I think about death a lot. Not my own, not really, anyway, but my family’s. My parents, cousins, pets. I see them die over and over again, each time more gruesome and detailed than the last.
And I’m just so tired.
I was seven when Grandma died. It was my first brush with death, and it was overwhelming. I went from seeing her at least once a week, talking to her on the phone more often than that, to nothing. No more lovingly crafted, handwritten bedtime stories. No more weekend trips to the beach or zoo. No goodbye.
I only saw her one more time. Mom gently guided me down the long church aisle before anyone else arrived, led me to the casket where my grandmother lay, her lace gloved hands folded atop her chest. It was Grandma, but at the same time it, it wasn’t. Like she’d been replaced with one of those wax figures I’d seen in a museum. It just made me cry harder. Mom regretted bringing me for a final look. Apparently kids just don’t process closure the same way as adults. Who knew.
It took a few days for the finality of what had happened to sink in. I’d forget she was gone, ask when she was going to call to wish me sweet dreams, be reminded all over again when my parents’ eyes got watery and their voices caught on the sharp edges of grief.
“Are we all going to die?” I asked Mom.
She confirmed we were. “But not for a very long time.”
Regardless of how long it might take, I was terrified.
A month passed and I still grappled with how to come to terms with a life without Grandma. It kept me up at night. I’d stare listlessly up at my ceiling, wondering about all the things I’d been told to fill the hole she’d left in me. Heaven. Reunited with Grandpa. Happy forever. It sounded nice, but why couldn’t she have been happy here, with me? Why’d she have to go away? Sometimes I’d whisper these questions to my collection of teddies. I never expected an answer, just asking aloud helped a tiny bit.
So when I got one, fear clamped down on me, freezing me in place beneath my covers, holding me there like a bear trap.
“She didn’t have to go.”
The voice came from the foot of my bed. It was childlike in most ways, friendly, even, but underlaid with a smoker’s rasp.
I didn’t dare move.
“She could’ve stayed with you. Everyone can,” it continued.
My small fingers balled into shaking fists and yanked my covers up over my head.
“Don’t be afraid,” it said, followed by a giggle. It hadn’t moved from its spot at the footboard. “Your grandma sent me. She knows how sad you’ve been without her.”
At the mention of my grandma, I eased the cover back just enough to peer down the length of my bed. It was too dark to see who the voice belonged to.
“Y-you know my grandma?” I asked in a soft stutter.
“Oh yes. She asked me to come visit you. She’s sad that you’re sad, Eleanor. She wants you to be happy.”
That did sound like a Grandma thing to say.
“Who are you?”
The floorboards squeaked as it shifted its weight, but it did not come closer. “I am the grief eater. I chase death away.”
I gasped. “You can bring Grandma back?”
“No, sweet Eleanor,” it crooned. “He already has her. But I can keep Him away from everyone else you love.”
“You just need to do one thing.”
Think of them dying. That was all. Mom, Dad, our puppy, Pistachio, aunties and uncles. Everyone I cared about. Imagine them all passing away.
It was a difficult request for someone so new to the concept, but it, this grief eater with an almost-child’s voice, promised me.
“Feed me your false grief so that I have the strength to hold off Death, Himself, and you won’t have to feel the real thing. It’s what your grandma wants.”
I never could say no to Grandma.
My bedtime routine changed from that night going forward. Instead of counting sheep, I’d picture Grandma’s casket, but instead of her, I’d see every other person I could think of. A slideshow of waxy faced loved ones lying with their hands resting on their chests. Even Pistachio. The thought of the lid closing on them, cutting them off from light and life, was sad, but Movie Sad, where I knew it wasn’t real and when I got up again, all would be well.
This worked, for a while. I didn’t lose sleep over it, didn’t share it with my parents. I’d just say goodnight, watch my mind’s slideshow, and drift off to sleep, heart aching dully, but content that nothing would change.
And then the grief eater returned.
“It’s not enough, Eleanor. Death is strong, so I must be stronger. Feed me more!”
I didn’t know how.
It was at my bedside now. I rolled on to my side, keeping my back to it and my eyes squeezed shut. It was my friend, I thought, why then was I so afraid?
A sharp, icy digit pressed against my temple, and I flinched. Images flashed, rapid fire, through my head.
Mom sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, neck twisted, eyes glassy.
Dad laid out across the hood of his car, his front half bloodied after going through his windshield.
I cried out, slapping my hands over my ears as if it might stop the flood of horror. The grief eater stepped away with a satisfied hiss.
Death was so much more than a wooden box flanked by floral displays.
It was difficult to imagine the types of scenarios the grief eater needed to keep up its strength. I used the images it had given me at first, creating a new, darker slideshow than the one I’d first come up with. It frightened me, upset me more than I could put into words, but my fake sadness would keep the real stuff away, so I did it. The news turned out to be a good source for inspiration. So much aggression, violence, death.
I used it all, creating my nighttime stills of white sheets stained red on the ground, yellow police tape, and chalk outlines in the shape of family members, and I’d cry myself to sleep.
Rough nights turned to exhausted days, and I’d drift through school, thoughts of Death never far from my mind. My parents noticed. My teachers noticed. They questioned me. I answered honestly: I was keeping them safe. I was keeping them alive.
Of course, this isn’t what you expect to hear from such a young child, and it was immediately assumed I was traumatized by Grandma’s passing. While they fretted over what to do, I decapitated them, shot them, fed them to the wolves.
But the grief eater wasn’t satisfied.
“More, more. I need more!”
Not even my dreams were safe, and I forgot what it felt like to rest.
Therapy followed, and pills after that. Pills to help me sleep, to quiet my thoughts, to numb me. A heavy regiment for one so young, but the shrink insisted it was for my own good. It would help curb the delusions. Stem the schizophrenic tide he saw rising on the horizon. Unusual, he called it, but not unheard of. The earlier I started, the better.
Thinking became hard. Ideas were liquid and fleeting. I existed, and that was all.
The grief eater never left. It just got hungrier. Angrier. At night, I could feel it standing over me, feel its cold breath against my cheek.
But I had nothing to give, and I would float away on my anesthetic cocktail.
Aunt Char was diagnosed with cancer shortly after I started taking my drugs. It was late stage. The doctors were apologetic. While I slept, she wasted away. It took only a few weeks.
My parents decided it would be best if I didn’t attend her funeral. They couldn’t have known the damage was already done. I knew it was my fault. I failed in my duty, didn’t give the grief eater what it needed, and my aunt paid for it.
I couldn’t let it happen again.
I stopped taking my pills and started to feel again, first the real grief for Aunt Char, and then the fake for everyone else.
A faceless assailant plunging a knife into Mom’s chest.
A gunshot, Dad pitching backwards.
Every night, trying to remember everyone I cared for so that I could murder them.
The grief eater’s appetite had grown, though, and my simplistic, childish imagination wasn’t enough. It demanded more, always more.
As I got older and the internet became available, my cartoon understanding of the ways people could die expanded. I’d sit at my desk long into the night, researching, researching, researching. Imagining. Replacing victim’s faces with familiar ones.
From behind me, the grief eater sighed with ecstasy.
“More,” it pushed. “More.”
I began to understand its needs. I was growing too used to the norm. It no longer stirred the same level of upset it had when I was younger. Its strength, its hunger, couldn’t be satiated by such things. I had to delve deeper.
It took me to dark places where the screams seemed all too genuine and the bloodshed all too real. I subjected myself to grainy videos of despicable, disgusting acts, all the while thrusting my loved ones into the half-lit scenes so that it was their voices that haunted me when I finally went to bed.
My family stayed safe, but my grief felt anything but fake.
Even that wasn’t enough after a while though. Desensitization crept in, made it harder to react, and the grief eater grew restless.
“Death is coming,” it warned.
Its voice was no longer childlike, but deep and dark and angry.
I heard it whispering under my bed. Beneath my desk. From behind doors and through closed windows. Despite its claims of becoming weaker, its demands grew in intensity.
It didn’t let me sleep. All I wanted to do was sleep, to stop thinking, but it was never far, never silent.
I had no more false grief to give! It had to know that!
But it didn’t stop. It was never going to stop. Not until I fed it. We had gone beyond imagination. Beyond any kind of fake sadness that I could conjure up. It wanted more.
And I had no choice but to give it.
I loved my boss, in the way any employee loves a fair, genuinely good employer. She made my part time job selling overpriced clothes bearable. I’d have liked to stay there until college, at least. I was close. Only a year away.
I don’t remember driving to her house, or knocking on her door. I don’t know where I got the knife. It was just in my hand. And then it was in her stomach, up to its hilt, and my fingers were hot with her blood. The surprise on her face broke my heart.
But it quieted the grief eater.
I apologized to her, and I stabbed her again. She fell against her door frame, mouth opened. She was trying to scream, I think, but all that came out was a breathless gasp. I tried to make it quick. She was a fighter, though. Oh, God, she wanted to live.
I didn’t cry until I was back in my car. The grief eater was in the backseat. Finally, finally satisfied.
It was only temporary though. I knew it then, as it fed. I knew it as I stopped on a bridge outside of town, the opposite direction of my house, and threw the knife into the wide, rushing river below. I knew it when I stood in the shower, unable to scrub my hands clean.
Now I fully understand.
There was no warding off the inevitable. My family had never been safe from death. The grief eater had made me into the very thing it had promised to protect me from.
I’m sorry for what I’ve done, I can’t say that enough, and I’m sorry for what I’m about to do. I want people to understand, though. My parents, everyone.
It knows that I see it clearly, but it doesn’t go away. It won’t. Not ever. It will always want more.
And I am just. So. Tired.