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Archive for the ‘mourning’ Category

Four days ago, my Nanday conure Ning lost Sophy, his mate of 24 years, to old age. They had nested successfully four times, producing six chicks, and were a model of happy monogamy, constantly preening and never moving more than a few meters from each other. Ning had cared for her as though she were a chick in her final days, standing over her and preening and regurgitating to make sure she was fed. He was beside her when she died, and I have been able to observe first hand how he grieves. Being a widower myself, I feel a certain identification with what he is going through.

He knew at once when she died. Within a few seconds after she died, he nuzzled her once with her beak, and then moved twenty-five centimeters away, looking very small, with his feathers pressed tightly against his body, which is a sign of unhappiness in any parrot. He did not attack me when I placed her body in a shoe box to take to the vet (as I had half-expected), but went quietly up on my hand and into the cage.

When I returned from the vet, he was in the same position and had eaten little from his dish. But he screeched excitedly when I opened the door, and climbed up to my shoulder, pressing as tightly as he could against my neck and staying there for a couple of hours. I neglected the other birds to give him some time, stroking his back far more than he usually allows.

I was worrying that I might need to feed him and that, without his mate, he might no longer be able to hold his own against his arch-rival Beau, but my concerns proved needless.

As soon as I let the other birds out, Ning became manic. So much as 230 grams of bird can, he stamped around the table and the floor, trying to be everywhere at once. He seemed to have decided that he was going to prove his dominance once and for all by a frantic display. If so, it worked incredibly well – Beau is still reluctant to leave his cage when Ning is out. Now, as a result of Ning’s display, the dining room table is no longer a No-Go area for all the birds, but has been thoroughly annexed by Ning.

That evening, Ning preened me more than he had since the days after we brought him home, and he decided I was flock. But he would stop periodically to cheep for Sophy, and would occasionally fly off to the cage, and peer around it as though hoping she was somehow there. Later, when I put the cover on the cage, I could hear him cheeping for her again. I admit that went to bed early that night, because I could not stand to hear him.

The next morning was even harder. Ning went to Sophy’s convalescence cage, and seemed bewildered when neither she nor the towel I had arranged for her was there. After a moment, he moved down to the perch and started regurgitating. For a moment, it felt to me as though he was responding to Sophy’s ghost, and I was glad when he climbed to the top of the cage.

Fortunately, he started eating again on the second day, and his appetite is hearty. But he will take all the chew toys and attention that I tend to give him, and his efforts to preen me have a gentleness and a desperation that they never had before. He obviously needs the closeness – and, to be honest, so do I. At the same time, he regularly asserts his dominance by inspection tours of the area he claims.

It seems to me that the ability to mourn is a sign of sentience. After all, if a creature does not have a sense of itself, how can it feel loss? If it does not have a sense of others, then how can it mourn? If I did not already know from both personal experience and from Irene Pepperberg’s scientific studies that the intelligence of parrots overlaps with the lower levels of human intelligence, Ning’s behavior over the last few days would have proven his sentience ten times over. We’re supporting each other through our mutual loss – and I can only hope that I provide him with half the comfort that he gives me.

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“In the West End of Derby lives a working man
He says, ‘I can’t fly but me pigeons can
And when I set them free
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings’”
– “Charlie and the King of Rome”

This morning when I took the cover off the cage, my parrot Sophy was lying on one side, with her mate Ning hovering over her. She didn’t open her eyes, and her breathing was labored. I scooped her up and put her on the table, and she barely opened her eyes. I knew then that she was dying, so I decided that cleaning the cages would wait.

Sophy had been in a convalescence cage for the last few days after she slipped from a perch and started favoring her left leg. But her appetite was healthy and she was otherwise acting normally; the convalescence cage was just so she wouldn’t climb until her leg was better. Last night when I put her and Ning to bed, she was moving better, and I was cautiously optimistic that she was healing.

But she was thirty years old – old for her species — and had been growing quieter over the last year, so her condition this morning was not a total surprise. I debated taking her to the vet, and decided she was better at home, where she could be in the company of her flock when she died. Besides, the way she looked, I was not sure she would live long enough to arrive at the vet, or that the vet could do anything I couldn’t.

So I sat there as the sun rose, scratching her ear and trying to fed her corn. She refused the corn, and the loving regurgitation of Ning. In fact, she seemed to have trouble waking at all.

When the sun poured into the living room, I stood with her for a while so she could bask in the light, something she would do for hours, given a chance. The sun on her feathers roused her, but only a little. I placed her back on the table and continued waiting, scratching her neck feathers.

A few minutes later, she shifted her head awkwardly once or twice, as though trying to get comfortable. The eye that I could see grew misty. She seemed to stiffen, and all at once she had stopped breathing. Ning prodded her with his beak, and, when she did not respond, moved a body’s length away, preening himself with an air of apprehension.

That was the end of my twenty-four year relationship with Sophia J. (for Jabberwock) Bandersnatch. It was an end that I could hardly have predicted from the start.

When we bought Sophy from the bird-sitter, she had been neglected and abused for several years. She had no tail-feathers, and she had plucked her breast. Recognizing her as a nanday conure was so hard that we almost had to take the fact on faith.

We were told that she had locked in a cage for at least three years, and fed only on sunflower seeds. When she made a noise, a hand or a thrown boot hit the side of her cage. The only noise she could make was an outraged squawk.

Under these conditions, what could we do? If ever a bird needed rescuing, it was Sophy. When the bird-sitter reported back to her original owner that we found that she had a sweet personality, his reply was, “Sophy has a personality?” – more proof, if we had needed any, that he had no idea how to care for her.

When we brought her home, we placed her in the spare room, thinking to quarantine her for a month before introducing her to Ning. But the two birds started calling so excitedly that after a couple of hours, we brought Ning in for a visit.

We were ready to supervise, but there was no need. Ning leaped down off my shoulder and sidled up to her on the perch and immediately started regurgitating. Sophy made a stifled sound of surprise, as though to say, “Excuse me, sir, but have we been introduced?” but her objections could not have been too serious. Moments later, they were mating.

After that, Sophy and Ning were nearly inseparable, eating, bathing, playing with chew toys, climbing up on me. Always, in season and out, they mated, even on my shoulder. If one of them strayed more than the width of the living room, the other would start making anxious squawks. Ning was the more independent and aggressive of the two, but we soon noticed that anything Sophy wanted, she got. In anything she cared about, she was the dominant bird.

With Ning as her companion, Sophy blossomed and started to accept us. She would go everywhere with him, even occasionally down on the floor, which she obviously regarded as a dangerous place. I remember the two of them constantly worrying a small tin back and forth as though playing football.

One time, she crawled into one of Trish’s boots that was lying flat on the floor. She made an inquisitive cheep and, frightened by the echo, retreated squawking.

Over the next couple of years, her feathers grew in. But she remained an over-zealous preener, so that her feathers often looked ragged and you could see the gray of her down on her breast.

A few years later, she was healthy enough that she started laying eggs. The first one surprised her as much as it did us. She kept looking behind her at the egg, as if she could not quite believe that she had produced it.

Other eggs followed – so many at first, that she became egg-bound had to visit the vet just after Christmas. Ning moped around, and, early on New Years’ Day, we took him to pick her up. His rapturous purr as he started preening her in the examination room was as true a sign of devotion as you could see anywhere.

We bought a nest box, and watched her excavate the peat moss that lined it to her liking. Soon, eggs and hatchlings followed – Frumious (because what else should a Bandersnatch produce?), Jabberwock, and Rambunctious, Rogue and Rapscallion, and Madrigal, all born in the living room. Sophy would spend hours cooing over her hatchlings, over-preening them but caring for them fastidiously until they were weaned. Once they were eating for themselves, they were Ning’s concern for a few months so far as she was concerned, and she always seemed relieved when her offspring left for new homes.

A flock, a mate, and babies mellowed Sophy immensely. She never was much for hands after her previous experience, but she came to trust us enough that she would simply press her beak firmly around an encroaching finger, instead of drawing blood.

We knew that she trusted us, because every morning, she would lean from the top of the cage to preen our faces, more gently than any parrot I have ever met. She was the only bird I trusted to preen my eyes, because even a sudden noise would not excite her into nipping me. When I lowered a shoulder, she would scramble across the cage, careless of any obstacles, to climb up on me.

She would sit for hours on my shoulder, with or without Ning, as I worked at the computer. Sometimes, I would sing silly songs to her, and she would shake her tall and fluff out contentedly just at the corner of my vision.

I could go on and on – but I see that I already have. But I can hardly remember a time that her playful and loving presence was not part of my home life. All the birds were a comfort to me in the weeks after my wife died, but she was the one who sat with me the most, and seemed most sensitive to my grief. In return, remembering her sitting contentedly on one leg on the back of the cage, I like to think that we helped her put the years of abuse and neglect behind her.

As I type, Ning is restless, hopping from my shoulder to the table to the floor, and flying up to the cage. He keeps looking around as though expecting to see her, and is unable to keep still.

Without any anthropomorphizing whatsoever, I know exactly how he feels. Even after watching her die, I still can’t believe that gallant little Sophy is gone.

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In the common room they’ve got the biggest tree
And it’s huge and cold and lifeless
Not like it ought to be,
and the lit-up flashing Santa Claus on top
It’s not that same old silver star,
you once made for your own
First Christmas away from home.

– Stan Rogers

This time a year ago, I was rushing downstairs with every knock on the door, hoping to get there before Trish did. At the door, the Kevin and Kell collections I’d ordered for her might be waiting, or the DVD of Oysterband’s 25th Anniversary Concert, or the Northwest Coast masks I’d bought. If one of them was, then I would have to figure a place to stash them until Trish was out and I could hide them more effectively.

This year, I am by myself, reflecting on how many traditions can accrete around a relationship in thirty-two years, and dreading the blankness of a Christmas without them.

The first Christmas we shared, Trish and I had barely been a couple for six weeks. We spent much of it at our separate families, but not before we exchanged gifts; she gave me a ceramic chess set, and I gave her Renaissance’s Live at Carnegie Hall. I still have both, although much of the Renaissance album is a bit lush for my tastes today.

The next year, we were an established couple, and backed each other up on all the obligatory Christmas visits. In fact, between dashing over to West Vancouver on Christmas Day, then to Parksville on Boxing Day, and half a dozen other places as well, we overdid the traveling so much that one of our first traditions was born: Never again. In future years, we confined our dashing about to the parents, and maybe one or two other events that we either couldn’t avoid or wanted to attend.

Other traditions were born that year, too. That was the year Trish started her tradition of giving her craftwork as gifts. Blackwork embroidery, cross-stitch, crochet, beaded ornaments, embroidery – over the years, the diversity was astounding, and all done to her perfectionist standards. One year, she made several hundred angels and bells, and sold them to buy Christmas presents, an effort she never quite equaled again. One year, too, I threatened the efficiency of her assembly line by doing candles, but the results were too mixed for me to do so a second time.

Trish’s crafts brought other rhythms to our Christmas as well. The one where she stayed up until three in the morning on Christmas Eve to finish a piece was one I might have done without. But the one of decorating our tree with her ornaments is one that always gave me a flash of pride, to have something so utterly unique in the living room.

Another tradition revolved around gift-giving. While I was a student and later as a grad student, we had a budget so tight that it always threatened to snap like a rubber band stretched too far, so we never got into the habit of buying large presents for each other. Besides, where was the fun in that? In our second year as a couple, we got into the habit of buying a couple of dozen small gifts for each other. Later, when our income increased had increased, we might include one or two moderately priced items, but, by then, the pattern had been set, and the small gifts continued – so much so that, over the years, Christmas and birthdays were when most of the books, music, and movies came into the household.

One advantage of buying small gifts was the amount of loving conspiracy that they inspired: splitting the alphabet in various gift categories so that we wouldn’t buy duplicates, secret phone conversations, and mysterious deliveries, all accompanied by cryptic and increasingly outrageous hints. We started using recycled gift boxes, wrapped in the most exotic papers we could find, and adding tags with puns and hints that would have made a veteran solver of crossword puzzles weep at their obscurity – tags that only really became meaningful after the gift to which each was attached was opened.

We learned quickly to take only some gifts for each other on Christmas Day, because other people became impatient with our exchange. But that worked out, too, since it meant we had a few presents to open when we awoke, and still more when we got home after visiting my folks on Christmas Day, and Trish’s folks on Boxing Day.

Then there were the stockings. There was always a marzipan pig in mine, and a Birk’s spoon in hers, either from her mother and me. Trish especially had a genius for finding the exotic and improbable at dollar stores, and often her stocking was the repository of the earrings I had found for her. In later years, when we decided the last thing we needed was more knickknacks or novelty items, the stockings were full of gourmet candies and sauces, which we would be happily discovering well into March.

Somewhere around December 28th or so, when the visits had temporarily slackened, came the gloating over the loot – I mean our first real chance to dive into the gifts and thoroughly explore them. Since our tastes overlapped so much, most of the time a gift could be appreciated by both of us, so we felt slothful and luxurious as we lounged around and made happy discoveries.

New Year’s Eve were for board games. Most of the time, there were just the two of us, but for a half dozen years, a couple of nephews were included, who always fought over the rules and pleaded with us for more alcohol than we would let them have. These massive game sessions would last for eight or ten hours, with pauses to refill the punch bowl on the kitchen counter and for me to cook a hearty lasagna of four or five cheeses.

And, finally, when the New Year had begun, and the guests were gone, came the tarot reading. Neither of us believed in such things, except perhaps as a psychological aid, but we both liked the atmosphere. Anyway, if New Years isn’t a time for omens, then when is?

After that, the days would drift back to normal until January 6th. On Twelfth Night, Trish insisted half-seriously, the tree and ornaments must be stowed away for another, or we would risk bad luck. So down they came, each hand-made ornament carefully wrapped away for another year, and I would march about the house all day singing a song from an old Steeleye Span album:

Oh, Christmas is past,

Twelfth night is the last,

And we bid you adieu,

Pray joy to the new.

This year all these things are gone with Trish. My Christmas shopping is much easier, but much less interesting, and my chances to see how gifts are received greatly reduced. I don’t really need the stacks of recyclable gift boxes in the walk-in closet, and I won’t be doing much visiting, since all except one branch of Trish’s family has apparently decided to drop me. I suppose I could start a new tradition and do some extensive volunteering throughout December, but I’m not sure you can call something a tradition if only one person is involved – and, anyway, it wouldn’t be the same.This year, every time I pass a gift that I no longer have reason to buy, I’m in mourning for the traditions that have died along with the person who shared them with me.

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Usually, I don’t worry much about what people think about me. Oh, I like most people, and want them to like me. And I know that I can be regarded very differently, depending on what others have seen of me and the baggage they bring to their observations. Yet, except in specific circumstances like a job interview, in the past, I haven’t usually agonized over other people’s perceptions, although whether this attitude is confidence, arrogance, or self-defense, I have no idea. In recent months, however, events have made me more conscious than usual of others’ opinions.

One reason is that I heard from someone I went to school with, who discovered me on the Internet. We were never close, although the circles we moved in overlapped until she moved away in Grade 10. She wrote to me:

“I happened to be talking about you the other day. I’m not really sure how you came up but I was relating a childhood memory to a friend. I said something along these lines: “There was this boy in my elementary school who was painfully shy and awkward. He was brilliant, that much was obvious, but I doubt many people bothered to get to know him because of his shyness. But. When he would run, he was magic!” It went on from there while I described not knowing you as a person, but cheering my ass off for you at various track and field events and how you probably never knew that there were people like me who thought you were magic.”

Well, I cop to awkward; that’s what usually happens when you grow up left-handed. But painfully shy? I thought of myself more as brash and apt to blurt out the wrong thing in misplaced confidence. Nor did I lack friends, or an awareness that I had an easy ride through adolescence because I was a bit of a sports star.

The description seemed so incongruous next to my own memories, so deflating in places and so out in left field in others that I had to laugh. I sent my conflicting memories back, and my correspondent found the differences hilarious, too, so now we exchange emails once or twice a week.

Another reason for thinking about how others see me is that I was widowed a few months ago. Soon after my partner’s death, I became aware that everyone I met seemed to be staring at me as if I were a Prince Rupert’s Drop that would shatter if mishandled for even a second. I could see people visibly making an effort to edit their sentences, unsure whether they should mention Trish, or talk about her, and hesitating even more over asking if I wanted company or had any plans about how I was going to live now (I didn’t, and still don’t, for the most part). Suddenly, people were always watching me – and judging me, too. Most of them were well-meaning, but they were still judging me, far more than they would have in other circumstances. Or, possibly, I simply noticed the judging more.

At any rate, I started receiving pity-invitations. Acquaintances started inviting me to events because they had concluded that getting out would be good for me. Friends invited me out to dinner, or to parties for the same reason.

They were right, and I understand that they meant well. But, although I’m sure that people judge me all the time without me knowing, I’m not used to being so obviously judged. I feel like a specimen at the aquarium, living out my life behind a pane of glass beyond which everyone stood waiting to see what I could do.

I am aware, too, that they mean to help me. That, in itself, is hard to take – not because of any misplaced sense of macho, but because, after twelve years of taking care of someone in failing health, I am far more used to helping than being helped. Although I still accept most of the invitations, a self-consciousness has entered my dealings with friends and relatives that leaves the simplest of interactions seem forced and false as I try to ignore it.

The third reason is hardest to describe, because I want to keep most of the circumstances private. Perhaps it is enough to say that I let someone I admire and who could have been a friend think me unstable at best or a player of head-games at worst because I believed that doing so was the right thing to do for everyone.

I still think that way – on alternate days. The truth is, when I’m not feeling ashamed of trying to manipulate someone’s perceptions of me, I’m wondering exactly what those perceptions are. Most likely, I’ll never know, yet I wonder all the same. The result is that, once again, I find myself spending far more time thinking of other people’s perceptions of me than I am used to doing.

Perhaps this newfound awareness is only natural. A marriage – at least, a happy one like mine – is a filter for other relationships. Now that I am a widower, those relationships have to be renegotiated for the first time in years.

Under these circumstances, perhaps spending an inordinate amount of time thinking of other people and how they perceive me is a natural stage that I just have endure until it passes. But, meanwhile, I am getting weary of feeling like my mind and body is one continuous rib-bruise.

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Yesterday, I had a date with a ghost.

You see, November 11 was the anniversary of Trish and I as a couple. It was not our wedding anniversary; that was for the public. November 11 was the private one, the day we kept for ourselves. Whenever we could, we took the day off, and at the very least we tried to go out to dinner, although once or twice in the last few years, she hadn’t been well enough for us to celebrate on the exact date.

This being the first anniversary since her death, I debated with myself all day if I would keep the date. Perhaps it was too sentimental? Too much giving in to grief? But in the end I decided I was observing the day in my own mind anyway, so I might as well indulge myself. I dressed in my best – a black Dorothy Grant shirt, my gold ring, my copper bracelet, and the Lyle Wilson pendant that Trish had won at a raffle at the West Vancouver Museum – and wore all black, one of the colors that Trish had liked best on me, and solemnly descended on the restaurant.

I had chosen La Rustica, an Italian restaurant we had known at its height when we were living in New Westminster. We hadn’t been there for years, but we had talked about returning there to see what it was like. Now, I would have to see for myself.

The restaurant had been extensively renovated at least once since we used to frequent it, so I couldn’t sit at the table in the back where a photographer had taken a picture of us on our fourth anniversary years ago. Instead, I was shown to a table for two on the edge of the vacant dance floor. On nights when the band played, I imagine it would have been a bad seat, the sort that single diners usually get unless they complain. But that night, I didn’t care; it was well away from the large party from the assisted living home who were the only other diners in the restaurant, so they wouldn’t notice my odd behavior.

My date, I imagined, was in a green turquoise dress with flowing sleeves, one of the few that I kept when I gave her clothes away. Her hair was long, and dyed auburn.

I ordered two glasses of white wine, and at first the server got it wrong, giving me two glasses of wine in a carafe. “If it’s not too odd, could I have another glass?” I asked. The server looked askance, but she did as I requested, not quite daring to ask what I was doing.

I poured our wine, then clinked the glasses together. Not daring to speak out loud because I knew I would end up sobbing in that horrible breathless way I have had during my mourning, I delivered the ritual Scottish toast and response that Trish had always loved since she first read it in George Macdonald Fraser’s The General Danced at Dawn:

“Here’s to us.”

“Wha’s like us?”

“Damn few, and they’re all deid.”

I followed that with the question that one or the other of us had always asked, “Has it really been __ years?”

“It doesn’t seem possible,” I whispered to myself, finishing the ritual. By then I was daubing at my eyes with the linen napkin.

My tastes have changed tremendously since I had last eaten at La Rustica, but I chose what had been my favorite meal: onion soup, followed by veal in a capers and wine sauce, and an amaretto gelato. The restaurant was dimly lit, but I knew my date was eating the shrimp, something I never prepare at home because it might trigger an allergic reaction for me, but which she always enjoyed when we ate out.

At the end of the meal, I asked if I could go into the back. But the years and the renovations defeated me, and I could not decide where our favorite table had been.

Maybe that was just as well. Wherever the table was, it would have sat hundreds since we had been at it, and we could have left no impression that would have remained.

The server was looking at me strangely, so I explained the occasion, and left a large tip before I left.

Ordinarily, I would have hardly felt two glasses of wine, but that night I did. I decided that I couldn’t bear the bus, so I walked down the hill to the Skytrain to sober myself up. By the time I boarded, the cold had cleared my head. I didn’t say goodbye to the ghost, of course; she followed me home.

People talk of melancholy although it were a form of depression, and should be avoided. If you believe that, you will never understand, but I enjoyed my company that night, although the encounter left me feeling drained.

I don’t know if I will be returning to La Rustica, which proved only adequate (the sauce had too much lemon, and the restaurant was no longer growing its own herbs on the roof). But I already know that my companion and I will be going out again on our wedding anniversary, as well as next next November 11th.

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An online friend has taken me to task about the anger in my posts about grief. I started to reply privately, but my comments quickly turned into a post of their own. After all, it’s a difficult question: how do you support someone in mourning?

True, I think that the friend has misread the anger. I don’t attack people just because they hand me bad poetry for consolation, or toss cliches my way. If anything, in person, I am generally too polite; I not only suffer fools gladly, but actively encourage them. I write my frustrations so that I don’t express them face-to-face.

Nor do I write simply to express a peeve, although probably I have sometimes taken advantage of the added tolerance extended to people in my position. If I mention specifics, it’s not an attack on the person involved – it’s because I want to illustrate something that’s widespread.

In writing about grief, I am venturing into the confessional realms of writing. When you are writing in the confessional mode, what you are doing is reporting the view from where you are at the moment. For that goal to have any value or interest (even to myself), the reporting has to be as honest as I can make it. Leaving out the anger would be a distortion, so I’m not going to do it. I’m not proud of the anger, but I have to report it if I’m going to approach the subject at all. The fact that very few people write in detail about grief makes me all the more determined to be as honest as possible.

Still, my friend has a point. Having written about how not to handle someone who’s grieving, to be accurate I need to express the view from the opposite perspective.

If my experience is typical, I think you have to start with the knowledge that there is not much you can do for a person who is grieving. Only time and circumstances can do that, and you are better off saying too little than too much

For example, I will always be grateful to the friend who, a few days after Trish’s death, invited me over to hangout one Saturday afternoon. She didn’t approach the topic, and we didn’t do anything more serious that talk idly and walk her cat, but that brief oasis of normality was exactly what I needed. A few weeks later, we went to a coffee shop, with the same basic ground rules, and, again, I felt relieved to be doing what other people were doing.

People online can do much the same by emailing and chatting regularly. The effect isn’t as strong as in-person contact, but don’t let anyone tell you that online relationships are invariably shallow. There have been days when having a chat window pop up was the only thing between me and complete depression. The thing is, grief separates you from the everyday, and even if you are not ready to rejoin the daily grind, you appreciate the knowledge that it’s still out there.

Then there were the four or five people who have helped me sort Trish’s property and make sure that as much of it as possible got into the hands of people who would appreciate it. Hording it (except for select exceptions), seemed wrong, and dumping it or sending it to Value Village to be pawed over by strangers felt even worse. But there was far more stuff than I could easily sort and move by myself, and working beside others is one of the best ways I know to feel that you are connected to someone. If there’s not property to dispose of, then housecleaning or cooking can serve much the same purpose.

Later, you might make an effort to invite the grieving person to a quiet group activity. They are unlikely to want to go dancing until dawn, or to be the center of attention, but just being with people can be comforting.

Of course, you can’t expect too many expressions of gratitude for any of this support. The emotions of a person who is grieving are out of control, and expressing even a relatively mild emotion like gratitude can break what little control that they have. But you will know if they appreciate your efforts by the simple fact that they respond.

But no matter how you support those who are bereaved, move slowly and at their pace – the rules that apply to taming an animal. What you do will be frustrating and never seem enough, but it will still be better than reacting in stereotypical ways or with cliched phrases – and considerably better than nothing at all.

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One of the minor tribulations about grief is that people are continually pressing inspirational poetry upon you. Just as people feel they have the right to touch a pregnant woman’s belly, so even comparative strangers feel that they can offer you material that ordinarily you would never consider reading. Suffer bereavement, and you are aware of this mawkish, archly Christian sub-literature that dozens of people suddenly want to share with you.

They mean well, of course. Whenever someone thrusts a printout at me, I thank them with a straight face, solemnly read the printout, and thank them for their kindness. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, particularly when they are trying to make a thoughtful gesture.

Inwardly, though, I am wondering, “Why do they imagine that grief has blunted my aesthetic sense?”

You see, what makes this poetry such a tribulation is not that it’s Christian. I am an agnostic, but I live in a post-Christian culture, and I fully accept that, to understand the literature of the past, I have to be fully versed in Christianity. And I am, so much so that I have have read large chunks of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But when there are such Christian poets as John Donne, Emily Dickinson, or Gerald Manley Hopkins – or even Tennyson, in his ponderous way – why would anyone turn to the mediocrities that I keep receiving?

At least with such poets, the aesthetic pleasure can provide a genuine relief from grief, and deciphering the argument can be an intellectual diversion, even if I reserve judgment on the Christian conclusion.

But the poems that make up the sub-literature of death are usually doggerel, with all the subtlety of an SUV slamming into a pedestrian.

Take, for example, “Do Not Stand,” a poem attributed to half a dozen sources, but probably the work of Mary Elizabeth Frye. “Do not stand at my grave and weep; / I am not there,” it begins, then goes on to explain where the speaker can be found – for instance, in the reflection of the snow, or the sunlight on grain. A statement about survival after death, it is better written than most of this sub-literature, but goes on for about half a dozen lines too many without any development of thought. And when I come to the last line of, “I did not die,” I become possessed by the cynical ghost of Robert Graves, and I am moved to ask why the speaker has a grave, then.

For that matter, why shouldn’t those to whom the poem is addressed cry? That is a natural part of grief, and knowledge of the person’s survival after death does not change the fact that the deceased is no longer present.

Another example of this literature is, “Death is nothing at all,” which is attributed to Henry Scott-Holland, a canon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. According to Scott-Holland, the dead “have only slipped away into the next room” – as if that made them any more approachable.

“I am I and you are you,” Scott-Holland continues helpfully, just in case you were confused, and urges you to act the same as always, and act as though he was still present. “What is death but a negligible accident?” he asks, apparently because “I am waiting for you for an interval / Somewhere very near . . . . One brief moment and all will be as it was before / How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

Well, you know, even granting survival after death in some form, I seriously doubt that laughter. I don’t know about anyone else, but falling into each other’s arms with cries of relief sounds more realistic to me. When I reunite with somebody in life, I don’t laugh at my emotions when we parted, so why would I do so after death? There is something so arch and so smug in this doggerel’s sentiment that to me it amounts to a trivialization of death and grief.

Yet even these two pieces sound like masterpieces next to the anonymous “God sends his love.” Sharing some of the archness of Scott-Holland, this one describes the dead person as being chosen to die so that he can help God in his work. It repeats Scott-Holland’s sentiments about not grieving, but at least has the decency to add, “But do not be afraid to cry, it does relieve the pain.” – although the sentiment is immediately spoiled by the nonsensical line, “Remember there would be no flowers unless there was some rain.”

Blithely skirting around the problem of pain, the piece goes on to assert that death is all part of a divine plan that humans cannot comprehend, and urges the mourners to be helpful to those in need, adding

And when you feel that gentle breeze or the wind upon your face, that’s me giving you a great big hug, or just a soft embrace.
And when it’s time for you to go from that body to be free, you’re not going, you are coming here to me.
And I will always love you, from that land way up above, will be in touch again soon.

Then it ends with “Ps God sends his love” – a tug at the heart strings that even Steven Speilberg would feel ashamed to try.

What is interesting about all these pieces is how much they have in common. They all take the form of the deceased talking to those who survived them, assert survival after death, and downplay the importance of grief. The last two also promise that the deceased and the survivors will meet again as a reason not to grieve.

Perhaps some Christians can find some comfort in the repetition of their core beliefs. Presumably, many can, since few seem to object to the use of uninspired modern hymns in place of the masterpieces from the 18th Century in ordinary services.

But, for me, such works seem profoundly inhuman. By insisting that grief is unnecessary, they show no understanding of human psychology whatsoever. And when this inhumanity is expressed so poorly, with so little development of thought – well, is it any wonder that these printouts go directly into the recycling bin when I come home? In every possible way, they seem a mockery of my grief, not a comfort in the least.

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