[Warning: Game of Thrones Season 1 Spoilers]
I feel like Batman. Not in the awesome superhero way. More the ‘I’m forever alone because I can never tell anyone about my secret identity’ way.
There are some interesting and unexpected side effects of grief. I am loathe to use the phrase ‘silver-lining’ or even ‘upside’ … but there are a few symptoms that have been slightly less horrifying than others. One of these is a complete change in my pain threshold. I used to be very sensitive to pain — even something as light as a poke on the arm would feel like a hard punch to me. I can’t say that the grief has lowered my sensitivity in any way, but I do find I don’t really care about being in pain anymore. There’s a little voice in my head that say, “Your brother’s dead. So what’s a bruise or a graze to you?” And so a recent series of vitamin injections and a flu shot bothered me about as much as writing on my palm with a biro. I’ve come to think of it as a superhero ability. Batman takes just as many punches as the other guys, but they just don’t seem to affect him. And so I wonder, is he completely numb or does he just not give a damn?
But while I’ve lost an overt awareness of pain, I’ve ‘gained’ a profound awareness of death. Having someone just die on you so suddenly and shockingly completely changes your world view. I never used to worry about death. Sure, intellectually I knew I’d die some day. It’s the only certainty in life. But even at the sickest I’ve been or in the riskiest situations, I’ve always trusted that somehow I’ll get out of it okay. A few years ago I ended up in hospital with a drug overdose after my surgeon mis-prescribed some medication post-surgery. It was the absolute sickest I have ever been. And yet, I just knew I’d get through it. It was just a matter of waiting it out.
But not anymore. I now know that anyone could die at any second. I sit through conversations with my friends thinking, ‘This could be the last time we ever speak.’ I send my partner off to work in the mornings, not with ‘I love you’ but with ‘Please don’t die today.’ I was at a friends’ house for dinner the other night while she baked an Ariel-themed birthday cake for her gorgeous four-year-old daughter who was happily watching a movie on the lounge. And as I looked over at the four-year-old, completely engrossed in the film, I thought ‘She could just stop breathing. Right now. For absolutely no reason. And that would really ruin everyone’s night.’ And my friend would go through the rest of her adult life being asked if she has children and not knowing whether to say ‘Yes, but she died’ or ‘No…’ and feeling like it’s a lie. And as I recovered from my day-terror moment, I looked back to my friend who was happily icing a cake and asking me if it needed more decorating.
It’s like my life before my brother died is a sitcom. If our protagonist ever gets into any serious trouble, we all think ‘I wonder how they’re going to get out of this one’. And sure enough, there’s some deus ex machina moment where the protagonist magically gets themself out of trouble for yet another week. And if anyone ever dies, it happens offscreen and their names just quietly get taken out of the credits. Or they get unsubtly replaced by another actor.
So too would distant relatives be quietly written out of the story of my life. But my life since my brother died is pretty much ‘Game of Thrones‘ since Ned Stark died. So many people who’ve watched the show agree they all had the same response. Right up until the moment he was beheaded, we all thought ‘How is he going to get out of this?’ At any minute, Varys was going to rush in with an official pardon. Or Joffrey would call it off, laughing cruelly at how gullible Sansa could be. Or the House of McGuffin would suddenly attack King’s Landing without warning and rescue Ned.
But the sword came down hard. And Ned Stark died. Just like that. And since then, any character could be killed off at any time. Now when our favourite characters get into strife, we don’t assume they’ll make it through to next episode. And god forbid any of our favourites go head-to-head. There’s just as much chance neither of them will survive. And so I feel the same about my friends and family. If my brother can just die on a sunny Friday morning, who’s to say no one else is going to up and die on me at any minute.
It’s isolating to think like this. Almost everyone I know is living in sitcom land or early-season-one-of-Game-of-Thrones land where a few minor characters in their lives have passed away. Whereas I live in constant fear that this week’s episode will be the death of my mother, my partner or even myself. Just walking down stairs, I have images of myself falling and breaking my neck. Every time I see more than 2 missed calls from the one person, I expect it to be tragedy. It’s hard not resent my sitcom friends. I know that this experience that I’ve had is probably not something they’ll ever go through. While experiencing the death of someone in your life at some stage is a reality … losing your sibling, parent or child while they are still young is not a mainstream rite of passage. I can’t say to my friends, “You’ll understand one day…” because they won’t. And I desperately hope they won’t. But it still isolates me from them.
Which brings me back to Batman. Most of the time I feel dissociated from everyone. On a rooftop in Gotham, looking down at all the happy, oblivious people. And while there are upsides to superhero abilities, I know Batman would trade in the cape without a second thought for one last moment with his parents.