Most people are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s
famous stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She
herself acknowledged that those who are dying (the original study members) and
their survivors may not follow these stages in exact order.
But as time has passed since her 1969 book On Death and Dying, society has adopted
these five stages as gospel. They’ve been co-opted to explain the feelings of
fans after their favorite sports team is eliminated from post-season play, or a
TV show is cancelled. It’s only recently that the medical community has
questioned those stages.
From my own experience, I’d say they’re pretty
accurate. But grief – mine included - is rarely neat and linear.
Baylor University’s press release this week explains
a refreshing challenge to that long-held definition of grief:
some, grieving is complete after the loss is accepted. But for others, such
events as the anniversary of a death or a scene that jogs the memory can send
them slamming into grief again, according to a case study by Margaret Baier,
Ph.D., an assistant professor in the family and consumer sciences department at
Baylor and a marriage and family therapist, and Ruth Buechsel, a psychologist
at Brooke in San Antonio. Their study appears in the September Mental Health
Practice nursing journal."
Anyone who has grieved a friend or family member
knows about being blindsided. Some things – like anniversaries – can be
anticipated. You expect to feel bad that day. Other things cannot: the song
that plays on the radio while you’re driving, the smell of bread baking, or the
old photo that falls out of a book you’re reading. These things and many more
can trigger an emotional reaction that takes you by surprise.
It would be a normal reaction to be upset by pinball
machine grieving. After all, you were told about the five stages, and you went
through them. You’re done, right?
“You don’t get over it, you just get used to it,” a
friend’s recently widowed mother said after my father died. She was right. Time
passes and you get used to your friend being gone. But then something happens,
something completely unexpected, and you realize you’ll never get over it.
Six years after my friend Delle died, there are
still times when the sight of a grey PT Cruiser (her car) will bring me down.
And maybe that’s the lesson from the Baylor/Brooke
Army Medical Center study.
You get used to them being gone, but at any moment,
you can be reminded of the love you shared.
Why would that be a surprise?
I’ve written before about how writing about grief
can affect you, but I think it’s worth revisiting, in a little broader sense.
There are people who cringe when I tell them what
most of my writing is about. I understand their feeling that grief is
“depressing”. But there are many whose work could be classified that way:
I had a friend whose job was to fire people in her
company (I hate “lay off” – let’s call it what it is). I thought she had an
incredibly depressing job, but she didn’t think so. She was so considerate
about how she handled each person that they often wound up sympathizing with
I’ve also met writers whose memoirs deal with horrific
tales of neglect, addiction, abuse and suicide. Yet not one of them seemed
What do these people have in common? I think aside
from their professions, or book topics, it’s attitude.
They’ve found a way to define themselves as helpers.
They use their experience to inform and empower others. They don’t feel sorry
for themselves or complain about how hard they have it. They focus on serving
people, often on the worst day of their lives.
So, when you watch a tragedy unfold on TV, think of
them: the reporters struggling for words, the first responders taking a break
and realizing what they just witnessed, the Red Cross volunteers comforting
Their job is a whole lot more depressing than mine,
and probably yours, too. But you won’t hear them complain.
Because they’re the ones asking “How can I help
Tribune carried a beautiful story by Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Kissinger. She introduced us to Dick Rothing,
who at the age of 55, received a shocking, unexpected diagnosis of metastatic
He knew he wanted to go home. Home is his family’s
compound, “R-Place”, on Little St. Germain Lake in Wisconsin, a part of his
life since 1957.
His sister and sister-in-law drove him from Montana
for a last visit. His grade school friends joined him in June, and a few days
later, Rothing returned to Montana. But not for long.
A few weeks later, he came back to R-Place for good.
This time his best friend since kindergarten brought
his son, for a father-son fishing expedition with Rothing, his son and his
He’s much weaker now, resigned to the things he’ll
never get to do, but at peace spending his final days in the place he loved so
much. He chose the place where his ashes will be buried.
Many people say they want to “go” in their sleep,
peacefully. Others say they just want “it” to be fast and as painless as
But there’s something soothing about Rothing’s
story. Yes, it’s the ultimate shock to find you’re dying at 55.
But what a gift, to spend your last days surrounded
by friends who love you, in the place you love the most.
You can read the full
story here: "Making
His Final Rendezvous"
The past two years on September 11, I was in New
York for the observances. Mostly it was research, for that chapter in the book
I’m writing. Partly it was personal: a high school classmate died in the South
One of the things that struck me last year was the
determination of people from around the world – mostly first responders – to come
to New York at their own expense on the anniversary. I spoke to a young police
officer from Toronto, who was there for the seventh time, and met firefighters
from as far away as Australia. Without exception, they considered it a duty and
an honor to be there.
It feels strange not being there. This year my
daughter is a freshman in college in New York, and she’s headed down to St.
Paul’s Chapel later, where there are observances all day.
There is a hierarchy of grief in the 9/11 community.
Families are at the top, and I don’t object to that at all. Their loss is
unimaginable. They’re the only ones allowed to attend the Naming Ceremony, or
visit the Memorial and Visitor Center on the anniversary.
But there were many survivors who weren’t family
members. There are the survivors – first responders, office workers, shop
owners, reporters – who were there that day and ran from the cloud of debris that
engulfed lower Manhattan.
There are survivors who – by the grace of God – were
not there that day. I know three people who were supposed to be at or near the
World Trade Center that morning: one overslept, one cancelled their meeting,
another went inside and couldn’t find his meeting, so he left.
There are those whose lives and livelihood were
directly impacted: people who lived or worked near the Towers, or for companies
decimated by the loss of dozens, maybe hundreds of employees.
And there are those of us who watched in horror from
hundreds and thousands of miles away, trying for hours to get a call through to
our friends in New York, only to hear that “all circuits are busy” sound.
I had several friends in New York at the time, most
of them women who were high school classmates. I didn’t call the men I knew;
for some reason, I knew they were okay, but I did not feel confident about the
women. One by one I talked to them: one was stuck on Staten Island for a couple
days, another was afraid to go to her job in a high rise. It was three days
later, when one of them called to let me know that Carol was missing. By then,
we all knew what “missing” meant.
There are those who have turned 9/11 into a
political football, and those who exploit it to sell lottery tickets and
souvenirs. There are those who are tired of hearing about it, who prefer to put
it away in a safe place and not think about it.
And there are those who used channeled their grief
and horror into something positive, like Mychal’s Message, the nonprofit
organization established in memory of Fr. Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain who
was one of the victims.
So I ask you today, as we pause to remember those we
lost, to also remember those left behind. We are all survivors today.