Tag Archives: death

Inherited grief

I grew up in a big family. A big family that cast a long shadow. Years ago extended family or family friends would sometimes say my parents had “two families.” This phrase didn’t mean what it does now, referring to when a man dumps/leaves his first wife & kids and goes on to have a second batch, usually with a younger woman. In the old days it meant when there was a noticeable gap in the offspring, a span of years when no child was born, as if the parents took a little break from procreating and then started up again.

What people had either forgotten or never knew was that there was a child inbetween the “two families”, a baby that before age one got sick and died. A baby that had a name, several older siblings, a funeral, and a grave. I didn’t know the baby. I came later. The child, who would have been my sibling, just like my many others, was vague and fuzzy. I was told the skimpiest of information. It was a closed subject and I didn’t understand it. I’d be an adult before I could shake a bit of real information out of anyone in the family.

Death and grief were handled weirdly in my family. I’m certain we don’t own the market on that. Things were not discussed. Grief was not expressed. Drama, rage, anger, theatrics – these were all okay. But grief? Sadness? No.

See, what I have pieced together goes beyond this lost child. In the year prior to the baby’s death, a first cousin, the same age as one of my siblings, and a beloved young uncle died, as well as a grandfather. I knew something about these people but even more vaguely than our baby. As a child and even later I wasn’t even clear on who they were or that they – just names – were related to me. Now I can appreciate that they were all people my older siblings knew and loved. Within a year my older siblings, all under twelve years old, lost a first cousin, an uncle, a grandfather, and a younger sibling.

Instead of dealing with any of this or helping the children, it was business as usual in the household. I wasn’t there but I feel certain of it. I’ve gleaned enough information and have simply experienced enough of my family’s ways firsthand to know. Yes, sure, my parents no doubt had their own pain and were almost likely “handling” death as they had been taught long before, but I still fault them. They could have – should have – done better. I think they were too caught up in themselves to offer their children what was needed. My parents were grown; they had resources if they wanted them. What resources did little kids have? Only each other I expect. To whatever degree.

I am convinced my older brothers and sisters were permanently marked by these deaths, made worse by how they were handled. I think they, with no proper guidance or sufficient comfort from our parents, “stuffed” and repressed their grief and pain and consequently paid for it throughout their lives. I’ll grant you, it’s said not everybody deals with death & grief the same, there’s no “right” way, etcetera – I’ve heard all that – BUT if you either don’t deal with it or do unhealthy things as a result, well that ain’t handling it, Sally.

Figuring this mess out has helped me. These are insights I wouldn’t expect other family members to enjoy, appreciate, or welcome.😕 As a rule my insights or attempts to make sense of my family of origin are best kept to myself or occasionally shared with one other member. It helps me though, to understand. If I understand what went down in my family in the many years before I was born I can understand my own life better.

The “second” family – the kids born after the baby died, including me – didn’t have a grief stew in their early lives. The deaths that we experienced were not like the ones our older brothers & sisters knew. Oh, death was still handled weirdly, but there weren’t so many, so close to home. I think I can say, despite whatever else we had to deal with by being members of this particular family, repressed grief wasn’t among them. By the time a very significant death came again to our family, I was old enough to handle it as I saw fit, to actually deal with it, and to try to learn something. The family, on whole, tried to stick with the old, traditional methods of NOT dealing with it, but as soon as that was dead clear to me so to speak, I was having none of it. Grief needed to be handled and experienced, I knew this intuitively and actively sought out ways of doing so.

I think my older siblings were saddled very young with scary things beyond their control, and what is scarier or more beyond control than death? They adopted my parents’ methods of stuffing away grief. But grief never stays put; it finds its way out – for better and not better at all – and can haunt people for a lifetime.

“Horror”

When I was young I read horror. Not exclusively (there was a time in my teens when I read lots of romance novels too, the so-called “bodice rippers”, suggesting I wasn’t exactly stuck on one genre) but I was definitely drawn to it. Stephen King was a favorite. At the time critics were hard on him – I remember one comparing him to the literary equivalent of a Bic Mac & fries – which I found unjustified and unfair. I saw his books as novels first, with well-drawn characters and believable dialogue, and the horror aspects while not incidental, as vehicles in his story-telling.

Then there was actual horror in my real life and although I can’t say that was the only reason, in retrospect it was certainly a large one in why I stopped reading fictional horror. I lost my taste for it.

Many years passed. As I’ve blogged before, while I still read some books, newspapers, and magazines, the internet, in the last ten years or so, became the primary focus of my reading, the culprit that slowly damaged my ability to sit down with a book. I still thought of myself as a “reader” but how many books was I actually consuming? Not so many it turns out. I was not happy with myself. I’d let the internet take a dominant place in my life and not entirely for the better.

In 2018, among other goals, I planned to read 20 books. At year’s end, I’d read 30. I set the same goal for 2019 an I’ve already read 24 this year. LESS INTERNET MORE BOOKS.

Although I’d shied from him for a long time, I’d not forgotten my earlier attachment to King. His output and his stature as a writer have only grown. At one point I’d known that he’d even assumed a pseudonym for a series of books in order to temporarily escape the fame and reputation his own name held. I wondered if I could – or should – read him again. I wasn’t sure if it would appeal so I started with a slim newer volume, Elevation. Then I picked up Pet Sematary, a book I’d read long ago and was aware had been made into a movie last year (one I haven’t seen). It had been such a long time I remembered only that it was a book about pets coming back to life and being “not quite right.” I knocked out the 400-page novel in 4 days (the way I USED to read). This book is so much more than I recalled, which admittedly wasn’t much.

Pet Sematary is largely a book about grief. Dealing with loss. In part I want to say, how had I not seen or remembered that from my first read but I know the answer. I was young when I read it. I didn’t really know about grief. I am newly blown away by King’s insights, insights he had as a relatively young man (it’s noted that he wrote the book from ’79-’82), but he was a father of young children and although I’m not a parent, I have an understanding now of the love and fear that go into a good parent’s sense of responsibility for their children.

Humor loops through the tale as well as dread, a dark humor perhaps, yet one I appreciate deeply and recognize as a tool in my own arsenal for dealing with those parts of life which are unfathomable and threaten to crush those they strike.

If you love you will lose. Be that love for a person or a pet, the risk is always there. If you live long enough and you are capable of feeling, losing beloved people (and animals) to death is a given. And it changes people. Some never recover. Not unlike those brought back to life in Pet Sematary, they are never “quite the same” again.

It’s true of me. I’m not the same as I was when I first read King’s book. I already knew that but this book’s deeper meanings weren’t wholly apparent to me. While I no doubt enjoyed the book the first time I read it, there were elements to the horror that would have been lost to me because I’d yet to live them. This second read made that so very clear.

If it was possible, to what end would you go to “bring back” a pet or person who had died? Would you if you could? Even if they weren’t “quite right?” Even if it meant tangling around with dark forces that weren’t entirely benign and perhaps far worse? Pet Sematary wades into those murky waters and even though it’s a work of fiction, the questions it poses, even if posed metaphorically, are provocative.

In my own life I’ve worked hard to accept the deaths of people and animals I’ve loved. I felt convinced that how you handled loss – handled death – could and likely would determine how you conducted – and experienced – your life.

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 in 2014 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.

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.

Things Men Have Said to Me (#20)

He was, by his account, wild about me. We were talking about someone we knew who had died, and the topic of funerals generally.

HIM (not in jest): “If you died, I would take off work to go to the funeral.”