Every Wednesday

Every other Wednesday, I will post a reflection on the entire landscape of grief. This blog isn't just for widowers. It's for everyone who grieves. I want to encourage people to share their stories and compassion with each other, build up a community of support, and help those who have never grieved understand the trauma that death brings.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Eulogy or Elegy

 


(photo by Marcia)

 

Funerals tend to be more elegy than eulogy, lamenting the dead rather than celebrating the person’s life as we send them off into the Afterlife with a toast and a hearty cheer. 

 

Maybe it’s a matter of timing. In a funeral, right after someone has died, we are overwhelmed by feelings of loss, and we’re trying to corral enough beauty and joy to offset our pain. A memorial service held later in the year allows us to remember the person’s entire life. Three weeks after my wife died, I could not give Evelyn’s eulogy. The shock of her death was still too fresh and raw, and a friend graciously read my words.

 

Most of us dream of someone delivering an amazing eulogy at our funeral, although a few of us would choose an elegy, wanted to be mourned with wailing and tears rather than celebrated. We won’t hear any of their words, of course, unless they rehearse them with us ahead of time, but it’s comforting to think that someone will remind everyone how amazing we were, with a few words about one of our mistakes to keep us believable.

 

We have lost our language for speaking eloquently and intelligently about death.

 

If you are delivering a eulogy, you want to summarize the person’s entire life. Don’t dwell on their last days or weeks. If they were old and rather feeble, we want to remember who they were at the physical and mental peaks of their life, how they loved to dance or sing, or overcame a rough childhood or a physical challenge, to become the person we called our friend. The truth is, what we admired about them was always there, even when they were young. It isn’t restricted to what they did, or to their awards. Eulogies talk about who they were, their accomplishments and their regrets, what endeared them to us, and the personality quirks that pushed us away.

 

We want to remind people that the person who died had a host of experiences and adventures throughout their life, like being a soccer player or a sailor on Puget Sound. Talk about what formed the person we came to love. You will probably share stories that not everyone knows. This can bring the dead person’s spirit alive, and make us wish we had taken the time to know them better. 

 

Once we accept that death is properly a part of life, then we don’t have to fight the philosophical “why” when good, talented, and compassionate people die. Sometimes, people just die for no discernable reason. 

 

‘Grief is as small and infinite as stars.’ - Julie H Lemay

 

Mention what they did for others, and what you will miss most about them. You can say why this death should matter to all of us, and how we can keep their presence and words alive in our hearts. If the only thing they did in life was make a ton of money, and they had few friends, then you are probably speaking to a small audience, and regret may be one of your themes.

 

If you belong to a faith community, affirm its beliefs about death and the afterlife, but talk also about the suffering that the family and close friends are feeling. Talk about how the community can support them as they navigate their way through grief and adjust to living with the absence of the one who died. 

 

Every death is a tragedy for those who loved that person, even if the rest of the world doesn’t notice. But when someone dies young, or out of sequence, or when they were just joining their chosen profession, then a layer of bitterness is added in. Besides losing this person, we also grieve the loss of everything they were about to accomplish with their insights and skills, and we mourn not being able to see them blossom. 

 

As we get older, friends and family begin to die—some from natural causes and old age, but also from household accidents, cancer, heart attacks, and acts of violence. As we go to more and more funerals, we begin to realize how fragile life is. This can unnerve us so much that we wake up every morning wondering who died overnight. Every ache, cough, and tick of our body will make us wonder if something is seriously wrong with us and it’s only a matter of days before we’re gone, and some of us will be right.

 

*

 

We can be creative with the raw elements of our emotions as a way of expressing our grief. We don’t have to deliver our eulogies in words. Arvo Pärt created the music of Cantus to eulogize Benjamin Britten.

 

After the deaths of his father and his son, Franz Liszt found that the musical language he had been taught wasn’t able to express the depths of his emotions. According to Kevin LeVine, Liszt began to experiment by using chromatically dissonant textures, harmonies based on whole tone, bitonality, and musical impressionism that would later be expanded by Debussy and Ravel. His music grew darker, but also freer, and by doing so, he was able to express his grief in a way that spoke to the next generation of listeners and musicians.

 

If we don’t compose music, we can create paintings or sculptures to express our grief. We can push on the boundaries of language and find new ways of expressing grief through writing. By being creative, we change the destructive energies of death and despair into what brings life and hope back into the world. 

 

*

 

Maybe we need both, an elegy to express the loss that is felt by the community, and a eulogy later to articulate, summarize, and celebrate the person’s life.

 

If we want honesty, perhaps a wake is better for acknowledging the entirety of a person than a stylized eulogy. If we truly loved them, then we want to remember them as they were—a mixture of nobility, pride, selfishness, compassion, and dreams—because we know this to be the truth about ourselves.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Head's Up!

 


This month, Google is ending its old way of sending my blog posts to your email address, a service called Feedburner.

 

So, I’m moving over to a new service - follow.it. If I handled the transfer details correctly, you should be receiving this post, and there is nothing that you need to do. As always, there is no cost to you. I wanted you to be aware of the change in case it looks different.

 

I’ll put up a new blog post on Wednesday (July 28). 

If you don’t receive it, try signing up to the right of the post.

If that doesn’t work, let me know by writing to me:

 

my email address – muirman1@gmail.com

or my author website – markliebenow.com

 

If you haven’t followed me yet, this would a nice time to do so.

 

thanks,

Mark

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Courage in the Wilderness


 Brené Brown writes: “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”

                                    

For me, the wilderness of grief was paired with the wilderness of Yosemite because I went there to hike after my wife died. There, in the solitude of nature, as the noise and rush of city life faded away, I listened to the sounds of nature and heard what grief was trying to tell me.

 

I knew that I was in a place I didn’t control, and even though I prepared as well as I could to deal with accidents, changes in the weather, mountain lions and bears, nature had its own agenda and set of rules. Every time a stick cracked, I tensed up, not knowing what creature was just passing by or getting ready to attack. I figured that if an animal was heavy enough to break a stick, then it must have big teeth and be enormously hungry. Yet the stunning landscape of the wilderness left me in awe, and I wasn’t going to give this up just because of my fears, whether they were irrational or prudent.

 

I hiked alone not because I felt isolated in my grief, which I did, but because none of my friends wanted to hike 12 hours a day, and I didn’t want to listen to well-meaning platitudes and theories of grief recovery. Then I discovered that I liked the solitude of the trail. I could move at my own pace, spend as much time as I wanted sitting on a rock and watching the land and its creatures go about their daily lives. There were no human conversations to distract me from listening to the conversations of nature. As the Ahwahnechees and John Muir discovered before me, the wilderness is a sacred place.

 

When grief sets us down in a landscape we don’t know, we’re neither aware of the dangers nor of the beauty we might encounter, yet we fear the unknown because we’ve heard too many tragic stories of people who lost their way on the trails, and our imaginations go into overdrive. It takes courage to stand in the wilderness, not panic, and let ourselves stay open to seeing reality clearly.

 

When we face our fears and head into the wilderness, whether this is nature’s wilderness, returning to school at the age 50 to study for what we’ve always wanted to do, or learning how to be a single parent, we find resources and strengths we weren’t sure we had.

 

I feel at home when I’m sitting on the side of a mountain and looking at hundreds of square miles of wilderness spread out before me. I feel a Presence that seems to hold the wonder and chaos of this world together. As I explore nature’s wilderness, I discover hard truths about myself, learn to trust my heart, and how to soften my rough edges for others.

 

It takes courage to face our fears and set out each day hiking in a new direction without knowing what dangers we might face. The trails through grief’s wilderness are indistinct and force us to take risks, step outside the boundaries of our comfortable habits, and follow an unknown path.

 

Facing our grief is one of the most courageous things we will ever do. Yet, on the trail we will find others who are searching, and we will discover the strength and hope of community.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Fragility of Wounds


 It’s a profound insight—that our wounds are where the light gets in. 

 

Rumi said this a long time ago, and Leonard Cohen sang about it more recently, although he said cracks instead of wounds. It makes sense because where we are wounded is where we need help, and it’s when we look for assistance. When we’re happy, we don’t think we need more light.

 

Notice how many similar words grievers use to describe how they feel—wounded, broken, cracked, fractured, fragmented, shattered.

 

When we have suffered a loss, we may feel defeated and shaken. We may feel ashamed that we have been hurt, and turn away from the situation rather than face it. Yet, this moment has something important to teach us about ourselves and the world that we did not perceive before, an illusion we believed, perhaps, or our inattention to someone who wanted our help but we were too busy to notice what they were really saying. 

 

If we can look at an encounter that happened to us without assigning blame, then we can learn from it.

 

Gwen Martin, in her moving essay “The Fragility of Bowls,” published in a recent issue of Hippocampus, says that what many of us miss is the corollary to Rumi’s phrase—wounds are also where the light can leak out.

 

Cracks are going to appear in our lives because life is stressful, and sometimes we fracture under the pressure. There will also be accidents, mistakes, we will hurt other people, even when we’re trying to do everything right, and they will hurt us. We will accumulate wrinkles and scars through the years because life is a contact sport, and we should be proud of them. If we are willing to acknowledge when we are wounded, hurting, or just feel lost, then instead of looking beyond this moment of pain and disorientation, we can look deeper into it, listen, and hear what it is revealing. 

 

A face without wrinkles has no stories to tell.

 

It’s a given that we don’t understand everything about anything, especially our own motivations. The key is to set our egos aside and be open to the wisdom of every moment.

 

What we do when fractures appear is important because these are moments when we evolve in life, when we either took chances and stepped forward, or we declined the offers because fear unsettled us too much. Rather than view them as affirmations or failures, we can honor all of them as signposts in our lives, and realize that our lives changed direction because of them. Who we are now is the result of each of them.

 

When our hearts are shattered, how we repair them is also important. Gwen says that if we repair our cracks too firmly (think cement for protection, because we never want to be hurt like this again), then our hearts become rigid and stop working. If we repair our cracks in anger, the seams can be rough to the touch. The Japanese art of kintsugi repairs the cracks in valuable bowls carefully with precious metals like gold and silver to honor their life experiences. 

 

Each of us is a valuable vessel that hold seeds of grace.

 

Recognizing the two-way nature of cracks, Gwen asks, as she is taking care of her mother who is dying of congestive heart failure, “What does it take to achieve the kind of fragility that allows light to ebb and flow in balance?” This is, perhaps, the central question in life because everything else is built upon how we answer this.

 

When we are grieving, when we are wounded by death and know that we need help, this is where we need to let the compassion of others enter. As their love flows into us, we feel our tight clench of anger, sorrow, and fear relax and flow out. This restores us to Balance #1, where we can breathe and make it through today feeling a measure of hope for tomorrow. In time, we will want to let our love, our compassion, flow out to others who are hurting. This is Balance #2, and it’s what returns us to community and restores the flowing of love.

 

Gwen says ‘the opposite of love is not hate but choosing not to love.’ There are no do-overs for things we wish we had done, or people we wish we had loved, decades ago. Yet, realizing that we would do things differently if we could go back, knowing what we do now, encourages us to be open to the opportunities and people that intrigue us today, explore them at least a little to see how we feel, and not automatically say “no” because it’s something we’ve never done. 

 

Our comfort zone expands as we take more risks.

 

What we want is for our hearts to grow large enough to hold both sorrow and love, and to live each day as an adventure.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Getting Married Again

 


One of my readers asked: 

I know you are still examining the loss of Evelyn. I also know you are remarried. How did you get from grieving for Evelyn to being able to open yourself and commit to another relationship? Somehow you make the transition. How?

Many thanks, Ellen

 

Dear Ellen,

 

Losing a spouse is so traumatic and heartbreaking that we’re tempted to close the doors on ever getting this close to anyone again. What we want is for our spouses to not be dead and to have our old lives back, but these are not options.

 

Losing Evelyn devastated me. We were young when she died, and I didn’t know how to grieve. Because my friends were also young, they didn’t know how to help, although several tried, and for their compassion I am forever grateful.

 

Grieving is an enormous undertaking that will take months to get through the worst of it. When the rampage and battering of emotions for our spouse finally slow, we have time to take stock of our situation and add up what we have left. We will think about marriage—what we liked best, and what we didn’t care for. We will think about what we’d like to do with the rest of our lives, and how we want other people to be involved. And we will try to imagine a new dream.

 

If we’re older in life, we may discover that we like living on our own, moving to our own schedule, and socializing now and then with our group of friends. If we’re in our 40s, as I was when Evelyn died, we realize that we probably have another 40 years of life left, and do we want to spend them by ourselves?

 

I was okay living alone, although the lack of physical intimacy was hard, but I liked being married better. I liked having someone who was always around to love, learn from, and do things with. I liked taking care of someone, and someone taking care of me. I liked the mystery of marriage. I figured at some point that I would remarry, although I had no timetable for this happening. I knew that men tended to start dating sooner than women, for various reasons, including not having a support system that was willing to sit and listen to what was going on.

 

The first year after Ev died, I had no interest in dating. The shock of death and the residual numbness and lack of energy had much to do with this. In the second year, while I was open to the possibility of someone interesting showing up and asking me out, no one did. I did spend more time talking to women I found attractive because I needed to relearn how to flirt without feeling guilty that I was betraying Evelyn. 

 

I wasn’t in a hurry to date because I didn’t want to burden anyone with my struggles with grief. I figured that when I could talk to my friends about something else at least half of the time, and when I didn’t expect anyone to be the new Evelyn, then I was ready.

 

In the third year after, there was more back and forth with people of interest, but nothing serious developed, until a friend mentioned that he thought his sister Marcia and I would like each other. We did, and a year later we married.

 

After his wife Iris Murdoch died, John Bayley entertained two women who were interested in dating him. At first, he didn’t know what kind of person he was looking for and didn’t commit to either one. When he figured out that he wanted companionship, he looked for a woman who wanted the same thing, and married her.

 

I will always grieve Ev because my love and gratitude for her will never end. We don’t forget the people who swept up our hearts and made life special. Yet, life is bigger than grief, and we are capable of loving more than one person. I think we need to love others in order to develop our full awareness of what it means to be human. No matter what age you are, open the door to love when it shows up on your doorstep.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Dora and Nicole


 Loving a pet changes us because animals have a nobility of spirit that draws out the best in us. They allow us into their lives, and ask only for love and respect. The bonds of devotion that form between pets and humans can be as profound and as deep as any relationship. And when our pets die, we grieve.

 

Nicole wrote recently about the death of her beloved dog Dora. She had lost Daisy, another dog, not long before, as well as a brother and an elderly cat. Her words are below. They are powerful and come from a heart that has been broken by death yet held up and enlarged by love.

 

When my wife Evelyn died, Nicole was the transplant coordinator who handled Ev’s organ donations. Nicole’s compassion was evident then, and she was one of the core people who helped me find my way through grief. Over the years, I have grown in admiration and awe of her love for all creatures, especially those who are suffering. Living a life of compassion is not easy on the heart. Dora was a rescue dog who had been mistreated, but she blossomed under the care of Nicole and Jeremy. 

 

                        *

 

            On her last full day on earth, Dora and I sat under a tree the whole day, talking, watching the chickens, eating Fritos and other tasty things. I tried to explain (because she was really smart, like a small child) that in the morning, we would go see Dr. Enz. She would get very sleepy and when she woke up, she'd be at a new farm, with a young dog's body and nothing would ever hurt again. There would be no 1 greenie a day, or 2 bones per week limit there!! And she would never need any medicine again, especially the eye drops, which she really hated but dutifully lifted her sweet little face for twice a day when dad asked. I reminded her to look for a small white dog named Daisy, who would show her the ropes. She had her paw on top of my hand for most of it. I had the feeling she was trying to console me; she knew I was sad, and didn't like it. She slept a lot too, and I kept watch over her.

 

I sat outside with her until late at night. I didn't want the day to end, and I really didn't want the morning to come. We crunched ice together. Dora always did her best "good sit" for ice out of my cup so she could crunch it like Mama did.

 

I miss her. Immensely. Painfully. Ice just isn't the same anymore. 

 

She had a role in every activity, or just followed us around. She loved Eli [Nicole’s grandson], and if he was out, she was next to him. I know she understood he was a "puppy" because she'd been a mother many times. She didn't like any other animals getting too close to him, and routinely chased Bobbie or the chickens off, which they hated, because Eli dropped a lot of food on the ground and all the animals knew that.

 

Things didn't start out all peaches and cream. I wasn't looking for a dog; in fact, I was laser focused on taking care of the little old man that Daisy had left in my care (Danny). I almost said no, but something stopped me, and I thought, "what's the harm in seeing if she's a good fit?" I mean, we were literally her last stop. Older large breed dogs are really hard to re-home.

 

She arrived with no tag and no records. How can a dog be 7 years old with no vet care and NO TAG?? In the beginning, her attitude was politely aloof. She sat off by herself most of the time, occasionally coming around me but really avoiding Jeremy, which was weird, because her previous owner was male. We learned that she was deathly afraid of the water hose, and began to piece together that she hadn't been treated very well or shown much love. Her hips were bad, and her eyes were cloudy, with a sticky discharge. We took her to our vet and she started on medicines for her hips and eyes. (As it turned out, she had an autoimmune disorder that caused the film over her eyes, but eye drops cleared that up pretty quickly.) As her hips felt better, she moved around more, and within a month was RUNNING all over. It was an amazing transformation. I'm sure her improved vision didn't hurt either. I got her a tag with her name and all of our info, because she mattered. She was important. And she was loved. 

 

I know I'm supposed to be grateful for the gift of Dora, that she found us, that we had 11 months together. But I'm stuck - stuck in sad with a side of mad. 

 

I took this picture of her that day, and you'd never know anything was wrong by looking at her. That was Dora, always with a smile, greeting friends and family alike; she even liked the Fed Ex guy, who took a while to trust her. I get it, she was a big dog with a big mouth.

 

That night I tried to make her "stay" when I went to bring in the goats and sheep, but she just couldn't not go. So, she hobbled along, made it halfway, then plopped down in an exhausted heap, with a loud groan. At least she could watch from there. It was enough. She still got her handful of sweet cob when I returned, because she was the Goodest Girl, with the Pretty Sit.

 

Dora loved sweet cob, but sometimes she'd get a whole chicken egg after I made my rounds, and that was THE BEST. Her mouth was so big and scary at first to me, but she took everything from my hand so carefully and gently, with a polite lick at the end as a thank you. 

 

She was considerate and kind. She very politely designated a far corner away from everything as her bathroom. Loving and forgiving. Clumsy as hell - she had no idea how big she was. If she was anxious or lonely, she came over and leaned against my legs, Dora's version of a hug. I learned right away to brace myself for it, lol. When I came home from a trip to town, she always met me at my door. SO HAPPY YOU'RE HOME, MOM!!! And then she'd sniff the car to see if I'd brought her Chick-fil-A.

 

The farm is quiet again, desolate, lonely, cheerless - like it was after Daisy passed. I don't know how many times I can do this, honestly. But I'm beginning to realize that animals find me, and there will be another one, sooner or later. Until then, Danny and Bobbie and I will love each other through this, as we did when we lost Daisy, and then Miss Olivia.

 

So, you know now, because I over share, is that I'm hurting; what you really need to know is that Jeremy, who is the opposite of an over-sharer - is devastated without his dog. As much as I loved her, Dora belonged to Jeremy, which is the real testament to the incredible being she was. She came all the way back from not trusting - to loving 100%. I'm obviously still processing all that Dora meant, and all that she was, and why she came to us specifically (and why didn't we get more time?! Seriously, wtf??)

 

I needed to write this down mainly for me; but also because there needs to be a record, an official entry into the universal log book, of Dora Hixson, Herder of Goats and Sheep, Guarder of Eli, Tender of Cats and Older Gentleman Dogs, and the Goodest Girl with the Prettiest Sit.

 

related links   

Grieving Our Pets - https://widowersgrief.blogspot.com/2018/10/grieving-our-pets.html

 

Pets and Grief - https://widowersgrief.blogspot.com/2016/01/pets-and-grief.html

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Grief is a Physical Hunger


 (In the early days and months, grief is a pervasive, physical reality.) 

The longing of grief comes in the evening, rising from its hidden place, and stays the night.

 

The house I built in grief shelters me. It protects me through the long days and nights. I am grateful, yet I hunger for more than this. When grief first came, everything shut down. Window curtains were pulled closed. Doors were shut, and the world went dark. My mind could not comprehend the suddenness of death, nor my heart the dissolution of someone I loved. My senses were numb, and my heart lost its footing. Every guideline and belief, everything I thought was solid, cracked under the weight of death’s relentless pressure. 

 

The house of longing is grief’s body.

 

In his book I-Thou, Martin Buber speaks of longing, of the desire for such closeness in a relationship that boundaries blur until they cease to exist, and there is unity of body, mind, and heart. He was speaking of the relationship between believer and the sacred Other, but this longing for closeness extends to our personal relationships — between spouses, parent and child, and between close friends.

 

The house of grief’s longing is my body.

 

The desire to hold hands, the embracing comfort of a hug after work, the cuddling at night as we slept, the warmth of a familiar body—without this daily closeness, the body’s loneliness for the other is almost unbearable.

 

In the aftermath of a death, survivors feel lost. We don’t know what to think. Every emotion is on speed dial, and our body collapses in on itself. Tears drain our resolve and energy away, leaving us feeling like an empty, cold shell. Although others cannot feel what we are experiencing, they can see grief’s turmoil in our eyes and sense its heaviness as we shuffle through the day in a fog, unsure which way to go. Grief is a hunger for what we cannot have.

 

The house, my body, longs with grief.

 

The body is often the first to recover, perhaps because it has to eat and rest in order to survive, although, for a long time, sleep is sporadic and food has little taste. As our physical senses return, we begin to feel the warmth of the sun, and taste again the oregano, garlic, and lemon in food. It takes our mind and heart longer to return. The body has its own wisdom in grief, and with the hugs of friends, guides us back.

 

Hot oolong tea. The taste of cranberry-orange scones on a cool morning. Day by day, we learn how to breathe in the absence of love.

 

The longing of grief’s body becomes my home. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Interstitial Grief


 I don’t know if this is a real term, and I hope it makes sense. Interstitial grief is what we feel when a loved one dies because it gets into every muscle, nuance, and bone.

 

It showed up last week during my walk at dawn. I wrote it down on the piece of paper I keep tucked in my pocket for thoughts like this, and it felt true. Right after this, I jotted down “diphthong on singsong,” but I have no idea what that means. 

 

It’s difficult to explain the physical impact of grief to someone who has never grieved. 

 

Grief doesn’t just scramble our brains, making it hard to speak in complete sentences or make simple decisions. It also pounds on the walls in the back rooms of our hearts, and makes our entire body ache as if we’ve been mugged. Which we have. We’ve been mugged by death. 

 

In medicine, “interstitial” is a term for the fluid that exists in the space between cells, bringing in nutrients by diffusion and removing what is no longer needed. The dictionary defines “interstice” as the space that intervenes between things, to stand still in the middle, and a period of time between events. Each definition fits the experience of grief.

 

Grief is the fluid that enables us to function, and helps us transition from what has been to what will be. It brings in nutrients to keep us alive and takes away what is no longer helpful.

 

When we are grieving, we exist in the gap between the casual conversations at parties and philosophical concerns that go deeper. We exist in the liminal space between before/after, joy/pain, love/hate, light/dark, friends/strangers, even between life/death because we seem to have one foot in each place. We become aware of the dual nature of reality, the flip side of every coin. For every moment of joy there is a moment of sadness that we didn’t notice before. Nothing, it seems, is either/or, but both/and. Grief takes away the illusions we once used to prop up our daily lives, and helps us see reality with clarity.

 

There is space between reality and our understanding of it. Grief is a door that allows us to see reality with filters.

 

When we’re grieving, we live for a time in the valley between dualities, and find a river flowing between the two canyon walls that draws input from dozens of tributaries from both sides. We survive not by trying to understand how the death of our loved one makes sense, but by going with the flow of life with all of its contradictions and messiness. 

 

We exist in the space between our past and an unknown future. The past life we had with our loved one is over, and it’s hard to envision a new future without them in it. We also exist outside the normal flow of time that other people experience. In our heart, time moves so slowly as to feel surreal, like we are floating. Meanwhile, in our head, time is racing down the highway. 

 

Beyond the physical and emotional dualities of grief, we also find ourselves falling in between the gaps in our community. While society says it cares about its people, for the most part it doesn’t provide adequate support for those who are grieving, so we have to find our own way. 

 

We expect religion to have something profound to say about death and grieving, and it does, but the translation we hear through people tends to focus on the positive, on the Think-Only-Good-Thoughts Gospel where suffering indicates that we have done something wrong or weren’t trusting enough. There is nothing wrong about letting ourselves experience the fullness of grief, and feeling our way through.

 

In time, after the death of someone we loved, whether it’s a spouse, partner, parent, child, friend, or beloved pet, when we have pieced back together a somewhat regular pattern of daily life, and when grief is no longer our primary focus every hour, we feel joy again in addition to the shadows of sorrow. 

 

Death repaints the world a light gray. The colors come from what we do with our lives. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

One Year


 How does one observe the first anniversary of a loved one’s death? Hair shirts and gruel, or do we lean back on the porch with a six-pack of beer and nostalgia?

 

Getting through the first year is a major accomplishment, not that we had a choice. We did what we had to do to survive, but it has taken courage, hard work, and the help of others. It’s difficult to believe that an entire year has passed because it seems like they have just died. Yet so much has happened in 12 months that it also seems like a long time ago. It doesn’t matter whether they were a spouse, partner, child, parent, or friend, their death was traumatic, and we have struggled with a host of emotions like anger, frustration, loneliness, and depression that threatened to overwhelm us. Although shock and numbness have buffered much of the pain, we still feel the deep, unrelenting ache of their absence.

 

Being young and not having lost anyone this close before, I expected grief to be over in a month after my wife died. It would take more than a year. Every anniversary, birthday, and holiday arrived with its own suitcase of memories packed with history and heartache. I wanted to experience each one as fully as I could in the first year so that I could defuse their landmines and resurrect what I had of a regular life. I wanted the good memories to stay good, and not be smudged forever by death’s ashes.

 

I wanted to affirm every aspect of who Evelyn was, and acknowledge the reality of our life together, from the soaring delights to the challenging lows. I wanted to grieve her for a year to honor all the joy, music and compassion that she brought into the world, and I wanted to say something intelligent about grief so that others could understand the trauma.

 

No one wants to go through the chaos and dislocations of grief. Many of us try to soften the sorrow and deflect the despair with diversions like burying ourselves in work, drinking too much at bars, or dating right away. But at the end of the day, we still come home to a house that is empty of their love. 

 

So much of grief feels like fear. 

 

There is so much uncertainty, doubt, and confusion swirling around us that we may not know where we are or what we should do. We may no longer recognize ourselves because it seems that we have become a different person. For a time, we need to sit quietly in the stillness that has descended and face our fears. We need to listen to what grief is saying until we understand what it is teaching us about ourselves, relationships, and how death and sorrow will be part of everyone’s life. The first year prepares us to see how our world has changed. 

 

At the one-year mark, we feel ourselves moving away from the person we loved, and moving toward a life that won’t include them. We have found it hard to enjoy life again because we feel guilty that our loved one no longer can. It’s hard to go to a favorite restaurant and enjoying the food without thinking about who is missing. But after an entire year, our loved ones would say it is time.

 

As the anniversary of Evelyn’s death approached, I wanted to do something to observe the last big event of the first year, and was leaning towards doing something somber. Then a friend of Evelyn’s suggested that I celebrate her, rather than mourn, because this was also the first anniversary of the birth of her spirit. So, I went on a hike through the forest on Mt. Tamalpais, a place I’d never been, and a hike that Ev would have loved. In the evening, I lit a candle to honor her light in my life, and cooked one of our favorite meals. 

 

At the one-year mark, we may not have any idea where we want our life to go, yet we can try ideas out and one step in a direction that we think we might like, and see how it feels. If it brings excitement, we can take another step.

 

Because of death, we have learned to celebrate every day of life, even if it’s routine, because we don’t know how many days any of us will have. We’ve also discovered the importance of being honest with ourselves and others in what we say and do. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Alone, and yet her presence

 


(photo of Half Dome by Mark Liebenow)

 

One of the big realizations after my wife died was that I was now alone. There was loneliness, and longing, and something deeper that I couldn’t describe. Life felt dry, like a desert.

 

I missed Evelyn—her daily presence, her singing, the inquisitive look in her eyes, the gentle touch of her hands, the little things she would do, the scent of her perfume. I missed the life we had built up together over 18 years, and the dreams of where we wanted to go together, dreams that had now ended. Living by myself, cooking meals, washing dishes, even watching TV, were uninteresting chores. I missed the person I was when Evelyn was around because I smiled more, and felt confident and witty. She understood my jokes, and encouraged me to try things that I wasn’t sure I could do. I missed the person I was becoming because of her.

 

Whenever grief became too much at home, I went camping, and there, watching and listening to nature, I slowly pieced together who I was going to be after grief subsided. 

 

One morning, I hiked up the steep trail that began behind Camp 4 and switchbacked up the side of the canyon wall to 6600 feet, crossed over the water flowing throughYosemite Creek and over the top of Yosemite Falls, hiked higher on the trail that went along the north rim of the valley, and settled into a steady pace.

 

The exercise felt good, and I was aware of the movement of my body over the landscape, the steady cadence of my feet, and the rhythm of my breathing. Leaving the forest, I emerged onto bare, granite rock and scrambled down the iffy path to North Dome at 7500 feet. Three hours into the hike, the chatter of surface thoughts had settled and I could hear what was stirring around inside. Sitting on the dome, I tried to untangle my cat’s cradle of feelings, and identify today’s main one. I’d been able to get through each day by focusing on one emotion at a time.

 

From North Dome’s pinnacle, I traced the rivers coming down Tenaya and Merced Canyons to where they joined together, and nourished the green meadows as they flowed down the valley toward El Capitan. Glacier Point was across the valley. Sentinel Rock and Taft Point were to the right. 

 

To the left was iconic Half Dome, its front broken off by glaciers that left its heart exposed. I could see where it had been hurt, the dark lines and fractures. The Ahwahnechees believed that the water that continues to run down the dark stains on the face of Half Dome were tears. It looked like how I felt inside. Was I a hard shell of who I had been, or a battered testament to endurance and courage? Would we ever again feel whole? 

 

Beyond missing Ev, I also missed being in a relationship with someone where there was give and take, and where love stretched us beyond where we thought we could go. I was alone, and yet I felt her presence.

 

The reality was that, with Evelyn gone, there was no place that I needed to be, and no one waiting for me to come home. I had been part of a team of two people who relied on each other. When one faltered, the other was there. When one was sick, the other played nurse. When the car broke down, the other one came and brought us home. There were friends I could call to help out, but I no longer had my one person who would always be there. 

  

Walking through the forests, walking over the mountains, walking the trails along the rivers gave me time to find the goodness that remained after her death.


I sat on the top of North Dome, with the breeze bringing the scent of pine trees and the fresh, cool air of the highlands, until my body said it was ready to be moving again. Hiking up the bare, hot rock of Indian Ridge behind the dome, I reached the crest at 8400 feet, sauntered down into the thick shade of the forest, and followed the water flowing through Snow Creek to find where my life was going. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Grief on TV

 


When grief is portrayed on TV, it’s usually a surface storyline, a convenient pivot for the regular characters to do what they normally do around it. While I don’t expect any TV series to spend much time on dying or grief, because the shows are designed to entertain, when serious subjects are addressed, I want them to be depicted accurately. In real life, most of us want to deal with our problems honestly, and TV has the opportunity to show us how to move past our hesitations and fears.

 

Recently I saw a rerun of the “M.I.A.” episode of N.C.I.S. The guest character, Navy Lieutenant Laura Ellison, has ovarian cancer, and the N.C.I.S. crew is pushing to solve a murder before she dies. What its writer, Jennifer Corbett, gets right is the portrayal of the dying woman. According to Katherine Cunningham, the actress who portrays Laura, Corbett based Laura on a person she knew. For her part, Cunningham goes beyond the stock presentation of someone dying and conveys deeper emotions—the physical struggle of dealing with a terminal disease, her wry humor, concern for someone who was under her command, despair when treatments stop working, and courage in facing her reality. I didn’t realize how much Laura had drawn me in until the episode was over. Every N.C.I.S. episode that Corbett wrote touches the heart.

 

Besides Laura’s realistic portrayal, what I value about this episode is the interaction between Laura and Nick, one of the investigating officers. Nick has avoided hospitals and people who are dying because a girlfriend he expected to marry died young. Laura encourages Nick to face his loss and reopen his heart to others. Nick, for his part, listens to Laura’s fears and keeps her from being alone. 

 

The series gets grief right a lot of the time. In another episode, after Vance’s wife is killed, he has to find a nanny to take care of his young children, but he’s feeling guilty about doing so because it says to him that he’s turning away from his wife and moving on, and he doesn’t feel ready to do that. Ziva counsels that only he can decide when it’s time to move on, and hiring a nanny doesn’t affect this.

 

We all have our favorite TV shows, and we watch them for distraction, laughter, or to be shocked. I find myself drawn to shows that speak honestly about the struggles of human existence, like M*A*S*HDoctor Who, and Inspector Morse

 

In the months after my wife died, I tuned in each week to watch Inspector Morse on the BBC because the struggle and bleakness of Morse’s life now felt like my own. In his police work, Morse dealt with the tragic side of human life, yet he believed in a few friends, good ale, classical music and crosswords, and they were enough to keep him going. He was a resilient pessimist, grumpy at times and often surly, yet I drew strength from his ability to withstand dealing with people who deliberately harmed others. I also liked his philosophical musings.

 

Eventually, Morse dies and the series ended. When it came back, his sidekick, Lewis, was in the lead role, but during the time the show was off the air, Lewis’s wife has died in a car accident. Not only does Lewis have to learn to do a new job without his mentor’s guidance and his wife’s support, he also has to carry on in the midst of his grief, and deal with unresolved anger at the driver who killed her. 

 

Unlike Morse, Lewis thrives on relationships, but he struggles with the job because the counter balance of a happy home life is gone, and a hard shell begins to form around him. My fear is that he will end up bitter and alone like Morse, but his colleagues at work help him along. In later episodes, we see glimmers of happiness return as he shares moments with a new woman and a relationship develops.

 

What does this have to do with us? Many of us feel uneasy visiting the dying because we don’t know what to say, and we feel helpless. It’s the same situation with the grieving. If we can’t think of something positive to say, then we don’t want to go, and many of us don’t. Yet, what the dying and the grieving want most is to know that they aren’t alone in their journey, and this is the gift that Nick gives to Laura. Laura’s gift to Nick is the message that life doesn’t end with a diagnosis.