this essay was first published in Permafrost, Vol. 37, Issue 1, Winter 2015
My Quarrel with Grieving
The placid yet authoritative male voice says, “If you’ve been grieving for more than six months, call this number….” Really, I thought, six months? Not six weeks, not a year? Can mourning be weighed and measured, clocked and regimented? Society and psychiatry dictate fluctuating benchmarks that range from chronic incapacitating anguish to its complete absence, and if you don’t fit the current criteria, you’re deviant.
I never took Grief 101. No one taught me how to mourn. Is it something you’re supposed to absorb as a child, watching your elders? What if you don’t? If it’s supposed to come naturally and it doesn’t? Are there right and wrong ways to grieve? Does practice make perfect? It isn’t detached curiosity that sparks my questions. I’ve long wondered if I’ve failed some covert test.
She grieved because she could not grieve. ― Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
My mother died during the hour surrounding midnight—I don’t know if it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. She was 60, I was 32. I was stunned into wakefulness by my father’s call from the hospital. I knew it was imminent, or did I? We didn’t talk about it—then or ever. She’d had lung cancer years earlier (though we never used the “C” word). A lung was removed—was she cured? In remission? If you can’t say the words, you can’t describe the condition. She never fully recovered, and her years of suffering were crowned with an inoperable brain tumor (but we still didn’t name it). I visited her faithfully in the hospital those last weeks, but because of what was unspoken, there was no closure.
I told my dad I’d come right up. “Not now,” he said, “in the morning.” He wasn’t one to express emotion, and I accepted his need to be alone. Some hours later, still dark, I drove the half-hour to their mobile home. He came out before I’d gotten out of my car and hustled me away: “Let’s get some coffee,” he said. At Denny’s we sat woodenly, hands clasped around coffee mugs. No reminiscences or comforting murmurs about her release from suffering. He told me there would be no funeral, no memorial. She would be cremated within 24 hours according to Jewish custom; he would dispose of her ashes. I felt marginalized. “She’s my mother,” I wanted to say, but kept silent. I don’t know if or what I ate, but I remember feeling as if a piece of dry toast was scratching my throat.
Afterwards we drove to my brother’s house nearby. David was impenetrable too, and we sat around making inane small talk, the air brittle with awkwardness, until Dad and I left. Back at his place he shooed me away. I was left to my solitary sorrow and life as usual.
On New Year’s Day, Dad asked David and me to come over and go through Mom’s stuff. I expected family bonding, hugs and tears, shared stories. Instead a ginger-haired woman my age bustled around the kitchen. “Nancy’s here to help,” Dad said. It didn’t take long to see that she knew her way around, to surmise that she’d been there on Christmas morning when I was blocked from entering. My mother had mentioned “the redhead in the trailer park,” but I had dismissed her concerns. I got through the afternoon with the motions of normalcy, but later I regretted my good manners, my peace-at-any-price cowardice. I wished I’d made a scene, said, “How could you?” and stormed out.
Dad handed me Mom’s jewelry box, white, naughahide-covered with little divided nooks for rings and pins, the main compartment for big pieces, a narrow drawer on the bottom, a tiny lock and key. “Take it home and go through it,” he said; “keep what you want.” My mother didn’t have any valuable jewelry, just lots of brightly-colored earrings, bracelets and necklaces. He asked me to return the box to him, a keepsake. “When hell freezes over,” I thought, my docile rebellion. He and Nancy married exactly a year later—on January 1—a year, he said, to show respect for my mother’s memory.
In the weeks after Mom’s death, I kept my sorrow in a locked compartment, like the jewelry box. I wasn’t brought up with displays of grief; you kept it to yourself. When each of my grandparents had died, my parents showed nothing and carried on; that was the model. My youthful sorrows and disappointments, large and small—a cat’s death and a boyfriend’s desertion come to mind—were met with admonishment: “If you’re going to cry, go to your room” or dismissal: “You’ll get over it.”
Grief (n) – deep mental anguish, as that arising from bereavement
The radio pitch that caught my ear was seeking participants for a project called HEAL—Healing Emotions After Loss—to compare the effectiveness of anti-depressants alone or in combination with therapy to treat complicated grief. “Complicated grief,” aka “prolonged grief disorder,” is defined and quantified as protracted mourning that interferes with functioning. The six-month criterion was established by the project. Each of the 2.5 million annual deaths in the United States directly affects, on average, four other people. For most, the suffering is “acute,” finite. For about 15 percent, however, more than a million people a year, grieving becomes an endless loop of suffering.
I object to the idea of drawing an arbitrary line to label and legitimize this condition as an illness requiring treatment with drugs. Wanting to know more, I start wading through the literature. There’s enough to start an avalanche, so I have to narrow the field to keep my focus manageable. I don’t want to chronicle the history or pathology of bereavement. Nor am I interested in pop psychology; I dismiss self-help works on grief—understanding your, traveling through, recovering from, awakening after, getting to the other side of. Some may find these resources of use, but I’m skeptical. Grief strikes me as big business—a booming industry with aging baby boomers as its intended targets.
Grief has always been with us; it’s death’s companion. Mythology offers designated deities—Penthos for the Greeks, Luctus for the Romans—and vivid illustrations. Cyparissus is turned into a cypress tree by his grief over a tamed stag he accidentally kills. Niobe’s distress after her children are murdered is so intense that the gods turn her into a rock that weeps continuously to this day. The bible is full of loss and lamentation, declaring mourning as a blessed state. Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies alike are rife with grief, both the “spill it” and the “stifle it” varieties.
The psychological focus on grief came into being with Freud’s 1917 “Mourning & Melancholia,” titled Trauer Arbeit in German, which translates as “The Work of Mourning.” Freud described grieving as hard, slow effort, with depression, self-hatred, and self-destruction resulting if it doesn’t proceed on course. That course was quantified in the 1940s when Harvard psychiatrist Erich Lindemann determined that most people need eight to ten psychiatric sessions over four to six weeks to get over a loss. This dubious timeline led to the formulation of distinctions between “normal” and “complicated” grief. Now the latter is being considered for its own status in the mental health gospel, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—Elizabeth Kubler-Ross became the star of the modern grief movement in 1969 when her landmark On Death and Dying identified these as the stages of grief. Kubler-Ross intended them as tools to help people frame and identify their experience, but in spite of caveats that there is no typical response to loss, people clutched the five steps like a life raft. The stage theory made loss feel controllable; subsequent timelines and boundaries, however arbitrary, do the same.
But classifications, statistics, and norms can be misleading. Research has established that bereavement enduring for two years and longer may be quite normal. The “average” grief is slanted by the minority—the 15 percent—who exhibit substantial, persistent distress. Queen Victoria fanned the flames of her anguish over Prince Albert for 40 years. To decree a neat progression and time frame for healing is unfair both to those being pushed into premature closure and those who are ready to move on sooner. It subjects the latter to accusations, by themselves and others, that they’re suppressing their grief, in denial, hardhearted. I know—that’s been my experience.
I wonder if It weighs like Mine— Or has an Easier size. I wonder if They bore it long— Or did it just begin— — Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson, dubbed “the supreme poet of grief,” expressed her curiosity and my own bewilderment in “I Measure Every Grief I Meet.” Grief’s ebb and flow in novels, plays and poems, essays and memoirs, from Dante and Shakespeare to contemporary work, even movies and television, tell me more than theoretical treatises or explorations into the psyche.
A dichotomy has always existed, rooted in culture and class, philosophy and proclivity over time. Tennyson and Dickinson epitomized the19th-century effusion sanctioned by Victoria in her enduring angst. Ralph Waldo Emerson rejected his day’s cult of mourning, saying “The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is.” At the turn of the century, James Joyce tells of grief infinite and pure in “The Dead.” When Gretta tells Gabriel about a young man in her past, he asks if the boy died from consumption. “I think he died for me,” she says, and then “She stopped, choking with sobs, and flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.”
The World War I era saw the rejection of Victorian mores and the rise of the stiff upper lip. In an episode of “Upstairs Downstairs,” a character asserts that “Mourning should not be allowed. People should be proud to give their nearest and dearest.” In another the newly widowed Lady Southwold says that “Grief is a luxury one can’t afford.” Jaws are still clenched years later when P.D. James’ poet/sleuth Adam Dalgleish mourns his dead wife. In Death in Holy Orders, a vicar urges him to let go; “grief can be an indulgence,” he says.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Lady Southwold’s Anglo stoicism is echoed word for word in Andrew Holleran’s 2007 novel Grief, the speaker adding: “One has to move on.” But expectations and decorum may still hold sway, and demonstrative grieving may be not only acceptable but demanded. In The Stranger, published during World War II, Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, displays no emotion at his mother’s death. He refuses to view her body, smokes and drinks coffee in front of the coffin. Not long after, he kills someone and registers no feelings. His passivity is shown as evidence of a lack of remorse. The prosecuting attorney focuses more on Meursault’s failure to cry at his mother’s funeral than on the murder he committed. Meursault is denounced as a soulless monster and sentenced to death.
I sometimes hold it half a sin / To put in words the grief I feel / For words, like nature, half reveal / And half conceal the soul within — Alfred Tennyson
My mother’s death wasn’t my first personal experience of bereavement. Three years earlier my 33-year-old ex-husband was killed in a car accident. Terry and I were recently divorced and had achieved an amicable plateau for the sake of our four-year-old daughter. One night Terry—not much of a drinker—spent the evening getting blotto with my father, a seasoned drunk. Driving home, Terry rammed head-on into a pick-up truck. The police called my dad, who—as he would again at my mother’s death—had to be the bearer of bad tidings.
I had to be the one to drop the bomb on Terry’s family in Kansas. His mother became hysterical, her grief catching immediate fire like kindling—no bows to decorum. I was evasive at first with Jennifer: “Daddy can’t come to see you today.” What do you say to a four-year-old about why she’ll never see her father again? I’ve buried the details of how the truth emerged, how it was slow sinking in, how she still expected to see him, how I resorted to fanciful lies and religious platitudes—“Daddy’s in heaven with the angels”—in my desperation. I had his body transported to Kansas, but I didn’t take Jennifer back for the funeral. I thought it would be overwhelming for her, and I told his family that I would bring her later, but they were affronted and never fully forgave me.
When is a widow not a widow? When she’s the ex-wife, already the villain for having used her California voodoo to spirit the fair-haired boy away from the farm. I became a convenient receptacle for their blame for our failed marriage and his death. I was enveloped in an amalgam of sorrows as I assumed a new role that came without operating instructions: a widow-of-sorts at 28. I was expected to function normally, and I did. I could have taken time off work, but why? No one was calling with sympathy or dropping by with casseroles. No widow’s weeds for me.
A well-meaning friend said, “You must be glad you weren’t still married.” There were jokes about exes—what pains they could be—and how I no longer had that problem.
My boss had keener insights: “You get all of the woes of widowhood but none of the glory.”
…when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. as we were. as we are no longer. as we will one day not be at all. ― Joan Didion
In 2005 Joan Didion combined writerly expertise and journalistic insight in The Year of Magical Thinking. In this memoir about her husband’s recent sudden death, she sought to make sense of a period that “cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” My book group read it and almost all were unsympathetic in their criticism. I had one ally in her defense. Shameful opportunism, they called it. Didion capitalized on her husband’s death to “knock off a lurid tale to rush to the marketplace.” They found her cold, clinical in her objectivity. “Look at the back of the book jacket,” one said, jabbing at the photograph in which Didion’s husband and their daughter are standing close together on the deck of their Malibu home, facing the camera, while Joan, several feet away with a drink and a cigarette, glances sideways at them with what someone described as a disdainful look. Like Meursault in The Stranger, she was indicted by smoking and drinking: “See how aloof she is!”
I pointed out passages in which she articulated her grief, her heartache and disorientation. How she kept her dead husband’s shoes because he might need them. She’s a writer, I said. She expresses her mourning through her writing. She explores his death and her own confusion and anguish with a writer’s eye, a journalist’s investigative curiosity. Didion dissected grief in all its forms, novels and memoirs, medical, self-help and religious texts. Reading that the “average widow” takes many years to regain her life satisfaction, she asked herself—as Emily Dickinson asked, as I asked—if her grief would weigh in at the proper dimensions. She recorded scholarly findings along with her love and her pain. How can you miss it, I asked—she’s bleeding on the page.
The Year of Magical Thinking launched a wave of grief memoirs that hasn’t ended. It prompted a 2011 essay, “Too Much Grief,” that questions how language is pressed into service, how writers orient disorientation. The author, Frances Stonor Saunders, wonders if memoirists are using the dead as “writing meat,” a term Muriel Spark used to describe the cannibalizing instinct of writers. She points the finger at Joyce Carol Oates, who presents herself as a dual entity in A Widow’s Story—the one who grieves and the one who writes about it. Oates adopts the persona of Joyce Smith, wife and widow, who is separate from “JCO” the writer. Saunders notes that “it’s JCO who goes on tour to promote her bestselling account of Joyce Smith’s grief, while Joyce Smith is left at home doing the vacuuming, feeding the cats….” My book club would have feasted on that.
Bleeding-heart memoirs demonstrate a new kind of breast-beating, ritualized public grief. Soul-baring disclosures feed voyeuristic curiosity—no wonder they sell. Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 blockbuster, Wild, is a page-turner of loss and torment, sex and drugs, resolve and redemption. “My mom was dead. My mom was dead. My mom was dead. Everything I ever imagined about myself had disappeared into the crack of her last breath,” bemoans 22-year-old Cheryl in her more mature self’s chronicle of her four-year descent into heroin and promiscuity. She hikes the Pacific Coast Trail to find peace and turn her life around: “I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey.”
Some memoirs are masterpieces of well-crafted, nuanced writing; some may comfort and inspire. Some are mawkish and manipulative. An “appetite for grief” is what Saunders believes drives writers and readers to a veritable feeding frenzy. OK, but why? Is it prurient nosiness? Schadenfreude? Masochism gone amok? Or does it serve a need, relieve a hunger? Canadian novelist Helen Humpheys wrote a memoir about her brother’s death after finding comfort in accounts of similar experiences: “… being privy to others’ suffering gives us company on the hard and difficult journey following a loved one’s death.”
C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed in 1961 after his wife’s death. A devout Christian, Lewis rails at his God in anger and bewilderment. “We were promised sufferings,” he says. “We were even told ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it.” But it’s different when it strikes home, “…to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” He chronicles his moment to moment state, physical pain that he compares to an amputation. Unlike 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, who says of grief: “I am among those who are most free from this emotion. I neither like it nor think well of it, even though the world, by common consent, has decided to honour it with special favour.” Montaigne had lost his daughter, brother, father, and closest friend within the space of a few years. He acknowledged his anguish but disdained the act of grieving, adopting the position of the stoics, for whom grief was a negative passion, along with malice, envy, jealousy, pity, worry and melancholy.
Lewis believed that mourning renders one at a loss for words, though his memoir appears to have served as a purgative. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that “Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” Talk/write about it, get it out. In contrast, novelist/essayist Julian Barnes derides what he calls the “therapeuto-autobiographical fallacy” that public airing is an effective way of grieving, that writing helps to alleviate suffering.
Francine duPlessix Gray’s essay, “The Work of Mourning,” echoes my story in part: “My own family has never been much good at mourning,” she says. Her father died in World War II when she was a child, and her mother soon remarried. Gray quotes Hamlet to illustrate her dismay: “The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” But then we diverge. Decades later Gray seeks to mourn her father properly. She visits his grave in France for palliative weeping, wailing and work. In her novel Lovers and Tyrants she projects her experience onto a protagonist whose loved one can “… live in my memory, totally restored and whole now, as if resurrected, the reality of his death accepted, faced.”
Behold then, the blue Madonna streaked with tears. This is my funeral service. We have no ceremonies, only private dirges and no conclusions, only violent sensations, each separate. – Virginia Woolf
I turn to Virginia Woolf, whose life and work I’ve studied for more than 20 years. She was traumatized at 13 by the death of her mother, then her step-sister, father, and oldest brother within the next ten years. Her grief is memorialized in her diaries, letters, and novels, and Woolf scholars have picked over every morsel. Woolf was an intuitive writer and a consummate professional, but some are intent on finding hidden psychological meaning in her work. In Virginia Woolf’s Quarrel with Grieving, Mark Spilka asserts that she did not properly mourn her mother’s death; that her inability to do so was at the root of her mental illness and subsequent suicide; that it was a major theme in her novels. From his psychoanalytical platform he offers two possible explanations for Woolf’s stifled and misdirected emotions: she was angry with her mother for dying or she secretly wanted her to die. A or B, choose one.
Woolf’s grief is palpable at the death of her close friend Roger Fry in 1934: “I feel dazed; very wooden. I think the poverty of life now is what comes to me; and this blackish veil over everything. The substance gone out of everything.” In her fifties, she recall her mother’s death, and how she was, at 13, “afraid I was not feeling enough. So now.” Her Victorian father’s excessive lamentation created a stultifying environment and rigid demands on the Woolf children. The tragedy of their mother’s death “was not that it made one … very intensely unhappy. It was that it made her unreal, and us solemn, and self-conscious. We were made to act parts that we did not feel; to fumble for words that we did not know. It made one hypocritical and inmeshed in the conventions of sorrow.”
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the overwrought heart and bids it break. ― Macbeth
My dad and I were never close after his remarriage. Our relationship was uncomfortable for his wife, and he deferred to her. We saw each other infrequently, kept in touch by phone. He remained healthy well into his 80s and died just shy of his 90th birthday. Nancy decreed no funeral, no memorial, no family conclave. They’d have been empty rituals for me anyway, as I’d felt orphaned from the time of my mother’s death. My grief took the form of sadness for what we’d missed over the past 30 years. After my brother called my office with the news, I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t want to be subjected to others’ scrutiny of my behavior. Later some friends expressed dismay: “Why didn’t you tell us?” I thought about their response when I read a recent tribute to Nora Ephron written by one of her friends. He grumbled that Nora failed to tell him when she was near death. I wondered: is our sorrow our own or is it an offering we make to others?
Grief doesn’t follow a user’s manual, although there’s no shortage of them. Some people do it in public—audibly or in print—others behind closed doors. For some it’s a burden to bear or a chore to tackle, in the way that marriage, happiness, and even eating are treated as work these days (“are you still working on that steak?”). Others dispense with it like Montaigne and the stoics. The composer Rossini was said to recall only two moments of grief in his life—when his mother died, and when, on a boating party, a chicken stuffed with truffles fell into the water. Was he being flippant, vulgar, or does it put things in perspective? Grief becomes part of us. It humanizes us.
Shakespeare said, “Give sorrow words.” He didn’t say they need to be spoken aloud. He knew that language is understanding and healing. Words on paper—my own and others’—have brought me full circle and enabled me to reconcile my own quarrel with grieving. I wasn’t certain when I started, but now I find quarrel—or take squabble, wrangle, disagreement, dispute, tiff, clash, argument—an apt descriptor. I’ve sparred with concepts of grief at odds with my own. I’ve tussled with those who would weigh and measure it like a newborn baby, assign ratings between one and ten. And I rebuff pressure to demonstrate someone else’s idea of mourning. Everyone doesn’t feel the need to shout, “Look at me, I’m wounded, I bleed!” My gripe is with the idea that we’re all supposed to hang our emotions out on the line in full sight or gift-wrap them for others’ consumption.
I’ve mined my ambiguity, molded my position. There’s a pathos of loss that accrues over a lifetime, and I find it healthy that we can become habituated to it. It’s called the cycle of life. As I get older, I see more of dying and death. First it was friends’ parents and loved ones, and I felt each one in the pit of my stomach. I know that no matter how old they are or we are, our parents’ deaths are wrenching, life-altering separations. Each of these losses stirs the residue of my mother’s death, as do anniversaries and special dates—it’s taken the glow out of Christmas for 30-some years. In recent years, death has claimed several of my friends. My grief is cumulative, and private, even as I’ve wept with family members, spoken at memorials. I discard the cookie-cutter model of people’s expectations and no longer feel remiss that my grief—for my mother, my father, my first husband, my friends—was insufficient because I didn’t labor at it, didn’t demonstrate measurable mourning.
I intended to end this essay by comparing grief to a piece of knitting—a scarf that you start and stop and start and stop again. It gets longer and longer, but you don’t know how to finish it, may not even want to, so you keep it going, take it out from time to time when you’re alone, add stiches and rows, rip out stretches that don’t look right, put it back in the drawer. Now I see that it’s this topic itself that resembles a yards-long scarf that wraps around the room with no end in sight. There’s an infinite amount of material, but now I’m ready to weave in the loose ends and cast off.