Keening

A ramble…
Grief is universal.
We all experience the suffocating moments that change lives. There are no bromides that actually move the process along. Cultures build the box and most times grief lives in that box.

In our home we joked about the John Wayne School of Communication, the stoicism that pushed grief down and never let it heal in the light of other humans. Prayer is a common crutch offering the illusion that something helpful is happening. Moments of gasping for breath as the sobbing overtakes are inescapable.

Keening isn’t often part of our culture. The sound is animal like. Men and women give over to being consumed, lost in the grief. Maybe keening is a hedge against depression of unresolved grief, of grief swallowed not sounded, of self medication to bearable.

Men and women lose a job, a home, a life time of expectations. They, as they knew themselves, are gone, emptied out of all they found dependable. Nothing works, no boot strap pull matters.

A person hears the partner’s declaration that the union is over, the love simply isn’t. A maze of hurt, insecure and confused, marks the lives within the ripple.

The devastation of illness is a grief played over and over, every day a family tears in the grip. Long range plans dissolve. Hope in a different future becomes one-foot-in-front-of-the other. Joy shuts down and pretend takes over.

Maybe we do keen, but not in a way that helps. Too much silence, too much John Wayne and not enough bellow against the pain. Too much stiff upper lip and not enough rage.

Last evening, a conversation about healing from cancer ended after an hour but the thoughts continued most of the night. A compassionate doctor told the patient that some of the most difficult times were the days, weeks and months when other people pronounced healing over, but it was not. Times when fear, loneliness or depression still shadowed every day, but other people felt enough was enough. Time to move on…stop dwelling on fear. Get over the grief compelling acceptance of a new life, a life of threat. Keening seems so very much in order.

Know what matters? What helps? What heals?

The touch of family/friendship, understanding of new ways that seem to mock what was once a life. The touch of family/friendship that is the knowledge that someone hears the silent keening, someone reads fake words and finds the truth, someone would respond…even when it feels impossible to ask. Someone is willing to give all the time needed. Talk about wonderful creatures!

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The Cough Drop

Finding this new blog rhythm has been difficult. It wasn’t always so. Months to years I wrote most days, often trivial, sometimes touching a heart. Early morning hours prior to this “After Bob” passage were good for finding voice. Much of the voice died with him.

Don’t.
Don’t was a scribbled list started as I walked to the car for an early appointment. Don’t Cry Today. Don’t Think Sad Thoughts. Don’t BE Sad. Don’t Remember. Don’t Make Any Mistakes. Don’t Notice The Empty Spot At Your Side.
Don’t. I can be so impossibly annoying….so add that to the Don’t List. Don’t Be Annoying. A blog was forming.

A blog was forming, a blog destined to be felled by a cough drop, an exquisite cough drop shared by a friend via email.

Don is a talented friend, a man who trusts his emotions and cherishes his family both in the present and in collected memory.

Some years ago, Don visited his Aunt Ljubica . A survivor of a Fascist Concentration Camp, Ljubica was living in France. Don remembers her as a gentle soul with the soft edges honed in a life of kindness despite hardship.

As was the custom, the Ljubica’s family lined up to present gifts, shared an embrace and experience leave-taking. Ljubica, slowed by age and the injuries of the camp, had no gift. Her face, beautiful in its capture of time and experience suddenly remembered that she did have a gift. Painfully, slowly she struggled up the stairs, hobbled into her room and descended with the precious gift clutched in her hand.

With joy, with a flourish, Aunt Ljubica handed her love to Don, a box of her favorite cough drops. The power and the simplicity of love is astounding.

Private, Inescapable, Ubiquitous

Grief. Sorrow. Sadness. Loss.
Inescapable.
Every life tastes the bitter; serious health threats, death, loss, feeling trapped by circumstance.

Every life stumbles on the communication that might heal with understanding. Every life must find the safest way to dismantle anger.

One of the worst days is the day when awareness folds down, enveloping the belief that wholeness can ever happen, the belief that time has any power to heal. The trap suffocates.

Grief festers contaminated, cluttered with wrong assumptions, with feeling ripped raw, with a loneliness that diminishes light, leaves physical and emotional exhaustion.

Experience allows no deception–people don’t like tears. Some dismiss the need for memories, discount the search for the comfort of answers when there are none. Friends hurry past tossing out a caring pretense, choosing to ignore, wondering at the weakness that takes so long to heal. They tire of the unraveling. They tire quickly.

Those who might have shared worship question the depth of sorrow and loneliness. Some want to patch with platitude and scoff at sorrow that reduces platitudes to emptiness.

A few professional mourners constantly play one-up-man-ship, as in “My life’s sadder than your life…let me pour it out”. Their lives scorched, locked on hold, never able to give.

Getting over grief is not the point, not even a possibility.

Getting though grief is the only way round, the only way to understanding. Time cannot be the measure. Touchstones are the measure.

Touchstones, many so brief that the power comes later, are the only measure.

Sons are a Touchstone, phoning when there is little to say but much to communicate…checking in, making contact, holding a long distance hand. Sons who come to work, and stay to comfort. Sons who tiptoe away from judgment yet always respond to any request. Sons are responsible for most of the good days.

Grandchildren who smile, who comfort with their youth, who let me love them as they are, stand firm as Touchstones.

There are friends who do not let you down. Old friends who offer a rare Thursday off to do whatever, who give perfect gifts of time and thoughtfulness are Touchstones. Friends who understand depression and know when to step in and when to stay on hold are Touchstones. Friends who phone or email, so the thread is unbroken, are Touchstones. Friends who share exclusive time and attention are a rare gift in a multi-tasking world.

Neighbors who mean every nuance of “Let me know if there is anything we can do” are Touchstones.

Healing, surviving, is a private process and becoming one’s personal Touchstone is required. Be easy. Offer the care you need, for body, emotional and spiritual. You are the only one capable of doing it exactly right. You are the one person who understands. Ask for what you need. Give way your anger and helplessness. Find your Touchstones.

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Her Journal

About a year before Bob died, an acquaintance experienced the death of her husband. Because we shared an ongoing activity we also shared many conversations about her grief. She told me that she started a journal in which she wrote about every aspect of passage.

For this blog, her name is Karita. She is in her seventies, has grown children, attends church, is a constant volunteer and reaches out with open friendship. Her husband, Ray, with no advance warning symptoms, died at home.

When Bob died, Karita opened her journal. The writing is harsh, angry, filled with pain. Her attempts to excuse what she perceived as abandonment by friends does fail her even as she tries to understand with compassion. There are even pages of self blame as she wrote about her failure to adequately express her needs.

As expected the early journal entries poured grief and loneliness onto the page. Fear and uncertainty overshadowed everything but most days ended with comfort, a list of names offering “Whatever you need, just ask. You are in our prayers.”

“But I don’t know what to ask…I am too lost to figure out what I need…help me…do something…do anything but do something…don’t pray for me…help me…give me your friendship, your time…damn the words you give me about time and tears and triumph…I gag at your audacity telling me that I will find a new normal while you do nothing to take me there…don’t speak to me about anything except about what actions you are doing to show me that my pain is important to you…cram the cheerful stuff…I need help.”

Karita never told her friends how she felt. She told her journal holding little back as she learned to understand that friends spoke the words, did not rally but moved back…moved away from her emotional needs.

Karita took my hand, blinked back her tears and spoke with a softness that only pain can produce.
“You are alone”, she said. “Your old friends won’t speak it, but they have no room for you now. You have become casual to them. You have family and maybe some neighbors, but your old friends are old now…gone except to use platitudes and then pretend like you don’t exist. Don’t believe? Count. Count what you have experienced as you hoped for their help.”

Karita invited me to a grief support group. I went once. Last Tuesday. Tonight should have been the second time, but I am here. Not there. Not in a room full of strangers gathered to talk about an unavoidable human commonality…death. I cannot build on death.

A New York Minute

What I really need is a Randy Newman or a Tom Waite song, one of those dips into the core of truth, a raspy look into the ‘little bitty eyes’ of our lesser selves.  I need anger, shouted gut spilling anger.  Not gangsta rap anger but polite Catholic school girl anger gone rage.  Randy Newman or Tom Waite would know the words.  They would not be hampered by my ‘stuff’, my fear of anger.

This is grief, raw sadness.  Anger has been slower to come than have the other so-called stages of grief.  None of the anger is the expected kind.  This does not feel like anger at Bob for dying or for leaving so many stones, boulders, for me to turn.

It has been five months of processing and my expectation clung to the conventional wisdom that six months held some elixir of passage.  Every day is wrapped in death in some form or another and 30 additional days make conventional wisdom sound like a fool’s errand.

Each of my adult children  has done everything in his/her power to ease this passage.  When the anger threatens, I keep it at bay by concentrating on  them.  Their love and concern is constant and given to the degree that is possible for them.  If you read this blog on an intermittent basis, you have read of the generosity of specific friends and neighbors.

It has been a conscious goal to avoid living widow-like, lamenting, hiding or doing the dance of sighs.   My sons and my daughters-in-law have encouraged every effort to be alive, to set goals, to find joy.  They have done everything possible.

That should be enough, right?  Many people never come close to that degree of support.  So why the anger?  Why the New York minute need to spill what I will end up swallowing again rather than having the courage to vent?

Anger won’t heal.  Anger will just tear the scabs and open new wounds pushing six months into a lifetime.  Maybe this is the best I can do now, this lame attempt at speaking out–speaking to the hurt of indifference, the hurt of the assumption that being alone isn’t wrenchingly lonely, the hurt of expecting me to be who I was before part of me disappeared, the hurt of distancing because it is awkward when searching for words.

Lord.  Talk about lame.    Wish I had the courage to take the plunge.  Maybe that New York minute will explode later.

 

 

Joyce Carol Oats

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oats

The Kansas City Star reviewed Oats book on Sunday, February 13, 2011.  “…deep sadness and fits of rage…” are the words under the photograph.  In the book, the author speaks to many issues of grief encompassing the truth that life changes in every conceivable way including  “physically clumsy, diminished eyesight” .  Oats looks to a cache of prescriptions as her escape into a forever sleep.  She writes about “the parade of delivery men who arrived at her home almost daily, bearing bouquets, cheer-me-ups and other unwanted gifts”.

Because Joyce Carol Oats is a prolific writer winning both a Pulitzer and National Book Award her story of grief will reach a huge audience.  Readers will feel the particular pain of Oats sadness and rage.  Readers will also understand more of  the universal suffocation of  death’s layers when a loved one is gone.

I don’t need her book to grasp that depth of grief, the daily struggle to remember what functions as normal, the loosing struggle to plan, remember, accomplish the smallest of chores, to swallow the anger that seems so reasonable.  Nor do I dare take issue with any of Joyce Carol Oats’ passage, her very personal pain and  rage.

A single concept in the Star’s review of Oats book reminds me that we each pass this blackness alone, that her ‘unwanted’ gifts might be the cherished life line for another widow’s survival.

To me, nothing that expresses love, concern, empathy is ever unwanted.  Every note, every gift of time,  every phone call (even when I seem to have little to contribute) is a life line forward.

When a family member or a friend reaches past the usual comfort responses  to solve every day needs gleaned from mindful listening, I feel overwhelming gratitude.    When I get a pass because I forgot to remember what I was expected to remember, I feel overwhelming gratitude.  When I fail to follow through on a plan that I don’t remember making, I feel overwhelming gratitude.    When my jumbled words created misunderstanding that is gently sorted with patience, I feel overwhelming gratitude.

Ms. Oats has my profound sympathy for her loss.  I have my family, friends and neighbors, the cherished gifts to hold my hand until I find a way out, a new normal.

 

Choose To Believe

“This year is not last year….You are wiser in all the ways that times makes us wise…You are braver in all the ways that life compels us to be brave…believing in your own strength makes it real…”

Why, then, am I sobbing like a baby?  Why, then, was it so easy for me to panic?  Why, then, was I overwhelmed with my cowardice in the face of a problem?

The beautiful quote is part of one sent by Mary Morgan to her mom, my friend Patti.  When I first read the entire quote, I renewed my belief that I could do this thing–this new normal life thing that forces compliance.  I believed to the extent that I left the house, met my friend Karol for lunch.   Karol was her usual kind-hearted self and I felt  better, believed a little more.  Reads like a baby step, but it was parasailing without the sail.

Progress.

A few hours later, the furnace malfunctioned again.  Thermostat stopped working and changing the battery was not the answer.   My son, several hours away and at night shift work, had offered to change the thermostat next week.  My nephew, on 3:00 to 11:00  duty as a police officer has offered to change the thermostat on his next day off, Monday.

So–was I wiser, braver or stronger than the last two times the furnace stopped working?  After changing the battery, did I calmly form a plan to get  through to Monday?  I did not.

I panicked big time.  I cried in the frustration of subzero temperature and visions of frozen pipes.   I found the number of the guy I had already paid twice to find the problem. He had the money and I still had the problem.  I erased that number  from the book and paced a bit longer.

Shall I phone neighbors Steve and Lisa?                                                                         Ask for advice?   Get the number of their furnace guy?  What if they think I want Steve to fix the problem?  What if they are busy?  What if they are eating dinner?  What if I become an old woman pest?  What if I cry over the phone?  What if Bob really is aware of what a mess I am without him?

What if….Another part of the beautiful quote is  “It’s so easy to focus on the ways that you let yourself down.”   I did that.  I focused on the mess that I am.  I let myself down.  Panicked.  Cried–sobbed actually, completely out of proportion to the problem, I gave into this awful sadness that seems to consume my real self, leaving this empty woman.   Or  is this woman who I am now not truly empty, but rather hobbled by false pride–the false pride that says, “I can do this alone”— when I absolutely know that I cannot do it alone.  How far down is that!

Picked up the phone and dialed.

Calm, kind and reassuring, Steve gave me the number of his furnace guy.  No problem.   Steve and Lisa were leaving for the evening so Steve gave me his own cell number in case I could not reach his friend, the furnace guy.

Not once did Steve say that I was being an old woman pest.  Not once did he hint that he was too busy for panic calls.  Not once did he let on that my voice betrayed my lack of wisdom or bravery or strength.  Not once did he remind me that just yesterday he had said I should phone if I needed anything, anything at all.   Not once.

When he asked if he could do anything, he meant it as a question to be answered.  Help sincerely offered.  Maybe, at this moment, I actually am a bit wiser.  I know I am a bit calmer.

Lord, how I wish that part of time that is supposed to be so healing could fast forward just a bit, push me into wiser, braver, stronger.