Grief Counseling Groups

But what else is new under the sun?

Dirty feet

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A blogger I follow posted about how since the dawn of the blogosphere the dilemma we life bloggers face when the issue that brought us to the keyboard isn’t really the reason we stay on the web anymore. He began as a widowed blogger following the death of his husband, and his story was compelling. Single dad finds love, marries and in short order is widowed when his new husband is stricken with cancer.

It helped that he is keen and articulate and not prone to the navel gazing rut so many life bloggers – myself at times included – can fall into. His observations were insightful and he is a good writer.

After a time, he was picked up by Widow’s Voice and became a contributor there, but after a time, he began to do what all widowed people do even if they don’t realize it: he moved on. He still called what he was doing grieving but it’s a common mistake. The grief industry is built on faulty information that is part pseudo-science and mostly anecdotal, and it is fed by a culture that labels any normal event or action a dysfunction in need of 12 stepping.

We grieve in the beginning but the moving on process is not grief  unless you count the grieving we do for the people we used to be and can’t be anymore, which is apples to oranges. Moving on is work and it’s emotionally draining at times to be sure, but it’s not grieving. I don’t know if it has a name really. But during this time, we note our losses keenly when we are faced with the effort involved with the whole rebuilding of our lives. We miss and maybe long and certainly feel sad. All valid enough emotions on their own that they don’t need to be lumped under “grief”.

So this blogger is moving on. New city, job, home and new love. Enough “new” to send even a non-widowed person into a spin, but being widowed, he has grief to file it all under even when that’s not it. However, the issue is his blogging. Being a life blogger, he naturally shares his now, which is not really the raw, visceral stuff of active grief and his freshly widowed readers noticed.

He noted their notice and wondered if it was time to retire. It’s a natural reaction. The newly widowed are not fooled by those of us farther out. They know we aren’t really “feeling it” the way they do. It’s not posing really, but it’s disingenuous to claim one is a widow when one is moving into the territory of becoming “someone who was widowed once”. It’s noun versus verb territory, and most of us get there in the second or third year.

The trouble is that we are not supposed to admit it. Doing so is to relinquish membership in the “club no one wants to belong to”, and when you’ve found camaraderie there, it’s hard to walk away from it despite the fact that you really do need more in common than dead spouses to be friends or more. It’s no different from any other bonding event that brings people together. Marriage, motherhood, employment. At some point that one thing just isn’t enough.

But, my point. You are probably wondering and at 553 words perhaps I should get to it.

I commented on his post. Someone replied to me but yet at me. “I don’t want to cause controversy” which means, yeah I do but I don’t want to own it if actually happens. And the short was that I am wrong and callously so and probably a dgi to boot. Oh, and I am “rigid” and bossy.

When I first found widow boards and blogs the thing that struck me with the most horror were those who clung to the label and the false idea that grief is a quasi-mental health issue that is more or less chronic. You would always grieve in their opinion. It was like low-level exposure to nuclear waste to read what they wrote. No way a newly widowed person could avoid buying in to one degree or another without risking the community shunning that goes along with objecting and pointing out that most widowed folk never see the need for offline grief grouping let alone online or blogging. Most bereaved people couldn’t be fingered in a line up at the year or that and a half mark. Sure, they feel sad and they miss, but as I said earlier – those are distinct feelings of their own.

Another blogger at Widow’s Voice wrote recently about being a “fraud” because she really doesn’t feel any of the things she is supposed to feel. Commenters were kind and supportive of her right to not grieve like a “normal person” but adamant that this is not they way most feel.

Which is funny.

The Internet is a small place and the blogosphere smaller still. It could be argued that those who populate it aren’t really representative of the larger population or even what is considered “normal”.

I left a comment assuring her that she was not a freak because I knew that not many others would. Surprisingly the comment made it through. The woman who moderates there is not generally open to widow views that don’t match her own or the faulty grieving model the site pushes.

And your point is? Right, I was going to get to that, wasn’t I?

Grieving and moving on are highly individual for the most part but the fact is that most people don’t spend their lives doing either. They tackle one and move to the next in a relatively expeditious manner. If human beings weren’t able to do this, we’d have perished as a species before we even got started. It’s wrong to tell people grief is something that it is not or to lead them into self-fulfilling prophecies by misrepresenting where you are really at in the process. Telling people there is no right or wrong and yet clearly saying the opposite with what you write or how you present the facts is not being helpful.

Most of the struggle I had in the last three or four months of that first year of widowhood are directly attributable to the bad examples and just plain wrong information I was provided by widowed people who were years ahead of me. Granted, a generous handful of these people were mildly dysfunctional to bat-shit crazy even before their spouse died and so perhaps I am judging them too harshly. But some of them were simply using the venues for purposes unknown though being helpful couldn’t be truthfully numbered among them.

Both the Widow’s Voice bloggers I mentioned seem genuine and I think their views and struggles in the moving on period are valuable. I wish them well and hope they blog on, remembering though that at some point it’s not grief anymore. Not really. Not the way the newbies live it, and there comes a point when you aren’t doing them any good wearing the widow mantle as though it were a tiara. It’s like the high school prom queen who never really got over graduation and growing up.

Broken Vows

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In the course of the “uproar” about Joyce Carol Oates tome, A Widow’s Story, I pondered yet again my withdrawal from my memoir. I truly believe that most memoirs slog through a marsh of well-trod ground, offering nothing new in terms of insight. They hack up analogies, metaphors and similes like a cat does hairballs. Just so much stinking, steaming emotive glop.

Without anything new to add to the conversation, it’s just another entry in a reality-soaked entertainment genre that’s come to define our society. It’s pretend self-help because no one wants to be helped. Misery loves company, but it craves validation more.

That’s why grief blogs and on-line communities thrive. The hurting arrive looking for hope and answers and stay because being accepted and understood in the dark  Gollum-like shady places is easier than getting back out into the harsh light and starting over again.

Mostly, I have been John the Baptist in the online grief world. Yelling like a mad-man out in the desert. Chastised and dismissed or ignored entirely.

So I thought, what have I to offer? My clichés and analogies? They are no different from Oates. She wryly observed all the same odd and annoying aspects of losing a loved one that I have read hundreds of times before from better writers possessed with abundantly more self-awareness.

“But what about our story?” Rob asked. “You have our story to tell.”

Yes, but what can I add to that old plotline? Widow finds love again. Widower finds love again.

Finding love again is the basis of every rom-com ever inflicted on the movie-going public.

I think our story is as special as he does, but what makes it worth the time of someone else to read? And doesn’t our contention – that love is possible, attainable and doable after loss –  fly in the face of grief’s tenets? The work of sorrow, the long hard hoed row, and the idea that one never heals?

It knocks the stuffing out of the soul mate theory, and the notion that seconds (a charming term I learned recently from the widowed community) should simply be grateful for a spare room in someone’s chapter two because the master bedroom is a memorial shrine as “til death do us part” applies to other people’s lesser romances.

And then I was perusing a couple of the more well-known widowed folk blogs. Reading comments, one where I was kitty-clawed a bit for my insensitivity, and another that dealt with someone discussing the new person in his/her life that was so insulting to this new love that I nearly asked the blogger why he/she was dating in the first place* and it hit me.

What I have to offer is dissent.

I don’t agree. Widowhood is not a life long emotional disability. One can, and most do, move on. MOVE ON. Not “forward”, but “on”.**

We can and many, many of us do love others just as deeply and passionately and with our whole hearts – not some basement room or attic space.

Life does get better and sometimes it even gets awesome. And it’s a choice.

Oh, and our children? Not doomed to be emotional eunuchs. They will be as okay. They are far more resilient than they are painted.

And the vast majority of people whose hearts have been broken – because it’s hardly just a widow thing – don’t snivel, whine or retreat into lives of quiet desperation. At least not at a rate any more significant than the rest of the population, who believe it or not, also don’t enjoy single parenthood, loneliness or having no family or friends who understand them or have their backs when they need help. They too are under-appreciated, overworked and struggle financially, which might have more to do with their lack of interest in your problems than “not getting it”.

We are not special. Charlie Sheen is special.***

*Really, if I read one more person droning on about how their dead spouse in every and any way can’t possibly be replaced and that the new boy/girlfriend should just shut up and be grateful for scraps – I might go on a commenting frenzy.

Seconds? Shudder. It’s like a derogatory term from a bad sci-fi movie about artificial lifeforms.

**Semantics? Yep, telling semantics. And not in a good way because when one needs to parse things so finely, perhaps relationships are part of one’s past, or one is more concerned about what others think of them than in being honest.

*** Rob is fond of a saying of his late, and certainly unsympathetic, father. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re special, son,” he would tell Rob. “Because they mean you’re retarded.”

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.


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”.


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.

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.

Update: This post was linked by a reader over at the YWBB (aka widow board) in response to someone asking if it really takes 3 – 5 years to “get over” the death of a spouse. I read the responses, and while everyone who replied made a point to stick to his/her own experiences, there was still a bit of self-serving justification going on and the real issue was never addressed.

You don’t “get over” the loss of someone you love. Over time it becomes a part of you like every other experience you’ve ever had – good, bad or unexpected. And as someone pointed out here in the comments, life is not a process so it makes sense that grief – like joy – is not something we 12 step through. Loss is an experience. More quickly than most people realize, we move on from even the worst events and back into the mainstream of life. And life changes. Even if my first husband hadn’t died, I would not be the same person today as I was the day I met him. Life is change.

It’s disingenuous to say that it takes years to find happiness, meaning or a new life. That happens quickly and in spite of ourselves. Whether or not a person chooses to cling to grief or not is the heart of the so-called “time line”. Bonanno makes this point himself in the book. People who chose to hold onto good memories and push on for the sake of the lost loved one generally are back to whatever normal means sooner than those who cannot get past the event or the feeling of unfairness. He also points out that people who experience complications in grief usually had underlying issues to begin with that the loss simply made worse.

I won’t post on the widow board, but if I were to answer this poster I would say this:

Life is what you decide to make of it. We carry loss with us always but whether or not it defines or dominates you is up to you. And even in the first months to the end of the first year, most people experience happiness and find meaning. Anyone who tells you it took three years or more to feel anything other than misery or that year two was worse than year one either had issues before or is not being all that honest – with you or with themselves. You can be happy. The choice is yours.

I just finished reading The Other Side of Sadness by George Bonnano, an associate professor at Columbia. It basically sets the record straight on all the ridiculous notions that surround grieving.

For example, “grief work”, the idea that grieving requires a thoughtful and painful laundry list of activities that a person must do before he/she can move on with his/her life. The notion exists thanks to a throw-away idea by Freud. How he can be the father of all that is counter-intuitive and the father of modern psychoanalysis at the same time is one of life’s minor mysteries, but essentially he briefly pondered the notion that in order for a grieving person to move on in life, that person must “detach” from the deceased and that this process was “grief work”. And that’s about all he said on the subject but those two words have been a millstone for me. I’ve been told more often than I can count that my wanting to move on was keeping me from grieving properly and wasn’t possible.

Bonnano has done quite a bit of research over the years, and he has discovered that pretty much the opposite of “grief work” is not only the norm but is healthier.

People who endeavor to move on and be happy – usually because they feel the deceased would have wanted that – have better lives and outcomes than those who succumb to the idea that grief is a process that must be worked through.

“Do you feel vindicated?” Rob asked me after I told him about what I’d read.

And I do.

Take that widow board with your nonsense about distractions and “grieve now or grieve more later”.  Neither of those things is true. Distractions are what healthy people do to keep from being overwhelmed in the beginning. It’s about balance. And the notion that grief can be suppressed and come back to cause havoc later? Based on a flawed study back in 1944 that was later proven to be wrong in its conclusion.

The book acknowledges that grief has ebb and flow and never completely disappears, but it debunks the notion that a person can’t get along without grief counseling. In fact, it says that 6 months should be the cut-off point as far as seeking help for complicated grief goes. Before that, sadness and emotional swings are normal.

And that’s the heart of the book, that grief is normal.  Human beings are built to grieve and if we simply followed our natural instincts, we’d be better off.

So, there is no grief process. No 12 steps. Distractions are good. Being determined to move on is the norm.

Any questions?

As we were driving back from the hospice last evening, Rob asked me how I could have been so upset with the grief counselor on Wednesday night for suggesting that I needed to go through her 10 week grief and loss workshop and then turn around and dig through such painful memories at the parents’ session at Pilgrim house. It was a good question and I needed a bit of time to work out the answer into words and sentences because though I could feel why, it was hard to articulate even to Rob – who knows the answer already.

But the answer, when it came, was quite simple. What was being proposed in the workshop was purposeless digging. Like taking a butter knife to excise an scar. What would be the point? I understand that introspection is a useful tool in getting to the root of problems one might be having in their daily lives but when no problems exist than it is little more than emotional navel gazing. The topics that come up at Pilgrim house aren’t scripted really and they usually grow out of our conversations about our children. That we are there at all is to help our kids learn to cope with and integrate what has happened in their lives.

The subject came around to the genetic legacy that Katy was left by her dad. She is a carrier of what killed him and this will have to be addressed and dealt with at some point in her teens and then again when she decides to have children or not. It could even end up effecting her physical in middle-age if she happens to fall in the unlucky 10% or carriers who end up with dorsal nerve damage, so this is something she will have to plan for – the possibility of eventual physical disability. I try not to dwell to much on this. It is the future and who knows what that holds really, but they are things that sit in the corners of my mind, out of sight but never truly forgotten. 

Talking about that last night was good for me in the moment. There was another couple there who have lost children to a genetic illness. Are carriers themselves. Have been through the diagnoses and the doctors and hospitals and long, slow declines to death. I seldom meet people who really know what that feels like firsthand. It was like finding my first widow board. The MerryWidow, and feeling for the first time that I was not a freak. Grief and worry are lonely enough without that sense of being only.

Not so ironically, anymore, our evening was book-ended by death. Rob’s father-in-law has not been well and went into the hospital Sunday complaining of heart trouble. He’d been in all week and the doctors hadn’t been able to pin point a root cause although he did have heart issues. I got the first call from one of Rob’s nieces in the late afternoon. She hadn’t been able to reach either of the girls and wanted to let us know that things were deteriorating. She sounded very small and lost when she told me that her grandfather reminded her of the way her grandmother had been at the end back in December. I remember from all those months Will was in hospice that you come to know the signs of impending death. The way it sounds and looks. There is a feeling in the air even. I felt badly for her. No one should have to watch a loved one die and she was bedside at her second such loss in just a few months. At one point in the conversation at group, a widow who’d lost her husband suddenly in a car accident remarked that she felt that her despair over not having had a chance to say good-bye was small compared to what I and the other couple had gone through watching the death process. I remarked that I had always been envious of those were widowed through sudden death because I would give much to be able to erase the memories and purge what I know. I sat and saw and still didn’t get to say good-bye. Not really.

Shelley’s brother, Jay, called shortly after we’d gotten home last night to let us know that Frazier had died a few hours earlier. The doctors still weren’t sure of the cause, but it’s not uncommon for elderly widowed people to follow shortly after their spouses and I suspect this was the real root issue.

I didn’t know Frazier but for a few visits to Grande Prairie and the first time I had met him in the city here after Leona’s surgery in August. He was nice and friendly and didn’t have to be and I still appreciate that. He was always after us to come and stay at the farm. We didn’t and I am sorry about that a bit now. Rob was asked to give the eulogy and he asked me what exactly goes into one. I only know Catholic funeral mass really, and eulogies are always given by priests. They usually talk about the person in general terms as they often didn’t really know the person, but if they did they would tell stories to try and paint a mental image for the congregation. They would recall the things about the deceased that brought home way he or she was loved. And they would try to comfort with images of heaven and God. We don’t believe in heaven though and my views anyway on what/who God is or may be are still evolving.

In all likelihood Rob and the girls will go to Grande Prairie without Katy and I. I have mixed feelings about this. I think that the family will expect to see us as we went up for Uncle Raymond’s funeral in September and again fro Leona’s in December. We are family. On the other hand, I have problems taking Katy to yet another funeral. It is the only reason we have ever gone up north and seen everyone. She is just five. Too knowledgeable in my opinion and maybe in need of more sheltering than she has gotten in the past. She will also plague her sisters with questions about the situation and how they are feeling. Farron bares up quite well and handles Katy and her curiosity without any visible effect but Jordan is far more fragile and I worry more about her. And Rob. I worry about Rob. He is the rock. The spoke in the family wheel. Both for Shelley’s family and for his own. Not to mention for me and our girls. Too many people lean on him and expect him to fix things and be there and hold up. He will need me because I am the only one who sees that he is not superman. 

It would be nice if people would stop dying, but as I reminded Rob when he brought this up, we know too many old people. My own reprieve from death on a family level has stretched out to two years now and I wonder how much longer the luck will hold given the age and physical infirmities of my parents, aunts and uncles. Still, I was reminded in a letter from my cousin yesterday just how fickle death is when she mentioned that our great-aunt will be 100 years old on March 5th. No rhyme or reason but yet rhyme and reason.

There are no free-standing hospices in the Edmonton area. I was a bit surprised by this because there are three and a fourth under construction back in Des Moines. Hospice care is in home here. Rob’s late wife, Shelley, received hospice in the house where we live. The Pilgrim’s Hospice trains volunteers, offers limited day time respite and runs a variety of bereavement programs. One the programs they offer is a creative arts group for children between 3 and 18 years of age. They have the children split into three different age groups and they meet to discuss their losses and feelings through song and art projects. The program even offers day camps over the summer months when Canadians typically don’t have any type of programs for kids at all because they are quite serious about their vacationing and family time. This last November, Katy was having some difficulties again and Rob and I decided to look into options for her and came up with this program. We realize this is going to be an on-going process for her because her perception of her dad and his death will change as she grows and her ability to understand and process matures. It’s ironic. One of the things that adults envy about children in the grief process is their seeming ability to grieve in short bursts rather than carry it around morning, noon and night, but the downside is that they will be burdened with reprocessing their parent’s death at every milestone along the way to adulthood and beyond.

While the children gather for their program, the adults meet in another room to do roughly the same thing the kids are doing minus the singing and paints. I think I might like to discuss my grief journey over a coloring book though or while making cookies or learning to dance. Somehow that doesn’t seem as daunting. The group is mixed. We were not all widowed though about half were. Others had lost small children or their own parents or grandparents. As I listened to one person describe losing a parent and grandparent with such visible distress I thought back to the numerous posts on the widow board where other widows would rant rabidly about the fact that this kind of loss is not equal to the loss of a spouse. Even Rob mentioned later that he couldn’t work up too much empathy for the person, and truthfully I couldn’t either, but I did feel sad for this person who obviously needed this lost parent so much that it was debilitating for them. A person expects their parents to die before them but our level of dependence on them varies so much from one of us to the next that I can easily see how someone whose adult life was integrally wrapped up in a parent’s could be as bereft as someone who losses a spouse. It’s very sad in another kind of way. The parents who lost children are the only grief victims that widows seem to be accepting of and often allow to trump their own grief cards. Rightly so, in my opinion. I was reading a blog entry the other day by a young woman who tragically lost her little girl over the summer and I just sat and bawled as I did so. The thought of losing Katy seizes me from time to time and it freezes my soul. I have an old friend in Iowa who is observing the sixth anniversary of the loss of her three year old later this month. He was murdered by her now ex-husband. I marvel still at how she carried on and put her life back together. Whenever I felt sorry for myself while Will was sick or after he died, I thought about her and kicked myself in the butt to do better.

The widows in the group last night were not as far out as Rob or I. Not even a year. Sudden deaths and they were grappling with the acceptance. There is a huge difference – a gulf maybe – between sudden widows and those of us who knew or had an inkling that it was coming. We don’t tend to wrestle with disbelief as much as mourn for the lost time. Time lost to the illness. Time in the future that won’t be. It is hard to listen to fresh grief. To see it. There is that look in the eyes. A tenseness to their frames, almost a full body clench. One widow talked about still not being able to sleep. I didn’t realize myself just how much I needed sleep until I was able to sleep again like a normal person does. During the three years leading up to Will’s death, I lived and breathed sleep debt, getting by on as little as three or four hours a night at times. One or two late nights now and I am near collapse. My body simply refuses to let me run a debt of any kind now. Smart body. The anger too is palpable in the freshly minted. I recoil even more from it now than I did during my time on the widow board though I had my anger then too. Anger is exhausting. After the meeting I felt compelled to speak to one widow whose first year is up just a few days after the coming second anniversary for Will. She asked if it gets better. And the answer is not that simple. It gets better only in that it begins to change. I could tell she was disappointed by that. I didn’t tell her that it never goes away and that she will carry it in some form or another always. I think she assumed because I was there with Rob that I was all better now. Everyone thinks that. I am certainly happy again. I am building a life with Rob that I love and I am so wonderfully blessed by his love and by the new family he has brought Katy and I into, but it doesn’t change the past in anyway. It transforms our now and our future.

The woman who lead our group got into grief counseling after losing her tow youngest children at birth. She felt better by giving back and eventually back a counselor. It was an interesting thing that I can relate to. I always felt good being able to share with newer widowed people on the YWBB. I was sad and a little angry when I had to leave there, but I knew I had to give that up – at least in that setting – because of the personal attacks I had experienced at fingertips of a few widowed who did not see me as a good example or as being someone who had anything of import to say about grief and the journey we were all on. Granted, I could be pointed – though I saved that for those of my own or greater vintage, but last night I thought perhaps I had found a new outlet for my still abiding need to share my experience and journey. Something I am going to give much thought to in the coming months. I knew after Will died that I someday would give back in the hospice. I am not quite ready to volunteer in that setting though. I am still a bit too raw. Maybe this type of group setting is more my answer.