Grief – An Essay

Thursday, February 18, 2010

(updated May 25, 2011)
Intensely personal, grief may strike one for very shallow reasons, or for crushingly important reasons. Sometimes we invest ourselves in “things”, in “stuff” that we treasure, and when one of those “things” breaks, or goes missing, the event may be a blow to our emotions. We have placed quite a high value on something that is, after all, only “stuff”. At one time, I bought a new Triumph Spitfire sports car, a beautiful red two-seat convertible. It was involved in an accident, totaled, and my first reaction was that its destruction was an utterly devastating event. It took me a few days to realize that nobody was hurt, that the car was only “stuff”, and not all that important in the grand scheme of things. The event caused me to look inside myself, to reconsider what was really important to me, and what was important was people, their lives and safety, not “stuff”.
I took part in a grief counseling group last spring. One of the participants (actually, more than one) was a woman whose husband lost his life when his automobile collided with another—the all too common victim of the drunk driver, who of course survived and has to live with the consequences of his actions. The woman, or women if you will, talked about their relationship with their husbands, the circumstances of the accident, but in every conversation, the value of the vehicle, in their minds, was trivial. Far outweighed by the human cost.
One of the things I read about is the financial markets. Having gone through a period which many thought would compare to the “Great Depression” of the 1930′s, there were many who considered the loss of some of the value of their savings to be a cause of substantial grief. While I saw no stories of stockbrokers jumping out of windows in 2008, there were such stories during the ’30′s. I would bet parents, wives, children, all would have preferred to face financial sacrifices of almost any scale, rather than face the news that a loved one had taken his own life.
The following section comes from an e-newsletter called The Rude Awakening published by Agora Financial Publications, September 4, 2009 Most of the newsletter deals with some of the then-current aspects of the market, but the preamble, written by Eric Fry, struck me as precisely descriptive of serious human grief.

“The Good Book tells us that death comes like a “thief in the night.”
“But death is also like a set of rogue waves…at least for those who remain. The death of anything precious – whether that be life, love or a bull market – occurs in the twinkling of an eye. But the response to the death of something precious is anything but sudden. Instead, it is protracted, agonizing, confusing and uneven.
“One moment, you tell yourself you’re over it; the next moment you’re watering a snapshot with tears. One moment, you’re celebrating the joys of the past; the next moment you’re mourning the foregone joys of the future. One moment, you’re grateful you’ve recovered some of your capital losses; the next moment you’re lighting a candle for the capital that is still missing in action.
“So I say that the experience of death – for those who are still living – is like a set of rogue waves. There you are, just splashing in the gentle surf when, all of a sudden, the first huge wave sweeps through. Bam! Death arrives. It’s not YOUR death, but some precious part of you is gone forever. So you’re pulled under the wave; you’re tossed around; you can’t breathe; you think you’ll never see the blue sky again.
“But then, just as suddenly, you’re bursting above the surf…just happy to be breathing. Everything is fine and safe…until the next wave. Rinse and repeat. After the last wave finally passes through…and you’re still breathing, you usually emerge from the surf with a combination of gratitude and resolve. Grateful the experience wasn’t more painful; but resolved to avoid any similar pain in the future.
“In life, avoiding the pain of bereavement is all-but-impossible. The death of a loved one is just that and there is no way around it. In love, avoiding bereavement is possible, but not altogether satisfying. You avoid agony by avoiding ecstasy. Mick Jagger may have said it best when he sang, “I just can’t pour my heart out to another living thing…I won’t cry when you say goodbye, I’m all out of tears. I won’t die when you wave goodbye; I’m out of tears.”
“But what is love without risk? Perhaps it is merely “like” or “you’re a neat person.” Without risk, love will never say, “I miss you so much I want to cry…. I love you… I miss you…I can’t stand not seeing you tonight.” And without risk, love will never say these words and then sleep with your best friend. You can’t avoid it. Either you take the risk or you don’t.”
“There’s no romance on Wall Street folks. There’s no place for reckless abandon. There’s no reason to suffer bereavement for your capital. Participation is purely optional. So when things start looking a little “sketchy,” it’s perfectly okay to back away. It’s okay to cash in a few chips”.

The general point I believe he was making is that there is risk in handling your finances, but you don’t need to fall in love with your investments. I would say, “It’s just more ‘stuff’”.
A few weeks after my wife died, I had to go back to the same hospital in which she had died, for a routine medical procedure (a colonoscopy, if you really must know). As the nurses were prepping me, one asked if I had been down in that department before. I had, with my wife, who had an endoscopic examination just five days before she died.
When the nurse asked me that question, I totally broke down, speechlessly weeping. Nonplussed, all the nurse could do was patiently wait for me to compose myself. Eventually, I explained why the question hit me so hard. She responded “Oh, yes, we even have an abbreviation for it. S U G E, for Sudden Unexpected Grief Episode”.
As the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months, I thought I would adjust to living without my wife of 47 years. But occasions often arrive, emerging from the peripheral vision and suddenly blinding me to the immediate situation. In church, a hymn that was the object of a private, shared joke. At the symphony, a glance at the empty seat next to me. Listening to iTunes and playing The Celtic Women, singing “The Soft Goodbye”, or “Someday”. On so many occasions, grief rises like the rogue wave so poignantly described above.
The risk of love is loss. Any marriage, any loving relationship, is complex. in my posting on Love, I attempted to say love was so much more than a possessive, grasping, needy relationship but was a total two-way melding of beings. When that relationship is severed by loss, the grief will be intense. Adjustment will be difficult. Every individual will have a different reaction, and there will be two aspects to it. One aspect will be an intensely private feeling. The other aspect will be what is exposed for others to see. Some people will seem to be good at hiding their grief, and friends and acquaintances may think they are unmoved, or “coping well”. But, you never know.
I suppose psychologists might be able to point to individuals who do not suffer grief; perhaps having a brain structure that represses or does not have strong emotional expressions. Since I would assume this to be a continuum of individuals, ranging from persons who “simply don’t care” to individuals who plainly are devastated by grief, from external displays we can never really know how people are affected by loss.
Commentary on grief can appear when you least expect it. I was reading a book by Dean Koontz. In “Odd Hours”, the protagonist is picked up by an elderly woman, who explained that she often drove around at night after her husband had died.

“Love somebody from when you’re nineteen, one day he’s the same as ever, the next day dead. So many tears, they seem to wash somethin’ out of you, they leave this emptiness.”
[Odd Thomas responds.] “Loss is the hardest thing,” I said. “But it’s also the teacher that’s the most difficult to ignore.” [he continued moments later…]
“Grief can destroy you—or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone. Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see it wasn’t just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it. The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss. And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.”
(Koontz, Dean. Odd Hours. Random House, New York, 2008. Used by permission of the author)

When death intervenes in a relationship, the survivor immediately misses the usual actions of the partner. So many things I counted on my wife to handle—the Christmas Card responsibility, the social calendar, watering and caring for the houseplants and the gardening. These are the things a married couple organizes and agrees on, sometimes just by default; my father-in-law did gardening and planting, so that was an individual preference, not a sex role stereotype.
The other half of the loss, as the “left behind”, is the lack of someone around that you can delight and share events, thoughts, expressions—someone to call out to and tell her to come to the window and see the deer up in the neighbor’s back yard, or wild turkeys moseying across our front yard. The rogue wave hits hardest on a cool clear summer night, when I’m standing on our front porch, looking up at a full moon, remembering the times we stood together, sharing in the awesome beauty of nature, knowing that such moments of silent communion with one another shall never be again. John Greenleaf Whittier–For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.

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My eclectic reading selections

Wednesday, December 23. 2009

I read a lot, and especially since retirement, “it keeps me off the streets”. In 2003, my wife set up a database on her computer to record all of our readings. Of the 441 records as of this posting, 343 are books I’ve read. I’ll write about some of the non-fiction titles in another post.
In the science fiction arena, I’ve read and liked the Dave Weber titles including the Honor Harrington series, which do have a formulaic quality to them, but I still find them fun to read. Not of that series, Weber’s The Apocalypse Troll should, I believe, be made into a movie. It, and The Millennium Moon both are written in such a way that you can easily build “mind pictures” of what each scene would look like on screen. Travis Taylor’s Warp Speed and The Quantum Connection were fun books. as well as Stephen CoontsSaucer and Saucer: The Conquest.
I think I’ve read every one of Dick Francis‘ novels, again you know what to expect, but they’re still fun. His protagonists are generally ordinary people, often with some kind of unusual occupation or peculiar handicap or talent. You know in the end the bad guys will lose out; but it will be an interesting tale.
Tony Hillerman’s tales of the southwest lend an interesting bent to the mystery genre, and I think I’ve read all of them. He did write a mystery set in the statehouse of Minnesota, and it does show a pre-internet view of news gathering and the reporter’s job. Worth a look is the summary of Hillerman’s writing at
Recently I discovered (thanks to my sister) the William Kent Krueger novels of the upper Minnesota Boundary Waters area, which again play to the interface between the Native Americans and the Caucasian and other late-comers. I’ve only read three of his titles, Boundary Waters being one of them, but I’ll continue as I can find them.
I also enjoy stories with strong female protagonists, and humor helps. I think I’ve read all of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries, and I’ve liked the Sue Grafton “A is for…” series, though I feel Grafton’s earlier novels had more interesting character development.
I’ve found books by Kat Martin, Linda Howard, Tami Hoig to be quite interesting. And I have a special fondness for the Carl Hiaasen books, which are just marvelous fun; ask the librarian for Strip Tease or Skinny Dip — no, they’re not porn, just funny.
Books by Nelson DeMille, especially Wild Fire, Up Country, and The General’s Daughter I have enjoyed. The Steve Berry novels, such as The Alexandria Link, The Templar Legacy, The Venetian Betrayal and The Paris Vendetta are very engrossing and interesting.
Fascinating and touching are the tales of Ivan Doig. Ride with Me, Mariah Montana, The Eleventh Man, and Mountain Time and his others are all very good reads.
My Non-Fiction post, when I get around to it, will reflect other interests, but will not duplicate the bibliography in my WhyStudyMoney web site.

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