This past weekend would have been my late father’s birthday. I took time in the morning to flip through photos of him while I drank my tea. I talked with my oldest daughter about him a little bit. For the rest of the day I was busy and didn’t really think about him much.
The exception to that was all the time I spent thinking about how I should post a photo of him on Facebook, write a blog post or generally post some public comment indicating to others that I was thinking about him or marking his birthday in some public way.
The thing is, I didn’t feel like it and it wouldn’t really have been true. I decided I was under no obligation to publicly commemorate his birthday in any way. I didn’t do it when he was alive so why would I do it after he died.
That got me thinking about public performances of grief. Grief is not a programmable thing that we feel only on prescribed dates. It comes and goes at the most unexpected times and places. A few months ago I had a rough day at work, took a walk at lunch and ended up bawling on a hill in a park thinking about my dad. Grief and memory don’t always line up with dates on a calendar.
Until a little over a month ago I kept his ashes in our living room. On the anniversary of his death I moved his urn into my workshop – not because it removes them from public sight, but because that is my space. I spend at least a few hours a week in my shop and it is where I keep wood carvings done by my grandfather. It is where my mind is freed from the noise of life with three kids. I am able to let my mind wander as I go through the routine tasks of sanding wood. It is a space where I can have the conversations with my dad that I didn’t have in life because he wasn’t willing to take the time. It is where I can tell him about my life now. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife so I’m not really talking with him, but I can think about what I would have told him and keep him alive in my memories.
Those are my private moments of grief and memory. Those are the private spaces where I work through whatever issues or dip into memories that surface from time-to-time. Social media has no role in those places. Sometimes I need to write to get my thoughts in order and come to a conclusion about whatever I am thinking about. Sometimes I post those thoughts here on my blog because I want to share those thoughts with others.
Social media gives us all a soapbox to stand on. We can use that soapbox to shout our opinions and thoughts to whomever will listen. We also use it to present certain versions of ourselves to others. Those might be represented by photos, videos or text. In all cases it is a curated perception that we are creating for others to see. For example I don’t post videos of shouting at my kids. I don’t post videos of my trying to get my daughter to engage in a discussion while she covers her ears and refuses to listen. I don’t generally post photos of all the crap currently scattered on my living room floor that I am not going to pick up before I go to bed and that will still be here when I get up in the morning.
I wonder how many of the public declarations of grief or memory are fuelled by a sense of what we should be doing or saying as opposed to what we are truly feeling. Anniversaries can be a powerful trigger that generate genuine feelings of loss and trauma. They can also be just like any other day.
On my dad’s birthday I was more concerned with how my relatives would perceive me if I didn’t post anything than I was about feeling any emotions related to his loss. Social expectations of what is appropriate or expected drive so many of our actions and it is a challenge to escape from them.
Writing all of this feels like I am trying to justify my lack of memorialization of my dad’s birthday.
Maybe I am.