Today I ran into a beautiful person I haven't
seen in two decades at least. Her name is Carol. I don't know if I've
ever known her last name. She was one of the moms at the playground in
Washington Square Park when my kids were little. We recognized each
other over the vegetable bins at the Whole Foods store in mutual
disbelief. We both blurted out how we'd thought of each other recently,
then shared the explanatory anecdote. Then she asked me about Jesse.
There is a thing you do, when you know about loss, to help each other
not cry in public, while still communicating the depth of sorrow and
sympathy you share. It's the secret face of womanhood.
The reason I love her is that I was nursing my son in the playground
one day, and an extremely well dressed man came over to me and started
verbally abusing me for doing so. I didn't know Carol, but she walked
over to defend me just as I held up my hands, one arm cradling my son's
head against my breast, middle fingers extended and told him, "Like
fruit? Have a pair!"
Last night I dreamed I had been told I have 4 days to live. So the very first day, I made a list of all my assets, from bank accounts and 401k right down to items of clothing, and who should get each one. I wanted to be sure no one would be stuck with the burden of sorting it all out. The next day, I had my family all around me, and began to tell them I had 3 days left. I wasn't sad, or angry, just wanted to be sure they knew I loved them, and that they would be okay. Then a doctor walked in and told me that I actually only had one day left. Still I felt no fear, no sorrow, no senes of loss. I was glad they were there to hear it, and to understand what was happening. I went around the room hugging everyone and saying goodbye. The first person who came to say goodbye was Jesse.
Family: Why can’t you
stop drowning! Nobody else is drowning!
Western Religion: Stop drowning!
Eastern Religion: There is no drowning; there is only
Psychoanalysis: How long have you felt you were drowning?
Gestalt psychology: Maybe drowning is where you need to be
Short term behavioral therapy: What strategies have you used
in the past to avoid drowning?
Psychiatry: here are some pills that will help you forget
Recovery movement: you can save yourself from drowning!
Cognitive behavioral therapy: try feeling for the bottom with
your feet. Too deep? Try floating on your back. Did that work? Good. Now try floating
on your back and kicking your legs. Good. The shore is about 20 feet away. Point
yourself that way and keep kicking.
took the Catholic religion *very* seriously when I was a kid. My
parents and grandparents on both sides were deeply religious, without
any religious hypocrisy to point to in their lives. They didn't leave it
in church in the least. But for me, by the time I hit high
school/college, the "truths" of religion meant less and less to me, so
that by 21 I believed that religion was a crutch for people who had
trouble having a relationship with God. So I raised my kids without a
religion. We made sure they knew and respected the history and beliefs
of the major religions, but in the process of teaching them how to make
good moral choices in life, I began to see that what everyone was
calling God was kind of a false idea.
seemed false to me to pray for anything except acceptance of God's
will. Praying to God for your life on earth, when heaven was supposed to
be so much better, seemed wrong. I tried to believe in an intercessory
God that you could petition to avert disaster, but when my sister in law
died and another in law declared it was because she didn't pray right, I
began to see the contradiction: either you are a servant of God's will,
or you are trying to manipulate God. Either you in your pride think you
are better than those who suffer in this world, or you humbly accept
what God sends your way, and devote your life to helping others who are
could go on about this, but the point was: who did I want to be, and
what moral tools did I want my children to have? They both, as they hit
their teens, told me they were atheists. At first it scared me, but it
didn't change who they were. They were making mistakes like any teen,
but they were good people, making themselves better as they grew up. The
other atheists in my life were also the most moral, least hypocritical
people I knew. They suffered less, spiritually, than those trying to
force their religion to fit what they knew was right and wrong.
Jesse got leukemia the first time, I really believed in the power of
prayer and faith. By the time he died, I realized that it's an illusion.
Nowadays I see atheism being used as a political definition, or even as
a kind of religion. So maybe I should call myself something else.
I have a message for the world untouched by grief: back the hell off.
Grief is not a disease. It isn't a crime. It should not be forced into
dark rooms and discussed in whispers. It shouldn't be eradicated or
drugged out of existence. It's the province of the grieving, a place
you may be invited to, but you have no business barging in. Much less
pretending to rule.
Modern psychology is full of shit: grief is not something you need to "get out" right away, it's not a tumor made
of words that you must immediately pry out of someone who has been
through a tragedy. It's not your job to make a grieving person "talk
about it." You have no right to tell another person to "get over it" or
that there's a time limit to "normal" grief. You can do more damage
forcing a grieving person to "relive" the events in order to "fix" them,
than by ignoring them altogether.
Grief is not a thing you get
rid of in six months like a bad hair cut. Do not tell grieving people
they should be "get over it" just because your magical timeline says so.
There's no need to pretend nothing happened, but do not
assume you have the right to pry into another person's grief just
because you know about it. If they're not talking about it, do not,
especially in public, bring up their grief and try to make them "talk it
out." You are not the special grief whisperer. Yes you can make me cry
in the middle of an otherwise good day, but that doesn't take much
talent. And it doesn't mean we have a special connection. It means you
used my weakness to create a false intimacy.
If you ask me how
many children I have and I say two, but then explain that I lost one,
be respectful. Don't just ignore it; say something, however awkward, to
acknowledge me. I will be grateful no matter what it is or how stupid
you think it will sound. To me it will sound like a gift of common
humanity. It will feel like a hug. I will appreciate that you, a total
stranger, made the effort and paid respect to my pain.
grieving person chooses to share their feelings with you, realize how
much trust and love is in that sharing and be honored, and accepting,
and unjudgmental. Listen to what they have to say, ask questions if you
need more in order to understand. But most of all listen, every word
they pass on to you is a gift. One day, unless you die very young, grief
will visit you, and wreck everything in its path; and every emotional
gift that grieving friend once gave you will become the power tools
you'll need to rebuild your life.
On February 8 2007 my 22 year old son Jesse died after a ten day coma, due to complications from APL leukemia. He and his younger brother had just lost their dad in January 2003, just a few months after Jesse had started college. Jesse's first round with leukemia was in July-August 2004. He recovered in time to push himself through University of Michigan on time, with good grades, chemo and all. This time, we weren't so lucky. Jesse, his brother and I have always used humor to fight fear and grief.