Thomas Wictor

Advice for survivors

Advice for survivors

I’ve heard it from other survivors of a death, and now I’ve discovered that it’s true: Your “friends” will dump you.

There are lots of reasons. They don’t know what to say to you, the death reminds them of their own mortality, they’ve never even thought about death, they’re not used to feeling or expressing profound emotions…

I won’t tell you to not be angry at them. The reason I’m not angry is that I prepared for it, the way I prepared myself for my parents’ death. Also, I’m entirely self-contained. I have Tim, but he’s self-contained too. Self-contained people don’t always reach out to each other. We operate within our limitations. Tim calls it the “Two -Step”: We have our innate reaction, and then in a flash we react the way we should. Our reactions are all learned, through years of training and self-discipline.

It’s not hard now. The Two-Step has become instinctive. So it’s not like when I’m in a situation, I think, You pig—no you’re not—I like you—Hi! Instead, it’s more like, You—Hi!

So even though our actions are contrived—in the sense that they’re learned and not natural—the end result is that we can engage in normal human behavior. It doesn’t really matter that it was all done through sheer force of will. I could even argue that the Two-Step Tim and I do makes us more trustworthy because we’ve trained ourselves to react in the right way. We use visual cues, body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections to understand what the other person is feeling.

Many (most?) people aren’t used to studying others so closely. Tim and I did it because we had to make a clean break from our father. What I’m going to write next is going to strike you as incredibly disrespectful. You need to understand that I’ve chosen to spare you the full story. My goal is not to become the poster child for any cause, and I also want to be a writer known for tackling really awful topics in a funny-yet-humane way that doesn’t rely on cheap shock value. So here goes.

Tim said that Dad was like a retired circus ape that got too old to perform its tricks, so they just released it, and it went out into the world, got a job, got married, and had kids. That’s an extremely accurate description of my father’s social skills. Now, the reason I can write that is because it’s also an extremely accurate description of my social skills. Those of you who think I’m being disrespectful to my father, please understand that everything I write about him applied to me.

One afternoon in the auto-parts store, Dad stood at the counter waiting for the clerk, who was in the back. A kid of about twenty came in and asked Dad, “Where’s the clerk?”

“He’s in the back,” Dad said, “and I’m next. Got it?”

“Shit, why do you have to be such a mean old man?” the kid asked.

Old?” Dad—who was seventy-nine—barked. “Wanna try me?”

I learned of all this from Dad himself. “I coulda taken him,” Dad said. “I haven’t fought anyone since 1949 and I got a pot belly, but I coulda taken him.”

Over what? And I’m sorry, but the kid didn’t back down because he was afraid. He looked at this ramshackle geezer and had mercy on him. Don’t let anyone tell you that young people today aren’t any good. A shaven-headed, tattooed young man swallowed his pride in the name of keeping the peace.

Tim informs me that the story Dad told me is different from the version Tim got. Originally, Dad said that as the kid walked away, he said, “I hope if I get to be as old as you, I’m not as mean and spiteful as you.” Dad never mentioned that part to me, and he omitted it from the many, many subsequent iterations of his adventure with the dangerous thug.

Thank you, young man, for showing great restraint. May you achieve happiness and success.

I’ve never in my life gotten into fistfights with strangers. The other major difference between Dad and me is that when my time comes, and I find myself sitting before a guy with a clipboard and half-glasses on the end of his nose, and he’s got the list of my sins, I’m going to say, “I have no excuses. I did all those things. I chose to do them. I’m 100 percent responsible for my own choices. I’m deeply sorry for all the pain I caused in my life.”

I’m not afraid of sitting in front of the guy with the clipboard. It has to be done.

That’s another reason people will drop you after you have a death in your family. They’re afraid of the guy with the clipboard. People don’t like to think that actions have consequences. Both my parents thought they could get away with living exactly how they wanted. They could have their cake and gorge themselves on it. In Dad’s case I mean that literally. After he was diagnosed with diabetes, he began baking cakes almost daily.

The weirdness that people display when someone dies explains in part my parents’ terrible deaths. Imagine the topic of death being so off-limits that you can’t even think about it, and then you’re told that you’re dying. The people who’ve dropped me are my parents.

My Great-Aunt Marian Lower Kimball lived in my current house for nine years. A woman named Sandra took care of her, since Marian was incapacitated from a massive stroke. Marian could speak only a few words; nobody really knew how much she understood or what she was thinking. Here’s Marian and her husband Major Curtis Yarnell Kimball, O.B.E., U.S. Army General Headquarters.


After Sandra’s husband died, almost all their friends dropped her. Sandra is a remarkable, powerful person who is able to overcome. Her Bible study class stood by her, but I think Sandra would’ve been fine on her own. She takes trips to places she’s never been. On a whim she’ll decide to get on a plane and go to New Orleans, for example. Today she brought us dozens of her amazing cookies. I could tell you her secret for making them so good, but I won’t. It’s brilliant and diabolically simple.

So, to the survivors of a death in the family, what I’d like to say is that when people drop you, it says everything about them and nothing about you. They’re to be pitied. You can be angry too, but it’s like being angry at a child. Hopefully, your anger won’t last.

There’s always the opportunity to make new friends. If you need it, you can find discussion forums for people in our position. Get involved in social media.

People dump you because they’re afraid. It doesn’t excuse their actions, but it explains them. The sad reality is that too many of us are undependable. My solution was to become as self-contained as possible. I view friends as bonuses, not requirements.

But that works for me. It might not work for you. There are lots of people who can help. Google “bereavement support groups.” Here’s a good piece about the whole unnecessary mess. It explains in one sentence why this happens:

“Laugh and the whole world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.”

But you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. Be strong.

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