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The Empty Place

Content Warning: The essay includes discussion of death, suicide, self-harm, and the passing of a recently departed person in my life. I am writing it as much for me as anyone else, and if those topics aren’t something you need in your head right now, please feel free to read no further. Please, take care of yourself.

When my father died, I was less sad, and more sympathetic. He had been in so much emotional pain, for so long. And when I had told him he was drinking himself to death six months earlier, he just said “I know.”

I wasn’t glad, or relieved, or anything I could describe in a way that made me happier. But I knew he had decided that a slow, anaesthetized death was the only solution he could find to the dissatisfaction and anger he felt about his own life. His death was just the coda of a decision he had made years before, and while I hated that decision, I had come to grips with it.

My father was a man of great determination. Once I realized he planned to drink himself to death, I knew he would succeed, and sooner rather than later. What grief I felt for his loss peaked then, when he was still breathing, but actively working to not be part of my life anymore. Even then, the emotion was less sadness, and something much closer to empathetic pain. I knew he was hurting, and that the hurt was so great he’d do anything to escape it. That hurt me, but not in the same way grief does.

My father was unreliable for most of my life–at least from my earliest teens forward, and possibly beyond that. So for the 26 years I knew him, I learned I could not rely on him. He was often full of wonderful stories, good advice, and kind words… but he also often was not. I know he loved me and wanted to help me, but as a practical matter, he could not be depended on. I was still a young adult when he died, working to figure out who I was. My father was a big part of that, but a lot of the work of my becoming who I am now happened after he was gone.

I went to work the Monday after the weekend my father died. I was manager of a parking garage at the time. When the people running the associated building discovered I had lost my father, they were shocked I had shown up. They were ready to move heaven and earth to let me go home… but I didn’t. I kept the bereavement days in case I needed them to arrange funerals, or clear out his apartment. And over and over, society kept trying to tell me I should be devastated by my father’s death, and I just wasn’t. Sympathy, not sadness.

At the end of last month, my friend Marc Curlee died of covid. I had known Marc since I was 13, and he was several years older. As you might expect, I was a snot-nosed kid, and our early relationship was not without friction, but we loved many of the same things, and like most of my friends over my life, bonded over gaming. And through 37 years of moves, stretches of years in different states, marriage on my part, career changes, and shifting special environments, Marc and I stayed friends.

Early on, it was Marc, not my father, who taught me to shave. Later, when my father was long since gone, Marc was still a strong presence in my life. As I worked on figuring out who I was, my father checked out of his part in that, and Marc didn’t. If Marc told me he’d do something, it got done. If I was sad, or lost, or drowning in a sea of green-black depression, Marc reached out. Marc was an important part of my support group, and one of the people I desperately missed when I left OK for 6 years. And no matter how long Mac and I were apart, when we managed to hang out again, it was like we’d never had a gap.

While Marc was hospitalized, I called him every day. Early on, we’d chat, and he’d talk about his plans for years to come. He was focused on the future. Then, as he was moved to the ICU, he stopped picking up the phone. I left messages, but he wasn’t in any condition to return them. I desperately wanted to visit, but even beyond the risk to me I live in a house with 2 highly vulnerable people. I could not talk to Marc. Could not see him. Could not be at his side. He had been there for me for decades, and I couldn’t be there for him.

Marc’s passing as hit me like no loss I have suffered before. It’s not just grief, though I have been fighting avalanches of sadness, but an empty place. I had no idea how many times a day Marc entered my mind. When I see a thing I thought he’d like, I’d make a mental note to tell him. When some story or game rule or art reminded me of some even he and I shared in your decades-long friendship, I’d smile. Not just occasionally, but multiple times each day, even when he wasn’t nearby, Marc was part of the core fabric of how I interpret and interact with the world.

And his passing has opened an empty place within me. A place which used to be filled with the things Marc and I would share in the future, and now we never will.

Grief is very much my reaction, but it is more than that. Anger, confusion, and horror sit alongside sadness in near-equal measure, the mix constantly churning on what will come on top. This is the grief people kept telling me I should be feeling when my father died, and I never did. And to be clear, Marc is absolutely not a stand-in father figure in my life. But he was a close, lifelong, formative friend, without whom I would not only be who I am today, I would be a worse parody of the best aspects of my self.

Processing this takes time, and the energy and attention that process demands will not be denied or delayed. I am fragile, veering off into the avalanche of grief any time a tiny pebble of loss is disturbed, when I realize I can’t share something with Marc, can’t talk to him, can’t play games with him ever again. I know that I will survive this — among other things, it would dishonor Marc’s memory not to take care of the people he cared about, and that includes me — but it’s going to take time, effort, and pain to get to a place where maybe I am okay.

Right now, I’m constantly struggling with the Empty Place.

(In memory of Marc Curlee, one of my oldest and closest friends.)

(Supported by my Pateon)