Good Grief
December 29, 2018 9:53 PM   Subscribe

Tell Me One More Time What to Do About Grief. "Accept the lasagna. Do not start reading that Joan Didion book." [NYT]
posted by storybored (48 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
The poem referenced:

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver
posted by storybored at 9:58 PM on December 29, 2018 [45 favorites]


Fresh off of a death which has tapped deeply into other grief...let the lasagna rot. Throw away the flowers some well-meaning person has sent. When you're ready, read the Didion and sit with the cold recognition that someone has showed you that grief can have a guardrail, that someone--even if it's not you--can put words to the feelings and waves, and hang on to the idea that if it's possible to parse the pain, then maybe one day you will stop falling, and you will come to a place that's not all grief, somewhere you can stand aside from it, and look at it from a little bit of a distance. When you need those words, they'll be there waiting for you to visit with them again and to find something comforting in them. But God, yes, the baths.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:38 PM on December 29, 2018 [50 favorites]


My elderly grandfather died by suicide on November 26th. The last thing I want to do is read that Didion book.
posted by all about eevee at 10:49 PM on December 29, 2018 [11 favorites]


I’ve had that Mary Oliver quote on my desk for a decade at least and, now that I’m in my thirties, it is unfortunately starting to feel less inspirational and more urgent. What am I doing? What am I doing wrong?

There are many Mary Oliver poems which are better suited to grief without feeling like you’re giving the grieving a mission to tackle.
posted by lydhre at 4:39 AM on December 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


Aww this is so good. I have to say I had a true honest lol at "facedown". And I have discovered that most people who say "Tell me if there is anything I can do" don't really want there to be anything. (There are exceptions thank goodness.)

Also. MonkeyToes. Yes.
posted by luaz at 4:58 AM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


Grief is biological and temporary, like many other passing states of mind. There's nothing cosmic or existential about it. Many animals experience grief. It must confer some adaptive advantage.

Grief has a time stamp. It has a predictable course. You just have to wait it out. Like a cold sore (sorry for the crude analogy). Self-pampering is all right if you like that kind of thing. But it won't make the grief pass any more quickly.

Grief sits like a dark grey mass on your chest for about five days. Then it starts to dissipate. And after about two weeks, you wake up one morning and it's mostly gone. Months, years, decades pass. You remember. There are pangs. But life really does go on.*

It's possible to make too much of grief.

*(Of course there are pathological exceptions, as there are to all biological states.)
posted by Modest House at 6:29 AM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


For those seeking other words... The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young (review); its table of contents.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:36 AM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


> Grief sits like a dark grey mass on your chest for about five days.

I wish.
posted by STFUDonnie at 7:07 AM on December 30, 2018 [41 favorites]


I read this in the bath, sitting with some grief of my own.

Jo Firestone is a comedian I have really liked for a few years now. Like all writing about grief or other feelings, this doesn’t match all the experiences of every person. I’m glad it matches some of mine. For those who find it doesn’t match at all, I hope you keep finding the things that do match.

In the meantime, try a bath. Maybe you’ll hate it. Maybe you won’t. Set a timer, hate it for ten minutes. Or don’t. What do I know?
posted by bilabial at 7:15 AM on December 30, 2018


Grief sits like a dark grey mass on your chest for about five days. Then it starts to dissipate. And after about two weeks, you wake up one morning and it's mostly gone. Months, years, decades pass. You remember. There are pangs. But life really does go on.*

No, this is not always true. When my daughter died, grief dissipated for others in 5 days. For my husband and I it took about a year, a turn if the seasons and about the length of time granted in many human cultures. Sure, it lightened some over that time but our thinking, emotional energies, decision-making abilities, etc. were off. If it’s worked this way for you, great, but I almost assume you have not yet lost a life partner, child, sibling, etc. My grief for my grandparents and even a good friend was very different.

15 years out, it’s mostly on anniversaries (birth, death) that it hits but it’s still sharp at those times.

I also found Didion helpful though, so what do I know.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:25 AM on December 30, 2018 [86 favorites]


I've always read that Mary Oliver poem and felt inspired but also urgent and anxious - I'm not doing enough, I don't know what to do with my one life or how to find the answer.

But this time I thought Oliver kind of gives us the answer in the middle, before she asks the question:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?


I'm maxed out on NYT views for this month, sadly.
posted by bunderful at 7:56 AM on December 30, 2018 [9 favorites]


My dad died two weeks into my current assignment at a smallish intermediate school, at a time when nobody really knew me, so I quickly became The Person With Death Experience. Friends at work now ask me to look in on any staff and students who have lost someone, I think maybe because they feel like I'll say the "right thing"? Except there is no "right thing" to say. All I can say to people is to do what works for you in grief. Everyone has their own process. And that nobody gets to give you a hard time for "doing it wrong." If you need to skip Christmas this year, fine. If you need to hold onto your lost loved one's personal effects for awhile, fine. If you need to get them out of your sight ASAP, that's fine too. It isn't this simple, of course, especially where families are involved and people need to balance their needs against others', but everybody handles grief in their own way.

Grief is biological and temporary, like many other passing states of mind. There's nothing cosmic or existential about it. Many animals experience grief. It must confer some adaptive advantage.

Grief has a time stamp. It has a predictable course. You just have to wait it out. Like a cold sore (sorry for the crude analogy). Self-pampering is all right if you like that kind of thing. But it won't make the grief pass any more quickly.

Grief sits like a dark grey mass on your chest for about five days. Then it starts to dissipate. And after about two weeks, you wake up one morning and it's mostly gone. Months, years, decades pass. You remember. There are pangs. But life really does go on.*

It's possible to make too much of grief.

*(Of course there are pathological exceptions, as there are to all biological states.)


If looking at it this way helps you, great. But let's not pathologize any course of grief that deviates from what you've laid out here. Nobody in my family, or anyone else's family for that matter, is demonstrating pathological behavior for not being over the loss of a loved one in two weeks.
posted by corey flood at 8:01 AM on December 30, 2018 [57 favorites]


Having lost a parent and a sibling fairly close together, what I know from my own experience is that it sucks. Even on days when I thought I was fine, my hair fell out. I could laugh again fairly quickly but had physiological effects I was not expecting.

It just sucks. Also, being there in a hospital when one of the people I loved most in the world passed from being alive to not is one of the most horrifying yet amazing experiences of my life. It haunts me still but I am grateful that knowing I was there, that we all were there, helped him let go.
posted by 41swans at 8:14 AM on December 30, 2018 [15 favorites]


I always think of that quip in Beetlejuice: "This is what happens when YOU die. That is what happens when HE dies. And THAT is what happens when they die. It's all very personal."

As common and universal as our human experiences are, there is no formula. What works for you won't work for me (I found the Year of Magical Thinking comforting. I also found The Suicide Index astonishingly helpful).

On preview I see that corey flood has said much of what I'm thinking. And i'd like to strongly disagree that "there is nothing existential about grief"--it's the very core of existential. That we are and then we are not is pretty much the definition of existential.

When the people we love cease to exist, the shock is both emotional and intellectual--which is why we look to other people's patterns and prescriptions to help us through. But it's too personal for those to model accurately for us. Even siblings don't grieve a lost parent in the same way.
posted by crush at 8:15 AM on December 30, 2018 [19 favorites]


Grief is different for everyone, even people grieving the same loss.

I have found that as time passes, grief is easier to bear and interferes less with my daily life. But it is still there. At first it was like walking around with no skin: painful, difficult to hide from strangers. Now it's easier to function, and people don't know unless I say something, but every once in a while the pain comes up surprisingly quickly and with shocking strength. This is the first holiday season in four years where I genuinely enjoyed myself almost all of the time. But my grief is still with me, and always will be in some way or another. I function very well these days, but I'll always remember my losses and think about how they've changed the course of my life for the worse. Why wouldn't I?
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:27 AM on December 30, 2018 [15 favorites]


After a few years of too much physical death (both grandparents, a great-aunt, a co-worker, a young friend, a pet), near death of a parent, I experienced the slow death of a very old, close friendship. I was really not prepared for the amount of grief this caused, and a year later, still causes. Take nothing for granted.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:28 AM on December 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


I think bunderful has it on the Mary Oliver poem. Unfortunately the last two lines have been so often repeated without the whole poem that they’ve come to mean, “do something extraordinary.” But the poem is a celebration of the small and the ordinary, what’s happening to us right now. I think that does relate to grief. Or as my grandma says “thank goodness for ordinary days.”
posted by CMcG at 8:49 AM on December 30, 2018 [16 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. It's been a hard Fall, I've lost my second parent, and a close friend/mentor for my kid, a good neighbor, ... the grief just settles like a vague fog. It's kind of nameless, but it's good to have some kind of name for it, at least so I can try and explain to others in a tidy package why I just sit on the couch and sigh. It's going to go on for a while, I can feel it.
posted by carter at 8:53 AM on December 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


I'm maxed out on NYT views for this month, sadly.

ditto. Perhaps this somehow ties into " ... Tell me, what else should I have done?"

[shrugs]

What I know of grief is that it's a fact. It's the cost of caring, loving, committing to anything really, because all things must pass. Gravity always wins, at least on this physical plain. My dad died more than a decade ago. It took a while. Fortunately, he wasn't in too much pain. I know a lot of people hope they'll die suddenly, in their sleep preferably. I know two people who've pulled that trick off in the past few years. And I know that the shock of those sudden deaths led to grieving for their loved ones that was far more virulent than what my family went through with my dad. We had time, not just to say goodbye to him but to reconcile the entire version of the world was passing -- the one where he played a pivotal role. Our grieving started well before he died and, in my case at least, peaked at least two months before he stopped breathing.

Grief is different for everyone, even people grieving the same loss.

This absolutely. I suppose you could conduct statistical analysis, jam a bunch of numbers into an equation and come up with a norm, but how many people are actually normal? Probably about as many as there are people named Norm or Norma*. We all bring something unique to grief. We must. Because we all we lead unique lives. Call it anecdotal but I do know one thing for sure based on my dad's death and dying. Those family members who were most involved, most committed to him in his final days -- they suffered a less ugly, more stoic grief. Probably something to do with guilt.

* worth noting: I've never known a Norm or Norma who was what I'd call normal.
posted by philip-random at 9:03 AM on December 30, 2018 [10 favorites]


I was early in my teens in 1969, when Peanuts and Laugh-In were cultural juggernauts and Laugh-In's resident deadpan poet/philosopher Henry Gibson made a 5-second joke that I remember vividly: "There's no such thing as GOOD grief". 15 years later my mother died suddenly from an aneurysm and I found myself having extreme difficulty grieving for her, then I thought of the wisdom of Henry Gibson and it somehow opened the floodgates and I cried like a baby.

Speaking of names, soon after the Gibson Good Grief joke emerged, I made friends in high school with a kid with the last name Greif, pronounced Grife but intentionally mispronounced by bullies as Grief. Good kid. So there is such a thing as Good Greif.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:11 AM on December 30, 2018 [12 favorites]


By Emily Dickinson:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –


From "To Wine" by Louise Bogan:

... Take from the mind its loss
The lipless dead that lie
Face upward in the earth,
Strong hand and slender thigh;
Return to the vein
All that is worth
Grief. Give that beat again.


***

It must confer some adaptive advantage.

Ouch! Yowsers! Probably true from a purely scientific standpoint, and cold as the chill mentioned above! I'll take the poetry any day over "adaptive advantage," thank you very much.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 9:30 AM on December 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


I think of the whole thing as "you have to get used to the idea."
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:32 AM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


philip-random:

My dad died more than a decade ago. It took a while. Fortunately, he wasn't in too much pain. I know a lot of people hope they'll die suddenly, in their sleep preferably. I know two people who've pulled that trick off in the past few years. And I know that the shock of those sudden deaths led to grieving for their loved ones that was far more virulent than what my family went through with my dad.

My father-in-law died on New Year’s Day 2018. It took a week after he started home hospice. He spent that week in nightmare hallucinations, for which we could give him no legal drug, because all sedatives triggered even worse agitated delirium. He could not communicate after the first two days, and I am still afraid that he was physically suffering in ways we did not know about (in addition to the ways we did know about and could only do so much to help). I told our friends “We are keeping him as comfortable as possible.” It was technically true, but still a comforting lie, because he was not comfortable. I honestly think a sudden and shocking death in his sleep would have been easier. Not easy. But maybe it would have left fewer nightmare images burned into my husband’s brain. (Or mine — but I know my husband purposefully faced the worst things without me there, to spare me.)
posted by snowmentality at 9:56 AM on December 30, 2018 [11 favorites]


Well, shit. It turns out I know the person she is grieving - not well, we went to college together and had a lot of overlapping friends - and seeing the hole she left even just via facebook was staggering. I've been lucky, I've only really been bereaved from distances and tried to be a support for friends and family who have lost the pillars holding up their foundation. I don't know what I'm doing with my one life etc., but I'm trying to live and help other live so that our memories will all be blessings.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:24 AM on December 30, 2018 [13 favorites]


you might find yourself alone, mourning a rodent, scream-crying for a creature

Wow. This hit home. I was exactly this way when my first parrot died in my hands.
posted by Splunge at 10:49 AM on December 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


And after about two weeks, you wake up one morning and it's mostly gone.

I don't believe it is wise or desirable to let a human life sit so lightly on you that it goes away in the same timespan as a moderate head cold.

most of the time people can't control anything about bereavement except for observing the forms, so I can't and wouldn't condemn anyone for reacting that way. things do happen to us that we don't make happen. but you can't make this normal by aggressively normalizing it. nor should you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:52 AM on December 30, 2018 [18 favorites]


I don't particularly enjoy being the proverbial This Guy, but if your abusive parents, say, both die of substance abuse complications of severe mental illness, as mine did, or innumerable other traumatic causes resulting in the profound sense of an absence of self and debilitating ptsd, you may find yourself grieving for the rest of your life, often without knowing that's what you're doing. There are no universal lifehacks for tragredy.
posted by Morvran Avagddu at 11:00 AM on December 30, 2018 [23 favorites]


Pa Ardship died this morning. He'd been under hospice care for a few weeks after being diagnosed with a subdermal hematoma.
My cousin and I went to say goodbye to him at the care home before Neptune Society collected him. He'll be scattered over the San Francisco Bay as Ma Ardship was about 2 years before him.
He had a partially full box of Joe-Joe's in his room. I've put the cookies on my altar in hopes that Santa Muerte and other saints and deities will be kind to him.
We'll make another trip over in a bit to collect his clothes to drop off at Goodwill.
Tonight I plan to watch back-to-back episodes of AFV. And Joan Didion is certainly not on the menu when I've got Ruthanna Emrys' latest lurking on the couch.
posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 11:09 AM on December 30, 2018 [18 favorites]


ChuraChura, thank you for sharing that link. What a beautiful piece of writing.

I lost a pregnancy at this time of year, two years ago, and some days I still feel like I am alone and scream-crying for a tiny creature that wasn't really real to anyone else.
posted by beandip at 11:33 AM on December 30, 2018 [21 favorites]


Repeating what many others have already said above: no, it's not pathological that my grief for my mother is still overwhelming a year and a half later. It's human and raw and real and I'm sorry not sorry that it doesn't fit into anyone else's neat little idea of what they'd be comfortable with me feeling near them.
posted by augustimagination at 11:52 AM on December 30, 2018 [14 favorites]


The grief I felt losing my father at 20 was different from the grief of losing my mother at 38. Both are still with me, in different ways, because our relationships were so different. I am, most of the time, not sad, but I do still notice the hole their passing left in my life. I think I will always carry that. It's the price you pay for knowing and loving someone.
posted by emjaybee at 12:05 PM on December 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


My mom died six years ago in November, and our relationship had been so complicated and not-great that I didn't grieve the way most people assumed I was grieving. I was sorry she died without ever telling me she loved me--an eternal optimist, I had apparently been holding onto more hope than I knew that something transformative might happen. But she hadn't been a part of my daily life, so I didn't miss her daily, or even weekly. It was very different from what I watched my partner go through after his parents had died, or what I'd seen in friends.

My father, standing by my mother's deathbed with me, said some angry things about what a disappointment I was, and a month later, at Christmas dinner, told me he didn't want to have anything to do with me as long as we continued honoring our youngest kid's preferred gender identity and pronouns. I cried for a day, and then I was really angry for a day, and then I realized he had solved the problem of how to have a relationship with him when my mother was not around to mediate, and I felt a lot better about it.

What I learned from my mom dying is that, even if the story doesn't end the way you want it to, with some kind of atonement, some kind of forgiveness, some kind of final--at last!--moment of connection, it's a relief to know how it ended, at least. As time passes, I remember my mother with more fondness--the times things were good come to mind more often. A friend and I were recently discussing this phenomenon, and we decided that it's because once your mother is dead, she's no longer doing and saying whatever horrible things she was inclined to say or do, so at last those wounds start to heal, instead of being constantly re-opened, and so the good parts can come to mind without getting all tangled up in the mess.

My partner's parents both died the year before he and I started dating. I observed once that he seemed to have had a good relationship with them, and he said, "Well, it's easy to love people when they're dead," or something to that effect, and that's the concise version of the previous paragraph.

With my dad, I find myself feeling resentful, and sometimes still hurt. I look at my children and wonder how my father could bear not to be part of their lives. My kids take my dad at face value--he sends them birthday cards, and their attitude is, "if the only thing he has to give me is $40 once a year, I'll take the $40." But it still hurts me.

My experience with my mom's death makes me look forward to my father's, because as long as he's alive, we're still living the story. He's still sending my kids nothing at Christmas, but a little cash in a card on birthdays, which is mysterious to me. What's the logic? There is no logic.

My niece, who is in her 20s, loves my dad very much. But except for her sake, he can't die soon enough for me. I learned from my mom's death how good it can be to know how the story ends.

Also, I'm extremely curious to know whether I've been written out of his will.

Sometimes I go look at the social security actuarial tables. According to them, he's got about a 10% chance of dying this year, and a life expectancy of about five years. It's like checking to see how many pages are left in a book you're reading.

I am cold hearted.

Still, I loved my mom very much. And Jane Kenyon's poetry speaks to my hopes for her (I second The Art of Losing, the book mentioned up-thread, which this poem is in). This is Notes from the Other Side:

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
posted by Orlop at 12:25 PM on December 30, 2018 [19 favorites]


Grief is a familiar companion in my life. Currently, my stepmother is actively dying, fortunately at a safe distance. I grieve for her suffering and wish for her peace, but more than anything this imminent loss is bringing up unresolved grief from my own mother's death when I was very young, and the lifelong loss of growing up with a stepparent who made it clear every day she would never love or nurture me. Very selfish, I know, but that's part of grief -- as is the guilt.

And I don't "recover" from the loss of a beloved animal companion in just two weeks.

That's not pathology. That's a lifetime of lived experiences and repeated losses.
posted by vers at 12:26 PM on December 30, 2018 [10 favorites]


Grief sits like a dark grey mass on your chest for about five days. Then it starts to dissipate. And after about two weeks, you wake up one morning and it's mostly gone.

Just here to disagree as others have said. This doesn’t even match the clinical timeline of uncomplicated grief of a close family member, which iirc is acute for something like 6 weeks. (It’s been awhile since I looked into it, but I know it’s around that timeframe.)

If anything, we’re afraid to talk about grief and those grieving are often looked at as unusual because they’re still grieving so much longer after they “should” be okay. So grief lingers. And we wonder why we’re still grieving, pushing away the feelings, pretending we’re okay to most people.

The first 5 days isn’t a gray mass that weighs on you, it’s fucking madness as your mind completely disassembles itself. Sanity shines through at times, but makes no sense in this state. The ground beneath you ceases to exist. You laugh, cry, scream, sleep, forget and remember again. Moments of sanity seep in, but they feel unfamiliar. You’re astounded when you can put one foot in front of the other, because you don’t know how to live, so how can you walk? Thoughts, moods fly at you at a million miles and hour, and you wonder if it will always be this way.

The rest of grief? Reassembling your mind. Timeline indeterminate.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 12:36 PM on December 30, 2018 [23 favorites]


I'd experienced death and grief before my sweet cat died six years ago. My grandparents - particularly my beloved grandfather. Close friends. Students. So when my cat died, I thought I understood grief.

I'd been giving the cat medicine for his hypothyroidism for half a decade and for his cancer for 13 months. When it was time to bring him on that last trip to the vet, we all knew it was time.

I was not prepared for the length or depth of that grief. I was overwhelmed and unable to function. I was also consumed with guilt - why had I never grieved like this for any of the humans I loved? My therapist told me that every grief is different and we have little to no control over how long we grieve or why we grieve or what we grieve over. We do have some control over our actions (though our judgement can be way off) so she had me make a little index card that read "try not to make any sudden major life decisions for six months." That was very helpful.

Just being told that it was ok to grieve was the biggest help she gave me. Trying to force myself past it was wrecking me.

Anyhow your next grief will be different from mine and likely different from your previous griefs and it's ok to grieve at your own pace and to your own degree.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:00 PM on December 30, 2018 [15 favorites]


I'm a bit surprised to say that reading about how all of you have experienced grief is helping me with my own.

So thank you for that.
posted by klanawa at 1:57 PM on December 30, 2018 [15 favorites]


I lost a pregnancy at this time of year, two years ago, and some days I still feel like I am alone and scream-crying for a tiny creature that wasn't really real to anyone else.

I’m so sorry, beandip. My pregnancy losses were two and four years ago, and I feel much the same way. It is a lonely kind of grief.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:20 PM on December 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


I think I read somewhere on Mefi this expression:

"love is a debt that is paid for with grief"

IME, this is mostly true.
posted by some loser at 2:41 PM on December 30, 2018 [12 favorites]


What I learned from my mom dying is that, even if the story doesn't end the way you want it to, with some kind of atonement, some kind of forgiveness, some kind of final--at last!--moment of connection, it's a relief to know how it ended, at least.

Thanks, Orlop, for expressing this. My mother passed earlier this year, and while I went through all the motions at the funeral and afterwards, it was mostly just a relief. In the last years I didn't wish her ill, I didn't wish for the incurable disease that eventually took her, but the years and years of childhood abuse meant that I was completely numb to her suffering and passing, and the relief I felt was mostly for my father, that he - while in bad health himself - didn't have to be running around her any more.

Now my father's health is also getting worse, and this time, for a change, I am getting glimpses of the grief that normal people must be feeling due to their loved one's declining. He never protected me from my mother's abuse, but he wasn't an active participant; instead he was drinking himself into oblivion most days. This is the closest thing I have experienced to what "being loved by your parents" should be. But the immobilizing panic I feel at the prospect of his passing has more to do with knowing that as the oldest child (and the only child that wasn't completely estranged from my parents) I will have to deal with the administrative matters and the estate, which will be a months-long process involving international travel, disruption to my work, awkward religion stuff, and my lack of familiarity with how anything is done in the Old Country.

I never told this to anyone.
posted by Ender's Friend at 2:56 PM on December 30, 2018 [15 favorites]


A wise friend once told me "nobody will ever agree with the way you grieve." That was the week my mother died of heart failure after surviving breast cancer. She was correct, and knowing that it was not my job to earn approval did make my particular mix of misguided stoicism and abject disintegration at least tolerable. I still learned the valuable lesson that when people tell you to avoid unnecessary big decisions in such a time, they're emphatically correct.

On preview - I also very much appreciate the opportunity to understand the unique messiness and resolution from everyone's stories of grief. Skip to the next comment here if a little bean plating is unwelcome.

---

It's notable to observe that everyone not only has a particular way to grieve, we are also all quite judgmental over others'. As though someone else's improper method somehow confronts or undermines our own experience. Even in trying to remain equanimical and accepting of all approaches I find that my first parse is often "they're not doing it right" which requires effort to examine and not act upon. This arose recently when my spouse's father was diagnosed with a terminal illness requiring a transplant of unknowable availability. I wanted the family to discuss the inevitable, savor their time to think and decide and act thoughtfully - instead they largely ignored the potential outcomes with almost comical insistence. I couldn't figure out why I spent the holidays upset with them until I realized they weren't doing pre-grieving "right".

In their defense, the transplant came through over Christmas and his prognosis is positive. So my gloomy priorities wouldn't have achieved anything. This time.

Something I consider often, still, is how much less death of loved ones we experience in modern times compared to even just decades ago, nevermind a century. Does that mean every family in the 1800s was operating in basically a constant state of post traumatic stress and unresolved, unreasonable grief? Does this explain the prevalence of some abusive (and perpetuated) behaviors? Or do humans have a finite capacity for such sensation and after some number of personal tragedies it's just the status quo. So is grief dictated by environment and culture - not in the obvious sense but in the capacity a group has to process it and does all this judging and rejection originate in some complicated genetic
or tribal shibboleth that activates when the environment applies selection pressure? That is, when people around us die do we float like seedlings on the drafts of a forest fire to reject all around us and seek a new environment - and is that the evolutionary adaptive value of the complexities and seeming incongruities of grief?

I guess what I'm saying is we can accept the existential and human qualities of grieving without having to abandon the perspective that there's some rich anthropological and biological earth to dig into here.
posted by abulafa at 3:55 PM on December 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


Does that mean every family in the 1800s was operating in basically a constant state of post traumatic stress and unresolved, unreasonable grief?

This has actually, in various guises (and going back way past the 1800s), been the subject of historical debate for a few decades now. You might find Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War an interesting specific study.

I had the "pleasure" this year of grief so complicated, in the technical sense, as to hardly be grief. It was actually more difficult managing people's expectations than my own feelings. Very strange, to feel alienated from people by their very acts of kindness and care.
posted by praemunire at 8:15 PM on December 30, 2018 [10 favorites]


My dad died in May 1993. He was 54 and I was 28.

For decades after he died I'd get depressed for about a month around the anniversary of his death. (Being so close to Fathers Day made it harder.)

He wasn't very good at being a dad when we were kids. He didn't really know what to do with kids, and his generation was one that emphasized being a father, a provider, a disciplinarian.

Our relationship literally got better when I got big enough to physically knock him down in an argument. We got along much better after that. He was a great dad to me as a young adult and I miss him more and more.

Anyway, a couple of years ago I decided to celebrate his life rather than mourn it. Poor Dad, his birthday and Fathers Day always took second place to Mothers Day and mom's birthday while he was alive, and even more so after he died. I try now to mark his birthday and the anniversary of his passing and celebrate the joy he brought to my life.

I just turned 54, so I've outlived him, but I feel like I'm making it up as I go along and don't have the confidence and command in life he did. I miss him a lot.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:06 PM on December 30, 2018 [11 favorites]


Very strange, to feel alienated from people by their very acts of kindness and care.

this just came up with a friend who's been dealing with first the dying, then the death of his young daughter (cancer). The two things he came to hate most were:

a. people asking him how things were going
b. public shows of affection (hugs etc)

The first was problematic because the answer was almost always extremely complicated and alienating (ie: "I don't think you really want me to honestly answer that"). The second was problematic because, whatever may have been going on within, he suddenly had to be that public person who was grieving, had to present as sad or brave or whatever.

What did work for him? People saying stuff like "good to see you" and then allowing him to decide where to go with the conversation. They could talk about the weather ... or if he felt like it, things could get serious. As for acknowledging his grief which is what the hugs etc were really about, a simple "My condolences" generally sufficed. And if he felt like hugging them, then he would ...
posted by philip-random at 9:15 AM on December 31, 2018 [7 favorites]


Something I consider often, still, is how much less death of loved ones we experience in modern times compared to even just decades ago, nevermind a century. Does that mean every family in the 1800s was operating in basically a constant state of post traumatic stress and unresolved, unreasonable grief?

Years ago, I read a blog post (which I have been unable to find since) talking about the line from Lord of the Rings: "No parent should have to bury their child." It was mentioned that this line wasn't in the books, and the author of the post was annoyed at it for a different reason from most, who talked about literary integrity. He said, basically: Tolkien would never have written this line, because in the time Tolkien lived, it would've been a ridiculous statement.

Not that everyone lost a child, but that it was so common, so regular, that the idea of it being something that "shouldn't happen," would've been like someone today saying, "no one should ever get bitten by a rattlesnake." You might take precautions against it, and try to mitigate the damage afterward, but it'd be pointless to rail about the injustice of something that just happens to people. And it's not that people 75, 150, 500 years ago didn't mourn their lost children deeply, but that they knew children were fragile, and there was nothing anyone could do to change that.

Note how many sanitariums were filled with women who had "gone mad" after the death of a child, or two children, or four. How many women carried around a doll and talked to it as if it were a child. How many turned cold and vicious to their own children, trying to stave off the inevitable heartache when one of them was badly injured or died. How many went numb, exhausted and dull, after eight births and five deaths. How many turned overprotective of one or two children, refusing to let them out of their sight.

So yes... I think a whole lot of families in the 1800s were living in constant PTSD caused by unrelenting grief from death after death that they could not prevent or understand.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:47 PM on December 31, 2018 [13 favorites]


Something I consider often, still, is how much less death of loved ones we experience in modern times compared to even just decades ago, nevermind a century. Does that mean every family in the 1800s was operating in basically a constant state of post traumatic stress and unresolved, unreasonable grief?

I don’t doubt that some people were, especially due to war and slavery and things, but a few points come to mind:

- there are plenty of accounts of grief in the canon of human literature, even just thinking of Dead White Guys and recognizing huge gaps in perspective. I think othering people of the past as if they were inured is dangerous territory. It’s kind of like saying starving wasn’t so bad because winters were terrible for more people.

- ditto making everyone present day into somehow more sensitive people. Most people experiencing grief are still relatively (important word) functional.

- PTSD is not grief. I had a PTSD d/x way before I had a traumatic delivery and then I had new trauma to add to it, and yes, they relate but they were also very. Very. Different. Having full body flashbacks to the birth was very separate from the gap in my life that was/is my daughter’s space.

- It may well be that people were better at grieving in the past because they weren’t expected to go be a insurance customer service rep or market their personal brands cheerfully but could go sob while milking the cow or something...I am unsure, but it’s possible. It’s also possible that the expectation that we will all feel better in 2 weeks makes us seek treatment faster (or support...I didn’t actually seek treatment despite my doctor pushing Ativan on me.)
posted by warriorqueen at 1:28 PM on January 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


My own experiences with grief were complicated. A baby sister, a favorite pet bird, a cat who was practically a legend, later, my step - father and mother and my long lost biological father. I was just a kid myself when my youngest sister died. It was an accidental death which would not have occurred with modern medical knowledge. I had intense bouts with survivor’s guilt. My step -father really was dying for a long time. He was a good, but very neurotic person. My mother had the kind of interesting life which is almost unbelievable. My biological father was a con - man. I almost felt relief after I passed through the grief. To me grieving have odd things in common with birth and labor.
The religion I belong to doesn’t allow more than four days of mourning for anyone but a husband.
Maybe there is wisdom in that. That said, mourning in an official sense is one thing, actual grief is another story. You don’t know who you’ll really cry for. My daughter’s extremely annoying father -in - law? I cried harder for him than I did for my father. It makes no kind of sense. At the same time, I am relieved not to have to deal with him. He made holiday gatherings uncomfortable.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:13 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Five days for your grief and then it's done? How nice for you.

I am currently in the middle of the Didion book and like it a lot, but aside from that I quite liked this piece when I read it.

This grief and loss, on the other hand, really fucking sucks. Today is a bad day. I've been sitting on the couch most of the day and not gotten much done. Tomorrow, maybe, I'll get some things done. I have to run errands to the probate court and the SSA. The bureaucracy is kind of the worst. I have to go back to work on Monday, because I've used up all of my vacation and sick time. I'm really dreading it. I need a different job, but am not really in an emotional state to actually go get one. Contemplating short-term disability to buy myself some more time. Procrastinating on sending rtha's obituary in or finalizing plans for the memorial, because because. Currently in a drinking and crying state.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:46 PM on January 3, 2019 [6 favorites]


Kind thoughts, and love, gingerbeer.
posted by crush at 8:32 PM on January 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


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