It’s a strange grief, mourning the loss of something that never existed outside of the imaginary. I remember the morning my beloved grandfather died. As soon as I heard the first ring from my cell phone at 635 am on a Sunday, I knew he was gone. I answered numbly, unable to cry. I called the airline and booked a same day departure with a bereavement fare. I calmly answered all the intrusive questions about his name and date of birth, the funeral home and burial plans. I showered and got into the car and rode to the airport, remarking to myself about how weird it was that such a momentous thing had happened to me and all the people around me were acting as if everything were normal; it was surprisingly irritating.
When I lost my composure at the airline counter at a large international airport, the clerk was somewhat sympathetic once R explained that my grandfather, who was really more like a father to me, had died that morning. It’s a legitimate, tangible grief that follows the loss of parent or grandparent. It’s acceptable to speak publicly about it. But our society is skittish in its attempts to deal with the loss of a confirmed pregnancy, so I can only imagine how I’d be received if I explained to innocent bystanders that I didn’t feel like making polite conversation on the bus because my wife got her period today. I imagine the quick insertion of ear buds, or fumbling to text a friend on that ever-present socially acceptable version of Linus van Pelt’s security blanket.
I wonder why we are so reluctant to discuss grief and disappointment, and why we are trained from an early age to be automatons that issue a standard question (How are you?) and a standard reply (Fine!) instead of earnest questions and honest replies? It’s not just an American phenomenon, either. When I travel to east Africa, small children call to me, saying “Hello Mzungu! How are you?” even though the majority of them are unable to understand my answer. It doesn’t stop me from pausing to give them a big smile though, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe the polite question is just the right amount of interest to spark the sort of real human interaction that we all crave.