When we think about grief, we usually picture sorrowful goodbye messages from loved ones and acquaintances alike. A memorialized Facebook wall praising the individual’s positive influence on the lives of many. Lamentations about how the person passed too soon, and how they will be sorely missed.
Not many people imagine grief to be the way I am experiencing it. There is sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, shame, and regret. Typical emotions experienced in a grieving period. But there is an added layer of confusion here. Because you see, the one who passed away was someone who had not had a positive influence in my life. Joe, you were my childhood bully.
Photo by Danielle MacInnes
Note: The names used in this memoir are not the actual names of the parties involved.
The news hit me as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed on a Sunday morning. I saw a very long post from one of my elementary school friends talking about Joe.
Immediately, my mind flashed to memories that I had hidden away into my subconscious. The hurtful words, the emptiness that I felt when he ostracized me. But like usual, this was only an instantaneous memory. I swatted them away quickly and wondered instead how he was doing after all these years.
Attached to the post were some pictures of the author with Joe; pictures I recognized from what seemed like ages ago. At first, I thought it was perhaps his birthday, or maybe a token of longstanding friendship. Facebook does that, right? Those celebrations of “6 years you’ve been Facebook friends”?
It didn’t take long before I realized that this didn’t seem like any celebration.
I saw the heavy usage of past tense.
The “you were”, “was”, and “should have”s.
The condolences in the comments.
And it hit me: he had passed away.
Initial reaction: What the hell happened?!
I didn’t really know how to react. I was shocked. Joe had not been in my life ever since we entered high school, and back then, I did everything I could to erase him from my memory. This was the first time in over 8 years that I heard about him. And he was dead.
I rushed over to his Facebook profile, which had now been memorialized. It was filled with mournful and grieved messages from his loved ones. I was overtaken by a desire to know what happened to him. How could such a young fellow pass away? He was my age – what happened?!
Then I found it. An article that was written about the incident. It was a vehicle accident. He lost control of his motorcycle and drove into a tree. There was nothing the doctors could do to save him. He died peacefully while surrounded by loved ones.
I started crying.
After I learned of what happened to Joe, the tears started falling all by themselves.
Regardless of how Joe thought of me when we were kids, I never thought too badly of him. I even tried on multiple occasions to see me as an acceptable human being by offering him compliments to counter his slurs of insults against my appearance, my ethnicity, and my penchant for academics.
Who knows, maybe there were reasons he felt he needed to bully me. Reasons I couldn’t see since I was so young.
I flipped through some images that people were posting.
“A smile that lit up the room”.
I had to admit that he had a nice smile. I just never saw it because for some reason, he hated everything about me and made sure to make it clear.
“A deep love for all of his siblings”.
That love was very clear through the shared images. I wondered why he showed me so much hate when he seemed so serene and happy with his siblings in these pictures.
“Laughing until our sides split”.
I was aware of who he was close friends with back in elementary school. Partially because some of them also tagged along to insult me along with him.
I felt angry and frustrated.
After I cried for a while in this manner, a deep resentment took hold over me. Snippets of my painful memories from Joe’s bullying resurfaced one-by-one, almost to counter all of the praise that he seemed to be receiving from his loved ones.
“Why should I care?? He made me afraid to be myself. He ruined my already damaged self-confidence. He ruined my middle school life. His words and his actions watered the seeds of what later became my battle with depression and social anxiety disorder. He never apologized for anything, but he started a domino effect in my mind that has been and is overwhelmingly difficult to deal with. Why should I even care???”
”Completely unprovoked, he repeatedly called me an ugly Asian and a nasty nerd. He told others to call me similar names. My mere presence made him shout out, “Ew”. I wasn’t “cool” enough for him, apparently. He hated me, and I never, ever understood why.”
”It serves him right. He didn’t just bully me. He bullied so many other people too. This is karma at work. This is just desserts.”
I felt guilt.
In all this I remembered suddenly that there was one time in my elementary school years when I engaged in bullying myself. It was exactly one occurrence, but it felt so terrible that it haunts me to this day.
And I noticed that as soon as the thought came up, I started rationalizing my own behaviour.
”It wasn’t that bad. Others were doing much worse things to Ed. All I said to him was that we didn’t need to hear his ‘sound effects’. He was complaining about something he couldn’t find in his locker. It’s not like he had any medical reasons to be yelling ‘Oh NOO!’ in the hallway because in that case, I obviously never would have said anything.”
But this was quickly replaced with the most extreme form of guilt that I think I ever felt in my life. It didn’t matter how small or big it was. There is never any good reason to bully anyone. After that occurrence, I never bullied anyone ever again, and in fact did everything I could to support people I knew were being bullied.
I thought about the anger I had felt. Ed was a “target” for bullying back in middle school. Meaning, many people chose to bully him in different ways…for some unknown and completely unjustified reason.
In a panic, I checked Ed’s profile too. To make sure he was doing okay – as if I could tell from just his Facebook page. If I’m struggling this much after dealing with a smaller group of bullies, how much must he have struggled with almost the entire grade against him?
I found myself wishing I had apologized to Ed. I remembered that one day, he called me in the hallway randomly, and told me that I’m a loser. I remember that I smiled and took it without saying anything, because I knew that a year before, I had shown him a similar rudeness. I wished that I could’ve apologized too.
I hovered over the “Message” button, wondering if it was too late to apologize. My answer came quite clearly. It was. Because just like me, Ed probably did everything in his power to move on from his history of being bullied in middle school. Apologizing would unpack the painful memories, just like this strange grieving period is doing to me. This apology wouldn’t have been for him…it would’ve been for me.
I felt shame.
I thought more about Joe. Who’s to say that Joe was any different from me? I didn’t know him after middle school. He could’ve become an upstanding guy. Maybe he also found the error in his ways and protected the marginalized and the bullied, just like I am.
Maybe in some ways, I was “othering” Joe by labelling him as my childhood bully. Clearly, I also bullied Ed, even if it was just once. I felt a deep shame. Joe had so many other identities. A brother, a best friend, an athlete, a son.
Maybe he had things going on in his life that were difficult to deal with, and he chose to vent through bullying a nerdy girl who seemed like she would never stand up for herself. The point is that I didn’t know.
And now, I’ll never know.
I felt regret.
I found myself wishing I talked to him more when he was alive. Maybe he had some things going on. Maybe if I prodded beyond my counter-compliments, I might’ve been able to help him somehow. Support him. Or maybe not. Maybe he would’ve flailed his arms in disgust.
The point is that I’ll never be able to do that. He’s gone. So for as long as I live, I will only be able to think about him as my childhood bully who had other aspects to him that I’ll never ever be able to know or understand.
Strange, isn’t it? With most people from your childhood, you don’t necessarily feel this much regret over not knowing them well enough. But with death, everything seems to change.
I imagined how terrible it must have felt when Joe lost control over his motorcycle. When he knew he was about to collide with the tree. When his loved ones rushed to the hospital to support him. When he was dying. I imagined the despair, the panic, the anxiety.
No longer did I feel justified in my anger and frustration toward Joe. It felt like I was disrespecting someone who had passed by thinking about him in any other light but that of grief. And yet, this is grief. It is my grief.
Acceptance of my own form of grieving.
My grief is not the same as anyone else’s, just as much as anyone else’s grief is completely their own as well. I may not see Joe in the same light as others who are pouring their hearts out for him. But I too am grieving.
Joe was a part of my life. His words, actions, and behaviours may have been a negative influence in my life, but he nevertheless was a person who was part of my life. His purpose in my life was not to be a friend, or a loved one, or even a lesson in forgiveness.
Forgiveness is difficult, and it is not something I can manifest instantaneously because he has passed away. No – Joe’s purpose in my life was showing me that I could get knocked down hard by someone, and still stand up again at the end of the day.
That feeling hurt, upset, and in pain is transient. Even in my struggles with depression and social anxiety disorder, when oftentimes the only thing you can do is actively weather the storm, the memories of being bullied become an asset.
When I’m in a depressive episode, I often recall when I was bullied in middle school and how I built myself up again every time I was thrown an insult. I can recall how many times the storm passed when I felt especially down.
I have used these examples, among many others to follow, to show myself during my lowest times that no matter what, the storm always passed with time. And it will pass again when the storm returns.
I cannot excuse Joe’s words and actions from middle school. That is not a part of my grief. His bullying, just like when I bullied Ed, can never be justified, and does not necessarily need forgiveness (at least, just yet).
But I do regret never having a good conversation with him. Never seeing if perhaps, he was the one who needed support at the time. But at least I won’t regret never saying goodbye with respect.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),