grief


Dandelions and Forget-Me-Nots In a sycamore co...

Dandelions/Forget-Me-Nots (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roger Ebert blogged recently about a streak of loses among his friends and relatives that got him thinking about how and why we remember those who have died. In his musings, he touched on something that rang true for me:

Early one morning, unable to sleep, I roamed my memories of them. Of an endless series of dinners, and brunches, and poker games, and jokes, and gossip. On and on, year after year. I remember them. They exist in my mind–in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. Nobody will be able to say how we sounded when we spoke. If they tell our old jokes, they won’t know whose they were.  That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear.

The idea that what constitutes are immortality is as mortal as we are makes a lot of sense. It explains in a small way our fear of dying and our fear of letting go of those who have died. When we can no longer bring them to life in our mind’s eye as clearly as our home movies on the flat screen, they are truly gone. because even the photos and audio-visual facsimiles will eventually belong to those who never knew them in the flesh and to whom they are nothing more than curiosities from someone else’s past.

One of the comments on the Ebert’s post had this to add:

Many Native American peoples had two words to describe the dead. One word for those who had died- but still had someone living who remembered them, and another word for those who have died and no living person was left who remembered them.

Implication being that there is no immortality on this plane anyway.

 


Hypnotically Pink for the Cure (1488505615)

Image via Wikipedia

Last week’s uproar over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s anti-choice antics led me to want to know more about the young woman for whom the breast cancer awareness behemoth is named. But after  a couple of days of Googling, it became clear that after 32 years, poor Suzy Komen is little more than a name on corporate letterhead. Her story is forever lost, filtered through her sister, Nancy Brinker’s, perceptions of the events and how she has decided that the story of the real Susan Komen should be presented.

If you google Susan G. Komen, you will be rewarded with links that speak only of the foundation. Aside from Brinker’s memoir, which is really more about her than her sister, precious little information on Suzy Komen exists.

The poor thing doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia entry. Her namesake fundraising corportion, however, does and so, unsurprisingly, does her sister, Nancy.

One thing I did find, and it’s also not a shock because the Internet is stuffed with all manner of griefy culture things, was a picture of Suzy’s grave. And it immediately occurred to me after reading the inscription that Suzy isn’t the only one left out in cold as far as her story goes. So was her husband.

She is listed as daughter, mother and sister. Presumably the children had a father so at some point, she was a wife. Why isn’t that mentioned? A quick peek at the “official” Komen Foundation historical record on her mentions a husband, Stan, her high school sweetheart, but then it drones on with barely a mention of him or their two children again. Judging from the Foundation’s biography of Suzy, the only people who truly counted in her life were her parents and, of course, her sister.

Knowing what I do about the widow world and the odd notions that extended family and the non-widowed have about the whole “til do you part” and the general scorn there is for widowed who move on at an “unseemly” pace, I came to three possible conclusions.

Stan Komen, Suzy’s husband:

  1. bailed on her while she was ill and therefore earned his exile.
  2. remarried too soon for her family’s liking
  3. doesn’t care much for the happy, happy, joy, joy Disney Princess pink face that Komen’s spin has slathered all over the disease that killed his wife and so he declines to be a part of it.

Stan Komen owned a wine and spirits store in Peoria, Illinois. He still does. You can google him and it. I even found a few news articles that refer to him as a successful business owner and a person who offers advice to others in his industry. There is no mention of a second marriage, but I would guess he has moved on. He was a young man with young children, and it’s doubtful that he remained single (though I wouldn’t rule it out).

But no explanation of his, or his children’s, absence from the Pink juggernaut’s publicity machine. Cuz, let’s be real, run, walk , jump and knit bras for the cure owes its existence to bereaved spouses, children and extended family and friends.  Widowed who involve themselves in the cause to eliminate what killed their spouses is cliché.

So, did he piss his in-law’s off while his wife lay dying?

“A lot of guys bugger off when their wives fall ill,” Rob reminded me.

And that is true. Breast cancer victims especially find themselves alone quite often although I bet the reverse isn’t true with men who find themselves physically altered by prostate cancer.

However, I managed to find a preview of Nancy Brinker’s book about … herself mostly … and the origins of the foundation via Google books. According to Nancy, her brother-in-law was pretty much a Hollywood stereotype of devotion and sacrifice during his wife’s illness. He loved her very much and was devastated by her death.

Colour me confused then by his absence from his wife’s final legacy on the place where she rests. Even if he did remarry that doesn’t make her less of a wife to him. That was part of who she was and should be included regardless of what he moved on to.

I found the whole thing rather sad. Suzy asked her sister to “find a cure” for the disease that killed her. Komen donates very little really to research. The bulk of what they collect from the husbands, children, family and friends of women dead or dying is funneled to pay salaries of Komen employees (Nancy herself makes over $400 thousand a year as CEO) or is used to lobby Congress on behalf of insurance pharmaceutical companies or promote Pink ribbon products that often contain chemicals that are thought/known to cause breast cancer and to promote events to promote breast cancer “awareness”.

The last is funny because women in North America are so aware of breast cancer that they don’t know that they are actually more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. Fear-mongering has paid off so well for Komen that the latest research on the  risks of overscreening via mammograms are ignored or treated like junk science.

Suzy would be proud, I am sure, of the fact that 32 years after her sister promised to find a cure for breast cancer, a woman with stage four of the disease has nearly an identical survival rate as she would have had 50 years ago.

I am still left wondering who Suzy and Stan Komen were. Her silence on last week’s events and her sister’s efforts over the last three decades is understandable given that she is dead and all, but his? Telling? Maybe.


Jan van Eyck, "Knights of Christ" (d...

Image via Wikipedia

Stumbled across a book on “closure” not long ago, written by Nancy Berns, a professor at Drake University in my old home of Des Moines, Iowa. She’s a sociologist, attracted to the cherry “death and dying” course work. I have perused her blog but only read the first chapter of her book because it’s essentially a textbook for one of her courses and, therefore, ungodly expensive.*

In Chapter one, Berns basically outlines the progression of the rest of the book in syllabus fashion with brief detours into the history of the etymology, psychology,  cultural and historical evolution of a term that she compares to the equally made up idea of “self-esteem”. It is not, exactly, a grief book. Although since nearly everything in our culture is now subject to the Kübler-Rossification of processing, it is heavy on the idea that humans need to define the death throes of all experiences. Nothing can simply end. It has to be analyzed, processed and brought to “closure”.

The case can be made that because people believe in the idea that all things unsettling, hurtful and traumatic need to be kneaded like dough, punched into submission and baked until closure, it must be real. Of course, Santa Claus is real until you reach a certain age of enlightenment about magic, and God is real until it becomes apparent that he is like Santa Claus and perhaps existence can’t be explained so simplistically.

Toward the end of Chapter One, Berns describes the two types of people who don’t believe in closure – The Walking Wounded, who can’t find it and the Myth Slayers, who simply can’t fathom its existence.

I like the term Myth Slayer, don’t you? It’s fitting. I don’t believe in grief as a process (unless you are willing to admit that life itself is a series of processes of which grief is just one and in that case I will concede). I am suspicious of the idea that everything needs to be analyzed in light of how we feel about it because feelings are often irrelevant. Some things just are. Birth and death are merely the beginning and end points of mortal existence and are viewed through the accepted societal narratives of the culture and times, which vary depending on where in the world Carmen SanDiego happens to be at any given moment.

One of the reasons I rail against the grief process whose end goal is closure so that people can move on, is that I think it sets up false expectations, hopes and even inspires fear and feelings of inadequacy in those who buy in only to discover that what is promised isn’t going to materialize. It’s not okay to sell grief á la Weight Watchers or peddle it as a life-long chronic emotional illness. Grief culture is just a mythology that our death fearing, but equally obsessed with, society has created to explain the seemingly unexplainable. Just like the Greeks and the Norse invented the gods and goddesses to explain and teach, we have the five stages of grief and closure to weave through the narrative of life’s rather ordinary processes. In this way, we can avoid the fact that life is full of beginnings, middles and endings where just about everything is concerned and we can avoid the reality that nothing much happens on any front without effort on our part. There is no magic.

No magic. It’s a letdown day when we first realize this as children and it continues to bum us out until someone has to bury us and search for closure of his or her own.

One thing that resonated was Bern’s belief that people don’t need closure to heal**, which runs contrary to what the grief industry would like us to believe. Unsurprisingly, I agree with this premise. The falsehood of promoting this has led many a person to sit back, wallow and wait instead of putting one foot in front of the other and moving on. Grief lessens until it reaches a point where it is so muted as to not really be grief as it is portrayed today. There is lingering regret, longing, and sadness attached to nearly anything that ended without our permission. Death is not special in that respect. Closure promotes clinging and this leads to wallowing, sympathy seeking and inertia in terms of moving on. It gives people permission to define themselves in terms of what life has done to them instead of defining themselves by what they do in life. Bonanno would say that this is tied to resiliency, which some of us have in abundance and others of us lack or don’t have the inner resources to access or use if we did. Some social Darwinism in play here too, I suspect.

Closure is hardly a grief thing. We are encouraged to look for it when we lose jobs, lovers, friends and when bad things happen to us good people. We are a 12-step culture and I blame the Baby Boomers, but I blame them for most things about society that drip with self-absorption and keen like a child denied.

Everyone should don a cape, pick up a bludgeon and play “whack a mole” with cultural foolishness now and again.  It’s liberating to discard made up notions superimposed on normal feelings and milestones.

*At $75 for a hardback and $25 for paper, I won’t be purchasing it anytime soon. College students, it seems, are still viewed as a cash cow captive audience. In the age of e-readers and smart-phones, it astounds me that they haven’t risen up and demanded downloadable e-texts at affordable prices, but that’s a post for another day.

**However, she seems to adhere to the same idea that society pushed people through grief – as if this was actually possible – and that grief, like a fine wine, should be savored. I have to chuckle a bit because by and large people move on at a pace dictated by their personalities and needs in spite of society’s best efforts to school them.