What Social Stories Don’t Teach You

 

Carolina died.

I wrote this essay on autistic contributions to Unitarian Universalism and I sent it to her and I got permission to use her story about elephants and I meant to publish it sometime in July but somehow that never happened and then it was August.

It was a Monday. I had gone swimming, but the weather had turned from humid-sticky-hot to more reasonable temperatures, meaning that the unheated pool was too cold for me, none of my friends were there and I shivered underneath the heavy clouds. So I came home a good hour before I usually did and a friend texted to ask if it was all right to call me and I said sure and she did and her voice was breaking.

Her voice was breaking because she knew what she had to tell me, and what she had to tell me was that Carolina was dead.

Carolina was dead.

The last text I ever sent her was a picture of one of the elephants sitting at the top of the pulpit at my church.  I said that it’d been sitting off to the side but that our minister had seen it and elevated it to the front of the pulpit, to the very top where everyone could see.  She sent a smiley face back.

A week later she was found floating face down in a pool, and we don’t know what happened.  Maybe we never will.

Carolina died.

She was my first autistic UU friend, even though, in the last 2 weeks of her life, she renounced UUism because of its’ inability to be anything but racist and ableist.  She hugged me and I didn’t mind the smoke.  I lectured her about cigarettes and she didn’t mind the lectures.

Carolina died.

Carolina is dead.

My tenses, past, present, future perfect imperfect, they keep getting mixed up and going in circles because it has taken me months to write this essay and my mind is still whirling with the news. I went swimming on the day she died but now the pool is stark and empty, the trees have lost their leaves, and the ground lies frozen beneath the softly drifting snow, yet my heart is still open, my soul has a jagged tear in it, my body feels chiseled and strange. There are days that go by that I am so busy that I don’t think of her once, and then there are days, days like today, when I can’t stop thinking about her and I know that my world will never be the same again.

My therapist says that for neuro- typical people, memories lose their sharpness and feelings fade over time. Autistic memories don’t work like that. I wish, I wish they did.

Carolina died, Bill died, Eva died. 2019 was the year that I learned a social skill that they never teach you in class. There has never been a social story written about how to do this. Maybe it’s seen as a nonessential skill. Maybe it never occurs to the people who write social skills curriculum that this conversation is one that all people will eventually have with another person, because eventually, your world stops growing, growing, growing and it contracts, one person at a time.

This is a social story that I wrote as a Facebook post the day after Carolina died. My internal social stories often help me to process events by removing myself to an outsider perspective and letting my brain take it in more slowly.

I hope that nobody ever has to use it, but I know that eventually, everyone will face a similar situation. When you do, I hope that your grief is bearable, and that you find some sort of comfort in knowing that other autistics mourn just as deeply and painfully as you do.

 

This is how you do it.

You pick up the phone, because this is no time for texting and even though you yourself have said that there is absolutely nothing that can’t be texted, you were socialized enough to know that this is no time for texting, and so you pick up the phone.

You dial a number.

The phone rings. And rings. And rings, because lots of people don’t pick up unfamiliar numbers these days.

In that case you leave a message, or send a text. You say, “this is (your name), please call me back ASAP tonight at X, not a physical emergency,” because it isn’t, nothing burns and you aren’t in hospital and nobody is dying. Not now, anyway.

This is how you do it.

They answer the phone and you say, “are you sitting down,” and usually they aren’t so you wait a moment until they are.

“I have to tell you something,” you say, and you know that they know that this is serious because you, you of all people, you don’t make phone calls, you make emails and texts and phone calls are for emergencies only. “Because you shouldn’t hear this over email or on Facebook.”

The person you are talking to is sitting down and their heart is beating faster and there’s no way to do this but to do it. You say, “Carolina is dead.”

They say, “who?”

And there is silence, and you fill it. “Carolina Krawarik Graham” you say, not sure if you’re pronouncing her last name correctly. “From ARE. From -,”

And your words beam up to the satellite and beam back down and the person suddenly remembers who you’re talking about and they say, “No.”

People will always say no. They will always say no because they don’t want it to be true.

And there is silence, and you fill it. Who told you, who you told, the few details that you know.

And there is silence, and you don’t fill it.

And in the silence is a body lying cold in a morgue and you say something about investigations and can’t remember the word autopsy.

And there is silence, and they fill it – pithy sentences, asking how you are. You are fine. You are fine now because an hour ago you took 2 mg of Valium in order so that you wouldn’t throw up, but you don’t say this. You say, “I’m fine,” because you are, you are, you have a remarkable ability to be functioning in the very worst of times, but you don’t ask how they are because you just told them that their friend was dead and [details omitted pending investigations] and nothing in the entire world will ever be just fine again.

“It will hit me in a few weeks, or months,” you say, and this is true, because autistic memories are long and autistic processing speeds are slow.

Carolina understood this.

Carolina understood this because she was autistic herself and she Got Stuff even when nobody else did.

Carolina was a voice on the phone and a text away and a virtual hug and an ally and a fighter and so many many things all of them wonderful and now –

“I’ll see you when I see you,” you tell the person that you’re talking to. There is more silence, and it is more awkward. There is no social story that ever prepared you for this, no script to memorize, nothing in your brain. Just silence.

“Thank you for telling me,” they say, they always say this. “Thank you for calling. For telling me in person.”

You don’t say “you’re welcome,” because that trite phrase is totally inappropriate. You don’t say you’re welcome when you’ve taken a hammer to someone’s soul. You say instead, “Of course.” You wait through more silence and you say, “Goodnight,” and they say, “Goodnight,” and that’s it, another person told, another body contorted in pain, another face streaming with tears.

This is how you do it.

This is how you tell someone their friend has died.

This is how you shatter a soul.

My stomach feels like a broken glass ball, shards sticking into my heart, my arms, my eyes. Carolina can’t be dead. Carolina is dead. Carolina can’t be dead. Carolina is dead.

The phone calls are over. The mourning begins.

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