Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Lost in other people’s feelings

The last place I thought I would be during Easter weekend was inside a church, but that’s where I spent part of a life-or-death Saturday, or more accurately, love-and-death. I started my day attending a funeral and ended it at a wedding, which might have stretched my emotions in competing directions except I didn’t know the person who had died or the couple being married.

I certainly felt sadness for a dear friend who was saying a final goodbye to her adult daughter, and the thought of someone I care about having to endure such a uniquely torturous loss. Although I had never met the deceased, I attended the funeral because when you feel helpless to alleviate a friend’s grief with anything you could say or do, simply being present seems the most effective and respectful way to let her know that you are there for her.

But her pain is not my pain, and so while she was overwhelmed by memories of the baby she brought into the world and the erasure of parental hope, I was able to contemplate how the death spared my friend decades of struggle and heartbreak; my biggest anguish of the morning was whether it was uncouth to show up to a funeral carrying big bright Easter baskets for two young girls who had lost their mother and aunt. During the service, I had no memories of the departed to occupy my mind, and I found myself staring in the direction of the immediate family, almost monitoring their mourning.

Their woe felt sufficient and appropriate: crying and flushed faces, pained but heartfelt smiles when the speaker told stories of childhood mischief. I wondered whether there was sorrow that I was capable of deeming insufficient, and was disappointed by even the possibility that I might’ve judged a family’s sadness if they were too stoic or if they were sliding out of the pews and wailing on the church floor.

There is no template for how to cope with trauma, just as there is no verified formula for falling in love. But pretending there is a standard is something we frequently do with varying degrees of consciousness, whether it’s one of my best friends who regularly complains about what he considers overwrought bereavement posts on social media, or the exaltation of monogamy that is embedded in the same-sex marriage movement and now its aftermath.

A friend of mine was recently admiring a tribute to one-half of a gay Atlanta power couple from his partner, which was indeed touching and inspiring. My friend characterized the lover’s testimonial as “a blueprint on how one should feel if you are truly engaged in a relationship/partnership/marriage.”

I worry about the detrimental side effects of this sentiment (which I believe is widespread in our community) on both the couple and their admirers. Managing a relationship is its own challenge, without having to bear the weight of a community’s romantic dreams and ideals. And as I told my friend, “I think people, particularly this generation of gay men, find a lot of heartache and disappointment chasing the should of relationships, letting their imaginations and other people’s expectations govern their emotions.”

While working at the wedding Saturday, one of my catering co-workers mentioned that he was recently out of a 13-year relationship. Another co-worker and I responded at the same time, with him saying, “I’m sorry,” and me offering, “Congratulations!”

Perhaps the day of bi-polar affairs had me confused about celebrating vs. condolences, or maybe being in such close proximity to happiness and sadness, but being apart from both, gave me the distance to view the occasions without the expected sentimentality.