People die every day, often horribly. As you get older, more and more of your acquaintances will die, and you’ll get better at saying the right sorts of things in public, but the first time it happens, it’s a little awkward. This is how it will go.
Someone in your high school dies. You barely know this person. Let’s call him “Jameson” and, in order to humanize him a bit, let’s say he has brown hair and he’s really into WWE wrestling bullshit. You had geometry with him once, but you can’t remember ever talking to the guy, except to maybe ask for a protractor. So yeah, he dies. Let’s say bicycle accident.
You overhear the news one morning as you walk to homeroom. You have to catch your breath for a second, because you half-heard the news and thought that people were talking about your good friend James.
You ask for the whole story and find out that Jameson, that kid who always wore Triple-H shirts, got in a bicycle accident the night before. It takes you a second to visualize his face, and when you do, you get this weird sense of relief: thank God it wasn’t James, you think to yourself.
Your mind starts spinning. You don’t feel sad, but people are expecting you to feel sad. You really don’t feel anything at all, and that’s not natural. Are you a psychopath? What’s wrong with you? Everyone else is mourning right now, and you are just blank inside.
You start to think that there’s something deeply flawed with how your brain is wired. Sociopaths don’t realize they’re sociopaths, right?
Suddenly, you feel guilty. Guilty that you don’t care more. Guilty that your brain is somehow making everything all about you. Guilty that you felt relieved when you realized that your friend James was okay, as if James is somehow more deserving of life than that WWE kid. Guilty that you keep thinking of Jameson as “that WWE kid,” as if he didn’t have any other defining characteristics.
Everyone’s looking at you, so you have to say something. But you really don’t know what to say. You briefly consider saying, “I’m so sorry,” but that doesn’t feel appropriate. A few other options flash through your brain: “That’s horrible.” “Oh my God.” “What? Really?” In the end, you settle on something basic: “Wow. I don’t know what to say.”
Then you walk away, and wonder if everyone is judging you for your response. Was it appropriate? Did you come across as a psycho?
You slowly hear all the prurient details about Jameson’s death. You engage in the conversations, if only out of curiosity, and you start feeling even guiltier that you’re not as sad as you should be.
Jameson has a funeral. Your parents ask you if you want to go. You say something dramatic, like “No one wants to go to a funeral, Mom.” In the end, you don’t go.
You hear from your friend James, who did, in fact, go to the funeral, that the turn-out was pretty low. For the next few weeks, you feel awful that you didn’t go. One night, you can’t sleep, so you click on the television. You stumble across some professional wrestling, and you watch, dry-eyed, for over an hour. You feel numb.
Years pass and you forget about Jameson completely. You decide to take an office job, because why not?
At your high school reunion—let’s say the 15th, because you were too busy working to go to the 10th—you notice a memorial picture of Jameson behind the punchbowl. At this point in your life, you’ve known a bunch more people who’ve died. Many of them were much closer to you than Jameson. You stare at his face for a few seconds, but for the life of you, you have no idea who that is.