Monday, August 29, 2011

Ice Floes

I used to think; that is, before the after; that grief was much like a river.  That once I was thrown from my familiar place of land; I needed to struggle against the current and swim to the other side to find a new land to live.  But now that I find myself in this water; I realize that grief is more like the sea.  I used to be a California girl; feet in the sand, basking in the sun.  Now I am a polar bear in the Arctic Sea drifting on a melting ice floe.  There is no such thing as land anymore; so I no longer look for it.  I look out across the horizon and to the Great Bear constellation, which does not set in this Arctic place.    

Choosing when you have been robbed of choice

Excerpt from The Worst Loss, How Families Heal from the Death of a Child by Barbara D. Rosof. 

This is a quote from When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner, years after his son's death.

I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron's life and death than I would ever have been without it.  And I would give up all of these gains in a second if I could have my son back.  If I could choose, I would forgo all the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of our experiences, and be what I was fifteen years ago, an average rabbi, an indifferent counselor, helping some people and unable to help others, and the father of a bright happy boy.  But I cannot choose.


How do we hear this and live?

Excerpt from A Broken Heart Still Beats; after your child dies.  It is a collection of grief anthologies. These two quotes are by Mark Twain.  The first is from The Autobiography of Mark Twain, after the death of his daughter Susy, 24 years old.  The second is from The Death of Jean, thirteen years later when his daughter Jean died at 29.

It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live.  There is but one reasonable explanation of it.  The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words.  The power to realize their full import is mercifully wanting.  The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss-that is all.  It will take mind and memory months and possibly years to gather together the details and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss.

About three in the morning, while wandering about the house in the deep silences, as one does in times like these, when there is a dumb sense that something has been lost that will never be found again, yet must be sought, if only for the employment the useless seeking gives, I came upon Jean's dog in the hall down-stairs, and noted that he did not spring to greet me, according to his hospitable habit, but came slow and sorrowfully.  Poor fellow, did he know?  I think so....  They told me that the first mourner to come was the dog.  He came uninvited, and stood up on his hind legs and rested his fore paws upon the trestle, and took a last long look at the face that was so dear to him, then went his way as silently as he had come.  He knows.

What kind of a Universe is this Anyway?

Excerpt from A Broken Heart Still Beats; after your child dies.  It is a collection of grief anthologies. This quote is by David Morrell who wrote Fireflies, a blend of fact and fantasy about the death of his 15 year old son Matthew from cancer.  Morrell is best know for creating the character Rambo.

When you lose a child, you search for some meaning, some justification, anything to ease your agony.  You think about God and whether he exists and what kind of God would allow something so heinous as Matthew's death.  You think about ultimates, about the point of existence and whether there's an afterlife and what it would be like.  Would Matthew be waiting when his father, mother, and sister died?  Would he be the same?

You question everything.  You grasp at anything.  To make sense of what seems to have no sense.  To find meaning in what you despair might be the ultimate meaning: nothingness.  You seek in all places, all cultures.  You search in all philosophies and faiths. 

Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea

Excerpt from A Broken Heart Still Beats; after your child dies.  It is a collection of grief anthologies. This is from Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff written in the first year after his 25 year old son, Eric, died in a mountain-climbing accident.

The world looks different now.  The pinks have become purple, the yellows are brown.  Mountains now wear crosses on their slopes.  Something is over.  In the deepest levels of my existence something is finished, done.  My life is divided into before and after.  Especially in places where he and I were together this sense of something being over washes over me.  It happens not so much at home, but other places.  A moment in our lives together of special warmth and intimacy and vividness, a moment when I specially prized him, a moment of hope and expectancy and openness to the future: I remember the moment.  But instead of lines of memory leading up to his life in the present, they all enter a place of cold inky blackness and never come out.  The book slams shut.  The story stops, it doesn't finish.  The future closes, the hopes get crushed.  And now instead of those shiny moments being things we can share together in delighted memory, I, the survivor, have to bear them alone.

So it is with all memories of him.  They all lead into that blackness.  It's all over, over, over.  All I can do is remember him.  I can't experience him.  The person to whom these memories are attached is no longer here with me, standing up.  He's only in my memory now, not in my life.  Nothing new can happened between us.  Everything is sealed tight, shut in the past.  I'm still here.  I have to go on.  I have to start over.  But this new start is so different from the first.  Then, I wasn't carrying this load, this thing that is over.

Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me.  I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that's when we were still happy.  But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn't quite it.  Perhaps what's over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence.  Now sorrow is that.

Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.

Storm in the Heart: Dread

Excerpt from A Broken Heart Still Beats; after your child dies.  It is a collection of grief anthologies. This quote is from Give Sorrow Words: A Father's Passage through Grief by Tom Crider whose only child, Gretchen, died in a fire at 21.

At night when he can't sleep, he reads books on death and religion.  Some of them say she is not really dead.  Some say God has other plans for her.  He has never believed in a God who controls human lives or decrees their deaths, and he's always felt the idea of immortality was wishful thinking.  Now, with his mind and emotions in turmoil, he seems to be scavenging for ways to keep her from having vanished.  He finds himself ready to believe just about anything.  He's like a beggar in winter, clawing through box after box of old coats, looking for one that fits...

I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but unlike the psalmist, I fear evil everywhere.

It's deeper than fear. really, it's dread.  He feels like a dog who's lived through being run over once and who jumps at the slightest sound to make sure nothing is coming at him again.  When the phone rings, his heart bounds.  He thinks someone else has died.  In a store or on the street, he hears a child scream, but instead of delight, he hears horror, and turns to see if the child needs help.  Several times a day, spurts of fright splash up from the sea of dread.

In addition to the expected definition of dread - "to anticipate with anxiety, alarm, or apprehension; fear intensely," he finds this also: "fear mixed with awe or reverence."

Yes, there is awe in what I feel.  It's what I imagine a mole might feel when the top of its burrow is scraped away by a grizzly.  It comes from being one who is tiny in the presence of a greater, malevolent power.  This power snatched my Gretchen away from me.  What will it do next?

Storm in the Heart: Anger

Excerpt from A Broken Heart Still Beats; after your child dies.  It is a collection of grief anthologies. This is from Rage Makes Me Strong by Susan Cohen whose daughter Theo, at age 20, was murdered by the terrorists who blew up Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.

The very phrase "grief process" tells it all.  Bland, neutral words that have nothing to do with my personal hell.  The grief therapist I encountered at first were no better than the books.  There was the rabbit-eyed, frightened individual who would cower behind his desk when I was in his office and who told me to adopt a child.  I couldn't even look at children then.  There was the tough therapist who told me to get back into the flow of life quickly and encouraged me to get on a plane well before I was ready.  My trip to the airport left me a crumpled wreck in the parking lot.  There was the grief-group therapist who told me she worried about my anger, that I should open my heart.  Well, my heart was open, all right.  It was an open bleeding wound.  I didn't need cliches.  Most of all, I didn't need anyone telling me there was something wrong with the enormous rage I was feeling.  My daughter dies in a mass murder, and I'm not supposed to feel anger?  I am a skeptic by inclination, a fighter by nature, and it was beginning to dawn on me that there were a lot of people making a lot of money promoting denial and passivity.  Of all the emotions I have felt since Theo's murder, anger is the best.  Rage gives me energy.  Rage makes me strong.