Thursday, September 27, 2012

Friend Grief as Pinball Game

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:

"For 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?



Read the entire press release at: Stages of Grief Likened to Pinball Machine

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing About Depressing Stuff

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:

            Hospice volunteers

            AIDS outreach workers


            First responders

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 her.

I’ve also met writers whose memoirs deal with horrific tales of neglect, addiction, abuse and suicide. Yet not one of them seemed unhappy.

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 victims.

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 you?”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Final Gathering of Friends
Yesterday’s Chicago 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 esophageal cancer.

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 brother.

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 possible.

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"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Another Clear Blue Tuesday

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 Tower.

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.