The Right Feelings

The Right Feelings

A Story by Cagan

An essay on loss, grief, and lack thereof


The Right Feelings

            Explaining why I was crying in a tree at ten in the morning a school day involves a long and irrelevant story. In the interest of brevity, let’s leave it to this: I was taking part in the time honored tradition of protesting one’s favorite tree being cut down by climbing up into it and refusing to come down.

            You have to understand; this tree was incredibly important to me. It was my climbing tree! By some accident of nature, it had grown so that its trunk made something of a forty-five-degree angle with the ground, making it easy to climb and perfect to lie down on and spend an afternoon. I had spent my childhood up in this tree with my brothers and neighbors, or playing in the mud beneath its shade. Thus, when I discovered my tree’s impending doom, I leapt to its defense, knowing from television that the correct response to a tree being cut down was to climb it and refuse to come down until everyone gave up and the tree was saved.

            My dad was not pleased with my protest.

            He shouted at me to come down. He told me that he would call the firefighters to come and take me down. We were late to my doctor’s appointment (oh, so that’s why I was home on a school day!), he angrily reminded me. Frustrated at my refusal to give up the protest, he yelled up to me, “You weren’t this sad when grandma died!”

            It wasn’t a nice thing to say. He knew that, and he apologized later. Still though, that accusatory cry got me thinking, mostly because it rang true. I had cried over that tree, which was cut down despite my desperate protest. I grieved for it that night, crying myself to sleep. But when my grandmother, my father’s mother, died of cancer just over a year ago, I didn’t shed a tear.

            I loved my grandma, to be clear. She lived just five minutes away, and had always been a part of my life. And yet…she died just over a year ago, and I didn’t cry over her. I didn’t even feel sad, and I’m an exceedingly emotional person. I cry when my favorite characters die on screen, or in a book. I cry at the sob stories of random strangers on the internet, half of which are probably completely made up. I cry so much at so little that it’s a wonder I haven’t flooded the house by now. But when my grandmother died? A real person who was actually a part of my life, a person who I actually loved? I didn’t cry, I didn’t grieve, I didn’t feel.

            Going to the funeral felt like watching a movie about someone else’s family and someone else’s loss. In the movie, the family held hands as a priest blessed the grandmother’s ashes and said a prayer. Most were stoic, though one girl"the oldest cousin"was crying freely. The narrator pondered why this cousin, who lived in Pennsylvania and saw their shared grandmother maybe once a year, was crying when she wasn’t. The scene felt surreal enough to be a movie, that’s for sure…except I cry at movies. My cousin’s tears seemed to be shaming me, asking me why I wasn’t crying myself, and my only response was that this wasn’t a particularly good movie. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t sad. Grief is more than just sadness. It was that I wasn’t feeling anything, at all.

            An interview with Jeffery Zacks, a psychology professor at Washington University, reveals that crying at movies is less of a grief response and more the result of identifying with a character in a sad situation (Pawloski). Manipulative film angles and sad music just add icing to the tear-jerking cake. Taken together, Zacks describes what we experience at sad movies as “supernormal stimuli,” a result of emotionally manipulative filmmaking intended to make the watcher cry (qtd. in Pawloski). I cry at sad movies, true, but when people die in real life, there is no dramatic music. There are no close-ups of tear-stained faces. There’s just loss. And for some reason, this was a loss I couldn’t cry over; a loss for which I couldn’t feel much at all.

            So what was this unfeeling emotion? Was I some kind of sociopath?  I would later describe how I felt"or rather didn’t feel"to my therapist, Pam, in hopes of an answer. I told her how I didn’t cry at the funeral, how I never felt sad or even relieved that my grandma’s battle with cancer was over. How it felt like a numbness that just never wore off. I asked Pam if grief ever manifested this way. Her answer was, “I don’t think you grieved.”

            I was initially outraged at this response. How could you say I didn’t grieve over my own grandmother? But the reality was that, the more I thought about, the more I realized she was right. Dr. Katherine Shear, while acknowledging that no two people grieve the same way, defines grief as being, “characterized by intense emotional distress, intrusive thoughts, and withdrawal from ongoing life.” Grief causes “intense, uncontrollable emotions” as a response to a loss (Shear). My response to the loss of my grandma was neither intense nor uncontrollable, but rather borderline apathetic. So the question was no longer why I was so unemotional; instead, it was why I didn’t grieve at all. I grieved when my grandpa died some years ago. I grieved over the stupid tree. So why, when it came to the loss of my grandma, my favorite grandparent, couldn’t I grieve?

            Pam presented the theory that I didn’t grieve because I didn’t “experience a loss.” I asked how that could be possible. It’s not like I saw my grandma only a few times a year: she lived 5 minutes away! Did I not love my grandma? “You did love her,” Pam assured me. “She was a lovely person, and you enjoyed being with her. But…you didn’t need her.”

            I recall my older cousin, the one sobbing at the funeral. My parents tell me that, when she was a teenager, her parents went through a difficult divorce. Feeling abandoned and alone, she turned to our grandma for attention, comfort, and love. My cousin needed her grandma, at least at that time in her life, so at the funeral, she felt the loss. She grieved. But me? I’ve never been the kind of person who needs a lot of people. I had my parents, whom I loved and who loved me. I had my brothers and my friends and school.  I even had my dog. I didn’t need my grandma, not as my cousin did. As Pam had said, my needs were met in my immediate family, and I didn’t require anyone more.

            Still, not needing my grandma didn’t explain exactly why I had never formed a deep attachment to her anyway, or, if I had perhaps been strongly attached to her in my youth, why didn’t that bond exist at the time of her death. I looked into attachment theory, specifically in adolescents, for answers. Adolescence is a time in which attachments are not only developed and secured, but can be redefined or, in some cases, deactivated (Dubois-Comtois et al., 3). Research within attachment theory indicates that teenagers may avoid forming attachments during this time to “avoid dealing with emotions stirred up by attachment experiences” (Dubois-Comtois et al., 3). My grandpa died at 89 when I was in seventh grade. My grandma wasn’t much younger at the time. It is possible that, following the death of my grandpa"my first experience with death"I unconsciously deactivated my bond to my grandma, knowing that she probably didn’t have much time left herself; knowing that I didn’t want to feel grief or loss again.

            Maybe. I don’t know.

            It’s not exactly acceptable in Western society to be apathetic to a loved one’s death. I felt that I had to present myself as the grieving granddaughter for the benefit of the service goers, the ones who told me how sorry they were for my loss. How could I tell the friends and family of my grandmother, who had come from all over to attend her funeral, that I wasn’t particularly upset? This was especially true in the case of my dad. Perhaps the only time I’ve seen him cry was following his mother’s death. How could I tell him that my only sadness was in empathy to his grief? That I didn’t miss his mother as he did? I couldn’t. Grief, and how we express it, is often defined by various social and cultural pressures that determine how associated emotions are expressed or inhibited (Parkes). The same applies, I think, to apathetic responses to loss. At the death of a loved one, it is socially acceptable for people to feel the strongest emotions, and to show them without restraint, without judgement. But the one emotion we are not allowed to feel at a funeral is apathy, no matter how honest it is. Thus, it is a response I had to hide deep within myself. I still feel the guilt of watching my father crying and being unable to feel the same grief. The reality was, though, that I just couldn’t feel the same loss that he had. My life had barely changed from before my grandma’s death to after it. I don’t feel a hole in my life from her absence. For whatever reason, there just wasn’t a loss. If I could bring my grandma back, I would. I loved her, after all. But even now, I don’t really miss her.

            It’s been more than a year since my grandmother died.  I’m still not sure why I didn’t grieve, whether it was from lack of attachment, the merely miniscule change, or something else entirely. I probably won’t ever know why, to be honest.

            Apparently, healthy reactions to loss involve finding a way to take a part of your loved one with you, and I certainly haven’t done that (Trestail). My life is the same as it has always been, with my grandmother in it or without her.  And yet…just last weekend, as I searched my basement for old toys, I came across the add-a-pearl necklace my grandma had given me for a birthday long ago. It had been lost for years, lost even before my grandmother died. I may not have grieved over my grandma. I may not have felt a loss, but holding that necklace in my hands for the first time in years reminded me that my lack of grief didn’t mean lack of love. I loved my grandma, and I will always love her, and perhaps I carry a bit of her with me after all.

Works Cited

Dubois-Comtois, et al. “Attachment Theory in Clinical Work with Adolescents.” Child and Adolescent Behavior 1.3 (2013): n. pag. Web. 4 February 2016.

McQuaid, Pam. Personal Interview. 3 February 2016.

Parkes, Colin Murray. "Bereavement in adult life." British Medical Journal 14 Mar. 1998: 856+. Student Resources in Context. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.

Pawlowski, A. "Your Brain on Movies: Why Films Make Us Cry, Flinch and Cheer." TODAY. NBC News, 2 Nov. 2014. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.

Shear, Katherine. “Grief and Depression: Treatment Decisions for Bereaved Children and Adults.” The American Journal of Psychiatry. 166.7 (2009): 746-748. ProQuest. Web. 1 February 2016.

Trestail, Joanne. “Dealing with bereavement.” Chicago Tribune. Tribune Publishing Company LLC, 8 July 2001. ProQuest. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.





© 2016 Cagan

Author's Note

Written for AP Language and Composition

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This is great. Entertaining and informative at the same time. Impressive work. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the read. :)

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Added on February 29, 2016
Last Updated on March 10, 2016




i like superheros and fantasy and other random stuff and sometimes I write about them more..

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