States and Stages

I would have hoped that something called the “Five Stages of Grief” could be a relatively orderly practice. I imagined the five stages as a sort of Life syllabus for the grieving process. A bit like the developmental stages of infant-toddler-young child, with a clear trajectory, even if there are some points of overlap. First, he turns from back to tummy, then he sits, then crawls, walks, and runs. The actual grief experience, however, is much less defined and quite a bit louder.

The chaplain hands me a simple pamphlet, describing the five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The whole process seems tidy and manageable, all summed up in an 8 page glossy format. I read the whole thing in less than seven minutes. It seems reasonable enough. Almost refined.

And then the work of grieving begins.

Let me just say that my grief has not been especially cooperative with the outline. I’m a pretty diligent student. If grief and healing had been a class, I would have completed much of the assigned reading and turned most of the assignments in on time, all within the course of the semester. But loss is a test you can’t really prepare for.

Each grief is different, just as every child is different. The best I can do is to become an expert in my own grief. The good news in all this is that there are many ways to do grief right, and only a few wrong ways.

I swing from Denial to Acceptance in a single loop around the Rose Bowl. I hold on to a few steadfast girlfriends who are relentless with their love and attention. I have two good reasons to get up in the morning, but Depression crawls back under the covers after she walks those reasons to school.

Not every experience fits neatly into a five-pronged paradigm. The uncontrollable tears – are those Depression? Or Anger? Or Acceptance? Isn’t there a plain vanilla Sad? What about Panic, Sleeplessness, Loss of Appetite and Inability to Focus? The sense of being so completely Alone. Resentment. Remorse. Apathy.

The stages blow in together like a winter storm, with lightening flashes of Desperation, clouds of Fear, winds of Self-Pity, hailstones of Loneliness. The calm and beauty of a summer day seem very far away.

There’s no real time constraint. Just when I think I’m done with a stage, Anger for example, one of the boys comes home from school devastated because somebody else’s dad brought a prototype Mars rover to show the class, or gave a cool art presentation on Picasso, or just came home from work like he does on any given day, and then I’m angry all over again. Angry at Sam, at myself, at Life, at Picasso. Just plain angry.

And so it goes. I cannot check the stages off, like my daily task list. Done. The stages come back in their random order and time. Acceptance seems to linger for days or weeks at a time, but Depression might return when certain anniversaries come around. I revisit Bargaining when the children suffer.

All of which is complicated by the fact that the children’s grieving process is as noncompliant as my own.

Some days the six of us are each in a different stage, and it’s like playing a game of musical chairs, with each of the five chairs representing a stage of grief. When the music stops, the last man standing looks around, bewildered, not wanting to play the game at all. By evening, of course, everybody has exchanged seats, some of us multiple times (except the one who refuses to leave his chair), and we face an entirely new conglomeration of simultaneous stages. We cannot agree on which music to play. It’s not organized or pretty.

We live our way through.

Because the fact of the matter is that grief – whatever its states and stages – is the price we pay for living wholeheartedly.

A few months after Sam’s suicide, I took a meditation class. I didn’t realize what a healing course this practice would be at the time. I continue to engage in a meditation practice, as those five stages – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – appear with alarming relevance in the course of parenting teenagers. The key is simply to become aware of the range of experience, without judgment. Just notice what is happening, and let the feeling flow without getting stuck. Awareness leads to healing. It’s not ignoring the sadness, but there is kindness toward the process.

One of my favorite places to sit and meditate is on a balcony above the boardwalk at the beach. The sun warms my face. I hear the wind in the palm fronds. And I’m vaguely aware of the stages of grief, traveling along the path before me. Anger scoots by on his skateboard, kathunk-kathunk, kathunk-kathunk. Depression plods by with sticky footsteps. Denial and Bargaining walk together, yammering animatedly. Acceptance runs by, light on her feet, steady and joyful with movement. And still the warmth and the wind. Gentleness.

An amazing thing starts to happen in this place. Even though there is constant change and flux, my essential wholeness remains intact. The true self. The soul. Spirit’s song. Inner light. Identity. Whatever you call it, I am. Right here. In the midst of all that has been broken and shattered, I am whole and safe. The universe holds all the pieces.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a quiet place to inhale.

Intersection

“I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”

~ Abraham Lincoln

 

We calculate the age of our grief – like the life of an infant – first in hours, and then days. The days add up to a week, then two. Eventually a month. Slowly, unbelievably, the days and weeks continue. We number the months, but the “and a half” still seems relevant. Baby steps. The first year passes. It seems to take much longer than one year.

For a long time, the dark moments monopolize our attention. Our world has been upended, and we are angry, sad and confused. We move slowly through the sludge, day after day. Sleeplessness and exhaustion provide the soundtrack. Grief is a heavy traveling companion.

Almost imperceptibly, moments of grace accumulate: a peaceful night’s rest, an unguarded laugh, a full breath. Spontaneous gratitude. Peace. We notice a brilliant pink sunrise. Healing starts to happen. Not because the time passes. Time by itself doesn’t heal, but healing takes time. And healing time is sacred.

Several years pass, and in that time we begin to rebuild our life. We find joy and love, and the dark, heavy, pain-filled moments are fewer. We do not forget, we incorporate both death and life. Balance. We remember without the painful longing. We loosen our grasp on what we lost and open our hearts to the love that is now. We create new relationships and family traditions, and we find joy.

And then one day, when he is in high school, the boy who would not say the “D” words – “dead” and “dad” – for two years following his father’s suicide is given a project in his theology class. The assignment is to make a cross, relevant to a personal, historical or current event. He chooses to make a personal cross, honoring both his father and the first wife of his step-father. He has an idea.

The vertical line of the cross will feature a photograph of the structure where his father committed suicide. He drives together with his mother to the intersection to take the photos himself. He hasn’t been to this location in four or five years. They pause on the sidewalk and look up to the top of the building. It is a long way to fall. The boy seems to shrink. The mother feels nauseous. But they have arrived with a purpose, so with their task in mind, they take pictures of “dad’s jumping place” from each of the four corners. Click. They look at the intersection with their artists’ eyes, and no longer from the tear-filled eyes of the newly grieving. Click. Click. Click. They pause again. There are times – even years afterward – that dad’s suicide seems impossible to believe, and yet here they stand. It is no small measure of grace.

The horizontal line of the cross will include two photos — one family of four on the left side, and another family of four on the right. A wide, blue ribbon encircles the picture on the right, because blue ribbon is the symbol for colon cancer. The boy assembles the cross with help from his step-father and affixes the ribbon with help from his mother. 

In his written description of the cross, the boy cites a quote from the Gospel: “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.” The boy goes on to say that he believes that not only God’s love, but the love of everyone we have ever lost stays with us for our lives. Always with us in our hearts and memories. He explains that these two deaths brought the six of us together — a complete family, loving and joyful. Even with Trojans and Bruins living under the same roof.

Death and resurrection in a school project.

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There is no specific timeline. The first year is hard, and the second seems worse. But the thing is progress. Little steps in a positive direction, toward wholeness. Grief loosens its grip. Progress can be almost impossible to discern in the moment, but when we look back at the preceding years, we see in those moments the evidence of healing. Of grace. Of gratitude. Of light and love and laughter and life. All with one of those UCLA/USC “House Divided” garden flags on our front porch.

***

Along my route when I take the dog for a run, there’s a certain section where I hear the echo of my own steps. I’ve traveled this part of road many times over the last few years, and even though I know it’s the sound of my own footsteps, I cannot resist looking behind me to check if somebody is following in tandem. Nobody ever is. It’s the acoustics on this little stretch of road. But every time I glance over my shoulder I imagine Sam smiling. I can almost hear him say, “I knew you could do this.”

The boy is right. Even after our loved ones are gone, their love remains.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And echoes of love.

 

iPhone Irony

My ______________ (fill-in-the blank, husband/child/friend) seems depressed. What should I do?

This question terrifies me. Obviously, I wasn’t able to save Sam. It baffles me how many times in the last eight years people have asked me for advice on this issue, because every time there’s a part of me that thinks, Why would you ask me? Don’t you realize I failed? Ask a professional!

By putting the question out there, however, they are already a step ahead of where I was in the process. I didn’t know the depths in which Sam was struggling. I saw the clues in retrospect, of course. Loss of appetite, insomnia, job stress. All pointing toward depression. But a cursory internet search will also yield that the opposite signs of increased appetite, exhaustion and inability to focus may signify depression. Or pregnancy. If you had asked me before his death whether Sam would have been more likely to commit suicide or to become pregnant, I would have chosen the pregnant option. I wouldn’t have even hesitated.

There’s a lot of misinformation, stigma and confusion surrounding the suicide scenario. It’s not as straightforward as an “easy” way out. It’s not necessarily manipulative or vindictive. How much is attributable to mental illness and how much is a matter of individual responsibility remains a valid question. It is unspeakably ugly.

If Sam had had a diagnosed anything – cancer, heart disease, mental illness – we would have rallied to his side. We would have wanted to do something to empower him in the face of suffering. Instead, he struggled alone. Picking up the phone must not be easy when you’ve convinced yourself that the ones you love most in the world are better off without you.

Sam was not what you might call a computer wizard. He was rarely interested in keeping on the cutting edge of technology. He relied on his computer-savvy cousin for technical expertise, who during law school was, conveniently, also his roommate. Convenient for Sam, that is, when he ran into a technological glitch while preparing for a moot court competition at 3:00am, but not exactly endearing for his cousin.

But in the summer of 2007 Sam was enchanted by the new iPhone. The very first release. It’s already hard to imagine our world before smart phones, not quite 9 years since the iPhone initially came out. In fact, when Sam purchased that first iPhone, he didn’t use it as a phone; the iPhone was a cheaper, more powerful alternative to a small laptop. He kept his cell phone for making actual calls, and he used the iPhone to access the internet, research stock information and send emails.

After Sam’s death, I had three cell phones (mine, his and the iPhone), which in 2016 doesn’t seem like overkill, but was at the time. Eight-year olds didn’t have their own cell phones and tablets in 2007. We still primarily used our home phone. It seems logical now, but at the time I had to decide which cell phone to keep, and the iPhone was extravagant and expensive. In the process of consolidating the phones, I noticed that Sam did not have a single contact saved on his iPhone. He had a grand total of ten contacts saved in his cell phone: “1Charlotte”, his mother, his assistant, a friend and two cousins. Also, the Apple Store, Baja Fresh, California Pizza Kitchen and Supercuts. Of those contacts, only six were people, four family members, one friend.

His whole world seemed condensed and small in that moment. He must have felt so alone. It made me sad that so few of us comprised his entire universe.

It’s a lot of pressure to be the one he should have called but didn’t. Should he have asked for help? Definitely. Should I have paid closer attention? Probably. It has been easier to forgive him. It has been harder to forgive myself.

Did he truly not realize how many people cared? I could have readily named 30 more. The exotic, stoic girl at the dry-cleaner with the thick black eyeliner burst into tears talking about Sam, years after his death. A little kindness touches people more significantly than we realize. I do not know how he could have marginalized himself. I do not understand how he became so disconnected from his faith – in himself, in life, in others. I can only caution my children (and everybody else) to ask for help before they reach that point, if – God forbid – they ever find themselves drawn toward that dark, dark place.

Any one of us on his contact list would have helped. Even the person answering the phone at the Apple Store (live people answered the phone back then) could have looked up the telephone number for a suicide hotline (still answered live).

One of his favorite clients routinely called Sam himself – not exclusively for financial advice – but for reassurance. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and he often counseled and encouraged her.

But when he was the one suffering, he didn’t reach out. He didn’t call. He didn’t ask.

He entered that dark tunnel where he somehow genuinely believed that we would be better off without him. He took his own life and left us with a paradox: Either we would founder and fall apart and fail, because we couldn’t survive without him, thus proving him wrong; or, we would find a way to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and build new dreams, demonstrating that we did not need him and therefore proving him right. It is crazy-making logic at its worst.

We choose to believe that we honor Sam’s life best by living our own with integrity, love, joy and hope. We live with the paradox.

So, if you want to know how to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable has happened, I do know a thing or two about that. It starts with a single day, a time devoted to healing and radical self-care. A sacred space designated for intentional breathing, contemplation and snacks. It starts with Tuesday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And Tuesday’s peace.

Funeral Attendance

I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on attending funerals. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care deeply, but they are very clear on their understanding of life’s eternal nature. So much so that they really, truly view “death” as a blip on the radar that we might not get at this moment, but will someday completely understand. Which sort of renders a funeral service incongruous.

I am reasonably clear on the eternal life bit, but my heart lives here, along with the other broken hearts remaining after the death of a loved one. Broken-but-still-beating hearts that often benefit from the ritual and ceremony and community of attending a service. Funerals can be heart-wrenching or heart-lifting. A good funeral is both. And I am now firmly in the never-misses-a-funeral-if-she-can-help-it camp.

The first funeral I remember attending was when I was in my early 20’s, for one of my college classmates, Russell. We always thought he was much older than we were, because he regaled us with these amazing tales that would have been impossible for someone our age. Some of these feats would have been impossible for a person of any age. We might have been known to mock him for this particular behavior, but he was also preeminently reliable, the sort of friend who was good to have in your corner. Maybe he was an old soul, or maybe he really was older, or maybe that’s just what he wanted us to think. Maybe he somehow sensed that his heart would give out long before his years, so he imagined a life beyond its natural borders. In any event, I happened to be traveling to Houston on business that week, so I tacked the weekend onto my travel plans for the funeral of an old, young friend. I attended more because it was convenient than because it was compelling. Besides, funerals are excellent occasions to connect with long-lost friends. As the Lyle Lovett song says, “I went to a funeral. Lord, it made me happy seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.” It does put the fun in funeral, but that’s not why I’m a funeral-attending convert.

Funerals can be a healing place, but they are hard. So first, a word on guilt: SushiTuesdays is a guilt-free zone. I will never tell you to miss your favorite yoga class for a funeral, because – believe me – I know that practice can be both grounding and sacred. There are a thousand reasons not to attend a funeral, and pretty much all of them are valid. Say, for example, your four-year-old niece has a ballet recital that day, or your nephew is pitching for his high school team. Go watch the little ballerina! Cheer for the baseball player! They need you now, and the dead guy will still be dead tomorrow. And the day after that. I’ve got news – even after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, especially after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, the family of the dead one will appreciate your love notes, a handful of tulips or a large lasagna. There are so many ways and times to show support and encouragement, and attending the funeral is only one of them.

I attend funerals because people showed up to honor Sam at his funeral, and their presence was a gift to me and my kids. I didn’t know quite how many to expect when I was planning my husband’s funeral, and by “planning” I mean staring into space and nodding/shaking my head numbly in response to the questions of my many friends who did all the actual work of writing an obituary, confirming the date of the service, planning the service itself, printing programs, and coordinating the catering, the florist and the rentals for the reception. I talked to the cemetery and the rabbi. My friends did everything else.

You never know exactly how many to expect for a funeral, because there’s no RSVP protocol. By the time all those people show up, it’s too late to set out extra chairs and order more sandwiches, so it helps to have an estimate, even if you don’t have a clue. The element of suicide, of course, often has a repelling effect, and it was entirely possible that I would be left alone with dozens of turkey sandwiches and ten gallons of Chinese chicken salad at the end of the day.

The rabbi specifically asked me which chapel to reserve, and this was one of the few questions on which I had a definite opinion. He explained that there were three chapels, seating 100, 200 or 300 people, respectively. Before I could respond, however, there were a couple family members who answered the question. They knew Sam as the little brother, the baby, but they didn’t know him as a professional. They didn’t see him as a grown man, a father, a confidante, and they didn’t understand his community impact. They were deeply embarrassed by his suicide. Simultaneously, and with the same dismissive hand gesture, both of them stated that there would not be more than 100 people there.

The rabbi turned to me and waited for my answer. I shook my head, Give me the one for 300.

On the day of the funeral, I could not see people arriving from where I was waiting in the secluded alcove. I did not know whether the large chapel was empty or full. I could see a handful of my nearest and dearest seated in the front rows. They were all the support I needed. The rabbi called me to the podium to give the first eulogy, and as I walked toward the microphone, I lifted my eyes to see the pews. I gasped. The chapel for 300 was not just full, it was overflowing, standing room only, with more people filling the sidewalk outside. They had come to celebrate Sam’s life and to mourn his death. They were classmates, colleagues and clients. Friends and neighbors. Cousins in abundance. They had come, and the biggest chapel wasn’t big enough to hold them all. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their presence. To be perfectly candid, a little bitchy part of me also thought, I told you so. But mostly, I was grateful. The fact of all those present was no small consolation, an affirmation of Sam’s life and his kindness.

In the midst of the day that was largely a blur, I can vividly remember only a few faces. I suppose I could look back at the guest book (assuming I could find it in its dust-covered box in the chaos that is my garage), but it doesn’t matter. Not everybody is comfortable going to funerals. The communion of hearts happens in a multitude of ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve attended several funerals in the last six months, including services for a teenager, a young woman, and my own father-in-law. These sorts of sudden, tragic, altogether-too-soon deaths often draw a large attendance at the memorial service. In fact, my clearest recollection from Russell’s funeral was fact that the procession went on for miles. Literally. It’s probably true that some people (and a few ambulance-chasing lawyers) are there to watch the train wreck, but most people come because their presence is the most important gift they can offer that day. I believe that these types of funerals draw crowds simply because it requires that many hands to hold so much heartbreak. Indeed, we cannot make sense of the senselessness.

So instead, I leave the garage in its current state of disarray, neglect the dog’s morning walk, and forgo yoga. I dress in black and show up.

***

Light and strength.