grief and bereavement

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

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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.

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

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It’s t-minus two and counting until the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which have – mostly for the worse – reshaped the United States, its people and by virtue of its over-reaching influence, the world at large.

Given the amount of fallout, it’s fitting that we stop and reflect. A lot of people died. People who had wives, partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers. The collateral damage of just the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center alone is a sorry thing to contemplate. The two wars that have mushroomed into a near economic collapse of the entire world and the paranoia that has nearly wiped up the little bit of freedom the average citizen could rightfully call their own has just compounded the tragedy exponentially.

So, I guess, it’s not out of line for even those who have never been directly in the line of the emotional blast to look back at that day and remember where they were.

We are such melodramatic creatures that the hysteria I remember from that day and the near-hysterics people are feeling at ten years out shouldn’t surprise me. Emotional drama is as contagious as any infectious disease and the number of people immune to its effects are few.

I was teaching that day. It was second period, and Becca, the teacher across the hall came up from the library and pulled me out into the hall. She was on planning period and had been chatting downstairs with the librarian, while they set up the television to record something on PBS later that day. They’d stumbled across a morning news show – I don’t remember which one – and had seen the aftermath of the first tower.

“I’ll watch your class,” she told me. “You need to go downstairs and see this.”

I left. There was just something about the look on her face that made me feel I should just do as she asked.

Downstairs the librarian was rushing about to get set up for her home room next period, but she pointed me to the television.

“You just won’t believe this,” she said. “Another plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”

We just watched. There was nothing to say, and I saw the tower fall. The bell rang and I raced back upstairs but not before saying, “You should push the tv into your office. I don’t think the kids should see this.”

Upstairs Becca and I spoke in whispers as the kids passed between 2nd hour to home room. We filled in the other two teachers on the hall. We all agreed not to let the students know what was happening.

Within the next half hour or so, the administration in the main office had found out what was going on and discreetly instructed the staff not to let the students know what was going on. We were a neighborhood school and our kids came from working class families. Many of them had National Guardsmen in their families. It was hard not to think about what might be coming down the pipeline at them.

Throughout the day, we kept ourselves updated via the Internet and someone was always monitoring the lone television we had in the library. To my knowledge, not a single student knew about what happened until they left the building that afternoon.

I talked to my late husband at lunch. He’d heard and was worried. What if we went to war? He was young – just past draft age but that means nothing really in an emergency. The government fiddled with the draft ages during both the world wars. They can do anything they like in times of war.

I checked in with virtual friends to see if they were okay. I knew a few women living in and near Manhattan at the time. An old high school friend had in-laws in NYC. Sis’s niece lived there. Ultimately though, I knew no one who died or who knew someone who died. Aside from the run on the gas stations that evening, which I got caught up in because I was literally near empty that day and had no choice but to fill up, 9/11 didn’t affect me.

The insane aftermath did. There was so much rah-rah “we are Americans hear us roar” as the middle school where I worked collected cash and goods* for those most affected. We had assemblies up the ying-yang and ribbons and bows and flags dangled off vehicles to the point where the world seemed to be stuck in a Groundhog’s Day version of the Fourth of July.

I got tired of watching the towers fall on television. I disagreed vehemently about the invasion of Afghanistan and again about Iraq, but after a while, I stopped arguing with people about it except to say, “Someday, I will be proved right about what a bad idea these wars were.”

Mostly, I quickly got back to my life. I was still a newlywed. We were trying to have a baby. 9/11 was not my tragedy then and it still isn’t today unless one takes into account that I don’t fly anymore or that I’ve left the United States to live in Canada and feel more free here than I have at “home” for nearly a decade.

The economic crisis that stemmed in a large part from the nation’s war debts only marginally touched me when the housing bubble collapsed.** But, I would have to say that the bottom of the most bottomest lines has found me pretty much unscathed in a 9/11ish way. The decade had other tragedies in store for me. The initial shock of the event wore off quickly and I have never co-opted it as something personal because it isn’t.

There are people who have. I read a blog post last week that was written by a woman who was near hysterical about the news and media anniversary stuff. A person would have thought she was a 9/11 widow, but she’s not. She didn’t know a single person touched by the tragedy at the time and she herself was a thousand miles or more away from NYC that day. But that’s the power of melodrama and the drumbeat that was hammered into us all at the time. “This is a nation’s tragedy.” and while it’s been tragic for those who actually lost people in the Towers or the aftermath, it’s not everyone’s personal tragedy. It’s a bit nauseating when some try to glom on a bit and shake the pity tree for themselves.

Everyone has a 9/11 story but not everyone was its victim and it’s not everyone’s true tragedy. I think that might be a better way to remember it. That if it wasn’t about you, don’t make it about you in retrospect.

*So much of the money the Red Cross collected was specifically earmarked for 9/11 only that they began begging people not to specify where their donations should be spent. The Federal government covered a lot of the costs and The Red Cross really needed donations for other things more desperately. And, of course, much of the “stuff” that was collected wound up in the New York landfills. All in all so very typically American.

**I sold my house when I moved up North and lost money thanks to the housing bust.

Wedding Dress For Happy Couple in Love

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On the morning of June 27th at just about this time in the morning, I will have been married for just a bit more than half a day. Rob and I remind ourselves often that time is too precious to wish away, but as I gear up for another week of separation I wish I owned a Toynbee Convector.


There is an old Ray Bradbury short story that I used to teach to my seventh graders back in the day. It is about a man who fakes a trip to the future in order to give the world hope of a better world to come. The faked proof he presents inspires people to go out and actually create the world he only imagined for them. I remind myself when I am feeling impatient and missing my love’s physical reassurance that what we are doing in our time apart is giving substance to our dreams.


You can’t build a future if you aren’t able to envision it in your mind’s eye.



Sold it

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Oprah hosted an episode recently that dealt with bereaved who weren’t able to get rid of their loved one’s things. The point that the experts made was that eventually closets need to be cleaned out and possessions are just “stuff” that needs to be given away or disposed of so one can “move on”. Someone on the YWBB posted about how they made it sound so very easy.


Of course it sounded easier on Oprah because, I would guess, not one of the people dispensing the advice had ever lost a spouse (or child). Anything is easy in theory.


I sold my house yesterday. It is the house Will and I bought together just weeks before he started to get very sick and less than two months before the doctors told us it was terminal. He only lived here a year and a half and suffered from dementia the entire time, so there really are no happy memories, but it is still a little sad. This is the house where Will and I had planned to raise Dee and a sibling. It represents all the dreams we had for the future. Our future. But that was not what was meant for him, or me, and all I can do now is hope that whatever it was he was supposed to do wherever he is, that he has as much love and happiness now as I do, and that someday our futures may cross again for a moment.


None of this is easy. And they are wrong when they call it “moving on”. You don’t do that really. You move forward because it is the only direction that time travels, and eventually you come to find that you are looking forward more than back and that there are things, people and places waiting for you up ahead. They won’t replace what you have lost, but they become new and special in their own right.


So, I have sold the house to a very nice young couple who were so excited at the mere thought of living here that they were nearly jumping up and down according to their realtor. That makes me happy.


I will see my new home in less than two weeks. I am not jumping up and down, mainly because I am too tired, but I am excited. Rob showed me the neighborhood on Google Earth the last time he was here. It already has a familiar feel to it. Enough that I already refer to it as home which has caused a bit of confusion.


Today Dee and I are going out to the cemetery to clean off Will’s headstone and place some flowers for Memorial Day. I am not sure when or if I will ever go back there. But like the house, it represents a path I am no longer on.

Overlea High School

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A child was hit by a car this afternoon by the teachers’ parking lot at the high school where I still teach. I actually didn’t see her at first. I was sneaking out a bit early, and my mind was already on ahead of me, thinking about a possible mini-stop at Starbucks for an iced green tea, and how to maneuver the logjam in the parking lot at my daughter’s preschool. As I pulled up behind the two cars waiting to exit on to the street, I realized that the red car I assumed was parked was really sitting in the middle of the street and a young girl was lying on her side in front of it. I couldn’t tell how badly she was injured because she was facing away from me, but she wasn’t moving. A yellow-blond woman, whose age it was impossible to tell, knelt beside her. She was softly stroking the teen’s head, and it was obvious she was talking to her.


I saw all manner of kids running around. Most of them had cells phones they were frantically speaking to, and many were girls who gestured emphatically at their unseen listeners. A boy, possibly from the middle school next door, was standing at the parking lot’s exit and directing out-coming cars to the right and away from the accident. I didn’t see a single adult other than the woman, who I was beginning to realize was probably the driver of the red car, and a quick glance back at the school confirmed my suspicion that no one inside was aware of what had occurred.


I grabbed my cell out of my bag on the passenger seat and dialed the school’s office. P., our secretary, answered before I even heard it ring.


“H. High School.”


“P., this is Ann M.. Does C. know there is a student hit out in the street by the parking lot?”


“No. Where?”


I repeated to her what I was seeing and that I had overheard one of the girls on the cell phones say that 911 had already been called. She told me she would take care of contacting the administrators. By this time I was being waved to the right by the boy. I contemplated stopping, but the street is a very narrow one. Parking is prohibited though parents do all the time when dropping off or picking up kids, a factor that I have no doubt led to the accident that was now in my rearview mirror. I could hear the EMT siren and decided that parking would cause more of a problem than any help I could give, which frankly would be little. My hands were shaking, and I could feel tears welling in my eyes and tightening my throat. I can’t even watch these kinds of scenes on television or in movies. I am useless in real time.


I spent the drive to pick up my daughter choking back tears and calming myself. I was so distracted that I drove right past the street for her school and had to double back two blocks.


The image still sticks in my mind. The girl curled on her side. The woman huddled over her, stroking her head. It took me back to the moment when Will died, and I haven’t been there in while.




Image by palindrome6996 via Flickr

Rain, rain go away. Come again some other day. Sheets of water that pool on the lawn and overwhelm sump pumps remind me of the June and July of 1993 when it rained all but six days. Torrents that forced you to pull over to the side of the road because you literally couldn’t see past the hood of your own car. Water that ran like rapids along the curbs, spilling onto the easements like swollen rivers jumping their banks. Whenever it rains too much or too often or too hard, I become a little anxious like my old junior high school friend Lisa J. who for months after seeing Hitchcock’s The Birds for the first time would go running for the nearest shelter whenever she saw crows lined up on the telephone wires. The rain of late has vexed me with water in the basement. Not opportune as I am trying to sell my house, but fortunately so universally common in this part of the state that most people accept it as a matter of course. Which leads me to the conclusion that most of us operate under the motto of “good enough”.


I will admit to a latent perfectionist streak that never seems to manifest itself unless the attainment of perfection is nearly impossible, and the pursuit will tax me beyond measure. I don’t just want things to work out. I want them to work out in best case scenario mode. And that simply isn’t possible. It just isn’t.


The house is in need of update. Flooring. Walls. Fixtures. It will take money but more, it will take time. Many people today are conditioned to expect perfect but not work for it. When perfect is only possible through their own efforts, then good enough is okay.


And there are the details of the move that include mail forwarding and canceling utilities that if I had my way would be done already. There are plastic totes that need to be emptied of contents that should go to the Goodwill and then refilled with clothes that need to come with us to our new home. There is the letter to my in-laws that begs to be written and the little voice inside my head that reminds me to mail it once we are across the border if I want to avoid tears and tantrums and unwarranted questioning of my judgement. There is a job that irritates me beyond measure most days though I still feel compelled to do the best that I possibly can and leave it in better working order than when I took it over.


And I need to just make a cup of tea and tell myself that it’s really good enough. My efforts so far. The completion of things yet to do. Good enough. No one is actually grading me on any of this. It’s not a matter of collecting red, blue and gold stars on a chart. My “good enough” is the best I can do given the circumstances and frankly is probably better than most others.

Dream House Country Inn (1852)

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Selling the house is proving to be more traumatic than I would have ever guessed. In so many ways the house has been my prison these last 3 years. There are very few happy memories and the majority of those are recent ones, but I have been feeling more and more down as prospective buyers traipse through. In part, I think, because of the silent (or in the case of one snotty woman not so very) judging that goes on.


Mick remarked to me in an email early on in the listing process that she found the whole process of showing houses to buyers weird. That it would feel as though they were checking her out too. In a way she is right. The walls need paint. The flooring is outdated and worn. The bathrooms need a bit of updating as well. Nothing monumental but if you didn’t know my story, you would wonder what kind of lazy home-owner I have been.


In an even odder way, it makes me feel more like a failure than I already do when I reassess my care-taking and early widowed days. Leave it to me to seek perfectionism in roles that I never wanted in the first place.


This house was supposed to be our future. We had spent endless hours speculating and planning. Thinking about it now, our dreams were so cliche. A suburban life. The kind that everyone else lives. At the time I wanted to be like everyone else. I guess if I am being honest I sometimes still do want that. To be like everyone else. I am not sure though that I am like everyone else or ever was. The root of my discontent perhaps is that I have spent a large part of my life trying to not be myself.


When I go into the basement, I see the pool table that Will wanted. The patio out the sliders to the backyard should be a deck. Dee’s room upstairs should be occupied with the baby brother she has always wanted, and the spare bedroom should be green with Disney princesses on the wall. The kitchen should look like someone actually cooks, and the living room should actually have furniture in it that we shopped for on a Sunday afternoon while the kids climbed on the displays as though they were at the playground down the street. His white truck should be sitting in the drive and the creepy guy who lives next door shouldn’t have ever felt free to watch me like he still sometimes does.


It’s silly to let all these endings drag me down when I have so much love and life surrounding me and so many happy events and happier days and nights to look forward too. But the past must be bid a proper farewell and tucked in to rest for awhile. I want to meet the future with my heart and mind fully present and that means letting certain memories and regrets have their moment when they come knocking. Acknowledge the past that could have been while remembering that you never were meant to live there.


Tricky business, like letting go. I didn’t realize until recently that I had let a certain part of myself go back there from time to time. I had always thought that I was moving forward at all times. Surprise, eh?


My favorite couple to come through so far looked to be first timers. I could hear her gushing about the color of the upstairs bath which I had loved myself when I first saw it though the realtor and Will thought it was awful. She was animated and excited and bursting with enthusiasm. The house deserves someone like her after what it has gone through. It should have laughter and life to look forward to again.