Grief, Loss and All That Jazz

“Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance” is a really bad name for a law firm. Can you imagine the poor receptionist who has to rattle that off every time the phone rings? If you are not familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief, courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, perhaps you’ve heard those five words spouted by daytime talk show hosts. (My first exposure to them was via the film All That Jazz, but I’m a bit of an odd duck.) This poker hand emotion summation has been as quoted as it has been misunderstood. The stages; anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, reference the typical response to being diagnosed with a terminal illness. It is not about grief or loss but about how one deals with their own imminent demise. If you’ve mistaken the Reaction 5 as being about losing someone, you’re not alone. There are many mental health practitioners out there who don’t know the difference either.

Semantics, you say. Or perhaps you’re thinking “potato, potahto” Or perhaps you’ve stopped reading this altogether. Let’s pretend that you’re still with me.

The difference is critical if for no other reason than loss does not follow a predictable trajectory. No one has (or probably ever will) collected any data that results in a bereavement proclamation such as the Reaction 5. There are simply too many variables. At what stage of life is the survivor? What was the relationship between survivor and deceased? How did the person die? We could go on and on. Being told that one’s expiration date is imminent is much more clear. The Reaction 5 is to the idea that “I’M GOING TO DIE!”, there really are no other variables, and after stage 5, you’re done. Let’s keep in  mind that this is not a competition between the terminally ill and the bereaved. I merely would like to share how the bereaved are ill-served by the Reaction 5.

“Time heals all wounds” is as much a big bag of bullshit as “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. Time changes all wounds. But every day, week, month, or year will bring a new reminder or old anniversary. Triggers don’t disappear they just get more stealth. The rawness ebbs and the fog and terror abate but that is not the same as healing. The healing a wound metaphor is at best meaningless and at worst offensive. You’re not getting over a break-up or a job loss. The hole in your life and heart doesn’t come together like gathering clouds. Life changes, and the heart never forgets. No matter how much time passes you will also be your deceased child’s parent or partner’s spouse. You don’t “heal”. Don’t even get me started on the “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. That rubbish adage is as ridiculous as bird poo on your head or rain on your wedding day being good luck. If this were true we’d all marry in the rain forest. It’s just the malarkey we throw around in our attempt to make people feel better during a crap time. What doesn’t kill us can leave us seriously damaged.

The thing about these platitudes and the misuse of the Reaction 5 is we’re telling people how to feel. I know how hard it is to come up with anything sincere and useful to say when someone is in a fresh hell. I have held a friend whose child was killed and felt nothing but impotent. I have listened to a childhood friend whose wife had just died and desperately scrambled to say something hopeful. My telling him that it is a journey of discovery and not a process of stages was not what he needed in those moments. He needed me to listen and to say that it will get better. I told him it does and I was not lying. It does get better, but it doesn’t go away. Life changes (with or without loss) and the human spirit is not designed for sustained, permanent grief. We are wired for recovery. Our bodies recharge with every good night of sleep and we seek nourishment several times a day. We go forward, like sharks. If we’re lucky we discover new sources of joy and beauty and perhaps even peace.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Out Here On My Own

“I’m making Verdene’s cabbage, Husband,” I hear myself say out loud as I stir a steaming pot of goodness. A second later the tears come, and not from the copious amount of onion chopping. He’s gone and no one else in the world (except for Verdene) knows what Verdene’s cabbage is. It’s been five years since he died and only about six months since I could make his favorite dishes. I’ve never been much of a chef-for-one so not cooking isn’t all that noticeable. But even so, there are some foods that I’ve actively avoided since he died as their emotional power is just too much. I was tickled the first time I made something that his mother used to make and actually enjoyed the process and results. It felt like gaining part of my life and joy back. Recently life has become very very hard. It’s come as a surprise and in the form of harassment from a neighbor. I am frightened and anxious in my own home and it hurts beyond reason that I know for a fact that this would not be happening if he was still here. This neighbor wouldn’t have dared to launch an attack against me if my solid, sturdy and old-school husband was still here.

I stir the cabbage and cry and hear myself plead; “Come back. Please come back.” My heart breaks for me. I cried that same cry five years ago. It’s a faint but real memory. Faint, because for the last five years I have worked fiercely to move forward. I’ve dipped my shark head down into the foreign waters and moved forward like my life depended on it. Because it did. As I lunged forward those waters sloughed off protective layers. I became more porous, more open. There is a lightness and darkness to this change. I became open to new experiences and people. I tried so many new things; projects, jobs, volunteer opportunities. I let people into my life and my home. I confided and let go of long -held secrets. I stopped touching up my lipstick, hell, I stopped wearing lipstick. I became a little less mired in perfection. But with the openness came porousness. I lost my protective layer. Things hurt and feel personal in a new exponentially deep way. I’ve lost the capacity to brush off callousness and insensitivity. I never much subscribed to missives of; “that’s just the way they are” or “they’re doing the best they can.” First off, to say “that’s just the way they are” is all the information you’ll ever need to justify staying the hell away from that person. Secondly, “they’re doing the best they can” cannot be verified. I suppose a person can say; “I’m trying” but how do you know you’re doing the best you can? And how would anyone else be able to gauge that?

I am not a competitive person, except in one arena: I will go head-to-head, toe-to-toe with anyone wanting to play the misery game. Why? Because I know my odds are good. I’m no Augustus Boroughs (damn you Augustus!) having not lived in a home where dog food was considered a family dinner. But I feel pretty confident that I can hold my own in the poverty/chaos childhood home category and I know I can kick ass in the neglect category. I would go so far as to say that my life has never been easy but that wouldn’t be entirely true. My life was mostly glorious for the 17 years I was married. But those other 35 years and counting? Not easy. There are far worse stories. And I’ve stuck by that party line for my entire life. “People have it much worse.” Hell, even in the moments after the detectives told me my husband had been killed, I thought: “thank G-d I don’t have children.” In other words; in the worst minutes of my life I was thinking of how it could be worse.

The stories I told myself and the world about my childhood…the tremendous perks of growing up around creative and off-beat people are true. But I left out the other 90%. I was never parented and left to my own defenses at a very early age. My feelings, desires and opinions never mattered and I thought that was normal. I was dirty and unkempt and commuting on public transit at aged 10. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I learned that some parents actually help their kids. I watched friends’ parents help them move into their apartments and even help to decorate and (gulp!) finance such endeavors. One day, I was in a dressing room in a lovely shop. I could hear a woman about my age in the only other dressing room. She was with her mother who was helping her select her first interview suit. I broke down in tears (there’s no crying while shopping!). I’m not sure my mother even knew when I was interviewing let alone offered any help (Reader, I had to buy her a dress to wear to my wedding, that’s how disinterested she is). There have been dozens of these sad little realizations throughout my life. Maybe more. But I brushed it all aside. After all, all that hands-off parenting made me the fiercely independent and strong woman I am today! And that was probably true for many years. But you see, my protective layer is gone now. I am no longer feeling strong and I’ve run out of resiliency. Maybe that happens with age, you lose your elasticity. Perhaps my husband’s death and my age are too potent a formula.

The other day I struck up a conversation with a woman about my age. She told me about her neighbors who pitched in and helped her with her dog on a regular basis. When she added that her brother lives in her building and helps all the time I think I audibly yelped. I cannot imagine that life. I cannot imagine that level of caring and generosity. I’ve never known it and up until now, I’m not sure I needed it. But the most important person in the world to me is gone and with him the only time in my life I was ever truly happy. I consider myself fortunate (see? there I go again!) to have about 7 very good friends. I’ve dubbed them; The Magnificent Seven. But none of them are able to “help me” in any real and regular way. I also am deeply grateful to have an uncle who regularly and consistently demonstrates care and love. But in the end, it’s not enough. I want what everyone wants; I want to feel not so alone in the world. I did once, for 17 mostly glorious years.

Come Back

I Am Katie Sipowicz

It’s no secret that when it comes to binge watching, I am a repeat offender. There are decades old series, and even game shows, that provide me great comfort from time to time. My ability to re-watch and continue to enjoy certain shows and films drove my husband bonkers. It is one of the very rare upsides to being alone that I can indulge in these vapid pleasures without judgement. This past year, my living room has been screening The West Wing and N.Y.P.D. Blue. The comfort derived from a fictional White House staffed with civility, reason and stellar intellect is clear. The appeal of “being back on the Blue” is a bit more elusive. It is not for everyone, I admit that. But for me it is all about the relationships. The dialogue and acting are always so spot on. The directing and editing capture silent moments sometimes far more powerful than the dialogue. There is a realness to it all.

I don’t relate to all of the characters. I have clenched my jaw watching the character of Diane as she uses her childhood and family of origin to justify her weakness and bad choices.  I almost have to avert my eyes as she wallows in widowhood having been married a whole week before her husband dies. I’m always more of a champion of those that don’t bask in victim-hood.. At various times I have various favorites. I like to watch these “people” overcome their demons and evolve.  This go around I’ve been drawn to the character of Andy Sipowicz’s ex-wife. Katie is played by the enchanting Debra Monk and for the first few years is mostly annoying. The loss of her marriage and their only son, shatters her. She finds A.A. and gets in touch with her religion, and becomes a different sort of annoying but not longer a victim. The other night I saw the most heartbreaking moment between her and Andy. The bareness of her need and the depth of history and feeling Andy has for her were evident in about 5 seconds of film. I gulped and let go of a flood of tears. A few episodes later Andy gets into bed with his preschool aged son who is sleeping with “Aunt Katie”. He cuddles the boy and they drift off to sleep. The camera moves to Katie on the other side of the bed and we see that she is awake. Her face registers serenity. The thought bubble says “This moment, all I need is this moment.” For this night she has her old life back. He’s no longer her husband and that is not their child, but it feels familiar. It reminds her of a time she had it all.

It is almost five years since my husband died. I have had boyfriends and relationships and I’ve no doubt that many if not all, have been the result of my seeking to reclaim my old life. I’ve sought comfort in the rhythms of a coupling rather than the dynamic between us. It mattered less how I felt about the person than how I did about the mechanics of our coupling: to wake up and have coffee with someone, to spend holidays together, to discuss the highs and lows of our day. That’s what I craved. I don’t have the sense that these men appreciated me anymore than I did them. I was able to ignore many shortcomings and red flags in pursuit of the rhythm. It is akin to an addiction, the drive to recapture what was lost. Even when I was doing it I knew what I was doing. I am pragmatic and hyper-aware so have never had the luxury of deluding myself. I silently narrate my experiences, no matter how emotionally intense. (You shoulda heard the monologue when I was told my husband was dead!) My most Katie moment came two years ago on a speedboat in the middle of the Caribbean. My boyfriend and I were traveling to a remote island to spend eight days together. The last time either of us had done anything remotely like this was on our respective honeymoons. Before we left for the trip I had already seen the signs. I knew we were not going to go the distance. On paper it really was a great match. But I knew. So there we were on the speedboat and the captain told us to hold on it was about to get rough. Without warning my partner wrapped me in his arms and held on tight. I watched the distant island grow closer and thought; “Remember this feeling, it may never happen again.”

Rerun, Repeat, Repair

Predictability is comforting. Mr. Howard Johnson knew this. I’ve never been an adventurous soul. Edgy for me is trying a new flavor of frozen yogurt or seeing a musical written after 1980. I never grew out of the Mr. Rogers song; I Like To Be Told. Surprise or newness can throw me into a full-blown tizzy (for reasons we can explore in another post). So when something happens, or doesn’t happen, or when I embark on something new, I can get a bit floopy.

When the news reaches a heartbreaking crescendo, I, like many others re-watch The West Wing. Imagine my giddiness when I discovered (through the miracle of Twitter) that others clung to President Bartlet’s leadership as if it was real. I’m up to Season 3 (for the third time) and it’s not all smooth sailing. Coincidentally, after recently making a change in my life I discovered there’s a channel rebroadcasting N.Y.P.D. Blue (a bizarre choice for an elixir, I know). The exquisite acting and emotionally laden storytelling draws me back when I need comfort. (I refer to these periods as “being back on the Blue.”) In what can only be called a macabre perfect storm; there were two gut wrenching partner losing episodes on both of these shows this week. I saw them coming (that’s the upside of re-watching!) and did not avert my eyes.

I clutched my dog as the gunman made his way through the courthouse. I heaved an audible sob, tears running down my face as Sylvia said; “Take care of the baby.” Watching Sipowicz move through his days as if the air was made of cut glass, brought it all back to me.. Later watching C.J. collapse after hearing the news that Simon was gunned down, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah playing over the scene, brought out a whimper and tears. I poured myself a drink and thought about what I’d just done. I had voluntarily exposed myself to two scenes that were gut wrenching and emotionally very familiar. I know with every fiber of my being the shock of sudden loss. But it is only now, almost five years on, when I can watch these things and gain comfort. I am not re-traumatized, as I once would have been. Why would I put myself through the sobbing and gut wrenching? Well, it’s like picking at a scab. It’s strangely satisfying to be past the original injury and be able to control a teeny aspect of the healing..

I Am Not Mrs. Norman Maine

“You have to have a funeral!” The indignation was tinged with hostility. Her words still hung in the air as (mercifully) an actual friend shut her down; “Brenda doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want.”

It was sweet, my friend putting the Barbie girlfriend of my husband’s friend (who was not invited to my home and really had no business being there only hours after my husband’s death) in her place. Great Neck Barbie (as my husband and I had called her) was one of the few fellow Jews in my home at that moment and was well-versed in our tradition of speedy burial. This isn’t to suggest that she had any business telling me what to do however. But I did hear her and her subtext (“you are a bad Jew and a bad wife”).

I have always been susceptible to people’s directives when it comes to social behavior. I was raised by non-practising Jews who adhered more to the Beat credo than the middle-classness surrounding us. In other words; I have always felt a bit clueless. I am in a constant state of observation and if someone tells me what to do, I tend to take it into consideration. But in this case…there was no way I was having a funeral just days after learning of my husband’s death. I had been to two Jewish funerals during my entire lifetime and knew and felt nothing for the tradition. I’m not sure how, and had met the man only twice, but my rabbi showed up in my bedroom the next day. He sat with our small group the day after, prayed and had us all speak. It was powerful and beautiful and all the service I needed.

I don’t know how it happened, perhaps it started as a way to get people to stop asking? But I began to plan a memorial service. I think the service occurred only six weeks after his death, but it feels like it took months to plan. I have planned events professionally many many times. Dinner for 1,000+ in an airplane hangar? No problem. Multimedia musical productions? I got that. I’ve worn headsets, carried walkie talkies and know how to run a light board. But planning my husband’s memorial was the most difficult and ridiculous thing I ever had to do. It was difficult because I was shattered and had to produce an event! Yes: produce. I had no script or even a freaking mood board. All I knew was what he didn’t want (i.e., no children, cremation, no marker). Other than that I was completely on my own…to produce an event that meant nothing to me, nothing to him and caused me heaps of anxiety. A date had to be set for those flying in. But how do you set a date when you can’t get the venue or singer to commit in a timely manner? It was so stressful and so unnecessary. My life had just imploded and I’m dealing with caterers?! The service itself was beautiful and devastating. I soldiered through greeting people at the reception. There were people who I did not like, including those who had treated me terribly during the past six weeks. My husband’s boss attended; the man who refused to retire him retroactively (even though my husband was past retirement age and that common practice would have enabled me to have a modicum of security.) My husband’s family was not there. Did they not know he had converted to Judaism years before his death? Was a trip to NYC simply out of the question? Or is it just that death is really not that much different than life? –  Those who are there when it matters are there when it matters.

The relief I felt when it was all over is indescribable. It truly felt like a second trauma. I was still so very shattered by his unexpected death and have always been a very private person. Having to produce such an event and then having to be the center of it all was excruciating. I regret succumbing to the pressure. I do. When I think of it my stomach lurches. I know it was “the right thing to do”, but so what?! I put myself through such agony for other people. It was utterly unnecessary. That small “service” my rabbi conducted in my living room was all I needed. The beautiful obituary I wrote with his and my closest friends was more than enough of a tribute. I did it because I thought I had to. I thought I owed it to his employees, colleagues and former students. The truth is that not only didn’t I owe anyone anything, but the responsibility really was his. If he had wanted it to happen he would have planned it. I know this now. I know that I am not his living memorial, his Mrs. Norman Maine. But during those first few months I was still holding on. I still wanted to be his wife. I know that now.