Death


Calhan, Colorado cemetery.

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I worked in five different schools over twenty years and so acquired a lot of work only friends. Though a handful of these people have stuck with me in various mediums, most of them have faded to “people I used to know” status, and I use the “know” in only the vaguest of ways. I wouldn’t claim to have really known any of them past their working face and am certain that street is a two-way.

Sis left a message on my FB page last night mentioning that a mutual work friend of the way back days of middle school yore was looking for me. The three of us taught together back in the late 80’s and early 90’s at one of the rough-and-tumbliest junior highs on Des Moines’ eastside. The poorest of the poor white trash attended this school. Kids who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the State Fairgrounds and running along the banks of the river. Neighborhoods where the boarded up houses were inhabited by families who couldn’t afford to replace the windows when they were broken out by gunshots and where the city didn’t bother to pave the streets or install sidewalks.

I once drove a student to his home in one of these postapocalyptic looking neighborhoods and was sharply admonished by an older co-worker who told me in no uncertain terms that I was “never to drive down there alone again.”

I didn’t get warnings that stern when I drove through the “hood” on the North side and that was during the height of the gang wars*.

The friend in question eventually moved up the chain of command, I transferred away and so did she. I saw her occasionally at the yearly convention our district used to hold in the spring, but she became someone from my past. I invited her to the wedding when Will and I married, but she sent her regrets.  I think she sent a gift to the baby shower for Dee, but she’s never seen even a picture of Dee, let alone Dee herself.

The last time I ran into her was four years ago at the last high school where I taught. It was days until the end of school and I had resigned, getting ready to sell my house and move up to Canada.

She asked how I was.

Everyone asked, but those who hadn’t stayed in touch or contacted me in the aftermath of Will’s death always had this guilty air about them that I found exasperating. It’s not as if I thought the world revolved around me and was overly hurt about the lack of cards or emails when he died. I was more annoyed by the way they seemed to think they had some input into my life or pertinent advice to give me – because many of them did – and I wanted to remind them that they’d been absent too long for this to be the case. But I didn’t. In this instance though, she didn’t know Will had died, and that was always a treat – breaking the news to people who’d dropped off the radar after he got sick. Better was the twofer – Will died and oh, I’m getting remarriedshe had quite the non-reaction to the first and a small stroke over the second.

Actually, a horror induced stroke because I was quitting my job, selling my house and moving to Canada to marry a guy I met on the Internet. To be precise about it.

She was not the first to question my judgment but was one of the few that didn’t get an earful of scorn and mind your own life while I – an adult with more than half a brain – mind my own, thank you.

In retrospect, I suppose my news sounded a bit extreme and possibly hasty.

But she was over a decade absent from my life at this point and had no idea of who I was at that moment or what had led me to the place where I was. We were strangers again in all the ways that matter. Sharing a past experience counts for exactly nothing though it can make for a pleasant coffee date.

Her husband died not long ago. I saw his obit on the city’s newspaper site.**

I followed the link to the mortuary website and left a note. Such a wonderful way to bridge the time and space that separates sometimes.

So when Sis told me that this friend was looking for a way to contact to me – I knew why.

We have something in common again.

Except we don’t.

All I can do is the same thing anyone else can, impart a few sympathetic words and remind her that time is really going to make a difference at some point down the road.

Maybe that is a lot more than it feels like. But it’s all that I have to offer.

*It surprises people but in the early to mid 90’s, Des Moines was an important bit of turf in a territory war between the Bloods and the Crips. Both would eventually lose out to Hispanic and Asian gangs, but for a while, tales from students about nightly shootings and keeping an eye out for rolled up pants legs and “colors” was part of my job description. And people said I was overpaid.

**I check the obits in hopes of one day seeing Will’s mother there. Yeah, I know what a cunt that makes me. And I don’t care.


A yogi blogger I follow converted the side of an abandoned neighborhood building into a giant chalkboard that allowed the residents of the neighborhood to chalk in what’s important to them in the form of a fill in the blank asking them to complete the following sentence.

Before I die I want to …

The wall filled in over the course of a single day.

Not all the life’s “goals” moved the earth or are destined to  shake any foundations, but even the most simple have a basis in the human need to leave a mark.

Not in a “that’s gonna leave a mark” type of way, but in the small way that we all hope to be remembered for something by someone else.

Though my blog is not so public. I invite anyone who reads this to share an aspiration large or small or multiple.


Inconsolable grief

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Just finished journalist Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s new book, The Truth About Grief: The Myth of the Five Stages and The New Science of Loss. At not quite 300 pages, and through mounds of boiled down research and stats, she reaches the completely unsurprising conclusion that the grief industry is at best mildly interfering for their own purposes and at worst scamming people.

Davis Konigsberg is one of those rare “grief” book authors who didn’t come to the genre from a place of self-interest. There are no tragic personal losses in her past driving her need to write the book. In fact, her only impetus seems to be a genuine interest in wanting to put the facts of what grief is and isn’t in front of a public that has been fed a steady diet of anecdotal misinformation since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages were misapplied to grief.

One fact, and it was hardly a shock given who I know, struck me about why the whole notion of the five stages and grief work has always rankled me so much – it’s not based on any actual research.

None.

Kübler-Ross wrote up case studies of terminally ill people and proposed a theory about what the dying experience based on her observations. She published it. It was neat and concise and hit the public at one of those lightning strike times. It was then quickly appropriated by the fledgling grief counseling industry, which needed something on which to base its idea that family members needed support after the death of a loved one.

It wasn’t until George Bonnano began his actual research that anyone had bothered to look into whether or not grieving had stages at all or if people were helped by grief counseling.

As it turns out – there aren’t – only about 10 to 15% of people experience long-term difficulty after the death of a loved one that might require professional help. And by “professional” it is meant those with actual degrees in psychology. Not people who once lost someone*. That’s like supposing that having been sick makes one qualified to practice medicine.

Perhaps shockingly to some, but not to me, a lot of those in the grief counseling profession don’t have any real training. But it doesn’t stop them from pushing their services or the misguided notion that grief is work and without putting in the time, a person is doomed.

The idea of grief as work is a one off of Freud’s. But he saw the work of the grieving as being detachment from the deceased so that one could form a new attachment with someone else. He apparently felt, and there is some validity to it, that the cure for a broken heart was new love whether it be a new partner or another baby. It wasn’t about replacing the person, but giving the feelings a new outlet.

But grief as a chore was the bane of my widowed existence and it made no sense for me as my late husband had been physically separate from me for 15 months and mentally/emotionally lost to me since his diagnosis due to the dementia. His death freed me and all I got from the grief people was that now I was finally ready to get down to the work of feeling truly wretched.

Grieve now or get bitch slapped by the Grief Monster later.

That was one of  many rather unhelpful pieces of advice thrown at the newly widowed on the YWBB.

Fascinating to me was that the author actually attended the infamous Ft. Lauderdale MLK Weekend Widowbago that is now in its fifth or sixth year. She interviewed a gentlemen, who I remember well from my days on the board. An even-tempered – mostly – ex-military chap, who also organizes a camping trip for the widowed parents and their kids every June in Tennessee. Well meaning, as “veteran” of the board, he offered the same “do your griefwork”, “grieving is a process”, and “you’ll never really be over it” advice that dominates the grief counseling industry from church basements to hospice groups.

At one point Rob and I enrolled Dee in a children’s group via the Edmonton hospice program. While she was playing games and struggling with a program that was geared toward remembering a dad she was too young to recall, Rob and I were stuck with a volunteer grief counselor who goose-stepped us through the five stages.

Rob’s disgust vibrated through the room.  I, foolishly, tried to point out fallacies but was ill-received.

The only time I ever found “group grief” remotely real and accessible were the few times the counselor couldn’t attend and the parents were left to “talk amongst themselves”. As one of the longer widowed folk, I was asked a lot about what was normal and if they would ever “be okay”. And I did my best to reassure them that life got better and being okay was the norm.

I did this online too though I earned myself quite a reputation as a heretic and I am sure there are still faceless widowed out there waiting for the day that “grief will get me”.

Truth?

85 to 90% of all those who suffer the loss of a loved one will be fine within 6 months to a year after the loss with absolutely no outside help required. No one really knows why, but spontaneous relief from active grieving is how it works for the majority. Perhaps people are not the delicate hothouse flora the grief industry would prefer we think we are.

Yep, and that’s a proven fact with research to back it up though it is the pet peeve of nearly every widowed person I know.

“We’re not all better at the year anniversary!”

Except most of us are.

I remember the YWBB gent speculating that the members of the board fell into a small percentage of those without much real world support or those with “problems” that they undoubtedly had prior to their loss and which the loss made worse. The new science supports this theory of his but won’t be welcome news to those who need it most.

What’s more. There is no evidence to support the idea that grief counseling will help people return to normal faster than those people who have no guidance at all.

In fact, Bonnano found that people who are encouraged to replay the tragedy and their negative feelings are more likely to wind up with prolonged grieving than those who focused on the positive, good memories of the deceased and kept themselves involved in their lives.

And here’s something else that made perfect sense. In the Asian communities, grief is not discussed. They feel it is inappropriate to burden others with negative feelings, and it is in a way, disrespectful to the deceased. Stiff upper lip and moving on is emphasized though there are quiet rituals to remember the lost loved one that are practiced. And guess what, they do better in the long run than those who are encouraged to “lean into the pain”.

God, I hated that expression. Lean into the pain is the backbone of grief work and it probably couldn’t be less helpful.

The best thing one can do for the newly widowed? In my opinion, of course.

Tell him or her that he/she will be okay. To take things one day at a time. To find distractions if necessary. Focus on immediate tasks. Get enough sleep. Exercise.  Eat. Be around people.  Laugh. Smile a little. And stay away from anyone who encourages you to feel like a victim, which means avoid offers of grief groups, books and counseling as if they were plague.

The Truth About Grief is not really a “grief book”. It will rile up anyone who thinks they are doing good, setting up organizations, websites or planning conferences for the grieving because it will challenge them to think about what really motivates them, and why they are doing something that hasn’t been proven to work and can even harm those susceptible to complicated grief issues. It isn’t a “how to get over your dead (fill in the blank)” book, which so many grief books are.

It’s also not self-serving “year of magical thinking” tripe. Grief memoirs are plentiful and some are really good, compelling stories. But they aren’t blue-prints and should be taken as one person’s experience and not applied to what is true for most people in the same situation.

Davis Konigsberg’s work is a well-presented set of facts based on research and if you are a Kübler-Ross worshipper**, will give you something to chew on.

* p.122 the author asks sociologist Vanderlyn Pine to comment on the influx of grievers turned grief professionals – something he warned the industry about back in 1977. When asked how their experiences can influence the kind of help they provide he said, “The problem is that when people enter the field with a broken heart because someone close to them has died, they feel they have paid their penance and therefore already know all that there is to know.”

And unlike professional psychotherapists, these amateurs are not required to undergo counseling themselves so that they are aware of their prejudices. And yes, I am fully aware that I have a bias where amateur grief do-gooders and not so gooders are involved. It’s also why I stepped away quite a bit from blogs and sites devoted to this feel good industry. I can only speak from my own experience. I have no training aside from the little bit I received when I was teaching – where we were subjected to quite a bit of professional development of the counseling nature.

**My favorite Kübler-Ross quote from a 1981 interview on applying her stages to grief, “Any natural, normal human being will go from shock all the way through to acceptance. You could say the same about divorce, losing your job, a maid, a parakeet.”

That totally needs to be on a t-shirt.


Graves at Old Holy Cross Cemetery

Image by Fritz Liess via Flickr

Last Thursday, the ghost tickled the crown of Rob’s head while he stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes. Not an “attaboy”. Rob performs housework without the need for warm affirmations or pats on the head. It was a “heads up”.

So, when the call came later that evening to let us know that his uncle had passed away, the ghostliness of the day made sense.

But it was hardly the only sign this month, lights have been on that shouldn’t have been and there was that incidence with the shadow in Dee’s room. For myself personally, it’s been this persistent feeling that someone was going to die soon. It’s caused me no end of anxiety. First with Dee’s class taking a field trip into the city during the icy weather earlier in the month and then Edie and Silver driving through the mountains to and from Vancouver on their vacation.

It’s not as if we didn’t know about Uncle Francis. He had lung cancer and recently went into hospice, but death comes in threes. It just does. What’s true for the rich and (in)famous holds true for we lesser mortals.

This morning I awoke from a bad dream about a dinosaur trying to bite me (long back story that I’ll go into another day) to see Rob sitting up next to me. At least, I thought it was Rob. The room was Devil’s Den cave midnight. I couldn’t see my own hand when I reached up and then had to bring my hand down to find Rob, who was lying down and asleep next to me.

It was frightening. I sat up and noted that there were dark shadows ringing the bed and then I lay down and went back to sleep.

Tonight, we returned home after depositing Rob’s mom and future step-father at a hotel near the airport. They are heading home on an early flight. A message was waiting on the machine from my mother. My Aunt Peach died last night sometime.

You might remember Peach. I’ve written about her before. She would have been 103 this coming March. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister and the last of the Fagan siblings alive.

Gran lived to 94. She might have gone longer but for the dementia. Uncle Fran and Auntie Anna were 102 and 104 respectively when they passed on. The ones that cancer didn’t get young lived to 75 at the youngest and if they didn’t have bad hearts 90 and beyond. Remarkably long-lived, my dad’s relatives. If Dad hadn’t queered the deal with his drinking and smoking, he’d have cleared 100 easy, I’m sure. He still has two siblings – though I fear for not much longer – who are in their mid-80’s.

Will one of them be the third?

I really hope not though I know many folks who would roll their eyes and say that living to extremely ripe to bursting old age is long enough for anyone, so what’s the big deal?

It is a big deal to die, regardless of when. Death is one of the milestones. It represents fruition – which is a big fucking deal – and opportunity, which is nothing to sneeze at either.

Aunt Peach always made me a bit uncomfortable as a child and teen. She was forceful and larger than life though I towered over her even as a 10-year-old.

The last time I saw her was on our visit to Iowa last spring. She was playing bridge. It took us a good twenty minutes to track her down. No one knew where she was though everyone in the nursing home knew who she was.

She gave Dee a doll and probably more of her interest than she’d given me since I was that age myself. She barely acknowledged Rob or my mother, who was with us.

There’s quite the family reunion going on, if I know my dad’s relations – and I do.

I wonder if they are waiting on anyone?


John Lennon in guns

Image by afagen via Flickr

Today is one of those anniversary days of the death of a famous person who somehow binds all humanity, depending on one’s perspective.

All over the blogosphere and in every other conceivable news and social media, people haul out their “When John Lennon was killed, I was …”

It just so happens that I do remember where I was when Lennon’s murder was first reported.  I’d just gone to bed and my father rapped on the door,

“Are you still awake?”

“Yeah.”

Howard Cosell just announced that John Lennon was shot and killed in New York,” he said. “He’s that Beatle you like, right?”

It didn’t occur to me at the time to be touched by the fact that my father, a man who loathed popular music dating back as far as Elvis, had even been paying attention to my music likes and heroes.

“Yeah, thanks for telling me,” I replied.

“Are you going to be okay?” Another shocker that didn’t register at the time.

“Sure,” I said.

He closed the door and went back to the living room to finish watching Monday Night Football.

That was thirty years ago. I was just sixteen and days away from my birthday.

Dad’s died since then. I’ve grown up. Married. Twice. Had a child. Emigrated to another country. Changed careers. All fairly important mile markers and yet the tragic death of a pop star is still etched clearly enough in my memory to earn a pivotal moment position if only because it connects me to millions of people I will never know personally, but who share this memory with me in their own way.

It was not a personal tragedy. Only those closest to him can claim that and even so, I hesitate to call it a tragedy because I don’t know what doors or paths were opened to them by his ending. Endings are necessary after all for beginnings to have their day.

In retrospect, Lennon was past his creative prime in 1980. Double Fantasy was mediocre and certainly no less fluffy and inconsequential as the music he criticized his old partner, Paul McCartney, for producing. Old men lose their edge, I guess. Love and parenting do that to most people and they weren’t exceptional in that regard.

I suppose there is a larger point to taking stock of his death. It marks time and change. There is nothing wrong with noting where we were or the journey we’ve taken to where we are now.

As I was driving home from town this morning, the disc jockey reminisced about that evening long ago. His mother had knocked on his bedroom door to tell him the news too. He played a snippet of an interview Lennon gave shortly before his death where he admitted that he’d like to grow old with his wife, but that he wasn’t afraid of death. He felt it was nothing “like changing cars”. His life would go on in any event. A lovely sentiment that I don’t think too many share, which is sad.

If nothing else, this anniversary pulls people together to a common place for a moment before they diverge again and can see only their differences.


Wreaths of artificial poppies used as a symbol...

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In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I was driving in to town at noon when the nation paused for two minutes of silence to mark Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day for you Americans.

Though 9/11 revived the near blunted American interest in honoring war dead, Canadians appear to have never truly forgotten. Poppies proliferate on jackets in the week before the statutory holiday and the day itself is one where many businesses close, cities and towns stage elaborate parades and/or memorial services and school children have the day off to encourage participation.

Silence was broken by a man reciting the John McCrae poem, In Flanders Fields, which is the inspiration for the poppies we wear and should remove immediately after ceremonies are through – I only learned that today. The poppies should be discarded and new ones purchased every year to ensure that money will be raised for the various organizations that support our veterans and their families.

After the poem and a bit of patriotic music that surely must have baffled the teenage demographic that listens to this pop station (I am likely its lone middle-age listener, a lingering side-effect of all the years I spent teaching pre-teens no doubt), the dj followed up with this:

And I will remember you
Will you remember me?
Don’t let your life pass you by
Weep not for the memories


La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

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Halloween once marked the beginning of the holiday season that stretched from October’s end to the New Year.

When I finally became a homeowner in the summer of 1997, I felt free to decorate and celebrate with abandon. I dressed up for Halloween to hand out candies and had pumpkins and lights.

And it only became more awesome when Will and I became a couple the following fall and the tradition of building and working the Jaycee Haunted House began.

I was a Corpse Bride long before Tim Burton thought of it. In a tattered white gown with a purple-streaked black wig, skeleton mask and black leggings, I sprayed my exposed arms with white hairspray and slipped skeletal gloves over my hands to slink along the hallways of a pitch dark maze, scaring the bejeezus out of teenagers.

Hand me a chainsaw (defanged, naturally) and I floored them literally. There is nothing like that revving roar to turn people around and create a terrific panic.

By the time Will was too sick to notice Halloween, there was Dee to consider. While our friends reared their kids in the corridors of the construction of the haunted house and had them running about during the running, Dee has always been too .. tender … for that. Her dad’s illness aside, we would have ended that tradition anyway.

So this naturally shifted to fairy and princess costumes and Trick or Treat. Beggar’s Night it was called in Des Moines. An odd tradition of kids telling jokes for treats and the celebration was never held on the 31st. Don’t ask me why. I tried to ascertain the rationale for shifting it to the 30th but never heard the same explanation and as nearly as I could figure it grew out of a mixture of the rabid Christian culture and a misguided notion that teens would be less inclined toward mayhem if it wasn’t the actual Halloween date.

And then we came to Canada.

The first year I suggested decorating the yard as a cemetery, but Rob wasn’t keen even though he’d once endured the scorn of his Bible thumping Kansas neighbors over a fake cemetery he erected in their yard when the older girls were a bit older than Dee.

Shelley, I am told, loved Halloween and dressing up in elaborate costumes. She’s passed this along to both Edie and Mick. This year, for example, Mick designed and sewed costumes based on Alice in Wonderland. And Mick always had multiple costumes a year as they make the rounds of the various to-do’s in the city.

Dee also has a box of costumes that she adds to every year. She is a huge fan of dress up play anyway and I have done nothing to squelch this instinct. Her scariest costume is a ghost number that I picked up at Walmart a few days after Dad died in ’08 and we Trick or Treated old school suburbia with DNOS, BIL, our two and a gaggle of neighborhood kids.

Day of the Dead, however, is not Halloween. Even Halloween is a corruption if original intent counts for anything.

The 7th grade team I worked with in middle school got it into their heads to construct a cooperative unit around Day of the Dead one year. One of our teachers was enamoured of the Hispanic tradition and being a former nun had more affinity to the November 1st Christian observance than the 31st.

At any rate, we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. Our population had a sizable number of extremely wing-nut Christians. One of the local churches actually bordered scarily on “cult”, so my co-worker pushed the Day of the Dead idea, which is ironic because it is more objectionable than costumes and candies on many levels.

I was lukewarm.

First, it’s a tradition that is not symbolic and one really needs to be raised in it to not find it distasteful and/or morbid. North Americans are death fearing to the point that most of us see death as a personal affront that simply should not happen in our modern times. That death is the natural progression and that much of the early death that occurs is due to modern times collateral damage – we simply don’t want to acknowledge.

Second, I loathed dealing with the family trauma that bubbled like toxic sludge just below the surface of most of our students’ lives. Parents who would be skeptical or hostile and require much coddling and cajoling* also factored into my reluctance.

Finally, Day of the Dead is religious. There is no getting around it and we were a public school. Separation of church and state and all that entails. If we weren’t studying the traditions surrounding death in all cultures in addition to Day of the Dead then what we were doing was highly questionable.

But, we did it anyway.

And it was a minor disaster that dredged up emotional muck, angered some parents, offended the über-Christians and was a small joke to a small segment of the students, who insisted on honoring their dead pets.

Traditions that honor the departed are widespread around the world. The more death-fearing a culture, however, the less likely one is to find them. What one notices instead is a fixation on the grisly and horrific.

When I was young, November 1st was the anti-climax. We went to mass. It was boring in comparison to the evening before which meant running the neighborhoods in costume with hordes of other children, trailed by uninterested parents or older siblings. In my family, the dead were considered honored through masses and living our lives to their full potential. They also endured through the wonderful memories passed along through stories.

So here is one for you:

My dad and his siblings had a couple of horses they shared between them. Co-ownership was not unusual. The family was poor and there were five children. For example, they had a single pair of skis that they took turns with out in the pasture until my dad’s oldest brother collided with a pig and broke the poles.

One of the horse’s was a gray mare named Blue. Dad’s youngest brother, who died when he was 39, took Blue one day when he and a neighbor were heading to the creek – probably the one at my now departed as well Great-Uncle’s place down the road. When they arrived and dismounted, my uncle left Blue standing by a tree.

“Aren’t you going to tie him up?” his friend asked.

“Nah,” he replied and continued walking.

The friend ran to catch up, casting a glance back at the horse which appeared to be content and uninterested in wandering off.

“Well, aren’t you afraid she’ll run off?

To which my uncle said, “Blue’s blind. She don’t even know we’ve left.”

There is no record of what the friend thought about having traversed a good mile up and down hilly fields and narrow dirt paths on a blind horse that my uncle barely bothered to “steer”.

A happy and peaceful day of the dead to you and yours.