Archive for the 'bereavement' Category


August 24, 2014

While I was visiting my mother, I had to decide what day to leave.  I had come down a day later than planned, an idea that originated with my mother, due mostly to the weather, and I needed to decide whether to go back home on my originally planned day of departure or to extend the trip one day.

We had accomplished much of what we had planned — banking business; open house; sorting, shredding or keeping files that had been in the basement, sorting, folding, donating or keeping the contents of the linen closet …

I couldn’t tell whether we were done for this trip.  So I took a walk late one afternoon.  And what percolated up for me was to call my son to see how he was faring at home and to pack my car, to the extent possible at that point, with what I thought I needed to bring back with me, to see if it would fit (I drive a Ford Focus sedan).

And once I did those two things, it became clear to me to stay the extra day.  And when I did that, I found myself doing some work that hadn’t before occurred to me, including getting things off closet shelves, sorting them for donation, trash, or keeping — because I wasn’t sure who else would be able to get them down, given the limitations of the help my mother engages.  This project had not been apparent to me, but by clearing away the clutter in my mind about my decision (about when to leave), I was able to make that decision, and, subsequently, to see the next right thing I was being called to do.  Again, as in my previous post, this occurred in a mundane context, but I am here to say that my process works, at least for me.

I will add as a note here that my mother received three wonderful letters from the university that collected and received her donation of CDs, records, and books.  My mother read them to me over the phone last night.  Not only were we amazed by the number of CDs (over 4,000) and records and books (over 600 and 800, respectively), but we found it heartwarming that the writers were so appreciative of the collections.  I was also especially happy to hear that the writers mentioned that the CDs would be quite helpful in the teaching and preparation of music students.  That’s the sort of thing I had been hoping for — that the collections would go where they were appreciated for what they were and would be used in a way that allows them to reach their potential to help others.

A collection

July 28, 2014

I am thrilled that between the two of us, my mother and I seem to have found a good home for my dad’s extensive classical music CD collection.  He developed the collection in part as a result of his reviewing CDs for the American Record Guide.

I felt pretty strongly that the collection has greater value as a whole, that its value as a whole is greater than the sum of its (many) parts.  One example of the significance of its size is how it contains multiple performances of the same work (my dad would make reference to comparisons in his reviews) and so lends itself to in-depth study of a work.  I advocated pretty strongly that we should find someone to take it who would appreciate this aspect of it.

I did some poking about online while I was on the telephone with my mother, and I gave her some phone numbers of music departments or related departments at local universities.

The collection is going to a university library, as I understand it, and being handled by a person who really appreciates the collection (and even used to follow my father’s work).  As I said, I am thrilled.

I was going to write more about the factual details of what’s going on, but what really moved me was finding such a good match.  I wound up my father’s estate recently, and I certainly tried to do right by him on those matters, but this is a different sort of thing  —  it feels like settling something of the heart.  I think it makes me feel as though there are things we can still do for loved ones after they have died.

Young men

May 29, 2014

My older son let me know about a terrible accident involving his friend’s cousin, who was someone whom he also knew a little, I think, from school.  She was hit and killed by a train and she was pregnant.  She was in her twenties.

My son was texting and emailing me about this while I was out and he was getting on the wrong train for an appointment and his friend was coming over that night, I think, to talk and it was not easy for me to know what to say.  Something about keeping people company and showing them we care.

Rabbi Kushner makes a point about how human suffering is an opportunity for human love to come forth, as I recall.

But in the throes of it, I think it just plain hurts, like a body blow and a hole in the heart, there are stages of it when it’s really tough to feel anybody’s love, I think, we contract so much in our reaction to the event that very little gets in.  It’s tough.

Words are not enough and analysis seems just beside the point.

For me this feels almost as if I am watching people on an Outward Bound experience.




I am so sorry for the losses, for the pain and suffering, and I hope for everybody some measure of comfort, now, in the coming days and nights, and in the long term.

My best to you and your family, Alex.  (I was surprised to learn from Jonas that you sometimes read this blog.)

Doing the opposite

January 21, 2014

Well, maybe not quite the opposite, but close.

I read the David Brooks column on being “present” when people are grieving or in other difficult situations.  Part of the advice was not to pull in comparisons to one’s own travails.  Some commenters said this is not a hard and fast rule, as they actually found such comparisons helpful.  I suspect the attitude with which the comparisons are made is important —  it can mean the difference between making the conversation shift to a focus on the interlocutor (or using a comparison to shut down the conversation), and trying to put one’s emotional finger on the right understanding of what the other person is going through so as to be able to acknowledge the bereaved’s experience adequately.

But what’s interesting to me is how many of the comments sort of make comparisons.  I thought of doing something similar myself, but it struck me as flying in the face of the point of the column, and so I didn’t.

I just complimented the column instead.  I thought it was “spot-on and well-articulated,” worthy of being kept with emergency supplies for future reference when needed.

Of course, advising people on what is helpful is a different task from making sure people who need presence at a time of mourning or difficulty have it, but he’s a columnist, not Florence Nightingale.

Feathers in wings

October 29, 2013

The line in the Leslie Smith song “Words of a Kind” is actually about “tattered wings,” not directly about tattered feathers.  It goes, “Our wings are older now and tattered.”  Just wanted to correct what I wrote in my last post.

I thought to do that earlier, but I forgot about it.  Until I was walking home again through the woods this afternoon.

I was studying the area where there are steps down to the ball field for the middle school.  Used to be a large tree there, then it fell, then it was cut into pieces and they lay across from where it had stood.  Now it’s all gone and the area is much more open.  I was also looking at the stonework near those stairs and wondering, yet again, if the stones ever were the foundation for something beyond what can be seen now — they look like what you see in an archaeological dig, foundations to a structure long gone.

Anyway, I was contemplating all this and saw a motion in the sky at the edge of my field of vision, which I assumed would turn out to be an airplane, but no, it was a hawk.  It was gliding in circles, they looked as if they were overlapping, like you’d make with a spirograph.  Maybe that’s how hawks scan sectors for prey.  Don’t know, but it struck me that the feathers are much better on a live bird sailing through the sky than scattered on the ground.

I guess I also liked the idea of the feathers sailing up high because this was Willy’s birthday, and there’s that section at the end of “Reunion Hill,” by Richard Shindell, about the hawk “spiral[ing] higher still / As if from such an altitude / He might just keep our love in view.”

I’m sure there’s a story out there somewhere about how the husband sails off as the hawk himself, up to the higher reaches, after he dies.  That’s actually how I hear the Richard Shindell song, but I suspect that’s my overlay.

What does the etiquette book say?

October 10, 2013

My mother has an anecdote about learning on the spot the etiquette for going through a receiving line at a socialite’s wedding.  One of the older women receiving the guests gave her a prompt for what she was supposed to say in response.  She was college age at the time.  She appreciated the prompt.

My mother had the advantage of realizing from the details of the situation that she was being called upon to do something, and the nature of a receiving line — its length — allowed her to climb the learning curve successfully during the episode.

I think sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances in which we don’t think of the appropriate response until we are descending the staircase afterwards.

I think it’s a mistake to think of this situation as an example of a failed imitation of the receiving line scenario I just described, during which there was time to learn, regroup, and respond as necessary.  Instead it is another sort of opportunity, one in which we are being asked to learn a different skill, I think.

I suspect it will be a new skill, not mere repetition of what we usually do and have done before, that we will find we are being asked to learn.  And, of course, we can not learn it, we can fail to recognize it, refuse to do it, etc.  We can mistake it for something it isn’t, especially if to make this mistake would support our trying to put our onus onto another person.

Sometimes I have figured out what to do in puzzling situations by taking the advice an elderly lady, who was my predecessor as treasurer for the Afro-American Society of Arlington gave me years ago.  She said her husband suggested she do the thing she was avoiding.  The example she gave me was revisiting her childhood home after her mother died.  She hadn’t wanted to do it, but it helped when she did do it, finally.

At the time, I was grappling with bereavement, and what I was avoiding was buying myself a necklace.  Sounds strange, but the two turned out to be connected, and buying myself a necklace freed something up and I was able to move on to a new step in the grieving process.

Costella didn’t try to tell me what to do or tell me what I was avoiding, that work was mine.  She gave me a process:  identify what you’re avoiding and try doing it.

In another example, I was avoiding having a difficult conversation with a relative.  In one instantiation of the pattern, I asked someone else to help me with the conversation, and I regretted the results.  Not surprisingly, the opportunity came around again, and this time I took the bull by the horns and did it myself.  It was rough.  On me and on the relative.  But I think it was necessary, for both of us.

I actually think we see people and even groups going through this in the public sphere.  They try the same thing over and over, and then they try doing what they have been avoiding and the pattern resolves.  But it takes gumption to take the road they are avoiding.

Learning a new skill and moving through our lives can involve accepted etiquette.  It can also involve diving deep within ourselves and discerning what we should be doing through that process instead.  I suspect making the transition from one method to the other is a difficult learning experience in itself.

Cardboard tubes

September 13, 2013

I was putting a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towel into the recycling bin and I realized that I hadn’t thought in a long time about how we used to turn it into a treat for our dog:  we’d stick a treat inside it and twist the ends closed and then toss it and he’d spend a few minutes happily ripping it apart until he got the treat out.  He ate only the treat, not the cardboard.

He died in the fall, in 2008, around the time the stock market tanked, so it’s been five years.  I found one of his rawhide chew flips underneath some furniture when I was emptying a room for re-plastering this summer.  I was surprised.  I had thought all his effects had been either thrown out or put away.

I was looking for a photo to illustrate the treat-in-the-tube.  I came across this first.  It’s from down along the Palisades in New Jersey, I think, on the grounds of an historic house museum.  I suspect the dog had been jumping around in excitement and Willy had grabbed him so the photo could be taken by my dad, but I like that he became a focal point in the picture:


Mom’s makeover, part II

August 3, 2013

Be still my heart, my mother has now gone back to doing needlework and some light gardening, as well.  She is also reading a translation of Dante’s Inferno.  And writing letters.  It’s really quite a resurgence.


July 19, 2013

My younger son is a big fan of the deli counter.  On the other hand, while I like cold cuts, I really dislike going up to the counter, even with a number in hand, because I so often get overlooked, even when my number is called and I respond.

My son has figured out that I especially like sliced roast beef, and now, even when he’s just going on a deli run for himself, he buys the roast beef and makes sure I’m aware it’s there for me in the fridge.

This may sound small, but it’s not.  After their dad died, my younger son and my older son lost faith in the idea of family, especially as reflected in the act of eating the same food together — I came to see it as almost a statement of faith lost.  They each maintained a relationship with me, but they could not make that emotional investment in being a family again.  Their having lost their original families (they are adopted) was a factor, and so, too, has been the attitude of extended family towards them (which, from my perspective, basically created a self-fulfilling prophecy that things would not go well for them).  My younger son articulated this to a family therapist shortly after the death, and his brother agreed.

So this roast beef supply is a significant thing in this context.  I say “Boys,” because it’s my experience of boys that most of them show you rather than tell you about their emotional state.

Touchy subjects

June 23, 2013

Today’s daily meditation from Richard Rohr quotes John 20:17’s “Do not cling to me” and interprets it in the realm of mysticism:  “Why? Because you can’t! He is no longer bound by this one body. Christ is consciousness itself pervading all things—waiting and hoping for its inner yes!”

But how about a more literal interpretation, as well, here:  Don’t cling to the souls of people who have died.  And if you die, don’t cling to people left behind.

I suspect we leave behind pieces of ourselves in our loved ones whether we’re aware of it or not, and that state of affairs can make it difficult enough after the death, but clinging wholesale to the whole person — that really gums things up, I think, and that situation I think we can be more aware of and do something about.

[An aside here is that I think a very well-developed soul will leave whether we cling to them or not — their more rarefied substance slips through our grasp willy-nilly.  They’re just “Gone, gone, gone, really gone.”]

Yes, to answer Art Garfunkel’s question, space men do pass dead men’s souls on the way to the moon, so to speak — the ones that have not made their journey.

So I think it’s a good idea to disentangle ourselves from our loved ones before death and to keep ourselves from emotional behavior that would lead to a re-entanglement after their death until the dust has settled.  I suspect it takes about a year for the dust to settle in that regard.