Turning Grief into Gratitude
Making a list of people, places, eras, and things you grieve may sound like it’ll make you wallow in it further: but it’s actually quite helpful and cathartic.
The second I got my first vaccine dose in late February, I went full speed ahead with my plans to move to Los Angeles that had been incubating for about 10 months. Booked a flight, talked to a business attorney about migrating my current entity and the next one I’m starting, and made a spreadsheet of 17 potential properties I could call home. After narrowing it down to five, I took a few virtual tours and decided on one even though it was too early to begin the leasing process.
I felt in control of my destiny. Seeing rising vaccination rates fill newsfeeds also filled me with hope, as table after table of nurses who efficiently jabbed one arm after another at Bronx Science helped reinstate some of my trust in public health after a year of utter abandonment from every level of government.
You’d think after my second jab and this hopeful news, and so much to look forward to plus spring arriving, that I’d be thrilled like a toad with a bowl full of crickets. But like a lot of people, I’m feeling some anxiety over shifting “back to normal” even though I’ve been longing for it. This is despite missing even just the little things I did by myself like dining out, playing Pokémon and people-watching in crowded areas, and leisurely “artist dates” (game developer dates? Same thing!) where the entire idea is to go at your own pace. Whether you’re at a museum, checking out a neighborhood you don’t visit often, or just sitting in the park, vibing.
Instead, I felt depressed as fuck for a couple days after it hit me that things had been pretty lonely before the pandemic and likely wouldn’t get better until I could both get back on the road then move to LA.
What’s the point in getting excited about brunch again when all your friends have been gentrified out, moved to the suburbs because of COVID and/or having kids, or we moved on from one another a while back yet so I inadvertently began a new life across the country courtesy of being in the games and media industries?
This stark epiphany hit home last May when I realized I had been in some state of grief for much of my life, and decided I deserved to be happy in the present. Hence, the relocation plans.
But despite not having been there in quite a while, hearing the news of the recent closure of Pyramid Club pushed me over the edge. (Particularly since it seems to have had a Jewish funeral. For non-Jews who just read that, we aim to get burials done ASAP.) It made me recall two distinct chapters of my life I was there frequently: going to 80s night and getting free champagne at Apocalypse on Thursday nights, seeing who was loitering on St. Marks, and it was all really precarious because I was just 19. I was of legal drinking age at the next Pyramid chapter when they resumed having punk and hardcore shows, which I went to and got to play a few times. Sunday matinees there made up for the hole in our hearts after the fall of CB’s [CBGB to those who weren’t there every other weekend].
It hit pretty hard that none of the people who were in my life in either of those chapters are in it anymore.
The tides of life always bring people in and out of yours: but when you’ve been tormented by not just grief for a solid year, but the sheer realization you’ve been in some state of mourning or another for far longer than that? Well, I think it’s valid to feel despondent about one of the last bastions of the city, scene, and culture you knew falling to corporatized gentrification, COVID, or both.
You have to understand, us alternative folk are a hive. Our scenes shrink even the largest of megalopolises. And with the Village and Lower East Side in particular, going to CB’s and the Pyramid wasn’t just a night out like seeing a major international act at Irving Plaza or the Nokia Theater. You’re at the latter for a show. The former is your community.
Even if you didn’t live in the neighborhood, you were part of it. All those other punks, goths, drag queens, queer clubgoers, and weirdos just came together at this point of convergence. That mess of blocks was ours, for the transgressors who could be ourselves at night. The East Village proudly stood as this brazen testament to the subversive nature of the city, defying crimewaves and gentrification alike. But now this paragraph feels like a eulogy as I look at all of the empty storefronts amid banks, drugstores, and franchise eateries. I agree with the Gothamist commentariat that post-COVID NYC is going to have a cultural renaissance, or all we’re going to have is Target and Taco Bell plus a bunch of glass luxury towers no one actually lives in.
Though as I write this, I’m not feeling depressed anymore. In fact, I feel better than ever about the things I’ve grieved. That’s why I’m going to share what I did: I itemized my grief like I was filing my freaking taxes. (Hey, I also grieve the years of my twenties lost to those stupid accounting degrees. Roll with my lingo here.)
WTF is Itemizing Your Grief and Why Should You Do It?
It’s exactly what it says on the tin. If you’re feeling particularly depressed or mournful, make a list of what’s eating at you.
I’ll paraphrase my list of the things, places, and people I grieve:
- What NYC once was
- Dead family and friends
- Friends I grew apart from, or vice versa
- The alternative quarter
- Talking on the phone with my friends being the norm, and early Internet culture
- Not having another band after the last one I had in 2009
- Not getting to make games in the Newgrounds era, then what many consider the “golden age” of indie PC games
There’s more I don’t feel like discussing on Medium, but that should give a general gist of how to do this. I’d already grieved a lot for my lost childhood. I hadn’t grieved enough for all the things I hoped for as a young adult, then what I had and is gone now.
Doing this helps you parse your grievances into personal, structural, and temporal categories.
This is important because first it helps you separate what you can and can’t control. What is and isn’t possible.
Like I can’t go back to the year 2002 in a Delorean, but I can still talk to the friends I have at this juncture of my life through texting, email, Twitter DM, then arranging a phone call or two until we can hang in person again. Actual conversations just are not de riguer like they used to be, but they’re still possible. I also decided to revisit this era in my work: the book and script for Lift Me Up take place in 1999–2001, and while my game takes place in more modern times, there’s some flashback sequences to the early-mid aughts. I can’t go back in time in real life, but I certainly can in fiction and hopefully turning this book into a movie.
Doing this helps you further separate what and who you miss from what you lament you didn’t get, or didn’t happen…and thus, what you still have chances for versus what you have to accept is no longer possible.
I may have sadly missed the chance to play at CB’s. But it doesn’t mean I can’t have a band again when I get to LA.
It’s something I couldn’t see myself doing again here, envisioning the roadblocks and “herding cats” dynamic I went through trying to start a new act a decade ago. But when I think of doing it in LA, I’m excited at the thought of buying new axes, de-rusting my fingers, and jamming with people in and out of my native genres. I’m approaching my late thirties, not death. My departed mentor and friend didn’t start his band until he was 40, after he got out of jail. Who the hell says I can’t start a thrash band after I get my game released and get funding for my movies? Or do a solo act? Hey, you only live once and I can afford decent equipment now!
There’s things I do and don’t miss about band dynamics. I think about how a lot of the music I wanted to make was a product of its time. That particular chapter in punk scene history that belongs to elder Millennials is gone and over, and what did we do? We spent a lot of that time lamenting that we were born just a tad too late and missed Coney Island High and Max’s Kansas City. That time is gone, but I’ve embraced my metal and goth roots, the punk scene’s still my forever home, and now there’s like 80,000 different genres.
I mean, I’m glad I’m alive in a timeline where frog metal exists. FROG METAL. Two of my greatest loves smashed together. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!
Plus, why lament about missing out in clubs that were open when we were in elementary school when we had plenty to enjoy at the time like drunkenly loitering in East River Park then sneaking into Don Hill’s to see The Skatalites for a hot second before making it to a hole in the wall hardcore show in Brooklyn with only about half the group having a cell phone of some sort. We did this shit with no Uber or Lyft, Cuomo was being a gropey fuckboy elsewhere and hadn’t had a chance to destroy the MTA yet, and I’d leave giggly posts about the evening on MySpace the next morning.
And you know what? I’m brimming with gratitude that I have these amazing stories. I may grieve the city I used to know. But I’m so, SO glad I have the memories that I do. That I did get to see some legendary bands and venues before they closed.
Itemizing what you are grieving about helps you get to the WHY.
Do you miss that person, place, scene, or thing?
Or are you lamenting something you missed out? Or that it didn’t go how you hoped?
I certainly miss a lot of the clubs and bands. There’s absolutely some friendships I miss from those earlier chapters of my life as well. One of them was my close friend who later became my roommate. We constantly talked about shows and life things, interpersonal dynamics in the scene, guys…oh, we happily failed a Bechdel test any given day on that one. I never had another close girlfriend like her, where we both wanted monogamous relationships deep-down, but LIVED for having lots of X-rated adventures in the meantime. I not only miss her as a person, but I lament that this particular dynamic seemed impossible to recreate. We had lots of crazy adventures together here and across the pond that I’m incredibly grateful I had, even if we’re no longer in each others’ lives.
I thought I’d lock it down with a guy in the scene eventually. But first I just wanted to have fun, and then I didn’t realize that the decades of trauma I suffered had made me somewhat unapproachable, not to mention convinced I didn’t deserve romantic love. All the intense shit and abuse I’d endured, I wore it like an armor for so long. I wasn’t allowed to be romantic.
While I concretely miss my old friend, it hit me that I didn’t miss any of the men in my past in particular. I actually wasn’t even lamenting that dates, pursuits, or one-night stands went further. Rather, I was sad I didn’t have the option for something more serious. I was sad about missing out on a concept, rather than a person. Even if you’re not going to take it, it’s nice to have a choice, you know?
I wasn’t interested in it in my early twenties, then by my mid-twenties a relationship extending beyond a short-lived FWB deal wasn’t tenable given my struggles with severe situational depression and interpersonal issues that made day-to-day life monstrously hard at the time. I was in no state to be a good partner. So I felt grief that I missed my chance to be part of a young and intrepid couple when the scenes were still happening and online life was maturing but not quite there yet?
But I’m almost 36 at the time of writing. Not dead. I have amazing and disappointing stories about gentlemen follies in those days and more recent times. Sex parables that would make most of Congress look like schoolmarms. I already toughed out some of my most difficult journeys by myself, along with this global crisis. I don’t want to be 25 again for SO many reasons. After years of therapy, figuring myself out, getting more in touch with the human experience partly because of the amazing career I fought so hard for, I’m in a much better place for a real relationship now.
But it’s still valid to miss bygone eras. Let’s just not get consumed by them.
Even if it wasn’t necessarily a better time — honestly, there’s things I both loved and hated about the 90s and 00s compared to today! — it was your time. Of course you’re going to reflect on what and who you miss, perhaps you’re also going to grieve how you wish things could’ve gone.
But looking at all of the suffering, trauma, and bullshit I did go through despite those good times I talked about? It makes me extremely grateful that we live in a society that’s saying “screw you” to gender norms, and more women are carving out their own paths than ever. Zoomer girls are refusing to put up with a lot of the sexist crap my generation endured. We’re even now discussing how subculture wasn’t always subversive, and how we’re more willing to quash racist, homophobic, and transphobic bullshit both in these circles and in general compared to the old days.
Remembering how I couldn’t land a job to save my life, how long I had gone without, also made me extremely grateful and proud for the business I busted my ass to build, and the career that only keeps getting even better and more adventurous every year. This very career has enabled me to own my time and go where I please. There may be some things I will mourn about missing out in that gnarly era, but it’s hard to feel upset about jobs I didn’t get when I look at my company’s books and the latest SBA news that will grant me even more funding for my game.
Time marches on. We get older. Eras end, clubs close, laws change for both better and worse, bands break up, marriage, divorce, kids, and deaths happen. It’s all one big cycle. We can lament being born too late or early, for not taking different paths when we had the chance. It’s perfectly human to wonder about that.
When you realize that you’ve been drowning in grief for so long, it forces you to examine why.
In my case, it was taking a closer look at how I was raised and coming to the realization I was taught to live in the past, and becoming deeply-entrenched in subcultures that kicked off before or around the time I was born probably didn’t help.
It was also the sobering realization that I don’t recognize what the hell my city has become. I had this five-generation legacy to be proud of, hailing from this tough land that was amped up to hyperbolic levels in the crimewaves that took place around my birth, but something about all that feels depressing as fuck when most of your family is in the ground, your community is gone, and the two remaining friends from these past chapters of your life would be seen maybe once or twice a year. How does that not feel like suffocation by mourning?
So you think about how you’re going to turn around what’s making you sad, perhaps eliminating that “X factor”.
Moving is it for me. If I hadn’t traveled as much as I did, and built the multifaceted career I always dreamt of, I wouldn’t have irrevocably fallen in love with LA the way that I had.
I know that this major move won’t be a magic pill that’ll stop me from ever being sad, or missing people and home, and I’ve already been warned that the sheer size of the place means I may face some of the same “Sure, lunch will happen” then my friends and I wind up never going out. But I’m going because I’m simply happier there. I also have no real context for past versions of the city except movies.
Having lots of history and context can be a source of pride, and for a while it was comforting. My father always seems to have a story about virtually every street in this city, no matter how far-flung it is. I could look at a building on my side of The Bronx or on the LES and instantly teleport back to when they first fled the Pale of Settlement and the generations of my family that served this city or state. But as my family ties and friend circle eroded, and the city went from just “gentrified” to “looks like a strip mall like we were warned about in You’ve Got Mail”, being reminded of those ghosts of my past lives and selves became too much to bear.
But I know myself and my needs. I can vocalize and prioritize my needs now. My younger selves needed to be in my home city. They are not who I am now. The city is not what it was anymore. I have different professional and personal needs today. Most of the people I’m proud to call my close friends are either on the west coast or geographically dispersed.
Now that I’ve itemized and processed my grief, it’s hard to un-see my home city as a place of “This is home, it’ll always be home, and I’m glad I came home when I did. I had some amazing times but damn, look at all these things that didn’t work out and everyone I came or stayed for is gone.” I see LA as a place of hope and new beginnings. Relocating may also be your solution, or perhaps you need to change your life in different ways. But if you’re grieving both what you no longer have and what you didn’t get, think about the undercurrent and find a way to change its direction.
Write out what you wish could’ve happened, think about how realistic or plausible it could’ve been. If there’s someone who you miss, and they’re still living, do you have a way to reconnect? Do you think it would be appropriate to reconnect? There’s certainly people from my past who I would love to welcome back into my life…others, far less so.
Be grateful for your happy memories. Be thankful that you made it through the shit times as well. Use this context to plan for making new happy memories.
Grieve all that you need. But to get out of the rut it hurls you into, contemplate what you’re grieving and why. Then take that gratitude, bathe in it like it’s a frigging bath bomb that exploded in a bathtub of champagne, and think of how you’ll live your fucking best life after post-pandemic anxiety has subsided.