Some time ago, I lost somebody that I loved deeply. We don’t need to go into the specifics, since it’s not ultimately relevant to what I have to tell you. But there was a loss, and I felt it down to the bone.
After a few days of crying in bed and self-pity, I decided that I wanted to read other people’s stories of grief. I would find strength, I thought, in the fact that these strangers had felt just as low as I did and had managed to get through it.
It was very simple: all I had to do was fire up Tumblr and type in “grief” as my search tag. My dashboard was immediately full of people with broken hearts, dreams, lives – all wondering how they’d gotten there and if it would ever get better.
Happily, if you read a particularly moving entry and clicked over to the rest of their journal, the people always eventually overcame their sadness. It seemed that it was always quite sudden, too – they just woke up one day, free of the monster on their backs that had been plaguing them. I began to expect and look forward to the day that I would experience my surprising relief, as well.
Except… it never happened. Each day that I woke up, I seemed to feel her absence even more. Everything reminded me of our lives that had been so thoroughly entwined: grabbing my favorite latte from Starbucks reminded me of the little cafe that we went to after school to do our homework and giggle at our fellow students, terrible pop-rap songs transported me to our silly fake-name dedications to each other on the local radio station, hearing about politics on the daily news reminded me of the summer we spent canvassing door-to-door for her favorite politician – she was everywhere. Even new things started to bear her face when a popular animation company released a trailer for their next animated film – and the heroine, with her unique looks, was a dead ringer for the girl that I’d lost.
I couldn’t escape my grief anywhere except for when I was submerging myself in the sorrows of these others – the faceless Tumblr people became my salvation. I stopped going out for coffee with friends, I stopped watching the news, I stopped listening to music – I hoped that by completely excluding myself from everything with her fingerprints on it in the real world, that I would give myself time to heal. I began to exist solely in my perfect bubble of absorbing and finding hope in the end of other people’s grief.
“I just woke up one day, and it was gone” – that’s the sentiment that I kept reading. I started to wonder why my day refused to come, why each day I woke up feeling like my burdens had multiplied rather than unloaded. I would sit in bed, motionless, lightless beyond the laptop screen’s glare as I found more and more people who were experiencing pain. Eventually, I’d fall asleep – never having left the bed, except perhaps to use the restroom or eat some stale cereal – and the cycle would repeat when I awoke.
One night, something interrupted my pattern. I woke up around 1 AM with such a vivid, visceral cocktail of anger, fright, and loss that for a moment I couldn’t even breathe, and then I remembered my dream: I had been a little boy who, upon seeing his elderly grandmother being mauled by his beloved dog, had taken up a brick and smashed the puppy’s head in. It was so real… I could still hear my mournful wails as I realized that I’d been too late, and had lost both my grandmother and my faithful collie and was now alone with all that blood.
I flipped open my laptop like a maniac, desparate to read about someone’s cheating boyfriend or lost job to distract me from my dream. It worked, for a time, until I stumbled onto a post from a few hours earlier – a post from a young mother, saying that she’d come home from work to find her 11-year-old son, brick in hand, crying over the bodies of his grandma and pet dog. She went on to detail my dream, exactly. I felt a chill to my very core, but no matter how many times I refreshed the dashboard, the post remained. How was this possibly reality?
I must have sat there in shock for an hour, at least. I finally worked up the nerve to click on the young mother’s main page, and found that she’d created a response post to all of her son’s sympathizers. Her son, she said, was having the strangest reaction. He’d been bawling uncontrollably, as one would expect, until he suddenly… stopped. She said that near 1AM, he had gone quiet, then looked up at her and said quite clearly, “Mama, it’s gone. I don’t feel bad anymore. I know that both Mawmaw and Porky are in heaven with Pawpaw now, and I’m not going to cry about this again.”
The mother, of course, was torn between admiration for her son’s resolve and ability to cope with the loss, and concern that this was not a normal reaction to what had just happened. I couldn’t read anymore, because I was too fixated on the weird feeling creeping up my neck – had she just said 1AM? That he’d suddenly felt better at the same time that I was having my terrible dream about his tragedy was unbelievably creepy – yet also nothing more than a coincidence, I told myself. Because there’s nothing else that it could be, I reassured myself as I grabbed some Benadryl pills. You’re still just so spooked that you’re misremembering the dream, filling in what you’ve forgotten with what happened to the boy, I said to myself as I drifted off into my drug-induced sleep haze.
Things went back to normal – and by normal, I mean the vicious circle of wake up, read, sleep that I’ve already described – and I eventually managed to push the weird dream about the boy out of my head.
The next time it happened, I was in the kitchen, realizing that I’d probably have to venture outside and go to the grocery soon if I wanted to keep living. And since for some reason, even with my sadness, I did, I was making a shopping list. I was thinking to myself how nice and normal this development was, that maybe it was a sign that I was getting better and moving on from my constant state of missing her, when I was smacked upside the head with a baseball bat.
Well, not me, exactly… I wasn’t even in my kitchen. I was in a high school locker room, faced with a very angry teenage girl. It was hard to understand what she was saying – something about knowing that I was the slut who’d been messing around with her boyfriend, that he had tried to leave her and she’d “taken care of him” the same way she was now going to “take care of” me. I saw the bloody bat, and suddenly was seized with the certainty that she meant to kill me, just as she had killed her boyfriend – and I saw his face, and felt the deep feeling of loss. I had indeed been “messing around” with him; I thought that I had loved him, and I knew that he was dead. Just as I started sobbing at the realization, an adult – some coach or teacher, I assume – burst into the room and grabbed my assailant, and I was suddenly right back in my kitchen, with my shopping list, no longer feeling particularly secure in my “progress” of moving on.
I couldn’t ignore the suspicion eating at me, and switched on the television for the first time in weeks. On the news, I saw exactly what I had feared, but also expected – the scene that I’d just experienced had happened yesterday in a rural Oklahoma town. The female victim, saved by that timely teacher, had survived, but my – her – fears had been proven true; the boyfriend had been killed, his head bashed in with that bloody baseball bat I’d seen in my vision.
The reporter was interviewing the victim live, and as I got over my shock and started to actually process what I was hearing, I realized that they were discussing the victim’s sudden change in demeanor over the last ten minutes.
“I just… feel so much better,” she was saying to the reporter, as the news team clearly scrambled to try and figure out what new piece of information they’d missed that was causing this sharp turn in mood in their interviewee. The girl continued, “It’s like God sent his angel to protect me in the form of that teacher, and now he’s taken away my sadness and grief – I feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders!” I noticed then that she was rubbing the cross around her neck. “This is just more evidence of God’s goodness to those who believe!”
I hit the OFF button on my TV remote, and slid down onto the couch. This was… weird. I was starting to feel distinctly creepy, like I was on the verge of realizing something very odd, but doing so would be a point of no return. I clearly wasn’t prophetic; both of these visions had been seen by me well after the actual event I was seeing had taken place. No, what interested me more was the clear correspondance between the timing of my experiencing the person’s pain and their sudden absence of grief. Was I… somehow taking it away from them?
I shook myself out of my misguided reverie. I was not the angel the high school girl had been describing; I was just a sad, increasingly agoraphobic twentysomething girl who was having a delusional episode as a response to missing someone very dear to her. I was trying to replace my depression with super powers, and that was just ridiculous. I snapped to my feet, and grabbed my shopping list. I would do my errands and forget about this nonsense. That’s what a sane person would do, and I was on my way to being healthy again, I just had to focus!
And you know what? For a few days, my stern talking to myself seemed to pay off. I even went and got a Cinnamon Dolce Latte without breaking down in front of the barista!
It had been silly of me to expect this imaginary sudden release of all my grief, I told myself. This was how it happened: a gradual build back up to normalcy, and I was on my way! That thought kept me going for the rest of the day, and I even felt good enough to flip on my TV and watch some mindless entertainment tonight type of program.
That… turned out to be a mistake. Remember that animated movie I mentioned before? The one with the protagonist who looked so creepily identical to the very source of all my awful feelings? It turns out they were doing an entire feature on the film. I tried to soldier through it, convince myself that watching it was “tough love” and would help me get over everything sooner – but within 5 minutes, those terrible emotions of loss and sadness overcame me like an avalanche. I grabbed my laptop and, with the speed of an alcoholic gulping down a glass of gin, I was back on Tumblr, immersing myself in the grief of others. My own strange medication; morbid but effective.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear what happened next: I had another of my strange… well, would you call them visions, or flashbacks? This time it was a young girl being dropped off to visit her older sister, only to find that she’d been dead in her home, rotting alone for who knows how long. The same pattern followed: I stumbled onto the story due to sympathy reblogs on Tumblr, and some digging revealed that the little girl had a marked change in her mood at almost exactly the same time of my “dream” of her discovery.
They say that the third time’s the charm, but in my case, all that I wanted to do was to close my eyes to what was becoming an increasingly clear, if insane and weird, correlation and cling to the idea that a rational person would brush all this off as coincidence… because it simply could not be anything more, right? Also, a rational person would go clean out the refrigerator, and maybe walk the dog, all the while very pointedly NOT thinking about my possible status as a real-life Grief Seed.
I mean, so let’s say for a minute that what I’m imagining is real – that I truly am somehow siphoning off other people’s despair by living their memories of their traumatic event. What exactly does one do with that sort of ability? It’s a pretty depressing superpower. Sookie Stackhouse can read minds and hangs out with vampires, the Invisible Woman can create forcefields and go into stealth mode – and all I can do is drain sadness. If I’m going to develop some weird ability, why can’t it be supersonic flight or something?
Really… what should I do?
Curled up in my computer chair, I compulsively clicked around on Tumblr all night, trying to answer that exact question. Though I suppose, looking back, it was obvious that I’d already made my decision. Otherwise, why else would I have been going straight back to the website where it all began? I think now that it was a subconscious desire to find someone else to… I guess the right word would be help, wouldn’t it? Anyhow, I spent hours indulging in what was by now my familiar habit – chasing down other people’s grief. After close to sixteen hours of reading – only interrupted for a few gulps of tea and a quick meal of microwaved ravioli – I had a thought.
I wondered… could I train myself to take somebody’s grief on command?
And even if I could – would I do it? It’d be the selfless thing to do, to live just to relieve others of their pain. My life would be a perpetual nightmare of all of the worst things the world had to offer. I’d see things so awful that I’d never have even been able to imagine them… things that most people would give almost anything to avoid ever experiencing.
And yet… it somehow sounded so right. I pretended to think about it, though I’m not sure why I was even trying – we can’t really fool ourselves, in the end. From the moment it had occured to me, I knew that I was going to… change.
It’s been quite some time since I chose this path, and I’m getting quite good at absorbing your pain. I don’t even have to eat or drink anymore – it’s as if I’m literally feeding on the world’s waking nightmares. The atrocities that humans inflict upon each other no longer bother me… in fact, the more I hear about all the terrible things that happen in this universe, the more satiated and stronger I become. I almost feel as if I’m ascending into some higher form of being, fueled by the pain and suffering of the masses.
I think of that young girl from Oklahoma, and her belief that I was an angel, come to deliver her from darkness, and it makes me smile.
I am no angel. I’ve become far more than that, as I think you’ve realized by now. You’ve probably remembered the moment that I came to you, haven’t you? The instant when suddenly you felt relief from your woes – that was my sacrifice for you, and now I ask merely that you repay me in kind.
Reader, will you take your rightful place as my supplicant? Will you go out and create more sadness, more evil, more for me to feed on?
I am your Goddess of Grief, and I require more offerings.
You stumble into the kitchen, covered in sweat. Mind racing. Heart thumping. Christ, could he have followed me here? You think. How did he even find me?
A moment passes. One thing is certain.
He’s not here now.
Your stomach rumbles. Even someone in your position has to eat. Your refrigerator door cries as you tug it open. You peer through the shelves. A jug of tea catches your eye. You take a swig, right out of the container. Your mother won’t know.
The tea tastes sharper than usual. You examine the label. Black tea. She bought the wrong kind. You shrug, reach for some leftovers. Flip the TV on in the other room as you slide them into the microwave. The five o’ clock news plays in the background. It might say something about him.
The usual teary story about the war. Some presidential candidate is coming to your town. You count down the numbers on the microwave. 5, 4…
“And, finally, tonight a food contamination alert for all residents in this county.”
“A shipment of Lipton’s Black Tea delivered to local stores has tested positive for traces of the ebola solanum virus. This super-strain of the disease causes painful sores on the underarms, neck and groin followed by profuse bleeding from all orifices. The survival rate once infected is less than 10%. I repeat, Lipton’s Black Tea has been pulled from the shelves but any resident who purchased the tea is advised to call the Center for Health Control to dispose of it immediately.”
You tug open the fridge once more and look at the tea you just drank.
Lipton’s. That’s not the kind your mother usually buys.
“Authorities report the shipment was tainted by an unidentified biological expert who remains at large.”
He’s not here now. You think. The jug of tea falls to the floor.
But he was.