actually being like , "whoops my bad!" I still just want to be like, you didn't do it man!! Depending on how much of an asshole I want to be, I do sometimes slip in a "oh it was you who shot them?" joke but, curiously, that never seems to go over well.
Ashley: But I think we have talked about that a little, the instinct to like, just be an asshole to people for reasons I'm still not sure about
Libby: Well, it definitely is really funny, is the problem. I think we both love what annoying people call ‘dark humor,’ but it’s not really about the darkness of it. Like when we put Mum’s ashes in the ground, there was a giant sign in the village graveyard about 7 feet from her grave that said TOILETS. That is simply funny. Same thing with the idea of saying “did you shoot them” to someone; it’s inherently funny to take someone’s expectations of how you’ll react and then subvert them. That’s all humor is, really.
Ashley: Fuck, the TOILETS thing is really good.
My shrink says I resort to making jokes in an effort to avoid having to express genuine emotion but I like your explanation better.
Libby: I mean sure, maybe, but I also think maybe that’s ok! It’s up to you when you want to express emotion.
I was going to ask about therapy, because it has personally been helpful for me, so far, but I also feel like it’s window-dressing sometimes. Do you feel it’s helped you?
Ashley: I've thought about that a lot and the answer is—I mean, I'm sure it has, because I do always feel better after I go, even though I cancel as often as humanly possible and god knows where I'd be if I wasn't on antidepressants. But also, I've been going to a shrink since I was 14 (when my dad died), so like, over half my life.
Libby: Right, and you’re obviously still fucking mental.
Ashley: Preach sister. But I just don't remember a time when I wasn't going, and I also don't really know how or when I'm supposed to stop. But yeah I mean, it definitely does help, especially in the years immediately following a death, it is just such a relief to have someone to go to who you don't have to like, explain everything to, which is part of the reason I am still seeing my same shrink even though she is technically an adolescent psychiatrist—she just knows all my shit, and I can't imagine having to start over. Which is wild because, despite the fact that she occasionally appears to fall asleep in our sessions, I'll mention something and she'll connect to a thing that happened six years ago that I barely remember.
How long did it take you to find one you liked?
Libby: Lmao yes. I often think therapy is mostly just paying someone to remember your stories. Mine is GREAT at that. She must be so good at taking notes without me noticing.
Well, here’s my therapy journey: About three jobs/insurance plans ago, I tried finding a psychiatrist in-network, because I’ve been on antidepressants since I was 18 and I wanted someone who could do medication management as well. The only one in network I could find was at the Washington Hospital Center, and she sucked; she told me off for asking to go get water because I was late (I was only late because the woman ahead of me at reception had some terrible admin issue), and basically diagnosed me with being a shut-in and told me to Google “free things to do in DC.” Then I had one session with a nice lady who I couldn’t afford, and then I stopped trying. Couple years later I tried again, and had one session with a 90-year-old guy who definitely fell asleep in my session.
But then! I lucked out: Because I get migraine care from Medstar Georgetown, I was eligible to make an appointment with their outpatient psychiatry service. I’ve seen two residents in that program—one left last summer a couple months after Mum died, and now I see her replacement. Both were amazing. But now that I’m moving to LA I won’t be able to see her anymore, because of telehealth laws.
So, the short answer is: Years, and I have no idea how I’ll find one in LA, because I really can’t afford to pay private rates. I pay $40 a session currently.
Ashley: "free things to do in DC"
Libby: I HATED HER SO MUCH
Ashley: Turns out your therapist was actually a 6-month old copy of TimeOut DC
Ashley: That's actually another reason I can't bring myself to find a new one—I cancel constantly and she never says a thing about it. I really hope she's not reading this. [Therapist] if you're reading this please never tell me.
Libby: God that would be funny. But I mean, she knows you cancel
Ashley: I know but we never TALK about it. So it's sort of like it doesn't happen.
Libby: That’s very true, and important. Do you find it easy to be honest in therapy?
Ashley: About certain things. I first started seeing this one when I moved to New York after graduation, so like a month after my sister died. The first few years were just me basically trying to figure out how to get through work each day without having an emotional breakdown, so we really only talked about family stuff and my sister and dad and the aftermath and whatnot, and by the time we'd get through all that the sessions would be over.
So I never really got into the habit of talking about like, friends or just anything that doesn't have to do with suicide or depression, and i've never really been able to bring myself to bring that stuff up because it just seems so much more inconsequential compared to the other shit.
Like to the point that talking about anything else makes me deeply uncomfortable, which now that I'm saying it is probably something I should talk to her about I guess. But I don't wanna!
Anyway I have always been curious if that is just a me thing or if other people have had that issue.
Libby: Fascinating. For me it has sort of been the opposite—I had to force myself to bring Mum up in sessions because I was mostly talking about feeling guilty about not working hard enough, doing bad posts etc. In the few months after she died we talked about her more, but recently it’s all been work and my self-esteem, and I sort of… don’t know what to say about Mum. But! Our situations are extremely different. Frankly, there isn’t a ton for me to talk about—she’s dead, I wish she wasn’t, I miss her. There are obviously things to do with her death that I feel guilty about, but like I said earlier, it’s not like your situation. I can’t imagine how much stuff there would have been to deal with for you.
And this is something I keep coming back to in therapy as well: I feel like there are things that I’m not dealing with to do with her, and I also sometimes feel like the SSRIs make it harder to feel those things, but I don’t know what to do to get them out, or whether that’s actually a good idea. You know?
Ashley: Yeah I mean, obviously I am not in your head but based on my own experience I would say there are absolutely things that you are not dealing with, and that is perfectly normal!
Like the entire first year after my sister died is just sort of a black hole to me, but from photos I was clearly going out a lot and having fun.
I think my mind was just completely shut off because it couldn't deal with thinking about what happened—which also lead to very weird and inappropriate breakdowns at inopportune times.
But I also sort of liked it whenever it happened because it was proof that I was still feeling stuff, I just wasn't ready to ACTUALLY feel it, if that makes sense. I think we've talked about that a little, right? Like, random things just setting you off completely out of nowhere.
Libby: Yes, we have—mine was a panic attack in Boston with Louis’s parents, which was sort of about how I had been there with Mum, and wouldn’t be with her again, but not entirely. It was just bizarre. Like a real “misfiring neurons” situation.
And again, I feel sort of lame in comparison to you here—I truly can’t comprehend how traumatizing that must have been. But I went through the same thing! I was mostly fine except for the odd breakdown, then after about five months I was suddenly insanely not fine, and depressed in a way I had never been before, at least not while I’d been on SSRIs.
I think we’ve talked about this before too: The only way you feel close to them is to feel the weight of their death, but that… fucking sucks, it hurts more than anything. But, not feeling that makes it feel like they were never real, or you don’t love them as much as you do.
Ashley: Yes exactly! Like when you're in the numb place the only way to stay there is to basically force your mind to not think about them at all, which feels like a betrayal even though it’s an involuntary self-preservation response.
And yeah, there's a lot of things you don’t expect just bringing stuff to the forefront you are completely unready to think about. The one I remember most viscerally was a few years after I moved here (I think I told you this), and I passed by a dead rat on the street that had some blood around it, and I just suddenly had this extremely vivid flashback to right after my sister's funeral when I overheard my mom talking to my aunt about what she saw when her and my brother found my sister, and how there was blood around her head (even just typing those last few words took me like five minutes).
I'd completely blocked any memory of hearing that out and it just immediately came back to me, and I started hyperventilating in the Atlantic Ave subway station. Really fucks your day up, I gotta say. The crazy thing is like, those moments get few and farther between but it never really stops. Not to put a damper on your hopes...
Libby: God damn. Yes, you did tell me about that, and it’s just horrible. It sucks how it can be so random like that—like, I can avoid looking at pictures of her or listening to music that reminds me of her pretty easily, but sometimes something just jumps out and attacks you like that.
The fact that the timeline for dealing with this is “literally the rest of my life” really sucks. It’s funny to imagine being 80 and missing your mum but I know I will.
Ashley: I don't know why, but like, for the first 8 years after my sister died, reading or watching a show or whatever about very close sisters didn’t affect me at all. But now, in year 9, suddenly it's literally impossible for me to see or hear anything that has to do with very close sisters without immediately crying. I think maybe it has to do with my brain starting to realize she's actually gone finally? Do you ever forget that like, anything happened, like absentmindedly reaching for your phone or whatever?
Libby: I mean, that’s huge, and I hope you continue down that road as gently and comfortably as you can. I hate even saying to you “I hope you can accept your sister is dead” because I don’t want that to be true for you, just like I hate saying “I need to accept Mum is dead” because that makes it true for me too.
Sort of, yes. I wrote to my therapist the other day because I finally figured out something that happens to me sometimes—I get this split-second feeling like I’m back home, before we knew she was dying but after she got sick, and like it’s still possible to save her, and then I have the feeling of realizing she’s going to die again. Not that she’s dead, but that she’s dying and I can’t save her. Which is crazy, of course—she already did that, I know she’s dead, I saw it. But I think it reflects the fact that I never processed that feeling. I don’t know if there was just too much dying stuff happening for me to do that, or if it was a self-preservation thing. But it sucks to go through it again.
Alright now I’m finally crying, we did it
Ashley: I started about six minutes ago, I win
Libby: you fucker
Ashley: God I can't even imagine that. Like I used to go to text my sister something constantly before remember a split second later but like, I don't know having that hope and THEN remembering feels devastating.
Libby: It’s less like I’m feeling the hope and more like I’m feeling the realization that she’s dying. So I don’t even get the hope part! I look forward to that going away in eight years.
We should wrap up now so we can go about our empty little lives by ourselves, and also because I need a wee. I just want to say thank you so much for doing this—I know it’s all at the surface for you already because of the book, but prodding it at all on my behalf is very kind of you. Anything else you want to say before we go?
Ashley: Well I have therapy in 50 minutes and I really hope she cancels so I am going to put that dream out into the world now, in hopes it becomes true.
Libby: I’m rooting for you, babe—hope she has some non-dangerous, non-harmful emergency, like she gets locked out of her apartment or something.
Ashley: Once one of her patients had a breakdown which was unfortunate for them but couldn't have been better for me. Hope they're well!
Thanks to my sweet girl Ashley for doing this. Follow her on Twitter.