Tag Archives: grief

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.

Inevitability

Years ago I befriended a widowed man. A couple times in my life I have met someone and knew they were going to be my friend. This was one of those. There was an inevitability in play. I even held off on it – this relationship I sensed was inevitable – because I’d fairly recently had complicated emotional experiences going on in my own life that related to someone’s death – the predominant of which was sticking very close to someone else in the months after his (ex) girlfriend killed herself and devoting my energies to making sure he was okay. I was personally grieving other deaths as well and was feeling, for want of a better term, deathed out. I wasn’t ready for a widowed man and dragged my heels for awhile regaining my equilibrium. As I say, I intuited that we’d be friends. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be, I just wasn’t ready yet.

In time, with my propulsion, we did indeed become very good friends. I felt like, given my own experience with death/grief (and here I don’t mean the ones mentioned above but another far more significant to me), that I had something to offer, something perhaps that wasn’t really available elsewhere. This man, whose wife had died after a very long marriage, was blown open. He had that shell-shocked look many bereaved people take on in the months and sometimes years, after a death. He had family and friends but as the new friend, someone who hadn’t known the couple, I was in a unique role with a different vantage. Bereavement aside, he wasn’t an extroverted jocular fellow and I suspect that while the people already in his life definitely cared for him, they probably didn’t know quite what to do for him after the earliest activity and commotion following the death of his wife subsided.

This was not if you are thinking it, a romance. I didn’t see him that way and that wasn’t the point, and while one can’t always know the future, I didn’t believe it ever would be. We were quite different. He was a lot older and had been the proverbial long-time family man. He’d had a long profession. I, on the other hand, had been much more footloose and independent, having a number of shorter relationships over my life and jobs of many stripes. He later admitted he initially thought I was much younger even, than I actually was. It was, though, a meeting of intellects, a conversation-based relationship. He was introverted, reserved by nature, bookish and a talker in the one-on-one sense. His physical appearance and demeanor could be seen as stern and unemotional to those who didn’t know him; they didn’t invite familiarity. His humor, not abolished by his grief, was dry and under-stated. A person needed to be paying attention. I was paying attention and breathed life back into his world. I’m certain of it. For my part, I got an intellectual equal, someone who listened to me, a man of depth. At the time, I considered him and our friendship the most grown-up I’d known. That was a lot.

Over a period of years the friendship changed. From here, today, I’d say it ran its course and accomplished its purpose. At the time, while I’d felt he had deeply, genuinely appreciated me, I also felt that by having initiated, and driven the engine of the friendship, I’d established a pattern and made things easy for him (which wasn’t entirely wrong given the state he was in when I met him). However, as I saw him gaining energy and strength, I expected the relationship to become more balanced and well, it didn’t exactly.

Further, as he began to emerge from the worst throes of grief, my friend became less recognizable to me, less empathy-warranting. I believed that I’d known a version of him after his traumatic loss and now the fuller picture was emerging. He had more energy, yes, and was putting it toward causes unrelated to grief. Whether it was good or bad is a loaded question and not essential to answer so much as to say that what was emerging wasn’t resonating with me. I chafed at what I was seeing. I told him, even during our friendship, that given how different we were, we’d done awfully well to have had as close and meaningful a friendship as we did. I still think that. Perhaps you could say the ending of the friendship was as inevitable as its occurrence. I know I left him better than I found him. I also knew I’d turned a corner in relationships and going forward would only have grown-up ones. 

 

 

“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.

Eat, pray, love, grieve

Most of you have probably heard of the book (and subsequent) film, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read the book and saw the film and liked them well enough but was not blown away (as some people were). What impressed me considerably more was a subsequent book, Committed, where Gilbert explored the concept and history of commitment. It combined solid research with her personal story. There was so much information in it that I felt it deserved a second read (one I have yet to do, but still).

Eye-opening to me was that, contrary to conventional thought, the early Christian church was not a big fan of marriage and preferred people be “married” to god, not mortals. Marriage was seen as a bit frivolous even, so it’s historically inaccurate when people argue that “god” and the church have always advocated marriage. Gilbert points out that while the standard heterosexual man/woman/kids family unit has weakened and dropped in numbers, it is increasingly gay couples who want to marry and have families (and who have met resistance).

As I read Committed I had a strong sense that the author was trying to talk herself into it (i.e. a second marriage after a failed first) and was using research to buoy her decision, which in the end, is to commit to the man she met as described in Eat, Pray, Love.

I haven’t kept close tabs on Elizabeth Gilbert’s ongoing story, just occasionally checking out her Facebook page, so I was surprised to learn that not only had she split from her husband a few short years ago but had become involved with a woman soon thereafter. This woman, Rayya Elias, became ill with cancer and died recently. Gilbert’s grief is very raw and I can’t help but feel for her. She is plainly devastated.

At first – not knowing about the marital split – I was confused when I google-searched and found hit after hit about Gilbert’s “partner” who died. There has to be a better word – and I don’t know why there isn’t yet – for a same-sex girlfriend or boyfriend. “Partner” is so dry and unemotional; it doesn’t do justice to human relationships.

It’s ironic that Gilbert ended up in a gay relationship, particularly after the Hollywood treatment of Eat, Pray, Love, namely “sailing off into the sunset” with a handsome man. More so because of her thoughtful reflections on the current state of same sex couples in Committed. I don’t know if Gilbert will write another memoir that would share her subsequent story but if she does, I’d certainly be interested to read it.

A Year Later (A bad day in March)

It’s almost  a year since the man I knew shot himself dead. I first wrote about it two months after it happened and again, at six months later.

I need to be clear. This man was not my friend. In fact, there was a point, quite a few years back, where I said as much to him, namely “I have been a friend to you, but you are not a friend to me.” I don’t repeat those words now out of any kind of regret. It was true. It’s still true.

I was drawn to his energy, his smarts, his talent, and his charisma. I was turned off by his selfishness (including self-destructive habits), his mean-spiritedness, and his willful blindness to other people’s feelings.

After I met him in person (he was well known in the community through an online group he started) we danced around having a friendship. There came a day when I had to call him out on his behavior. I already knew he wouldn’t like that. I was right. Instead of attempting to compromise, he said a unilateral “Let’s forget everything then.” That was okay by me; I had already severely restricted my interactions with him and his access to me; in fact, it was that boundary setting that brought things to a head between us. Appropriate boundaries, at least from me, seemed to incense him and I couldn’t so much as know him without them. It wasn’t like there was going to be any big upheaval in my day-to-day existence. It was disappointing though; I had hoped I could reach him.

There was a conversation between me, him, and a third friend where he revealed that he owned guns. By then I was already not involved with him in any fashion (he had invited himself to join a conversation already in progress in the local coffee shop) so although I was surprised, the information had no personal impact on me. Only after, when my friend and I were speaking privately did I say what a bad idea I thought it was for an angry man to own guns. Honestly, at the time my thought was that he might shoot somebody (a perceived intruder maybe?). It never occurred to me he’d use one on himself.

He shot himself in the head not quite a year ago in what amounts to our “town square.” This location is an emotionally-loaded one in the community. Some thought he’d chosen it in order not to upset his neighbors in the row house, in that they had shared walls. Or that he wanted it to be a “cleaner” death by doing it outdoors, as opposed to in his home. (I doubt I’d want to be the one who moved into the house where the previous owner had shot himself.) Another faction was incredibly angry that he’d chosen the spot he did, next to a big central statue, believing that in choosing that spot he’d desecrated a beloved landmark and had done so deliberately.

On an unusually warm early March day he went to the “town square” in the pre-dawn hours when no one was around. He fired off a couple shots. Nearby residents called the police. When the police arrived and an officer entered the area on foot to approach him, he then shot himself in the head. I hadn’t understood this series of events until it was pointed out to me that he had essentially summoned a witness so that there’d be no ambiguity over how he’d died.

The following morning the news broke online, in bits and pieces, in a community Facebook group (one that had been started years earlier as an alternative to his heavy-handed behavior on his own community group). It wasn’t clear at first WHO was dead. I was horrified when I realized who it was and that I knew him. So many locals knew him, if only by name. The comments were fast and extensive, as people came to grips with what had happened.

I felt lost and distraught and I took a walk that morning. It led me by his house with its overgrown, scrambled yard and ultimately to the spot, already cleaned with no trace of the previous night’s events, where he’d shot himself. I didn’t know where else to go. As I sat there on a bench, quietly, sadly, trying to feel his presence, I gazed up at the statue. That’s when I noticed something odd. A bullet-shaped indentation in the statue’s head. He’d shot the statue. I was almost certain of it. I had to snort: You shot the statue??!?

I knew what it was. He was sticking it to the community. One last raspberry before he went. I really didn’t care personally. I don’t love the statue but A LOT of people do so I kept my observation to myself, entrusting it only to one other person (who was able to later confirm via other sources yes, indeed, that’s what he’d done). I didn’t write about it last May because I knew many people in my community might read my blog post (I had offered up its link on the very group he owned/ruled) and I didn’t want people more pissed off with him than they already were. I don’t think it matters now.

Grief and I are old comrades. But I didn’t really know how to grieve this. My feelings about him were convoluted. I’d avoided him and his online public ranting for some time already by then. I thought he was angry and getting angrier. Years back a friend had commented, because of the wit in some of his online posts, that he should be a “stand-up comedian.” No way, I said, he’s too angry. I had no respect for how he treated people online. He was often vicious and ugly. And bizarrely tenacious. Oh my god, he couldn’t let anything go. Typety, typety, typety.

The whole thing about grief is it isn’t about the dead person. It’s about YOU. How you feel about it. How crappy you feel about it. How sad. How bereft. And how badly you feel for others left behind, family and friends, who are often destroyed. I kept most of what I felt to myself because I could not legitimately say we were friends. I spoke to a few people about him but by and large I muddled along, thinking most of my thoughts about him privately, as I had done for years.

My year became hued in death. I thought about death a lot last year. His, deaths of other people I’ve known, and death in general. Suicide in particular. He wasn’t the first person I’d known to kill himself, but he was the person I’d known the best. He was someone whose car I’d been in, whose doorstep I’d been on (and declined the invite in), who I’d sat next to in the coffee shop. I could not abide that a MAN WITH SO MUCH TO SAY WASN’T GOING TO SAY ANYTHING EVER AGAIN. I couldn’t believe he’d willingly deprive himself of his voice, be it written or spoken. I couldn’t believe a man who hunkered down on life like the Ghost of Christmas Present I’d envisioned him as when I first knew him – sitting on a throne holding forth, a large goblet of mead in one hand and a big chicken drumstick in the other – WILLINGLY gave it up. Willingly. Actively.

No more beer. No more food. No more sex. No more talking. No more writing. No more photography. No more tennis. No more composing dreadful puns. No more manifestos on crime or politics. No more Letters to the Editor. No more bike rides. No more grandstanding. No more taunting. No more laughing.

He didn’t live quietly. And he didn’t die quietly. Maybe it has to be that way.

I miss him.

But I get it. He’s gone. And he’s never coming back.

I am still here. I think of him often. In the last year especially when I did anything pleasurable. When I felt the sun on my face. As Spring came on. When I sat down to enjoy a good meal. When I embraced anything good about life. And thought about what he was missing. But of course he isn’t missing them.

If I could, I would ask him if he had the power to undo it, would he? Is he sorry? Was it a horrible mistake? If he could still regret, would he regret it? I know there is no answer to these questions, but they have stayed with me for a year nonetheless.