Category Archives: Loss

Grieving for famous people you’ve never met (Part 2)

The longer you live the more people you will see die, people you know and people in the public light, both of which you may have known or known of, for decades. That’s just how it works. If you want to go on living and stay relatively sane, you have to have a way to accommodate that in your philosophy. I’m not going to say “acceptance” because the hell with acceptance. I don’t think you have to accept. Tolerate. You’ve got to tolerate. Because if you don’t the price is becoming a half-alive person living in the past, disengaged with current life, wallowing in emotional stew. Maybe drinking, leaning on pills, using drugs, or overeating. Maybe just hiding away in your home, avoiding others. Maybe becoming a bitter, unpleasant person.

I initially wrote Grieving for famous people you’ve never met in2014 when Robin Williams died (6 months after Philip Seymour Hoffman died). That post gets regular hits from strangers. I feel a little guilty about that. As if I don’t have enough to tell them. I mean I’m not responsible for people, true, but if they were looking for something to help them when they felt hurt, I’m not sure arriving at my blog post was going to do the trick. This is how my mind works. I tend to feel responsible for other people, even strangers, certainly in a situation like this (people arriving at my blog because they are grieving the death of someone). Did I have anything to offer them? That post seems too short to me now, not complete. Like there is more to say. That is what brings me here.

Although it was Robin Williams’ death that spurred me to write that particular post, I didn’t name him because more often than not in this blog I try to write about themes. Even when there might be a specific story in my life or my head, what I want to do is burn away the dross and get to the essence, to a narrative that more people might relate to. My losses aren’t going to be your losses. But loss is general. Ain’t nobody getting away from it. That’s what binds us. That and loving other people. It doesn’t matter who.

I could list out the people in my life who’ve died, who left a wicked hole inside me that is always there, some larger than others. They web over like scar tissue but it’s never the same again. I could name also, the long, growing list of public people who’ve died and left me bereft as well. And the same holds true, some of these were tremendously painful, others not as much. I still miss public people – celebrities if you will, entertainers, famous people – dead for decades. You almost certainly have your own “lists” of people who occupy these same sorts of roles in your life.

The way I grieve for someone I knew versus someone I didn’t is not quite the same, for obvious reasons. But some of it remains the same, the preoccupation, the wanting to hold on, the renewed appreciation, the sadness – the degrees of which vary depending on what the person meant to me.

I want to say again, something I said in the initial post, which is the pain and sadness at a death stem from how much you got from the person in life. And I maintain that feeling is the same emotion whether you knew the person or not. Maybe it’s a little harder when you didn’t because you may be alone in your grief; there isn’t a built-in support system the way there often is when the death is someone you knew.

Here’s the thing. Here’s the takeaway. Grief means you got something. It means your life was enriched. If you’re sad or hurting it is because you loved, because you cared. Because somebody gave you something. Made your life better. (I’m not disallowing grief from painful relationships, twisted grief that doesn’t spring necessarily from pure, good dynamics between people, but talking about most of the time when it does. Moreover in the case of people we didn’t actually know, having a conflicted or difficult relationship isn’t going to be an issue.)

We grief for what we lose. In the case of public personalities, there won’t be any more coming from them. That’s it. Whatever they’ve done, it’s over. Maybe a movie will come out post-mortem, or a cobbled-together album, or even a book of lost writings. There will be tributes. But the gist of it is that whatever gifts they put out into the world, they no longer will. It’s over. If they still had promise, more that they hoped to do, that’s unfortunate. For them and for us.

The point is to do what these others have done. To do your own version of what put the public personalities once admired and now mourned, on the map. To put out into the world whatever it is you have to offer. To find something you do well – or well enough – and give it. That’s honoring dead people. Dead people who’ve touched our lives. Most of us will not win Grammies, or contribute to a winning Super Bowl team, or win a Nobel Prize, write a New York Times best seller, or star in an iconic film. But we can do our bit. Do something. Contribute something. I am convinced that is the penultimate takeaway.

Advertisements

I went to a “Death Cafe”

I went to what was billed as a “Death Café” where people “drink tea, eat cake and discuss death” in a safe, intimate setting. On face it sounded like an intriguing and important idea. It was the second time such an event had been hosted locally and having regretted not going to the first, I made a point to show up at this one.

It wasn’t initially clear to me who was sponsoring it but a hospice person facilitated the group. The way it was presented was that people don’t typically have an opportunity to talk about death and this gives them one. Sort of demystifying it I guess. For me, that’s not been the case. I’ve been talking about death, and more specifically grief, for a long time. I don’t shy from it. Fortunately, the material available on both subjects has greatly expanded in the last 20 years or so. It’s a big field now.

About that cake… There WAS a cake cleverly decorated with a “Day of the Dead” style skeleton head, but sadly, it wasn’t cut, and sat there on the refreshment table untouched throughout the 90 minute evening. Sigh. When you promise me cake by god, you best deliver cake I say. (The moderator said one of us should be brave and cut the first piece. I asserted that no one would. I was right.)

The group was a bit too large to function as intimate and as is often the case, a few people did a lot of the talking. What dismayed me was the presence of several sales people. They weren’t introduced in that way but it became clear that they worked in the funeral industry. Had it been advertised to include them, I might have felt differently but their presence shifted the focus of the discussion and its tenor somewhat.

One of my issues with death is the death industry. The money-making aspect. It’s big business. Yes, someone needs to do it – we don’t want to be building our own coffins for loved ones and trooping out into the woods, assuming you can find some, to bury them – but I resent having it packaged for profit. And playing on people’s emotions and vulnerability. I’m not saying everyone does this but we’ve all seen the ads with scare tactics: WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR FAMILY WHEN YOU’RE GONE? WHO WILL PAY FOR YOUR FUNERAL? DOESN’T YOUR LOVED ONE DESERVE THE BEST IN THEIR FINAL RESTING PLACE? And more of that ilk.

I was reminded, for about the 1,734th time that I am not a big fan of groups. They generally don’t work for me independent of the subject. I vastly prefer one-on-one conversation. Or even reading a book on a subject, just me and the author. I get more from it. And having participated in a variety of group situations over the years, I have to say the facilitator is a huge part of whether the group functions well or not. It ‘s a rare skill to lead a group well. The Death Café moderator was fine, a congenial, largely hands-off fellow but the guidelines he set out for talking weren’t followed by everyone.

If I have to be in a group (and mostly my life is set up so I don’t have to!) I like the method where an object is placed in the center of the room and a person must pick up and hold the object in order to speak. When they are done they put it back. Only the person holding the object may speak. Also, if you see somebody getting up for the 8th time to pick up the object you can casually stick out your foot and trip them. Haha! No, you really can’t.

I do think we should talk more about death, both in terms of practical matters as well as more personal ones. It’s coming. Not talking about it won’t change that. When you’re spry and of lucid mind, that’s the time to “make your wishes” known. My driver’s license has listed me as a donor as far back as I’ve had one. More significantly, I filled out the “Advance Directive” a couple years ago, had two non-family members sign it and then gave a copy to a family member and one to a non-family member to keep. It was a big step in the right direction. It made me feel like a grown-up.

http://deathcafe.com/

Six months in

Soon it will be six months since the man I knew killed himself. I find that hard to believe. That a measurable chunk of time has passed. For me though, it has passed quickly. Life has kept me relatively occupied in that time frame.

I say his name, his first name, aloud. I don’t know if I think I am saying it to him or to myself. I want him to hear me. I don’t believe he does. I want him to know that I gave a shit that he is dead. I want him to be here pissing me off with his online diatribes and vitriolic rants. I want him to be here writing those posts full of puns that irritated me and made me roll my eyes. I want him to be here riding his bike around town and playing tennis, a more recent pastime, on the courts with his friends. I want him to be here laughing loudly and easily, being the pied-piper that he was at the center of a group, regaling them with stories and opinions. I just want him to be here.

Tough, right?

His suicide is a bitter, bitter pill.

One of his favorite topics was crime. He was a bit obsessed with crime in our community. He’d write these long things where he’d attempt to prove that our immediate community was one of, if not THE most crime-ridden place in the country. He’d pull out statistics and numbers. He’d say that we were all blind and in denial to the hotbed of criminal activity surrounding us. He thought it was his job to “wake up” the sleepy citizens. Is there crime here? Yes, there is. I don’t like it. But I don’t feel as endangered as he wanted people to feel. I don’t think his assessments were altogether accurate and I am CERTAIN they were informed by his own prejudices and personal experience.

I never understand if this was such a god-awful place to be why he didn’t just move away? To a nice, peaceful burg where fawns frolicked in the woodlands (oh wait we have that) and nobody ever did anything bad. Of course no such place exists. What did he want from us? What did he want? What did he want?

Isn’t that what I wonder about him generally? What did he want? He was just so damned relentless. Where an average person would have said, about any given topic, it’s time to give this a rest, that’s when he said it’s time to kick this into another gear. I saw him as the man in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, who in a battle, has been shed of all his limbs, and is now just a torso on the ground, still taunting his opponents, calling them cowards, telling them to come back and fight, threatening to gnaw on their legs. That was the man I knew.

He was such a big ball of intense energy that I just can’t quite grasp that all that energy is gone. Just gone. And this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been through deaths, through grief; I am well-versed in the disbelief, the searching behaviors, all that stuff. But people about whom I’d say they are “larger than life” are not so common.

I read years ago that dealing with the deaths of people who you had difficult relationships with is the hardest. Convoluted in life, convoluted in death (those are my words). My feelings are not clean and tidy. The shock I felt the morning I learned what he had done – shot himself in the head in the center of town – has worn down some. But a shock of that size takes time to resolve itself. There is the fact that he’s dead and there is the fact of how he did it.

I don’t cry now. I just think. Reflect. Go about my life.

Grief calls

Grief sucks.

I’ve thought that since the first time I encountered it and I am going to go right on thinking that.

Grief makes the world over in shades of grey, all the color drains out. Oh, in reality the color is still there, being seen by others, and waiting for you, I get that. It’s a perspective thing. It still sucks.

I wouldn’t say I’m an “old hand” at grief, but we have met several times. I know the drill. Or my drill anyway; I know how I respond. I don’t resist grief. For whatever reason, from the first time I went through it, I took that approach. I’m going to feel this, I’m going to go wherever it takes me. Like it or not.

I don’t apologize when I’m grieving. Generally people don’t want me to be down – I’ve gotten that reaction since I was a teenager – but who is happy and jolly all the time? I mean sincerely happy and jolly. In life, I laugh and smile a lot. I make a lot of smart remarks and quips. I look for the humor. Not forcing it, but like Dudley Moore said in Arthur, “sometimes I just think funny thoughts.” But when I grieve, things just aren’t all that funny. And I accept that.

Processing a death takes time, so that ultimately when it’s done, the loss is woven into who I am. I have to absorb it, so it becomes part of my essence. The losses I’ve had are not all lumped together. I see them individually and each finds a place to take up residence permanently.

I’ve never met anyone who resisted grief and didn’t pay for it in some (other) fashion. Grief always wants the check paid. It doesn’t really care how. Grief essentially says you can choose to deal with this directly OR indirectly, but you will deal with it; I’m not going anywhere, friend.

Some people start or ramp up drinking or drugging. Others leap into emotional or sexual entanglements to provide distraction and distance. Some double down in “keeping busy.” Some simply try to convince themselves the loss just isn’t that great and life can go on as before more or less. [I do know people attribute having a job to go to daily or a pet or children that need to be taken care of, as what saved them in grief and kept them going. The distinction I see here is that those are positive, life-affirming responses or at least neutral ones, not self-destructive by design.]

I can think of two times in my life I consciously “postponed” grief because I simply couldn’t handle it at the time. In one instance, I was already grieving a monumental loss and had no room in my psyche to take on a secondary loss. I knew later I would. Another time I was dealing with a big problem that left me drained and stressed out and I resisted truly knowing about the death. I gave myself permission to not know, and to not wholly feel it then. I have to admit those two particular losses don’t feel as “clean”, like a surgery that wasn’t performed correctly the first time.

There’s something else I want to say about this. If bereaved people enjoy a moment or laugh at something, they can feel it’s a betrayal or an indication that they really don’t feel all that badly about the death, and maybe others will think they are “over it.” I so disagree. What I’m describing is different from wholesale attempts at escaping, bypassing, or otherwise tricking grief. Having little moments is a coping mechanism and it provides hope. Grieving people need hope so that they can regain traction and move on with their life, which is not over. Life takes the living with it: “You’re coming with me.” And anyway, in bereavement, happy moments are just that – moments – and grief will be there waiting, ever so patiently. I always say you don’t have to force yourself to feel bad; you will soon enough.

Not long ago I read somewhere that grief might even be considered a form of mental illness. I can sort of see that. I’ve always been obsessive in grief, but that’s the way I’m wired up. I THINK my way through things as I’m feeling them. Obsessing over an issue helps me process. I have to look at it from every conceivable angle. In the case of loss, obsessing helps me believe it’s true. In the end that’s what I think the goal is after a death, to believe it really happened and to live with it.

Left

I realized a long while ago that it’s harder to be the person left behind than the person who is leaving. Assuming they went willingly, it is generally easier on the one who goes somewhere else. Whether that’s the buddy at work who quits, the good neighbor who moves away, the child who goes off to college, the spouse who vacates the marital home, or the loved person who dies.

I think it’s because the person left behind experiences the absence acutely and regularly. They see the co-worker’s empty cubicle. See the child’s room with their posters still on the walls, their trophies and knick-knacks sitting on the shelves. Go through the practical matters of funerals or sorting through and dealing with the deceased’s belongings and mostly, try to fathom and cope with the huge hole left. They field phone calls and mail for someone who’s moved on. They no longer commiserate with their neighbor during snow storms or electrical outages, or chat over the fence in fair weather. They sleep alone in the bed once shared with the other person.

While they may miss you – except for the deceased, who, no matter your beliefs about what happens after death, probably doesn’t miss anyone – the leaving person will have lots of new stimuli occupying them, or minimally, they won’t consciously or unconsciously expect to see you.

That’s the rub. It takes awhile to stop looking in the old places you still frequent or live in, expecting to see and hear what you used to. There’s a confusion that occurs, when you catch yourself about to do something you once did – and you realize you can’t. It’s over. They’re gone.

I know the sayings about doors shutting and windows opening. About old goodbyes leading to new hellos. How every new friend was once a stranger. Yes, I know all that. Like you, I hear these sayings. And you know what? I don’t care. Painful is painful. Difficult is difficult. I don’t have to paint it up pretty, spin it so it’s more palatable. I’ve lived enough to know. You miss the good ones. You just do.

Commemorating fatal accidents = bad idea

In my community and elsewhere, plaques, paid for by family or friends, are sometimes permanently set up in public places where individuals have died, typically in accidents. There’s something about these markers that is bothersome to me. I can totally see commemorating locations where many people have died, such as battle fields, prison camps, or the grounds of the twin towers in NYC, for examples. I can also see the significance, perhaps, of marking the spot where a famous or historical person died. “Here is the house where such-and-so died.”

It’s not that I don’t understand the impetus behind family and friends wanting to commemorate the loss itself. They want their person to be remembered, and I imagine they think they’re honoring the dead person. The trouble is, when I come upon a plaque at the site of a death, instead of thinking kind thoughts about the diseased (who I almost certainly did not know), I begin thinking about the possible gruesome circumstances by which the person died. I don’t think that’s what anyone intends, but I can’t imagine what else might be intended; i.e. a sign at the site of a fatal crash or accident doesn’t make me think about improved safety regulations or driving more cautiously, or anything along those lines. I’m not really sure what’s accomplished by permanently noting the place of an accidental death. Does dwelling on the exact location even help the family and friends of the person?

Also — why should only certain people’s death sites be noted? I mean far and away most people’s are not and I’d have to think money would be a factor in at least some cases. In my own neighborhood, a man died on the street of a heart attack some years back. It was never marked in any way. (I temporarily marked it with a flower that was gone in a week.) For some time after, I’d look at the spot and think about the man, who I did not know, and think also of how that location must feel to his family, who lived in the immediate area.

I feel similarly about “Ghost Bike” installations. These are bicycles which have been painted white and are permanently installed at the site of a bicyclist’s death. I didn’t know quite what to make of these when I first became aware of them, but now, several years later, I think they simply make me uneasy. Again, because all they do is elicit unpleasant thoughts of the nature of the death. They don’t make me rally for improved bike safety or write my congressman to press for legislation that’ll make drivers and bicyclists coexist more peaceably. They’re creepy – maybe that’s the point? And I say this as a bicyclist myself. I’ve recently seen one set up in front of a residence, that is, not near traffic or roads, and I really don’t know what to think about that one.

In my community, to memorialize a death of any sort, people can “purchase” a tree, or even a park bench that’s installed in a public spot with a small plaque listing the diseased’s name and birth/death dates. Sometimes, it’ll also include a more personal touch like, “beloved father and husband” or “she loved gardening and walking.” A sweet one I saw included what must’ve been a common refrain by the diseased, something along the lines of, “Oh, how glorious!” I like these memorials – they contribute something to the community and make me stop and think, and not only about how someone died.

Short Thought 93 (loss)

When someone dies – maybe the more so when they are sick first and then die – and there’s all the stuff to do, with hospitals, funeral homes, church services, memorials, travel, lodgings, and luncheons, it can feel like time drags on and on and you might wish it would all just be over already. Later though, maybe months, maybe years, it seems like it all went by in a flash. Strange to be almost nostalgic for such unpleasant business but I think it’s because that’s the last time we were close to the diseased.