Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Worst Grief

Sometimes when we’re feeling bitten hard by grief, or just snarky, we try to prove that we are hurting the most, that our grief is the worst that anyone has ever experienced. In the entire world. Ever.

I’ve lost a wife in her 40s, three beloved pets (well, one not so beloved), both parents (one to dementia), all my grandparents, a friend to AIDS, two to murder, several to cancer, one to suicide, and a number of young friends to car accidents. As I walk among the tombstones in my private cemetery, it would be hard to put them on a scale of the worst because they each hit me hard in different ways.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Advice For Grief Recovery

My friend Fred Erwin wrote what he would share with people if they were grieving. His words are filled with wisdom, truth, and compassion. These are his thoughts with a few of my own. 

Pay attention to your grief.  
It is right for us to grieve because people we love have died. They died too soon, and they died before we were ready. They died before we had learned all we could from them. They were an important part of our lives, and their absence leaves a hole.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Brian Doyle

Writer. Age 60. Died May 27 of a brain tumor discovered six months earlier.

Stark details, and all too familiar. They don’t say anything about who Brian was. How he wrote in a way that made grown men drool and old women swoon clutching their rosaries. How he touched the lives of thousands of people who knew him or read his words. He was reverent and irreverent, often in the same sentence. Insightful. Optimistic. Funny. Stuffed full of heart and faith. An artist with words that stunned with their lyrical beauty.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Proust and Grief's Memory

               Memory is a process, not a repository. Marcel Proust

The strength of memories is that they remind us who we were and how we made it to this point. As we work through our memories, we notice patterns of behavior. We also understand the murkiness of our past more clearly.

It’s helpful to sit with friends and retell the adventures of our lives, otherwise we forget the details, who else was there, and all the side stories. I also suspect that, over time, we tend to remember past events the way we want them to exist and not the way they were. People who were there can correct us. Idealized memories do not help us figure out the way ahead. Only the truth can do that.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Have No Regrets

Book: On Living, Kerry Egan

“Hospice chaplain explodes in spontaneous combustion of laughter!”

Just kidding, but there is humor in Kerry’s book, which many would not expect in a book about dying. I‘ve been looking forward to reading about Kerry’s work as a hospice chaplain ever since I read one of the stories two years ago. The voice that I loved in her first book, Fumbling, is still here. This is a book on the beauty of the human heart.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cantus: the Silence of Grief

In Arvo Part’s Cantus, a composition for orchestra and Orthodox bells, silence is written into the work. There are times when no musicians are playing, yet in this silence we hear reverberations of the notes recently played. We hear them even though no one is playing.

So it is in grief after the death of a loved one. There is a great deal of silence in our lives now. Silence at home when we are cooking. Silence in the places they used to sit. Silence where we are used to hearing their voices talking about the inconsequentials of the day. We hear echoes of their laughter in the silence.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Metaphors For Grief

Is grief animal, vegetable or mineral?

Elephant Journal recently published my short essay on the many images we can use to describe grief.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Last Moments With Mom

It is difficult to know how to take care of an aging parent. After years of taking care of their children, some parents find it hard to let their children take care of them. If they are near death, we feel a great silence falling and sense their uneasiness about what is going to happen. These moments before, during, and after death are sacred moments. They come and are gone.

Beth, a long-time friend who provided invaluable listening after my wife died, attended to her mother in her last days. Beth wrote the following in an email. I was moved by how gently she loved her mother and the attention she is paying to her own grief.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Heart Mountain Internment Camp

I stood by the remaining guard tower that watches over the dry, windy landscape in Wyoming. This was the site of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp during World War II. Ten thousand Americans lived here in 650 barracks. Little remains of the camp now, one of ten such camps where fear triumphed over humanity. In the distance was Heart Mountain, named by the Crow people because it reminded them of the noble heart of a bison.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I Have Seen Enough

I have seen enough DEATH, with its ragged canyons, to be weary of life and what shoe might fall next. The deaths of a wife, friends, parents and beloved pets have made we wary of letting myself care too much.

I have seen enough GRIEF to know that almost everyone is mourning some loss, almost everyone is struggling to make sense of a death that has taken away someone they loved, almost everyone is weary and want it to end.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Grief's Fractured FairyTales

Grief and fairy tales aren’t obvious dinner companions. Not the Disney versions, anyway.

When we’re grieving, we would dearly love for someone to ride in on a great white horse and rescue us. This seldom happens with grief, and if it does, it happens in an unexpected way, as a guide instead of a savior, like the coyote that appears on the trail.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Swearing and Grief

Ludwig Wittgenstein nailed it:
“The limits of my language set the limits of my understanding.”

People think that swearing isn’t polite, especially in public. Some of us can’t even swear at home without feeling guilty. People also think that talking about grief isn’t polite, so those who are grieving have to limit their emotions to what is nice.

Yet death isn’t nice, and when someone we love dies, trying to stuff our grief into the Polite Language Box doesn’t work. Grief’s emotions are too big.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Community of Compassion

When someone we love dies, we are left with great structures that are now hollow of life. Memories constantly avalanche down around us, and our dreams for what might have been lie scattered on the floor.

In our struggle to survive a death, we need a community to help us through grief. If left on our own, we would curl up in a corner until our hearts desiccated into a walnut. We need people to help us crack grief’s nuts open.

We need the compassion of people. Yet many people do not know what to say to help those who are grieving, so you see the problem. People will send cards, flowers and food in the first month. Then they go back to their busy lives. We need a few people to hang around.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Death By Accident

There is a particular grief when someone dies doing their job, and they shouldn’t have. (People we love should never die for any reason, of course, but that’s a different post.) What comes to mind is the husband of Maryanne Pope, a Canadian policeman who died after falling through a false ceiling while investigating a burglary, Kate Braestrup, whose husband was a Maine state trooper who died when an oncoming driver lost control, and Sarah Wheelan, whose brother would die after a live line came down on him when he was clearing brush under power lines.

These aren’t deaths where someone deliberately causes someone to die. These are preventable deaths that leave a sick feeling in our stomach.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Creative Grief

Book: This Angel On My Chest, Leslie Pietrzyk

Creative Grief. Two words you don’t often see paired together.

Leslie Pietrzyk’s book is a collection of stories based on the real events of her husband’s death at age 37 to a heart attack, but it’s told in the guise of fiction. She speaks about the concerns of grief in 16 different ways using an assortment of characters.

Making the account fictional frees Pietrzyk to add in details that she wished had happened and include dialogue that she wished people had said that would have helped her explain her grief to others better.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Retiring Into the Forest

I am not happy with my parents. Or my wife’s parents. Or with your parents, even though I’ve never met them, because they’re probably like mine.

Throughout our lives, we’re always planning ahead for what comes next. Getting our ducks in order. Then we retire and stop making adjustments. We settle into a comfortable routine, and let life go on without us. Except that life doesn’t stop changing.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Stupid Things People Say About Grief

Many people, especially the caring and thoughtful, want to help the grieving, but if they haven’t experienced grief, they often say the wrong things. These are some of the phrases I heard after my wife died. If you’re inclined to say them to someone, don’t. Just, don't. Instead, ask how the person is doing, and then listen.

You will be okay. It’s better this way.
Really? My wife is gone forever. That will never be okay with me.

Time heals all wounds.
Grief is not an illness like the flu that will go away on its own. You can’t kiss this boo-boo away. Grief will hang around until we face it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Geography of Death

When I notice a bouquet of flowers along the road, I feel a moment of sadness because I know that someone died here. Someone’s spirit left their body here, and the people who knew and loved them are grieving their loss. If I’m not late to be somewhere, I try to figure out the cause of the accident — sharp curve, bad weather conditions, hit by a drunk driver — and then I check to see if any of these apply to me because I don’t want to die here.

Yet someone did. Someone was lying on the ground here, looked around at the grass, at the empty beer bottles and candy wrappers, up into the sky, and knew, in all probability, that they were going to die here and this would be the last image they would see. If they were not at peace, do their spirits linger in this place?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Organ Donation

Giving Someone Breath

We don’t like to think about death or grief. Most of us feel uneasy being in the same room with a dead body. And if that dead person is someone we loved, then we might not be able to look at them at all, let alone touch their body one last time.

As squeamish as it may feel to some, and horrific to others, donating the organs of a loved one can be a sacred event because we are physically giving life to people who will die in a matter of days without the organs. They have run out of options.