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This last week we’ve seen two examples of parents facing something that no good parent can even dream of facing. I read about the child falling into the gorilla enclosure, and the toddler being taken by the alligator, and something in me recoils. I’m a fixer–“plan for the ‘what-if’s,” I’ve taught my son. I believe that. I believe in being careful, in planning ahead, and yes, even in padding the corners of the world for our children, at least until they’re steady on their feet and have a decent sense of self-preservation. I believe in that so deeply that many considered me over-careful–and yet never for one second have I regretted the pains I took. Even with all that, though, accidents happened. I felt awful, and worked all the harder to prevent the next one–and that there would be a next one I had little doubt.

The thing about accidents is that they come at us from random directions. By their very nature, they are accidental–things that happen that we never dreamed might. I believe in being careful. I also understand that accidents happen to even the best of us. And that’s why what I’ve seen unfolding in the comments sections of the stories covering these two tragedies has sickened me. Here are these parents who have just experienced something for which even I, with my passion for fixing things, can’t find a next step. What would I have done if my child had slipped away for a moment–only a moment–and devastation occurred? I don’t know. I can’t even imagine my next step. When I contemplate losing my child I realize that when his life stops, mine does, too. There is no next meal, next act, next step. There is only life with him in it, and then nothing.

Two sets of parents are struggling to find their way through something so terrifying in one case, awful in the other, that my mind shuts down at the very idea–and yet what I see in the comments section is all too often not supportive, empathetic comments, or even comments seeking to understand how such events might serve as teachable moments for the rest of us–hold on tighter, stay out of all water except in swimming pools while in alligator habitat–but blaming and shaming.

Why would we do this? Why would we figuratively “hit these parents while they’re down?” I think that some of the virulence can be attributed to  the form of religion many of the “perfect parents” who seem to be most vocal practice.

While there are many wonderful Christians, it’s hard to deny that Christianity has an ugly secret at its heart–it’s a religion custom-made for those who can’t stand the vagaries of life. It offers something it can’t deliver–the guarantee that God will watch over those whose worship habits are up to snuff, that good people will be rewarded with blessings, that tithe-payers will be rewarded with the treasures of heaven to such a degree their bank accounts can’t hold it all. This promise is called the “Wisdom Theory,”because it’s a formula found all through the Psalms and the “Wisdom” books–“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” for example. That Bible writers expected this to be the case is abundantly clear–story after story recounts instances of good people being rewarded and bad people punished. David often expresses anguish at the fact that even though he is a “righteous” man, his life all too often is in danger. “Why do the evil prosper?” he asks. Why indeed. And yet the Wisdom Theory still shapes the beliefs of millions. It’s often brought out at times like this to “explain” that the fact that this awful thing happened is “proof” that the parents failed God in some way.

The Wisdom Theory promises something it has never delivered–assurance that we can, by our own actions, keep ourselves and those we love safe. You hear it all the time: She was raped because she dressed provocatively, or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time; his kids went to jail because he left his wife; single mothers bring their hardships on themselves; poor people lost their homes in the financial crash because they lived beyond their means; the abused wife suffers because she has pushed her husband too far, spoken out of turn, burned the dinner. For those who believe in the Wisdom Theory, there can be no accidents. Every awful experience is earned by some failure in those going through it. They deserved it. Such a thing could never happen to us. We’re good people.

Alternatively, the “comforters” will assure each other (and the parents) that this devastation must be some part of God’s plan–that their child might have turned out to be a monster, so “God took him early.” The Wisdom Theory provides an illusion of control, the false assurance that we actually have control over not just our own behavior but the behavior of every one and every thing around us–that if we just love God well enough, and follow the rules slavishly enough, we can be guaranteed protection against all misfortune.

The thing that makes it so seductive is that to some degree we do shape our fates. We do need to be responsible for our own safety. But no matter how responsible we may be, we are all at the mercy of forces much greater than ourselves. None of us are all-knowing or all-seeing. Accidents happen. Accidents happen because we don’t have total control. They happen because we live in a world of intersecting chains of causes and effects, and sometimes those intersections can be dangerous, terrifying, and terrible places.

Here is the truth. The Wisdom Theory isn’t about life. It’s about power–about using emotional blackmail to coerce people into sometimes self-destructive or other-destructive behavior. It’s about coercing poor people to give money to religious institutions bloated with wealth–institutions who give lip service to “helping the poor” even while they exploit them. It’s about keeping slaves, wives, children, and the poor in their places, supporting the status quo, following the rules, not rocking the boat. The Wisdom Theory keeps the king safe on his throne, and the beggar on the street starving.

It’s time we relegated the Wisdom Theory to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and follow instead another teaching found in Christianity–“Bear one another’s burdens.” It’s time to recognize that no matter our best efforts, we are all subject to the whims of fortune far more often that we would like to be. It means that rather than seeking to ferret out the grievous sin that made the loss of a child a suitable punishment, and then adding our own punishment to that, we instead recognize our common humanity, accept that those of us who have not faced such a loss are perhaps not so much better parents as just luckier, and then doing whatever we can to not ease the pain we see–perhaps no one can do that–but to not make it worse: to sit with the sufferers, hold them up, bring them food, love them and their children, do their laundry, vacuum and dust their houses, and perhaps, just perhaps, help them survive long enough to find their own way out of a very dark place.

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Here's part of how I said "good bye" to Leroy.

Here’s part of how I said “good bye” to Leroy.

A friend of mine is losing his mother. They’re to the hospice stage now. Having just lost Leroy a few months ago (3 months ago today, actually) how we say “good bye” has been very much on my mind. Leroy’s passing wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo–I’m at that point in life where the world begins shrinking, a grandfather here, an uncle there, a father here, a Leroy there. I’ve been reflecting on how I did–or didn’t–say good bye in each instance. The most traumatic passing was probably my dad’s, largely because of the family issues that surrounded it. I couldn’t say “good bye.” I didn’t cry for him for a year. The odd thing is that, as awful as that time in my life was, it taught me more about saying “good bye” than any other death I’ve experienced. The lessons from that terrible time were many. Here are a few of them.

1. Nobody really understands what you’re going through. Grief is an intensely personal thing–as unique as the relationship between two people. No one can know what you’re experiencing, the things that cause you pain–or the things that bring you comfort. Each of us walks through grief alone, not because no one wants to be there for us, but because no one really can. Yes, family, friends, and even strangers can throw a lifeline, but in that deep, intimate place where we grieve, we are alone.

2. I relied on the kindness of strangers. When Dad was dying, the people in my parents’ church brought food. I remember one woman in particular. She didn’t come inside, even. She just showed up, handed off a big pot of soup, smiled, and left. That touched me deeply. I learned from that. Now when people I know lose someone I take food, not because I think they’re broke, but because the kindness of strangers is a lifeline.

I also started offering my design services for free to grieving families. It started by accident; my local Kinko’s called me one day and asked if I could help a customer. They knew I did design work because in those days Kinko’s was where I printed out my proofs. I drove down to Kinko’s and met the woman. It wasn’t hard to pick her out; people who have just lost a loved one often look gobsmacked. She couldn’t focus. She had a hard time articulating things. Making decisions was completely beyond her. I found myself thinking like a teacher, rather than a designer. I found us a table in a quiet corner. We sat down. I thought of all the platitudes: “How sad you must feel,” “What a terrible loss,” “He’s in a better place now,” thought of my dad’s incredibly complex death, and realized that I didn’t know if she felt sad, if she felt loss or relief, or even if she thought of him in heaven. I didn’t know her, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have really understood her feelings.  In the end I just said, “Tell me about your husband.”

And she did. She told me that he had been the postmaster for years, that he loved his church, that his family was important to him. She told me stories. She cried. She laughed. And I realized that we would put together a program that captured something of her husband’s essence–it would be a way of not just letting mourners know who was doing what, but of really honoring a person who had been here, and now wasn’t, at least not in the same way. More than that, though, she reminded me that because grief is personal, having someone try to assign you to a category, to tell you what they are sure you must be feeling, is really not helpful. What is helpful is being invited to talk about what you are experiencing, who the person you have lost was to you, who they are to you now, who you were with them, and who you might be without them. Grief is a time for listening.

I’ve done a lot of memorial programs since then, and they all start with the same question: “Tell me about…” And when they have told me, we turn the program into something intensely personal–the lace off a mother’s wedding dress might become the background, an award or medal might become part of the front, a lifelong unrealized dream might become part of the interior. I offer my hands, and my ears. I treasure those times. It’s my way of returning the sense of love I felt from that woman standing on my parents’ porch, holding a soup pot.

3. Start before you need to. Grief is debilitating and overwhelming. The paradox of loss is that when you are experiencing it, it can be very difficult to actually think of a way of expressing it–of saying “good bye” in a way that’s meaningful to you. When Dad was sick my sister and I took the time to sit down with him and watch old slides. It was something he loved to do. In his younger years he loved driving up into the mountains with the camera and taking pictures of wild flowers. He didn’t pick them for pressing–he was a proponent of “leave it as you found it” long before that was popular. Those slides were his flower collection. They were important to him. As we watched them my sister and I listened to his breathy voice talking about the ones he loved the most, and my sister laid those aside, had them drum-scanned, and sent them to me. I used them to build Dad’s memorial bulletin. As I worked I cried–building that became an important part of saying “good bye,” and would probably have remained intensely meaningful had all hell not broken loose between the time I made the bulletin and the time we used it.

When Leroy had his second heart attack and he told me he just wanted to enjoy the time he had left, I remembered Dad’s bulletin. I came home, and I started going through pictures. Before he came home from the hospital I took the time to write down what he meant to me. I talked to The Boy, and suggested that he consider how he might want to say “good bye,” precisely because when the time came, thought–particularly coherent thought–might be difficult. On Leroy’s last birthday, we took him to the casino. While Leroy played “21” and the slot machines, The Boy wrote him a song.

And then we came home. I took the song, typed it into the computer, and then we were done. Three and a half months later Leroy left us. I was figuring out death certificates, supporting The Boy, working with the mortician in organizing the cremation, planning a quiet afternoon for the people who loved Leroy best. Had I waited to gather all the pieces something would surely have been left out. But I had planned ahead. I had pictures. I had words. I built a powerpoint and added music. And then I looked at it and realized what I really had was a book–so I made one, and because we had delayed the memorial service, I was able to get the books printed in time to give them to the people closest to him. Planning ahead was necessary, since I didn’t have anyone to take me aside and say, “Tell me about Leroy.” But it also became an important part of understanding who Leroy had been to us–and who he still was. We spent our last months wrapping him in love, honoring who he was. An important part of that was possible because in preparing to say “good bye” in a meaningful way I had reminded myself of the things I wanted to tell him while I could still do so.

4. Make private space for mourning. The day after we hosted Leroy’s farewell gathering, The Boy said to me, “It was nice, but there wasn’t really time for us to say “good bye.” And he was right. That gathering was wonderful–it offered people who loved Leroy a time and space to grieve, to comfort each other, and to begin the hard process of moving on. It was good and right that we honor Leroy that way. But because we were hosting it, we were necessarily taken up with things like food, making sure everyone had what they needed, offering comfort where we could. And that was right–but it meant that we needed to make a private time when we could say our own “good bye’s.” And we did. We planned an evening out on the patio, with a fire burning in the fireplace, and a dinner made up of Leroy’s favorite foods. The Boy wrote a letter. I took a copy of the book I had made.We read them, and looked at them, and then we sent them off to Leroy in the smoke of our fire. It was private, and it helped.

5. Don’t be afraid to laugh. Grief is intense. For some of us, laughter helps. When my grandfather died, I found laughter a great way of releasing some of the intense emotions. I won’t tell the whole story here, because it really deserves its own blog post, but to summarize my uncle, who was videotaping the memorial service, had a heart attack and died. And the camera was rolling. It was terrible. And laughter helped, not because it was funny–it wasn’t–but because…well, because it helped me. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Anything that helps us not mask the pain, but experience it, make it a part of ourselves, and then move on is a good thing.

By the same token, treasure the periods of “okayness” that seem to be a part of the grieving process, at least for me. It’s like a roller coaster, and thank goodness it is, because we need those comparatively tranquil periods between the periods of intense grief to give us respite. Enjoy them. Understand that this doesn’t make you a bad person. Feeling okay doesn’t mean you didn’t love the person, and that you’re not grieving. It just means that for right now, you feel okay. Be grateful.

So there it is–all I got about losing someone. As I said at the beginning, grief is intensely personal. Maybe nothing here means anything to you. That’s okay. We each have to find our own way. This was mine.

6. And finally–grief doesn’t have a time clock. It takes as long as it takes. There is no schedule, no set time beyond which grief is inappropriate. Yes, grief evolves over time–I no longer grief my dad and my grandpa in the way I did, but I still have moments. There are a lot of cheerleaders who will advise you to “move on,” to “let it go,” to “get on with your life.” Grief makes people uncomfortable. It reminds us that none of us are immortal. But your experience and mine will not be the same, and you will experience grief in different ways for different people. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. Feel it until you don’t need to feel it anymore. Talk about it until you realize you want to talk about other things. There is no schedule.

 

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IMG_0002    We knew it was coming. The House Leroy had his first heart attack a year and a half ago. He had his second last December. The doctors mentioned a Pacemaker. The House Leroy thought it over, factored in his other health issues–COPD, diabetes, peripheral artery disease, and neuropathy–said, “If the Pacemaker could fix everything, I’d do it, but as it is, well…”

“What do you want to do?” I asked from my seat across the room in the Intensive Care ward.

“I think I’d just like to enjoy the days I have left,” he said, and waited.

“Okay,” I said at last, even though it really wasn’t.

We’d had the House Leroy for eight years. He was the closest thing The Boy had to a dad. He had just adopted a small marmelade cat who still spent a lot of time cursing at Lilo and Lila, who apparently picked up quite a bit of bad language in their kittenhood on the University of Hawaii–Manoa campus. The pergola still needed additional growing slats added. The house trim needed repainting. The gardens needed to be ready for spring. There were still a lot of fishing shows I wanted to watch, and watching them without Leroy just wouldn’t be right. I still hadn’t mastered the game of dice. The Boy had an upcoming solo festival–who would drive me through the snow so I could cheer him on? Who would say, “You need to take a break. Come sit on the porch,” and then sit and talk-story with me as the afternoon turned to evening, and the stars came out, one by one? I wasn’t ready to let Leroy go, but he was telling me that he was.

Leroybooklores-111

And because it was his decision, I had to find a way to make it all right. Way back in the early days, when The Boy and I still lived in Portland, I had designed a book called Compassion in Dying: Stories of Dignity and Choice. It was a collection of short stories written by and about a number of people who had grappled with the question of what makes life worthwhile. Each had chosen to live their last days on their own terms. Some chose to end their own lives–Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” act makes that legal. Others chose to simply let nature take its course. While the stories varied, the one thing that had been crystal clear in each story, though, was that family and loved ones play a critical role in making the end of life either beautiful or horrific.

I didn’t get to choose whether or not Leroy worked to prolong his life or not. But I did get to choose what sort of life he led in the time he had left. And that wasn’t really a question. Because he was part of our family and we loved him, we did what he asked–we helped him enjoy the days he had left. And we started learning to let go. I went through my pictures and collected all of the “Leroy” shots I could find. I wrote an essay. The Boy wrote a song. “I want to sing it to him when it’s time to say goodbye,” he said.

The day after he came home from the hospital we took him to the casino for his birthday. It was the first time he had let us celebrate it, and celebrate we did. We bought him presents. We had lunch (Leroy had ham and chocolate ice cream). We sang to him. And afterward he said, “Thank you,” and that it was the first birthday he had enjoyed for years.

At Christmas Leroy–a confirmed non-celebrator–asked me to help him choose a gift for The Boy–“Something for his music,” he said. I suggested a music stand, and then, for my own gifts, got The Boy a music portfolio and a stand lamp, for playing in those dark concert halls.

After Christmas Leroy started taking the bus down to the casino several times a week. He never gambled big, and never lost big, but he was there, at the casino, where the dealers knew him by name. At home he fed his little cat, Nina, and spent a lot of time napping with her in the big chair that The Boy and I gave him for Christmas, and sitting on the porch. 100_1784NICEONE

A few weeks ago, on a Friday, Leroy went to the casino. When I picked him up he said he didn’t feel well.

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” I asked.

“No. I’ll eat some dinner and take my pills and go to bed early,” he said.

I took him home. He went to his room. I took The Boy and his friend out to the drive-in movie–and yes, we still have one in our town. And when we got back, the House Leroy had gone. He lay peacefully in the sunroom, where he had been getting Nina a snack. Had he known this would be his last day, I doubt if he would have done anything different. Casino. Dinner. Cat. Put out the light.

It was midnight.

The police came, and then the paramedics, and then the coroner, who is also the town mortician. Everyone was very kind. The Boy and I huddled together, stunned by the enormity. And so began that curious period between the event of death and the realization–the time when the knowledge of loss comes in tsunami waves interspersed with periods of comparative okayness. The mortician let us know that Leroy was ready for us to say “goodbye.”

“This might be a good time to sing him your song,” I suggested to The Boy.

“I already did. That night,” he said.

I thought of my son, somewhere during that terrible time, while Leroy still lay in the sun room and death’s attendants still filled the house, finding the courage and love to sing Leroy on his way, and it broke my heart.

We said goodbye. We are still saying goodbye. The Boy is behind in classes and struggling to catch up. I’m behind on work and grading. Yesterday I got a ticket for speeding in a school zone–something I never, ever, do. And then I almost pulled out in front of another car. How do you say goodbye to someone who has been such a huge part of your life?

LeroybookfrontcoverThe Boy did it with a song. I did it with a book. In the days between loss and realization I used the energy grief generates to take my Leroy pictures and essay and turn them into a book for those who knew and loved him. Putting it together was hard, but necessary. For me, it drew the teeth of the worst of the immediate pain. For The Boy, it became a catalyst that allowed him to begin to express his loss. For his absent family, it became a way of remembering who he had been when he was with them–and who he was when he was with us. The book turned something overwhelming into something beautiful. It’s giving us a way to hold onto someone who was very dear to us.

I don’t know how all this will end. We’re still very much in the midst of things. Nina spends a lot of time alone in what has become her chair, though she has started sleeping with me at night. The Boy competed in the state solo festival and took fourth place in his division. He just sang in his first choir concert last night. I’ve rearranged the living room, and begun working again. I’m thinking about the books I still need to finish. Life goes on, even in this house, where Leroy’s work is visible in every room, but he is oh, so very gone.

Leroybooklores-27

We are still in the midst of things. But when we come out the other side, I wonder who we will be. Whoever we are, we will be who we are in part because of Leroy. Goodbye, dear friend.

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Update: Wednesday 11am:

For those interested in helping the Carter family both short and long-term, here are a couple community efforts:

The first is the Meal Train that’s being organized. For those unfamiliar with this online resource, MealTrain provides a great way of organizing group support efforts by providing a calender from which you can select a date to provide a meal. The site also provides info like family likes, dislikes, allergies, and drop-off information. Because everyone’s meal commitment is posted, it’s easy to ensure that the family isn’t eating lasagna for five nights in a row. You’ll need to register to gain access to the Carter page, but it’s simple to do.

Augmented information on the accounts opened at Baker Boyer Bank from Tara Lewis on the Carter family support page:

There are two bank accounts set up at Baker Boyer — one called “Rob Carter Family Donation” and the other is “Rob Carter Memorial Scholarship Fund”. You can make deposits at any Baker Boyer and please specify which account you want to donate to. For out of town friends/family, you can mail donations to Baker Boyer Bank C/O Charlotte Birdwell 320 N. Columbia Street Milton-Freewater 97862 Phone is (509-525-2000) for any questions.

*At this time, there isn’t a way to deposit online…I will check into paypal for that at a later time if there is a strong need for it.

**Thank you for your support of this amazing man’s family – he has left a legacy of goodness and kindness all over our town and we want to continue that any way possible!

A few final notes: The memorial service is Friday, 1pm, at the Milton Seventh-day Adventist church on North Elizabeth street (it’s between Elizabeth and the highway leading to Walla Walla, and accessible from both roads).

The Steve Birdwell Sr family is organizing the gathering after the service at the Junior show grounds. His contact info is birdsc@hotmail.com and phone is 938-3441. Please contact either one of us for volunteering or for food. Our number for the Birdwell Jr’s 509-629.0559. Thank you for the out pouring of support.

The Milton Freewater community Facebook page, as well as the Facebook page dedicated to supporting the family, has more information on how you can help.

Posted Tuesday, 10pm

A friend of mine and fellow blogger posted a wonderful piece about how to help those who have lost a loved one. She speaks from experience–a few years ago she lost her husband unexpectedly. She offers up the kind of practical, earthy advice that answers the question many of us are asking–what can we do to help? I know I got some great ideas from this post. If you’ve ever wished you knew what to do for someone who was grieving, you need to read this post. Go on. I’ll wait.

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