You can't say that you love someone because of how he handles death. You can't say, "When I need to remember why I love him, I remember how he treated me at the funeral." It is morbid. Mocking pain by making it romantic, like you wear black tulle and listen to songs about legendary suicides. But I think it a lot, even though I try to avoid saying it. I don't have the words to articulate it yet, but how someone handles death, how they react to death, process grief, respond to the grief of others...it is important. There is a trueness and a deepness to those moments, cognizant of mortality, that is so foreign to how we live and talk and act in "real life". Like the difference in how we talk and act in our sexual lives - us, and yet very not us at the same time. Wholly apart from the self we present to others on the street. And the self we present in the presence of death - it is again, wholly apart.
In my significant relationships in the past, the intrusion of death was always an incredibly awkward and terrible bit, not only for the loss itself, but for the change in my partner. For the strangeness and discomfort of watching my partner struggle and stumble and be foreign, a stranger to me. Not a person who "did it wrong," merely a person who was a newcomer to the realms of death, or a newcomer to grieving with another. A tourist: fumbling, stiff, detached. Maybe it wasn't a change in them at all - maybe it was a change in me, an unwillingness to continue being intimate once life became too real. But I know, even if I can't explain it, that there are people you want around you when you are grieving, and people you would rather avoid. And I think it has something to do with sensing who is real in those moments, in touch with their own mortality and weakness, and who is, for whatever reason, false.
One of the irrefutable truths about my love for this man is that his familiarity with death puts me at ease. Death is not something he treats as a secret, or an ill-fitted shoe, or a bus tour. It is for him a matter of course. Painful, yet inescapable, and transformative - like growth, or birth. Like waking up slowly, to allow the stiff muscles and joints to stretch. Like coming home to an apartment filled with water, from a window broken by the storm. He knows what needs to happen.
Death is a thing that happens. He doesn't turn into a different person, and I'm not afraid to look at him. I'm not ashamed of him, because he doesn't seem like he is cutting out grief's tongue, or surprised to discover grief can touch him, or acting out a part he expects he should play. He isn't fearless, he isn't always collected, and sometimes he is uncomfortable with his feelings, or with mine. But even if he runs away for a bit, he comes back. And there is a stillness deep inside of him, not of grief shut into a locked box, or barricaded outside of himself, but of grief that has been accepted, that will be acknowledged. A stillness more of a tree than a rock, yet more of a cat than a tree. Seeing, knowing, and considering.
The ability to allow someone beside you to fall apart, and to pick up the role of polite humor to the crowd not from discomfort, but to deflect attention so that person can grieve, undisturbed. The ability to be close, not through what is said but through what is unsaid. The evidence of a life lived in connection with others, relationships spanning decades, skimming along surfaces with charm and kindness because loving others means forgiveness and acceptance. No less rooted than a love that demands exhaustive honesty and constant inspection, but one in which the work of love is done alone, instead of in discussion.
In our responses to death we can see truth about ourselves and our loved ones. We can see the depth of character that is, or is not yet, present in people whom at other times we would judge and classify by traits which at these times fall into insignificance.
Do you know what it means to mourn? Does your desire to connect with a person who is in pain overpower your fear? Jim talked about us all having a boat on the River Styx, and how we may freak out when it seems like someone is dumping water from her boat into our own. I see myself there, in all of the moments I know someone is asking for intimacy I cannot sincerely give to him, and I see men I have known, avoiding connection that they fear might overwhelm them. But even in the moments we choose to connect, we can choose to be sincerely present and vulnerable, or we can choose a level of falseness. And I think one of the lessons age is teaching me, is that being insincerely present is rarely better, for anyone, than being absent.
There is something beautiful about being with a person who knows grief. The kind of beauty in taking a deep breath, feeling the air fill you in forgotten corners, feeling your heart slow and your muscles relax. Perhaps being able to sit next to a person while you grieve is not, by itself, enough to hold a relationship or a friendship together. There are certainly people who were very close to my heart at certain dark times who have drifted out of my life, with whom I'm not certain I could maintain a friendship. There is too little in common between us. But out of anything else I've learned, the ability to find connection in sorrow is the closest I have found in our winding emotions and life paths to solid, true ground.