MAXINE STOKER

Grief Services

I wrote this piece in exploration of grief and the impossible fantasy of closure.

When Mom was murdered, the government assumed I would suffer an existential crisis and prepared the documents. They weren’t wrong. Mom’s death didn’t seem to affect my sister Hannah the same way, but they sent her the documents as well, just the same. She hadn’t been speaking to me. She said I was toxic. I had been favored as a child. I’d even apologized.

She began speaking to me again after Mom died, though. We went back and forth on the phone for a while—she lives in Alaska—about how shocked we were and how horrible it was.

We both had nightmares, but they were very different. Discussing our nightmares felt more invasive than I would have expected.

Mine were about trying to save Mom and failing. All sorts of variations, some very abstract. I had one—I didn’t tell Hannah about this one—where I had a complex but satisfying sexual encounter with a married man. When I turned back to the bed where we’d had sex, the sheets were denim and soaked in blood. She’d been wearing a denim shirt that day.

She told me hers were about Mom being alive and dead at the same time. I gasped.

I felt so naked standing next to Hannah’s zombie dreams, there on the porch of my apartment building in fucking Aurora, holding the phone to my ear. I had been thinking about death constantly. I could hardly get anything done. I wasn’t suicidal, so I couldn’t find a hotline or anything. I called a grief counselor who told me it was normal. It felt sort of normal, but impossible. You don’t recover from death, you just ignore it. I wanted a map and there were none.

“Since Mom died,” I told Hannah, tucking my hand into the back of my jeans and kicking something, a bored impulse to appear especially American in this moment, before my inevitable death. “Since Mom died, I’ve been thinking about death so much. I really—do you think about it? Like, do you ever get really afraid of dying?”

“I mean, what’s the point?” Hannah said. She has this jaw-y way of flattening her words. “I mean, we’re all going to die one day, so there’s no use in freaking out about it. I think about getting murdered, though.”

It wasn’t the same.

I thought about Mom a lot, of course, too. Living. Missing her made me into a child. I thought about her descent into death. It ripped me open, that I wasn’t there to walk her into it. I grabbed at my own hair because there was no hand for me to grab.

Usually the documents are presented to the decedent’s survivors in a series of phases. There’s a postcard that goes out to confirm your address. Then, a check-boxed list of options of four different reports.

Thinking about death and feeling like a child made me desperate for intimacy. I threw my phone under a running faucet to stop me from calling an old ex—a man who was taller than me, with rough hands, whose need to protect and forgive me created the illusion of meaning. But I knew if I called him, I might marry him. I couldn’t trust my grief-self, wild in fugue.

I thought: I should be alone, I should get used to this. Jumping off these edges. These abysses will make me brave.

I hadn’t known autopsy technology was so advanced.

Because they found Mom so soon after the murder, and she had been healthy at her time of death, they were able to electromagnetically record a considerable amount. I checked all the boxes, because I figured, why not? There was a fee of fifteen dollars. I wrote a check.

They all came on the same day, in separate yellow envelopes.

“Did you get the documents?” I asked Hannah that night. “Yeah, I read them.”

“Already? Wow. You weren’t…. Wasn’t that hard?”

“I mean, of course it was. But you just have to deal with these things.”

I hold the first envelope and resent my sister because I want this to feel special: this flimsy yellow thing, there at my eraser-colored kitchen counter, in such hopeful hands.

The actual autopsy and crime report are very straightforward. Candice Thompson was a healthy 66-year-old female. She had deep lacerations on her hands, chest, and arms. The perpetrator was a former lover.

I had met him, stayed at the house with him for a long Thanksgiving weekend a few years ago. Jordan. After killing my mom, he waited for the police, and when they came, he reached for his empty pocket to get shot twice—in the head and neck— by a cop who may or may not feel shame.

I put the autopsy back into its envelope. I tap it to my chest the number of times she was stabbed.

I have two weeks off work. Mom—the body—is in Northern California. I could find a flight for less than three- hundred dollars but don’t. My grandparents don’t plan a funeral. We’re all too angry with ourselves. Staying in Aurora feels like holding my arm against a hot stove coil. I want Northern California worse than ever. My childhood grabs at me with sobby little hands. I look around and have nothing to feed it. I’ll go once you let go, I tell the neediness. I’ll go when you no longer want me. It tugs at my pelvis, the base of my spine.

When the social worker shows up, she’s embarrassed. I hadn’t been expecting her. Apparently I was supposed to get a form asking if I wanted a social worker, to help me go over the documents. A snafu. I invite her in.

Roberta’s stocking feet clutch the barstool rung. She blows on her coffee. I threw a little schnapps in there for her.

“It is,” she says. “It is tough. It’s not that I’m steeped in death, because the death is over. I’m steeped in grief. My work is in grief, every day.”

“How do you handle that?” I swirl my mug like it’s wine. “Honestly, I have to just detach. I have to build a defense for myself, in my mind. Compartmentalize. When I leave the last house of the day, I—this is—well, I have this ritual. I do a little ritual to end the workday, so I can leave the grief behind. It’s— well here, I’ll show you. I don’t know why I’m doing this.”

She stands up and closes her eyes. She lifts her hands, places her fingertips at the center part of her hair, holds them there a second and then brushes them down. She repeats this in an odd series, some strokes grand and gentle like the first, some quick little flicks. She sits back down. I feel embarrassed.

“And that gets the sad off, huh,” I tell the sink. I hold up the schnapps bottle, more?

She shakes her head, can’t, wish I could. “It does, in my mind. Stupid as I probably look doing it.” She laughs. It’s like a wagon wheel splintering. I love what it does to the room.

When she leaves, she thanks me.

“I know you’re going through a lot right now,” she tells me in the doorway, her DKNY shoes and blazer back on. “And I am here for you. If for any reason you decide you need me, you have my number. But thank you for this. I don’t get to do this a lot. I hope it was helpful for you, too.”

I say that it was. We tell each other to take care.

A form the size of a magazine subscription tear-out tumbles from that first envelope. On it, grief services are offered. The fees are broken down as follows:

 

Pain experience: $60

Death experience: $120

Combined pain and death experience: $150

I develop this ritual: I get stoned and ride my bike for hours, listening to Toni Braxton’s Secrets on loop. It’s hard to eat, even when I’m high, and craving that album is the closest thing to an appetite I have. But after a few days, the album gets tainted by my grief. Every song I’ve ever listened to reminds me of the last time I listened to it, which is a time that has passed, which is a death. I try to put on new music but it all makes me dizzy. It’s like having to learn a hundred dance moves in a foreign language under gunpoint. New songs don’t understand me. Their hands don’t know the shape of my head. I run out of weed and decide it’s best I don’t buy more. I keep riding my bike. My knees ache, and in the mornings they are Frankenstein-stiff.

I open the second envelope: Failed Survival Strategies.

Failed Survival Strategies:

At 5:11:03 p.m., Candice Thompson took her final breath.

Her Final Survival Plan (FSP) occurred from approximately 5:09:16 to approximately 5:11:03. It should be noted that due to blood loss and panic/disorientation, the decedent’s cognitive abilities were significantly impaired.

A cognitive map of the decedent’s survival strategies has been recorded via Vital Force Retrographing. This map has been interpreted and translated into the timeline below:

5:08:09 p.m. – Survival Plan A: Physically remove self from attacker via front door.

5:08:15 p.m. – Survival Plan B: Physically protect head an neck with hands.

5:08:18 p.m. – Survival Plan C: Physically remove self from attacker via front door.

5:08:20 p.m. – Survival Plan D: Invite possible intervention through vocalization (screaming “Help”).

5:08:21 p.m. – Survival Plan E: Physically protect head and neck with hands.

5:08:32 p.m – Survival Plan F: Curl up to minimize exposed body surface area.

5:09:16–5:11:03 p.m. – FSP: Escape reality via dissociation.

I feel my ankle cramped on the rung beneath the barstool and adjust it. I wonder why I am doing this. I guess because lists are soothing. But when I get to the end, I’m so dizzy I have to read it again. When I try to look up from the page, I see my blender. It can’t follow me into death, and I already miss it so deeply I’m gutted. How unfair that I’ll be forced to abandon my blender. I reread the list until a periwinkle boredom slumps my mind. My nausea pales. It’s pleasant. I’m almost hungry. I take a bath. I try to think of who I can call and remember my phone is toast.

The documents follow me around while I try to function.

I bring them into bed with me, keep one hand on them while I sleep. I wail at night, try to see how loud I can wail until I feel stupid and self-conscious and go back to sleep.

Sometimes, thinking about sex saves me. I go on five-hour mental sex jags every few days, in which I consider the logistics of irrational erotic fantasies, review every person and thing that’s ever been in a bed with me and color it back to life, to a better version. Nothing short of vicious pleasure is enough to hold my attention, but when I finally achieve perfect focus, perfect furious arousal, I am delivered to a deathless plane.

I watch porn in desperate fits. I become hotly preoccupied with my asshole. I reach my fingers into my throat as if to purge but pull them out instead, slick with throat-spit, and reach beneath me to press in one, and then two digits. It’s almost enough. I wonder if Mom was into this stuff. I wonder if her asshole was ever a comfort to her. I wonder if she felt shame. I feel shame. I am so afraid of death.

I watch my hands tear open the third envelope. Possible Alternative Scenarios is the thickest packet.

Holding it reminds me of my dreams about very small stab wounds on enormous bodies. I wonder if in any of these scenarios the murder happens on a bed made in denim sheets. Sleeping lately has just been insane.

Based on the Event Variables and Probabilities formulation, as set to the conditions in place at the time of Candice Thompson’s death, the most likely change of fate for the deceased would have arisen as a result of human intervention. The following are the most likely human interventions that could have potentially occurred to alter the fate of the deceased:

  1. (Most Likely) The intervention of a neighbor as the result of a successful Survival Plan A (SPA). (Physically remove self from attacker via front door—see form 2A, case 34691028). While it is unlikely SPA would have been independently successful in preventing death due to relative speed of the deceased versus the attacker, human intervention by a neighbor—specifically the witness of a neighbor–would have very likely prevented death by intimidating the attacker.
  1. (Moderately Likely) The presence of another adult person in the location of the crime The presence of another adult person at the crime scene would have likely changed the fate of the deceased by intimidating the attacker. While this alternative scenario would have almost guaranteed a change of fate for the deceased, the deceased’s living alone makes it less likely to have occurred.

The short paragraphs hang like cliffs. I begin to skim the rest, which feels unsacred. I can’t quite tell how much of this impulse is my masochism and how much is my lack of masochism. Had she known the neighbors better. Had she tried to get to her phone. Had she gotten to her phone in time. Had she never met Jordan. Had she sought protection from Jordan earlier in their relationship.

I set the packet down. Somehow I’m in my bedroom room now. The kitchen must have gotten too sad. I sit on the floor so I don’t infect my bed.

Had she been a runner, taken self-defense, had access to a firearm. Had her voice been louder. Had she moved to a new residence. Had she heard his key in the door. Had it been a new lock. Had she been called into work that day. Had she gotten a dog. Had she been a dog person. Had she always been alone. Had she never been.

At the end I am told that for additional information, I can enter the case number into a webpage.

I ask Hannah if she made an appointment.

“Nah. I mean, I already died. Remember the boat?” She’s referring to when her heart allegedly stopped after a near-drowning. (It didn’t.)

I look at the form and drink schnapps from the bottle until it’s gone. I decide it’s best if I don’t buy more. I keep looking at the form, though evening has dampened the light by my window. Finally, I call Roberta. When I emailed work telling them I had no phone, they inexplicably sent me a new one, a flimsy burner.

“Hey Roberta, it’s Megan. From Glasser Ave.” “Megan!” She sounds a little drunk. “I’m so glad you called! How are you?”

“I’m okay, hanging in there. I’m actually calling about this death experience form.”

“Mhmm.”

“I just. I’m sort of weirded out by it. I read about it online a little. I don’t totally get it. Like, why do people want to do this? Is it normal?”

“Megan, that is a great question. It is normal to give it serious consideration. The death of a parent is very scary to most people. It’s not unusual for someone to consider their own existence. Maybe even their own death, in an abstract, prospective way.”

“But do they actually do it?”

“The service is only offered to a relatively narrow demographic. Because you are a nonreligious, single, educated woman, and because you were the youngest of the decedent’s children, they offered it to you at the discounted rate. Also, because you have a fairly small family and don’t have a highly structured job. Anyway, these services are rarely advertised, and when they are, people usually have to pay a fortune for them. The government recognizes that it could be an extremely harmful exercise for some, so they typically dissuade folks from seeking it. You were a candidate, however. A percentage of candidates do select that option. I can’t say how many.”

The last envelope is thin. When I open it, I feel sick, which is life-affirming.

Final Regrets and Desires. I read on the first page that the decedent’s major life regrets and final desires are estimated based on a combination of systems. Brain retro-imaging is used to render an approximation of pronounced longings. The Failed Survival Strategies report and family interviews, when available, are also considered. Final Moment Documentation experts use their advanced training to provide an outline. I was never interviewed.

I text Hannah and it takes her a whole day to respond: “No. They asked me, but I declined.”

I don’t read it. I put it back in its envelope. I fan the four envelopes out before me. This one I’ll save for a sunnier day.

Every time I look at people, I see their unfinished death fears. Have you done it before? The world is a crowded supermarket, and I am always lost. Have you died before? Can you walk me through it?

“Do you think this will help?” I ask Roberta. “Do you?” She asks.

“I mean, all I think about is death. I’m sick with it. I miss my mom so fucking bad. I’m so angry I wasn’t there. I think, more than anything, I feel unforgivably helpless. She experienced death alone. I watch crime shows and keep waiting to get obsessed with murder like my sister is, but I’m not afraid of getting murdered. I’m too afraid of death. I have a zit on my chest and I’m convinced it’s cancer, and I’m 26 but keep thinking I only have a few years left, and I don’t know who will be there when I die. No one will walk me through it. It’s all I think about.”

“Do you think your mom ever thought about death?” “Probably not. She was so realistic. She was too down-to-earth to think about death. I don’t know. She probably did some- times. She probably wanted to die sometimes, just like everybody, right?

“What do you want to learn?”

“I want my mom to teach me how.” A hunk of my cheekbone cracks off like a glacier and tumbles from my face. My eyelashes freeze.

“Someone has to walk me through it.” My throat spasms around ice pushing up and out of me. My cold teeth crack and wince as I choke.

“I don’t have parents. There’s no one to protect me from what death is. What if it isn’t okay? What if my mom isn’t okay?”

“What if?”

“If she could show me how she did it, then I would know what to do. I would know it’s okay.”

I was encouraged to bring a personal comfort item.

Roberta mentioned some people wear an item of the decedent’s clothing, but all Mom’s clothes are in Northern California. Hannah already volunteered to go sort through them. Mom gave me a dress that I’ve never worn and still feel guilty about, so I wear that. It isn’t comfortable. It’s a date dress—blue, strappy, Mediterranean. She had been so excited to give it to me.

The room reminds me of a spa.

“You’ll be dead for sixty seconds,” the doctor tells me.

She is citrusy and beautiful. I feel warted.

“What about dying? How long does it take from starting dying to being dead?”

“Once your heart rate begins to slow, it will keep gradually going down for five to seven minutes. You won’t be conscious after about two minutes, though.”

I can’t keep her numbers in my head so I just nod and lie down.

Roberta comes over that evening to ask how it went. She brings a bottle of wine and drinks it herself.

I want to say something spiritual. I’m convinced it was a scam. I don’t regret opting out of the pain. I don’t remember anything. Nothing like dreams. There’s a satisfaction in that. I might be more comfortable with bitterness than I was before.

I’m still wearing the blue date dress. Roberta is on the floor. I’m standing there, looking at her. She snakes her hips, lays her arms over her head.

“Symbolically, you have returned your mother’s death to her, now that you’ve had your own. And you’ve turned over your guilt for not… being the decedent.”

There is nothing inside me, so I shrug. Leaning against the wall, I look at Roberta’s bliss as she lobs her face over her shoulder and inhales her decorative scarf deeply. I look around at the blank ceilings of myself. Roberta runs her fingers through her hair. Flicks away the sad. I watch her bright teeth. Her fingers rove like sea creatures. Like they could just go on and on, pulling it all out forever.

Maxine Stoker holds an MFA from UMass Amherst, where she was awarded the 2015 Fiction Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Thought Erotic, Polemical, SLUDGE, Sybil, and the perennial press collection super / natural. Most of her work is under her other name, so if you’d like to read more or just say hi, reach out at msmaxinestoker@gmail.com.

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