belief death grief Wendy

What I’ve learned from grief

You don’t have to feel any way other than how you’re feeling

I’ve met a few people in their early grief who worry about feeling numb about their loss. It makes them worry that there’s something wrong with them, that they’re cold or callous. Others worry because they can’t stop crying. One father who lost a son confided in me that he felt like it was his role to be sad all of the time.

But no one has (or should have) any exceptions about what you should be feeling. That’s because you don’t have control over your feelings. Feelings happen to you. The best you can do for anyone, including yourself, is be aware of how you’re feeling even if what that feeling is “none” or “nothing.”

It can make you stronger

Once you suffer a devastating loss and come back from it, you now have an internal power that many others don’t: you are resilient. It’s easier to go through life once you have been proven to yourself.

It can make you aware of the precious urgency of life

My biggest fear was that someday I would die. Everything I have ever had would be taken away from me. Every memory, every thought, every sensation would be gone for eternity.

Losing Wendy forced me to face my mortality in a much deeper way. I will die, but fearing death is useless and wasteful. The fact of my death makes me want to live more intentionally while I am able. I try to put all of that energy I used to waste on being afraid into being grateful for the present moment and savoring the time I spend with those I love.

It can reconnect you with those you’ve lost

I was in so much emotional pain after Wendy’s death, that just thinking about her could be excruciating at times. And yet I wanted to think about her, over and over, because I missed her so much.

Everyone’s grief process is different, but I know that if I didn’t keep forcing myself to experience that pain — if I chose to avoid it — I would have prolonged my grief. It was my grief, not Wendy, that was the ultimate source of the pain. My grief was being unable to accept that she was really gone. My mind didn’t want to believe it and kept dreaming up fantastical ways to get back to her.

It took me several years to fully accept that she was gone. I had to believe it and get over the cosmic injustice of her death. I had to let go of my anger at the Universe. That was the pain.

Now I’m able to think of Wendy, see photos and videos of her, have dreams and memories of her and experience the love I still have for her without the acute pain of losing her. I can see the world through her eyes. I can appreciate things for her and feel proud on her behalf. I can access, without fear, the parts of her she left in me.

death history war

The Equivalence of Tragedy, Part II

20130213-064640.jpgI did a little research and I found that it might be true, depending on one’s definition of “killed in combat.” That, in itself, is an ugly question. But it’s just one of a few ugly questions this poster suggests. The main one is why would anyone compare two different tragedies in this way?

Does it mean that a year of drunk driving accidents and total Vietnam combat kills would be equally as bad had their numbers been the same?

And just what kind of trick is being pulled by comparing numbers of one year’s “killed and injured” to a decade of “killed in combat?”

I think I get what they’re trying to say even though their message is ham-fisted and oblivious. “You know that drunk driving is a stupid thing to do, just like you know that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was stupid. You know that it’s not just wreckless, it’s murderous.”

I deeply empathize with all who have lost friends or family members to drunk driving or combat. Comparing one to another this way, though, is confusing and threatens to abuse the memory of those who died in either of these ways. But, since it is begun, I will finish with some actual facts:

  • U.S. killed and injured annually by alcohol-related car accidents: 450,000-500,000
    • According to the NHTSA, Year 2000 total fatalities: 13,989
    • And year 2000 total injuries: 468,780
  • According to Wikipedia, total combat deaths from Vietnam War: between 451,000 and 1.16 million
    • This figure does not include an estimated 245,000 to 2 million Vietnamese civilian dead or those who died in Cambodia or Laos.
art death music TV

Zombie Show!

My wife and I love “The Walking Dead,” but it’s an intense show. So intense that we often have to watch something else before going to bed so that it doesn’t influence our dreams.

We’ve even given the show a nickname, because “The Walking Dead” only underlines these characters’ grim fates. We call it “The Zombie Show.”

And given that the existing theme song is one of the creepiest things about this show, I’ve even started imagining a zippy, 1950s-style TV theme song for it:

Zombie Show!
It’s the Zombie Show!
I’d love to stay
But I’ve got to go
‘Cause the Zombie Show is on!

I’m gonna watch some walkers
Try to eat some shooters

The Zombie Show is on!

death history

The Equivalence of Tragedy

I saw this poster in the ferry terminal and thought. ‘That can’t be true:’


death grief

About My Mom

My mom died about three weeks ago. I originally thought I would have a better understanding of how I’m feeling three months later, but I don’t. I still feel numb. I really loved my mom and I know I’m going to miss her.

I feel at peace with my Mom’s death. Partly I’m relieved that she’s no longer confined to a bed with a stomach tube. I’m relieved that her health will no longer create havoc in my sister’s life or discord between all of my siblings. I’m relieved to not have the psychic burden of hearing that she’s dead.

I accept that my mom has died in that she was 78 and her health was in long decline. I’ve said all of my good-byes to her and soaked up her stories. In November, I sat with her in the hospital and we sang every standard both of us knew; songs as old as “Pennies from Heaven” and as new as “Close to You.”

Neither of my parents ever accepted the deaths of their parents very well. My dad would spend Father’s Day holed up in the bedroom trying to sleep through to Monday. My mom, always affable when drunk, would sometimes wail late at night and cry for her mom and dad.

This is how unprocessed grief ruins us. We go on the lam from the hurt, and it makes us look over our shoulder.

But my understanding of death has changed, too. It honestly doesn’t seem so bad any more. I was always afraid of it–more so after my father died. I thought I was next, for sure. I could never imagine how someone could want to die the way, I think, my grandfather did when his time was up.

My buddy Mike’s atheistic take on death sums up to this: When I’m dead, it will be like before I was born. There was nothing bad, frightening, or dreadful about that time, so why should death be any different.

I’m only now starting to see his point. Discounting the idea of going to Hell, which has always seemed logically implausible to me, death is, at its worst, like going to sleep.

Sleep well, Mama. I hope to see you again.

death grief

Mom, 1928-2007

My mother died Sunday night. It occurred to me then how frightening the world is when your mother is no longer alive.

My mother was a source of grace. She knew every song on the radio and could sing it, well. She knew almost every correct answer on the TV game shows.

I could never stump my mom on a definition or a spelling of a word. She had an incredible capacity for language.

My mom and I didn’t always agree or see eye-to-eye, but I always knew that she loved me, no matter what. That is an important gift.

death mom

My Mother’s Last Stand

The doctor told my sister on Thursday night that if family wanted to come and see my mother before she died, now would be a good time. She had been asleep by then for 48 hours straight, fighting pneumonia and two other infections. By Friday morning, she was awake and able to recognize my sister and, later that night, she spoke, with difficulty, to my brother and another sister who had each traveled from different states to be by her side.

On Saturday morning, I thought she was coming out of this. Everyone now says she’s not. She’s dying.

It’s difficult to understand why she’s dying now. Over the last dozen years, she has starred in long-running series of personal medical dramas, starting with a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), a kind of temporary stroke that we noticed because the corner of her mouth started drooping one morning. By my wedding in 1999, she needed help going up steps, but was still able to dance with me.

Since then, it’s been a long, steady decline in her physical capabilities slowed only by thorough doctoring and complicated Rx combinations. Since then, she’s gone from cane to walker to wheelchair and back again. Since then, she’s endured several stays in the hospital, has been in and out of physical therapy, on and off oxygen.

I worried about losing my mother for as long as I can remember. She used to drink to excess, buy cigarettes by the carton, avoid social interactions and exercise, and generously add butter and salt to almost anything she ate. Still, she’s outlived her oldest son, one of her grandchildren, both her first and second husbands (the latter was my father), and my wife. She’s had a tremendous will to live. I hope she still does.

Cinder dad death memory

A Cubic Foot of Memory Suspended in the Air

Castaic Lake, CA

I took Cinder to Battle Point Park last week. It was a rare sunny winter day. We walked around the park, I occasionally throwing the ball for her, but mostly just walking along. We saw high school kids playing lacrosse, joggers, and lazy geese who didn’t fly any farther south. We wandered around the far edge of the park, up against its southern boundary fence, and cutting back across a field to where we had left the car, I walked into a smell identical to that of fishing at dawn with my father at Castaic Lake.

I walked out of the smell before I recognized what it was and paused, trying to figure out how a field in Washington during afternoon hours could smell so much like a distant time and space. It smelled like the location, but not the event. I didn’t smell my father’s cigarette, the oily Coppertone lotion, or the garlic cheese paste we used as bait. I retraced my steps, leading with my nose, trying to find that smell again. I walked back and forth; I walked in circles. I couldn’t find it.

My stumbling search was interrupted by a child’s voice. She was in a stroller pushed along the path by her mother. The girl was shouting something, testing out words. As they passed by, the little girl leaned out of the stroller, pointed at me, and said “Papa dead!”

I waited in the middle of the field for a few minutes in case there was a message coming from beyond, but nothing happened. Maybe what the girl really said was “Papa dog.”


“We Are Created by Being Destroyed”

“Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” by Damiel

I was coming home one night last month from a church potluck when I heard an interview with the poet Franz Wright on the radio program Open Source. He was reading a poem called “Letter, January 1998,” from his book Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which ended with the line, “We are created by being destroyed.”

Church potlucks are about getting to know people better. In a situation like that, it’s impossible not to have to explain the circumstances of Wendy’s illness and death. It doesn’t bother me to tell the story since now, in those circumstances, it’s merely a string of facts. The irreducible pain doesn’t come from those facts, but from her constant absence.

People ask, “So, what do you do.” That’s usually how it comes out. I am eager now for people who are getting to know me to know what’s happened. This is who I am now. The answer to their question is, “I survive.”

death Wendy

Each Death an Opportunity

Here’s a hand-addressed personal letter I received last week:

Dear Mr. Hall

First, let me take a moment to offer my condolences on the passing of your loved one; Wendy Hall. While I know this can be a very emotionally sensitive period, I also understand you may be facing some serious decisions with which I might be able to assist you. The reason I am contacting you is often time real estate property must be sold in order to pay taxes, pay any outstanding liabilities and to pay the legitimate heirs.

Often, I buy real estate and other personal property found in estates. It is my understanding that you may have property available to purchase in the near future. If it is, I am interested in buying proerty in this area and would be interested in making you an offer. I’m sure at this time selling this property probably is not a priority for your family, but if in the future the heirs decide to sell, please call and I’ll be happy to make an offer.

While I do not know your particular situation, I am prepared to do what is best for you and the estate. Some of the advantages I may be able to offer are: 1. I can buy the property in…[blah blah blah]

Life goes on. The guy is performing a necessary service that I’m sure some people are thankful for. But is he really prepared to do what’s best for me and the estate?

That’s what turns my stomach about this letter. He’s prepared to do what’s best for him, his kids, and his dinner table.