That’s the first question everyone asks after, “Do you have any siblings?” “I had a brother, but he died fifteen years ago.” “Oh, I’m sorry. How did he die?”
Morbid curiosity quite often overrides common courtesy so the question itself isn’t particularly off-putting. What I find appalling is that the question is asked, primarily, as a means of categorizing the degree of horror or banality surrounding another person’s loss. Some deaths are, apparently, more tragic than others.
I have a dark sense of humor and can see the absurdity of, and derive amusement from, things that are definitely not funny. If someone dies in Darwinian fashion (stung to death by bees while beating the hive with a golf club, etc.) I can shake my head and chuckle – as long as I don’t wonder about the poor chump’s family and friends. I also understand that a 95-year-old grandmother who dies in her sleep isn’t as inherently ‘unfair’ as a 5-year-old dying of cancer or an unarmed young man gunned down in the street.
That being said, I also know that some deaths are injected with a comfort-blocking stigma. Had my brother died trying to save the life of another person, or even a dog (saving a cat could be seen – by some – as Darwinian), he would have been a hero. Sacrificing his life, even unintentionally, would have compensated for his heavy drinking, his gambling problem (like our father’s), and the fact that he left behind his pregnant wife.
But that’s not what happened. The depression and despair he had kept at bay most of his life finally overcame him. He went up into the high desert hills of San Diego, sat down under a tree with a friend’s handgun and shot himself.
Even if my brother had been sober and focused, if he’d had a good education and made solid career choices, if he and his wife hadn’t been separated at the time, suicide would have canceled out all of it. People were quick to judge and denigrate my brother – seeing him, not as a person, but as a disturbing ‘action’. A heart attack, a brain aneurism, a car accident – so many ways to die that would have been seen as unfortunate, but not unacceptable.
To me, it’s the loss that hurts, not its cause. Loss deserves, if not understanding or sympathy, at the very least acknowledgement without judgement.