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Dustin Miller, 2022 1st Place Creative Nonfiction

Submissions for the Creative Non-Fiction category are open to one work of creative nonfiction completed for coursework in the last calendar year. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Dustin Miller wrote the 1st place submission in the Creative Nonfiction Category for the 2022 President’s Writing Awards.

About Dustin

Dustin is photographed next to the Boise river

Dustin Miller is a 21 year old student from Bozeman Montana. He is a member of the blue thunder marching band and studies English education and Boise state university.

Winning Submission – How We Survive

I’ll begin with a dream I had. I found myself on a civil war battlefield. I am sewing a man’s leg back on. He is already dead, but I badly need him to stop bleeding, and I am being yelled at to get him back together, back on his feet. The man and I move to a modern operating room where I finish his surgery. Everyone in the room cheers and I exhale. Nurses and doctors relax. He is still dead. I leave with the corpse and deliver it to the family at their home. They thank me and take the corpse inside with them. When I woke I laughed.

To be very clear, I am not a doctor or a soldier. I am a 21 year old Grey’s Anatomy fan and I have seen one dead body in my life. My dream came to me as I thought about the people in my life that I never said goodbye to and never will. It sometimes feels like they never die. If they came back today, I might just bring them inside like nothing happened. In this dream I felt fear, panic, responsibility, guilt. For the entire dream the man was dead, but at no point did anyone treat him as such. They celebrated his “return,” and blocked out the truth. Or maybe just pretended he was ok. Pretended that they were ok with him being dead. I’m sure they all realized their loss, at the same time I did. When I woke up and came back to reality. When I realized that I had just given a family a dead body instead of a person. Then they all grieved at once.

It is a habit for us to stave off death for as long as possible. Modern medicine makes miracles daily, many go their whole lives with only a few encounters with death, and when they do it is so often softened, filtered. My first encounter with death was my grandmother’s death, when I was 12. Everything I know about her death I was told by my mother. I was told that she had a fall and broke her neck. While in the hospital she was diagnosed with parkinsons and skin cancer. My mother was gone most of the next two months to take care of her. My grandmother lived in Hawaii. Once she told my brother and I that she didn’t want us to see her before she died. She wanted us to remember her as she was in our heads, not as she was now, riddled with cancer and hallucinating from the Parkinsons. I thought that was sweet and wise of my mother to give us that lasting image of her. I never spoke to her in the last few months of her life. The same year my uncle died of Alzheimer’s. I was spared his death as well, but I do have a memory of sneaking him oreos while he was in the hospital. I didn’t know he was diabetic at the time. When I entered his room I found him hiding with fingers in his ears, giggling and mimicking explosions. His wife told me that he thought he was back in the navy. I never saw him get worse, but I was told that he got violent soon after. I never got the chance to say goodbye to either of them.

The older I get, the less wisdom I find in my mother’s decision to shelter me from them. What lesson does it teach a child to hide ugly things from them? At best it teaches them to fear those things. To run and avoid those things. At worst it teaches them that those things are not worth attention. Either way, it teaches that distance is best. Distance is safe. But you can’t always be distant from death. Not all encounters with death can be seen coming.

When I was sixteen, my father died In the same house my grandmother did. He died by himself of a heart attack. His wife found him and she committed suicide three months after his funeral. His funeral was small, intimate, and on a public beach. His mother, wife, sister, brother, the mother of his children, and us. We poured his ashes in the water between some rocks in front of Hotel Del Coronado. The absurdity of his funeral’s location becomes a fonder memory with each time I recall it.

Such sudden deaths are hard to hide from. Or so I thought. It turns out my father was an alcoholic for most of my life. What I understood to be a sudden and tragic death was, for my mother and most people that knew my father, the inevitable. She has shared with me things about him over the years that she had been shielding from my brother and I. Things that made it clear that his death was anything but sudden. Years after my stepmother killed herself my mother told my that she had actually attempted suicide twice before she was successful. These details are given to me now that I am old enough, but I can’t help but feel like it was too late.

I have never said goodbye to any of the people I’ve lost in my life. I remember the last phone call I had with my dad. I said goodbye at the end but he died almost a week later and it only takes a few minutes for a goodbye that casual to expire. I have a scenario in my head where I get a phone call from my father’s number. I can’t imagine I’d really mistake it for him, it has been almost seven years to the day, but someone out there must have his phone number. The scene goes like this:

Caller: Hi! My it’s [redacted] From [redacted] Is this [redacted]?

Me: ….no.. uhh sorry you have the wrong number.

Caller: Oh shoot, my bad. Sorry. Have a nice day.

Me (to Dad): Goodbye.

That’s what I call closure.

What purpose does grief serve? Such an unpleasant emotion is easy to want to avoid. I often find myself forgetting that there is a reason for grief. I don’t mean like when people say “grief just means you cared really hard for something” or “sometimes love hurts” or any shallow bullshit that blows off pain as something you just have to go through. There is a goal in grief.

In researching grief, I continually come across the idea that “Grief is a unique experience.” I find that to be the most bullshit. Grief is painful, physically. For me it feels like my body is rejecting its own feelings like foreign bodies. The symptoms I have attributed to grief are anger, numbness, pain in my temples, reclusiveness. In and article titled “Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain Adapt” by Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, Grief can also cause hallucinations, insomnia, and dysphoria, and increased morbidity and mortality; grief can make you kill yourself, both electively or by self neglect. If grief and its symptoms are consistent enough to be diagnosable, there is very little grounds to say it is unique. In fact I believe there is grounds to say that believing grief is unique and that you are alone in this feeling is a symptom of grief itself. Perceived loneliness and feelings that others are unable to relate to your pain are so common with grief. In reality grief is one of the most universal emotions. It is simply so crushing at times it becomes hard to believe anyone else has survived it.

Humans are incredibly resilient and almost all of us will recover from losses eventually. In an article (with possibly one of the least exciting titles of all time)“Unresolved grief and its consequences. A nationwide follow-up of teenage loss of a parent to cancer 6–9 years earlier” the results of a study found grief affects the ability to deal with stress and causes insomnia and mental illness, that boys that lost a parent to cancer were prone to increased emotional numbness and self harm, girls were more likely to be prescribed sedatives, and both were more likely to suffer from depression. The study found no correlation between bereavement and problematic eating. So interestingly enough, the data found you cannot blame any extra pounds you may gain on any of your dead parents or friends. The study was performed using individuals that lost a parent as children, 6-9 years prior. At the time of writing this, It has been almost 6 years since my own father died.

So, what exactly should I be prepared for? Grief piles up if it’s not addressed. I still find myself grieving the loss of my father; or maybe I am misinterpreting simple recollection as grief. I get better at it every time -grief- but even writing this essay makes me think I won’t ever find myself truly having resolved it. I just have to remind myself that grief is not resolved because you aren’t thinking about what is making you feel grief anymore.

There is another defining symptom of grief: Guilt. The feeling of burden. Or being a burden. It gets in the way of the process. Causes us to stuff big feelings into small spaces then wait for an appropriate time and place that rarely comes. There seems to be some conflicting language around grief. Sources say there is “no normal time period for someone to grieve” but there’s empirical evidence that there is a healthy time period to grieve. While some sources say to take your own pace others say that those that take too long to grieve, or grieve too late, or not enough at first but come back around to it later in life are likely to be chronically sad and medicated. I assume this sensitive presentation exists to avoid making people feel guilty for grieving for too long. We inevitably do most of our grieving alone.

Of all the people I have lost so far, I have been to every funeral except one. I knew my friend Bailey for 16 years across two different states. I grew up with him, He lived with my family for a year in highschool, threw up from drinking for the first time with him. In October 2021 he walked into the woods and shot himself. I was the last person in my family to see Bailey in person. During my last time with him he came on to me; said that I was the only thing that could make him happier in that moment. My last memory of my oldest friend is peeling myself out of his fingers and apologizing as I rushed to my car.

None of us were surprised when he killed himself, this was his third attempt. Bailey’s death provided me with a type of guilt I have never felt before. Bailey was an alcoholic; his first rehab was when he was 16. I blame his mother. She starts her morning with wine in a coffee mug, and hides Bullet rye in all her suitcases and bedside tables. In many ways I blame her, and that is the first reason I did not go to his funeral. The second reason is that I did not understand how to look his mother in the eye when in my mind all I could think was how I ran out the door when he told me he loved me since we were kids, and two months later, he was gone. His funeral was held in our hometown. I don’t think I will ever be able to find any humor in Bailey’s death. I Guilt is all I feel about him now.

Funerals are for the living. The people that still have to go on. They make us feel better. They help us move on. Funerals are an attempt to prolong life, stretch time so that grief doesn’t happen all at once. They are the best opportunity we have to grieve publicly and, ideally, surrounded by loved ones.

The only dead body I’ve ever seen was at an open casket wake. My best friend’s father Brenden was in a suit, make-up, and stuffed with what I imagined as all of the missing socks in town. He had donated his brain so his head was not the shape I recognized. It was quiet and personal and I kept all of my observations private. Many of the folks here didn’t get to say goodbye in person and took the opportunity now. I grabbed lunch, avoided meeting new people, and thought about the implication of a buffet in the same room as an open casket. Some people seemed comforted by the wake and the following mass, slow and echo-y. Half of the funeral mass was in Latin so no one, for what I was able to see, was paying much attention to the content. They were all in their heads, praying, soothing themselves. The mass was followed by the burial. Eyes were glued to the family, trying hard not to cry more than the new widow. One

boy, who I knew, was very obviously only there to up his chances of scoring a date with one of Brenden’s daughters. I know for a fact most of the funeral did their grieving at the Rockin R Bar later that night, where they pretended that they were still thinking about Brenden and his family, and not getting lucky with highschool crushes.

I did a very brief google of “what is the best funeral?” I found that I would have to pay about one thousand dollars a month for the next 50 years and then perish promptly to “experience” that. After goofing around with stati sliders on health insurance websites, planning my death and comparing policies, likely confusing the hell out of any companies out there shopping for my online data, I did read a few blogs about people’s favorite funerals.

Peter (62 years old) tells Quora about his fathers funeral where he supposedly gave a fantastic speech that made everyone laugh. He recounts the speech, from memory, implying the speech was impromptu and candid.

Username: “Just Dan” shares his experience at his mother’s funeral, chalk full of dirty jokes, and cancer humor at the expense of the recently passed Pam.

Robert Maguire, born in 2004 posted a response in 2017 to the prompt: “what is the best funeral you have attended?” with a story about a New Years Eve party/funeral for his father.

THe funeral had foul language, champagne, a pastor, and wardrobe changes between funny hats and formal wear. Humor seems to be a consistently citable and memorable experience for those undergoing grief . A fact that can’t help but make me think of the movie Patch Adams. A story that begins in a mental hospital and follows a man that is pulled through life by a dedication to healing with humor. Silly, childlike humor, dark humor, dirty humor, self deprecating humor, etc. Then, I cant help but think of the beautifully humorous man that portrayed Patch Adams, who inevitably committed suicide himself.

My grandmother’s funeral was beautiful and quiet. It was on a public beach in Maui.

While many people I did not know showed, only seven could fit in the canoe. My brother and I sat on the outrigger with flowers in our arms, and mom paddled with her sisters. Over the reef, we poured her and her husband’s ashes together into the ocean with armfulls of leis. Three circles around and then we rode a wave back to shore. I don’t remember much else, but I imagine we went for mimosas and made fun of her taste in jewelry. It certainly didn’t end my grief of losing her, but I have only fond memories of her funeral, no confusion or regret. Perhaps, something as final as cremation made for easy closure. Ever since, it’s what I imagined my funeral would look like, with the addition that I hope very much that someone is able to find incredible humor or inspiration in my death, and share it with the world.