Life Events

“Here I was, joined in mourning with people I had never met before.”

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

When my insomnia had become unmanageable, my attempts to avoid grief had finally placed me exactly where I needed to be: among people struggling with their own sorrows—whether it be about humans, dogs, or a cat now gone—who wanted to do something about it.

In the session, I sat across from a young man crying about how he had lost his father in 9/11—a first responder—and his stepfather had left him and his mother, so she had decided to focus all her attention on drinking. Andrew said he wanted to prepare for her inevitable death, which was why he was here. He was tough, he said. He had been through a lot. Everyone made sure to remind him of that every time they looked at him. He had moved to L.A. to get away from people who knew his story—and the looks they gave him. He was a survivor, but didn’t want to feel that way all the time. But what he broke down about was not the eventuality of his mother’s dying, but that his girlfriend had slept with someone else. She wasn’t supposed to leave him, and yet she did. He said he thought they had made an unspoken pact: he would take care of her pain and she would take care of his. In leaving, she had become another variable in his compounding grief.

“There must be something wrong with me,” he said. “I must be radioactive to be around.”

We nodded because we understood. The leader of the training program was named Bethanny, and she was somewhere in her fifties. She wore a long flowing skirt and had silver hair tied in the kind of braid that cascaded over her shoulder and down the front of her blouse. She asked us to give space to Andrew’s grief. There are so few places to allow for breakdowns or other kinds of outbursts of emotion, Bethanny said. She wanted this space to be one of them.

Displays of vulnerability by others made me anxious and even a little bit disgusted. In some ways, it felt like whatever these people were going through could be managed and they were just bad at managing it. I didn’t like to see anyone’s weakness and worked hard never to show my own. Even here, where we were supposed to feel free to be sad without judgment.

We held space for Andrew, who was no more than twenty-four. I did, too. He stared at me while he talked about the terrible things his girlfriend did to him. About how he felt like a man who was pegged as a victim from the very beginning of his life.

I wanted to have sex with him so he could feel better. The way I looked at him felt hungry, and I thought he could see that in me. I wanted to take his pain away, obliterate it through momentary pleasure. I wanted to tell him he could transfer his pain to me because I could endure it. I could endure anything.

People were speaking freely here, often through tears, about the weight of their loss and the opportunities they had missed to tell their loved ones how important they were. So instead they told us. And here I was, joined in mourning with people I had never met before. About a marriage to someone who did not know what was coming his way, and the inevitability of my own parents’ passing. I observed the grieving. I thought it would help me sleep. If I’m being honest, I had been in rooms like this before—ones that housed support groups, which worked for me until they didn’t.

But this room was different. This was job training.

Bethanny said she was deeply committed to helping people die consciously and to creating an army of empaths who could be sent out into the world to spread the word of death acceptance. We were doers. We were performing a service, and she had chosen us through our carefully filled-out applications. She said she could tell that there were some applicants who were not in it for the right reasons and so they didn’t make the cut. We were handpicked to perform this service for others. She wanted us to know we were special.

But before we were sent out in the field as exit guides, there were a number of self-assessments we had to get through. The first was an exercise that we used to prepare ourselves for death, which Bethanny said required the kind of relationship to truth and honesty that most people do not have. We paired up, seats facing each other, and held hands. Nathan was sitting two seats away from me and introduced himself as he swiveled his seat around and faced his palms out toward me. “How are you?” he asked. The truth was, and always is, that I didn’t know. But I mouthed “fine” with a smile so we could move on.

Bethanny wanted Nathan in here as a support for the new trainees. He told me he had already been out in the field and said it was “heavy but meaningful work.”

Nathan had crow’s-feet around his blue eyes and he looked of indeterminate age—maybe thirty-five, more likely a healthy Los Angeles forty-five. He wore New Balance sneakers, a dark-blue T-shirt, and unfashionable jeans that he probably thought were fashionable. He was a person you would pass on the street and maybe casually stare at for too long, but not in a way that made you feel hungry for someone. He was the kind of person you could project whatever you wanted onto.

Bethanny called out, “Look down at your sheets of paper. You’ll ask the question to your partner over the course of five minutes. Then you’ll switch.”

I looked down at the sheet of paper and there was only one question on it: “How do you avoid pain?”

We were about to launch into what Bethanny called “pain-avoidance techniques” with each other, and all I wanted to do was escape. Nathan seemed to be a joiner, whereas I was not. I had watched as he walked up to people at the beginning of the session and introduced himself to strangers like they were friends he couldn’t wait to have. He seemed to be able to produce a casual intimacy with anyone. I wanted that sort of ease, too, but instead I was the kind of person who avoided eye contact.

“Do you want to ask first or should I?” he said. “Evelyn, right?”

In the sea of names, he remembered mine. The gesture felt meaningful to me.

“You,” I said, and instantly regretted it.

He smiled and said, “How do you avoid pain, Evelyn?”

“Xanax. Sometimes Klonopin instead.”

He was unfazed. I was starting off easy.

“How do you avoid pain, Evelyn?”


“How do you avoid pain?”

“My weed pen.”

“How do you avoid pain?”

“Obviously, however I can.”

I had run out of the kind of answers that felt safe to disclose, so I was moving on to jokes. He asked me again and I said, “Making jokes.”

People were echoing the question all around us, but I couldn’t make out their murmured answers. The question itself had taken on the quality of an incantation vibrating through the room, and I suspected it was supposed to lead us to transcendence, but I wasn’t feeling it.

Nathan settled into his seat and asked me again. We had four and a half minutes to go.

“Sex,” I said. It was mostly a lie now. I wanted to see a reaction, but again I got none. Why did I want to get a rise out of him? I wasn’t prone to acting out anymore.

“How do you avoid pain?”

“I don’t know.”

“How do you avoid pain, Evelyn?”

I didn’t feel pain anymore.

“I avoid people,” I said.

“How do you avoid pain?”

“I avoid relationships. Relationships are for other people,” I said, smiling.

It didn’t feel true, but I wanted it to be.

“How do you avoid pain?”

“I shut down.”

I was shutting down. The question was floating all around me and I was starting to feel light-headed—as if I was on the verge of an anxiety attack. My face felt hot, and I wondered if he could tell that I was melting down or if I was hiding my spiral well enough to go unnoticed. He stared at me. Had I broken something in him? I hoped so.

“Evelyn, how do you avoid pain?”

I searched the walls for a clock but found none. Five minutes felt like an eternity when you were in an endless loop of defending yourself. I looked around and saw people crying. They were transcending their own humanity or something, having breakthroughs. But I had given Nathan a bum deal. He would not break me.

“I don’t feel pain.”


“All I feel is pain.”

“Time!” Bethanny shouted as a headache began to sprout behind my eyes.

Nathan said, “Great answers. Loved them. So good.”

He could not stop smiling at me and patted my knee, and even reached to squeeze my hand. I did not stop him. The palm of his hand felt rough against my skin, and I imagined what he did with his hands to make them feel so rough. As he looked at me, proud that we had shared a moment, I could feel that I had sweated through the back of my shirt. I looked at the people comforting their partners and could tell everyone around me had reached a new level of understanding. But I didn’t feel closer to Nathan. I gave him a weak smile back, feeling like a fraud who couldn’t transcend anything.

“Switch,” Bethanny called out.

I stared at Nathan and I could tell he was excited for this.

“How do you avoid pain, Nathan?”

“I run,” he said.

“How do you avoid pain?”

“I really listen to what a person is saying when I’m with them. Really give them their space to feel their feelings, you know what I mean?”

I nodded and said, “Uh-huh.”

Excerpted from LIFE EVENTS by Karolina Waclawiak. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Karolina Waclawiak. All rights reserved.

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