Grief, and Other Small Victories: How Losing My Loved Ones Taught Me to Love Myself

The title of this essay is inspired by Paul Neilan’s novel “Apathy and Other Small Victories”, which is one of my favorite books. It is filled with edgy, dark humor and satire, and I aspire to emulate its style in this post, but I will most likely fail.

The day my grandmother left me was the day the sky turned into a dull gray that never seemed to brighten up again. I was a little child, crying inconsolably. The next few years are a blur in my mind. It is as if the grief of losing my grandmother (not physically, she simply went back to her home country) erased my memory. For me, memory and life are two intertwined threads, separate but woven together.

Grief is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that affects people in different ways. According to the American Psychological Association, grief often includes physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsessive dwelling on the past, and apprehension about the future. Grief can also impair one’s memory and cognitive functioning, making it hard to recall or process information.

I tried to cope with my grief by finding some distractions that gave me temporary relief. But the environment was too harsh and unforgiving. The band-aid that covered my wound kept slipping off. The wound never healed — I just learned to live with it.

I remember playing video games with my dad, who would disappear for a long time, then come back. It was a source of joy for me, but only for a while. He was a stranger who made jokes with me, taught me how to do things, and impressed me with his skills. I was learning — and it felt like we were a team. I was very competitive — (still am), and I loved playing Super Mario on Super Nintendo.

The idea of playing video games with him became like a ritual. A ritual that was meant to be a painkiller in human form. Just a small dose of it was enough to forget what was hurting me in the first place. I never questioned it. At that point, because it was such a regular occurrence in my life — the idea of him leaving and returning seemed normal. But what it seemed to be doing to me was wiping out my memories and moments, of things that defined me as me, of myself. It was stealing my life. Now, if we cut the theatrics, I wasn’t actually losing my life. But, looking back, it left a bitter taste in my mouth that I could never quite forget.

My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. She forgot who I was and who she was. She lived in a different country, far away from me. I missed her terribly, but I couldn’t express it. I couldn’t reach out to her or hug her or tell her how much I loved her.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her book Notes on Grief, “Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.”

This is the epitome of irony. A child who suffered from memory lapses, is now an adult who witnesses the woman who raised him, gradually lose her identity. Sometimes she will recount a series of events that happened and then, in a flash, those memories will turn into nonsensical strings of Spanish that have no connection or meaning. It is incomprehensible, both literally and figuratively. And I will never comprehend why it has to be this way.

The enduring communication of her family members with her has always elicited my admiration and awe. To me, it is one of the most dreadful experiences — perhaps because I perceive a resemblance of myself in her occasionally. Perhaps because the recollections I have of her evoke the aspects of myself that I am conscious of. Whatever the motive, I endeavor to preserve my memories, as agonizing as they might be, for there is a splendor in learning to love amidst the sorrow of what has ceased to be. Maybe this is why I document everything through various mediums, such as pen and paper, digital notepad and cloud. One of my gravest fears is being ensnared in the turmoil of the disease and losing my memory. I aspire to be able to respond to the inquiries of my great-grandchildren. I desire to be there to remember for them. As a gateway to the past that belongs to them. I have a vivid memory of some segments of my life, then a blankness of thought thereafter. This has been the pattern ever since — nothing has been more significant than trying to remember what is occurring to me as it occurs. I have lost the ability of accepting things as they are, and I am still afflicted by what I have lost, the traces they leave behind, and what I continue to lose to this day. Sometimes because of what has transpired to me. The process of healing and making sense of my grief has become a challenge so formidable, that I have been evading writing about this for years. At times, I will feel fine, and then as soon as it arrives, it disappears — the nauseating, incessant beast of life takes over. It is chaotic when the waves of grief join forces with the hurricane winds and seem to submerge you in your own tears. I once wrote:

I know, as morbid as it sounds, that I know I’m healing when I choke on the salt my eyes make.’

And honestly-I think- that’s where it started.

Not long ago, one of my close friends informed me of the passing of another friend of mine. I have always shunned any contact and information about anything or anyone that was precious to me (when they passed away) because I feel as if my mind would fabricate a myriad of distorted rationales elucidating why. It was an unhealthy, (still is) way that I coped with this. I have witnessed too many family members depart from my life, too many friends perish. Too many vestiges of what I was attached to, die, or simply disappear into the darkness. I have resolved that if I were to delve into the reasons why, that I would just destroy myself even more. Part of that stems from the man I used to play Super Mario with. His habit of fluctuating in and out of my life at his discretion, regardless of any other factors has made me very cynical. Cynicism turned to an almost-hyper-paranoid thirty something. It has also unjustly created a strong detachment from people who were close to me and passed away. For the fear of being hurt or discovering more of the ‘why’ — I have deliberately avoided any information that could have aided me in comprehending why. It was my rudimentary way of protecting myself and keeping my inner voice ‘silent’. Whether they died from a normal, more socially ‘acceptable’, but still tragic death (physical illness, accident) or from a more socially “unacceptable” form (suicide — which is adversely still also due to illness) — or drugs, gang/police violence, prison etc.

One possible explanation for my avoidance behavior is that I may be suffering from survivor guilt, which is a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others did not. Survivor guilt is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whch is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Some common symptoms of survivor guilt include:

Feelings of guilt about surviving when others did not
Feelings of guilt about what one did or did not do during the event
Obsessive thoughts about the event
Flashbacks of the event
Irritability and anger
Feelings of helplessness and disconnection
Lack of motivation
Problems sleeping
Nausea or stomachache
Social isolation
Suicidal thoughts
By contrast, some people who survive traumatic events may experience feelings of gratitude, relief, or joy. These feelings are also normal and do not mean that one does not care about those who died or suffered. However, some survivors may feel guilty for having these positive emotions, which can also contribute to survivor guilt.

The only person I have mourned openly for was Kobe Bryant. I felt that the stigma of grieving for someone was lifted because of what he represented publicly and of the icon that he was. Especially to me. In the absence of so many people that were instrumental in the formation of my identity, a young boy would admire someone who lived their life in highlights and interview snippets that were full of authenticity, confidence, and an inherently remarkable attitude that would later be branded and trademarked as ‘Mamba Mentality’.

The experience was cathartic for me. I had never mourned in a way that was visible to others before. I remember my mother telling me to assume the role of the patriarch when my father passed away, even though I lacked a suitable example to follow. I remember being told that everything had a purpose, but receiving no satisfactory answers when I questioned the reason behind such a tragedy. I remember being advised by a school dean that I needed professional help, that my mother should seriously consider enrolling me in intensive therapy, and my mother, with her strong Latina identity, rejecting it. I remember agreeing with her, because I felt ashamed of my fragility. I thought men should be stronger than their emotions. I remember being scolded by a teacher for crying in class after learning that my friend had committed suicide the day before, near where I lived. I remember many things that make me choke up.

I also recall the expression of (what appeared to be) contempt on my mother’s face when she collected me from school because I was immobilized by the news of my friend. It was a literal immobilization. I recall finding more solace in listening to my friends share their own mental struggles with grief than in the ones I imposed on myself. (sigh) Sometimes I even feel like I am lamenting a version of myself that died. I miss who I hoped to become in these moments of turmoil and conflict. Who I wished to be in moments of vulnerability — who the child in my dreams aspired to be. I recall carrying this burden with me into each new facet and phase of my life. As devastating and influential as these few decades of time have been to me, I still find myself trying to evade these gaping nostalgic pockets of time filled with the breath of grief. So, every now and then I reluctantly drink from its overflowing cup to prevent it from sinking this fortified temple I envelop myself in. The same temple that will crush everything within it once the walls and its foundations are soaked in blood. so as secure as I think I am, I am actively avoiding a scenario that will fuel what I perceive as protection. For while I am in a boat during a storm, there is no fish beneath to nourish me, for they have fled. No fresh water, as the rivers have dried up.

The objects of my grief are diverse, but they mostly pertain to

my own selfhood.

I am striving to improve my grieving skills. To allow myself to experience emotions. To comprehend the causes of my feelings, and to examine the dynamics of my psyche. To refrain from — as a habitual and sole strategy, suppressing all the sorrow and emotional distress into the seemingly indestructible edifice of masculinity that I was compelled to construct as a child. I aspire to establish a sanctuary for myself for when I inevitably encounter the need to grieve. For the juvenile version of me that still resides, seeking to safeguard themselves emotionally in a domain where they could adequately regulate themselves and the others who also have to cope with the same processes that influence your life as you do.

As I write this, I have to confront the grief of living family members who failed to meet my emotional needs. I have to mourn certain versions of myself that I have lost or never attained. I hope to create a safe haven where I can navigate the intricate complexities of human grief. Finding healthy coping mechanisms and rituals for when I feel overwhelmed by this heavy sadness. Creating new rituals that honor the loss of my creations and ethics. Avoiding the temptation to repress or deny the intensity of grief and its consequences- really difficult processes. Instead of hiding, I hope to remember, with a calm awareness, the present and real aspects of my life, rather than the chaotic and distorted scenarios of what could have been or what may have been or what was.

Through all this grief and pain, I hope to find other small victories.

— — -The title of this essay is inspired by Paul Neilan’s book “Apathy and Other Small Victories”, which is a dark comedy about a man who drifts through life without purpose or passion. The book explores the themes of alienation, meaninglessness, and absurdity in a humorous and satirical way. The author uses apathy as a coping strategy for the protagonist, who faces various challenges and losses in his life. However, the book also suggests that apathy is not a sustainable or satisfying way of living, and that there are other small victories that can make life more bearable and enjoyable.

Similarly, this essay reflects on my own experiences with grief and how it has affected my memory, identity, and relationships. I also share how I have struggled with apathy as a way of avoiding the pain of grief, but how I have realized that it is not helpful or healthy. Instead, I try to find other small victories that can help me heal and grow from my losses. These small victories are not necessarily grand or spectacular achievements, but rather simple and meaningful actions that can make me feel more alive and connected with the people I love- the things I enjoy doing. They are the moments when I can express my emotions, honor my memories, create something new, or connect with others who understand me (the real gritty stuff). They are the glimpses of hope and joy that can illuminate the darkness of grief.

Thank you.

Published by Cristian Leonardo Gajardo

Welcome to Cristian’s Cafe, a website where I showcase my various forms of expression and happiness. Here you can find poetry, podcasts, personal blogging, research articles, open mic, comedy, and art. Whether you are looking for inspiration, entertainment, or information, you will find something that suits your taste and mood. Enjoy browsing through my content and feel free to leave your comments and feedback. Please note that the Wi-Fi connection may be slow or unstable at times, so please be patient and look at the art instead. Thank you for visiting Cristian’s Cafe

One thought on “Grief, and Other Small Victories: How Losing My Loved Ones Taught Me to Love Myself

  1. It’s wonderful, mind-blowing, how through writing, and reading, strangers suddenly seem like people you have known for years. Maybe in this grief, apathy, there’s hope for other small victories. Beautiful written ✨

Comments, suggestions, or anything that comes to your mind when you read this