Posts Tagged ‘bereavement’

Widowhood is a state of transition. It’s the time when you decide what you are going to do after the most important relationship in your life is gone. Or, to be more specific, it’s the time when you decide whether you are going to risk another relationship, or spend the rest of your life solo. Fourteen months after Trish’s death, that’s a decision I haven’t made, but, what most people don’t understand is that if I end up alone, I wouldn’t be overly disturbed by the outcome.

This fatalism has nothing to do with a morbid nostalgia. Trish and I met a month after her first husband died, and became a couple two months after that, so I don’t feel any need to stay loyal to her memory. In fact, several times, she told me that she hoped I would remarry if she died. So, if anything, I suppose I should be trying to meet people.

But the truth is, while one or two intriguing possibilities exist, I don’t need a relationship merely for the sake of a relationship. I’m comfortable with my own company, and as a writer I need a degree of solitude each day regardless.

Part of my attitude is my hyper-awareness of a fact that is obvious, but that no one likes to emphasize – namely, that a relationship ends with one person either leaving or dying.. As you get older, the possibility increases that the end will involve a death. I would rather not face the other person’s death, and I am no more eager to leave her facing my death and having to settle my affairs.

As time passes, this reluctance will probably fade, of course. But the truth is, I just don’t have the pressure to be in a relationship that people younger than me have. When you’re in your twenties or early thirties, being married or in a common-law relationship is a mark of maturity and independence. It can be a way to settle any lingering doubts you have about your sexual orientation. Most of all, it’s something everyone does, which often panics people into bad relationships, just so they don’t feel left out or appear odd. To be young and single by choice takes great strength of character because a more or less permanent relationship is part of what you’re supposed to want or do.

But at my age, the situation is different. I’ve paid my own way since I was eighteen, so I have nothing to prove. I long ago discovered I was a straight male with eccentric ideas about gender roles and an indifference towards them. Nor, for some reason, does modern industrial culture have many expectations about widowhood and its aftermath.

If I were still married, no doubt I would feel the pressure of the expectations placed on long-married couples – but suddenly, and through no wish of my own, my possible choices are broader than they have been since high school. I don’t have to rush to decide whether I should be single or committed, because the decision doesn’t matter except to me and any woman with whom I might be involved.

And if I do end my days single, so what? I’ve had a relationship that was better than any I see around me. That’s not just my opinion or the distortion of romanticism, either – I lost count years ago of the people who said that Trish and I acted like newly weds or who were surprised that we were polite to each other (as though politeness was something you owed strangers, and not those you loved), or how we consulted each other about mutual decisions.
Should I never be in another serious relationship, I’ve been in one that people envied. So why should I settle for anything less?

That would be the real betrayal of my past – not staying single for the next three to five decades, but blundering into a relationship because when I’m tired or not sleeping I feel lonely. I owe the memory of Trish better, and I owe myself better, too.

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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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Having someone whom you love die is difficult at the best of times. Not only do you miss them a dozen times a day, but you are struggling to continue without them. But, if that is not enough, you have to deal with people – all of them well-meaning, but many of them annoying regardless of their motives.

If my experiences of grief are any indication, here are the sort of encounters that may tax your patience as you grieve:

  • Suddenly, your life is one continuous conversation about the deceased. Facebook and email can reduce the repetition, but people will still want you to repeat basic information about what happened many more times than you care to give it. You may find yourself longing to have a normal conversation, and escape for a while.
  • We are such a death-denying culture that at the first indication of it, everyone descends into cliches and euphemism. “They had a full life,” people will tell you, and, “At least they didn’t have any pain” if the person died unconscious (as if they could somehow know). Oh, and it’s no longer a memorial service – now, it’s a “celebration of life.”
  • When you break the news of the death, almost everyone will ask, “Is there anything that I can do?” Probably, you will be unable to answer this question, because you don’t really want anything, unless it is for a miracle to restore the dead to life.
  • People with religious tendencies will hand you copies of cheerful and cheesy poems about how the person who died is happy in heaven and you shouldn’t grieve. These offerings are supposed to console you.
  • The employees of funeral homes and similar businesses often seem to think the way to cushion your shock is with an unctuous sleaziness, full of insincere concern and sympathy, and a setting with a conservative grandeur that is reminiscent of the movie palaces of the 1930s – and almost as shabby.
  • If you hold a religious ceremony, avoid clerics who didn’t know the deceased. While they may do their best, often the results are embarrassing. You may not get someone like Father Movie Critic, who turned my father-in-law’s funeral into a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but don’t be surprised if you do.
  • Don’t be surprised if a service is seen by drama queens as their personal stage, as though the service is really all about them. Given any chance whatsoever, they will monopolize the microphone, and throw themselves sobbing into any arms that happen to be nearby. Often, the intensity of their grief is in inverse proportion to how well they knew the dead person.
  • People will promise or propose almost anything in the aftermath of a death. Much of what they say will be said without much thought and they will soon forget it, so do not remind them of it.
  • After the service, people will expect you to be ready to carry on with your life. Since services are generally held within a few weeks of the death – often, within ten days – you almost certainly will not be ready for anything, but there is nothing you can do except try to cope.

In any of these situations, you might be tempted to rant or verbally flay those around you. For instance, when someone told me that the death whose aftermath I was enduring was sad, I wanted to phone them up and scream, “Sad? The ending of Casablanca is sad. King Lear entering with the dead Cordelia is sad. This is a bloody tragedy!” Instead, I just unfriended them on Facebook.

The truth is, most of the people who do the things I mention here mean very well, and will only be hurt and surprised by such outbursts. The behavior I describe here are just some of the things that you have to endure and get past, day by day. Still, it is bitterly ironic that so much that is meant to be sensitive and caring only ends up picking at you like a shirt in which a hundred mosquitos are trapped between you and the cloth.

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