Archive for February 2014 | Monthly archive page

This little observation about life after loss came to me via Andrew Sullivan. The full piece by Roger Angell appears in the New Yorker.

A few notes about age is my aim here, but a little more about loss is inevitable. “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up” was the way Casey Stengel put it. He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.

Liam Neeson is starting to speak about the loss of his wife, Natasha Richardson, five years after her death.  (He is so articulate.  I hope he speaks more.   …Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get an interview at some point.)

I love it, of course, when men come forward to share their journeys!   They are providing guides to other men and some comfort whether they know it or not.    I also was glad to hear Anderson Cooper’s observations about how little we discuss grief publicly.   That lack of “grief talk” increases the social isolation felt by so many.

 

Finished up Widower and am now a quarter of the way through Fatherloss.   I enjoyed Widower so much…or at least can say I found it moving and informative.  I think this is because the interviews in the book preserved the voices of the men as they relayed their stories and experiences.   The author let them tell their own stories straight from their own mouths.   All the different voices and personalities came through.  (For me, it was just like going to bereavement group!)

Fatherloss, however, draws on the interviews of 376 different men and Neil Chetchik, the author, paraphrases all the interview.   The first-hand words of the subjects are only referenced in pull quotes here and there.   (Chetchik bills himself as an “Expert on Men” which seems like a mighty inflated claim.  Maybe that’s why he doesn’t let his subjects talk!)

What is nice about Fatherloss so far is the sprinkling of stories of public figures dealing with father loss as a way to introduce new segments.  For example, JFK Jr. who lost his father before he had any memory of him experienced one kind of grief.   Someone like Michael Jordan, whose father died when he was thirty had a very different kind of grief.  (e.g.  He instantly lost all interest in basketball and took up baseball to fulfill what he thought was his father’s wish.)   These narratives are ones with which we are all vaguely familiar but they take on a new dimension when viewed through the loss of their fathers.

I’m still hoping to find some good research material on men’s grief in relation to the loss of a mother.   No one has written a book about this it seems.  Some kind of taboo maybe?  If it’s still considered awkward and/or verboten for a man to experience prolonged grief at all, I guess it’s even more forbidden for a man to be grieving his “mommy” in any on-going way.

Also, still looking for some meaningful material on sibling loss for men.  As one blogger I came across noted:

I have actually found more support for people who are grieving the loss of a pet, than I have for people who have lost a brother or a sister.

In my experience, sibling loss definitely gets low ratings on the empathy and attention meter.  What would have been my sister’s 51st birthday passed recently.   Even though I was my sister’s caretaker, health care proxy, power of attorney, etc. etc., even though I’m the one who planned the funeral and cleaned up her business, all the calls of remembrance, every single one, went to my mother.

Brain Pickings offers a plethora of suggestions for how to handle creative blocks. Two of my preferred methods are listed. I prefer physical distraction (after I self-assign my brain to go away and work on a problem without my attention.) I get a lot of solutions in the shower and when I’m falling asleep this way. The second is by trying to put together all the things that are absorbing my interest at any given time – from memes I’ve seen on the internet to the thing on the Science Channel I think is interesting to the issues I’m having with a friend. What’s the common thread? How do these things fit together? The author Jessica Hagy recommends reading books to prep what I call “brain stew” to gather information as such:

By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas.

Many good suggestions and links to others at Brain Pickings.

Brain Pickings has a post about Umberto Eco’s the Book of Legendary Lands. It’s an interesting little post that touches on the maps that psyche creates rather than observes and their importance.

Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.

The New York Times is running an eight-part blog series in its Opinionator column written by Olivia Judson, a biologist and writer based in London, on her experience with packing up her parents’ house in Baltimore after the death of her father. It’s called “the Task.” Dealing with “the stuff” is, in my opinion, an annoying aspect for the next of kin. For every meaningful item, there are twenty pieces of stuff you would rather not deal with. The whole process of cleaning out becomes metaphorical to your grief, your relationship with your dead loved one, and to life and existence itself in sometimes ridiculous ways.

I’ve heard all kinds of stories and debate even amongst the bereaved about when and how to clean out. Some people clean out everything instantly. Some people resolutely make a shrine by removing nothing – which in my view is a terrible way to go because the effect is simply to pass your task of cleaning out to some other next of kin.

When you tackle the Task, you struggle constantly with the value of things. What’s this worth to you? Is it worth something to someone else? Is it worth something to anyone? What’s it worth to your dead loved one? You don’t want to disrespect them, you think. Of course, sometimes you think, they didn’t think about you by being such a pack-rat! Then there’s the stuff you find you didn’t expect. And there’s the stuff you’re looking for that you cannot find.

My parents’ house at one point was so cluttered up with stuff that I joked that when it came down to it, I was just going to burn down the house for the insurance money rather than clean up their mess. I tried to sell my sister on it as a plan but she would just laugh and roll her eyes. So much for that though anyway. Not only did I clean up their house but I’ve been so involved in its upkeep and renovations for years now that I’m paranoid that something might happen to it before it gets fully back into proper shape.

However, I still have one little part of my father’s closet to clean out and he passed away almost four years ago. And as for the things of my sister who passed away last spring, the two car garage houses only one car because the furniture from her apartment and boxes of her stuff that wouldn’t fit inside the house is there. It was only a year and a half ago that I packed up her apartment and arranged a move while she was in the ICU. I spent a month driving in exhausted circles between her apartment, the house and the hospital. When the move finally came, the movers did the furniture on Friday and Hurricane Sandy hit the following Monday and there was no rest as we were plunged into a ten day blackout. It’s probably going to be some more time before I have the energy to revisit all that stuff.

I’ve just read through a small book on men and grief by Golden and Miller. It’s actually two books in one. One side of the book is “When a Man Faces Grief” and contains about 30 pages of 12 notions to give you a general idea of what you may go through and how normal it is. If you flip to the back cover and turn the book upside-down there is a whole other short book called “A Man You Know is Grieving” which again gives you a brief overview of what to expect, what to do and what not to do. It’s a slim read but immediately after a loss, no one is up for a big, deep read anyway.

The portion of the book which is directed at men, “When a Man Faces Grief” was extremely straight-forward and very much a listicle with explanations. (But, hey, everyone loves lists or there would be no Buzzfeed!) Most of the material, about eighty-plus percent, could easily be applied to women as well (i.e. #8 Take Good Care of Yourself). However, the language used is clearly men-friendly. A passage on the challenges of losing your identity and needing to rebuild it is worded nicely:

Call on your courage to stand outside the circle. When you allow yourself to grieve, you may act differently than you have in the past. You may appear to be outside the norm of what people have to expect from men.

Challenges and changes in one’s notion of identity affect women also but perhaps not in the same way. I do not know any women who feel that open grieving undermines their femininity for example.

Another thing I am fond of in this little book is that, just like my film, it uses making a map and knowing your new terrain as metaphors. I am also working in the same area in my Heading West Again book. Grief is extremely difficult to externalize and the only way to get at is by mapping the psyche’s journey.

The second book-in-the-book, “A Man You Know is Grieving” is directed at those in the company of a grief-stricken man. The first third of this side of the book seems to focus on outlining the physical and cultural differences in men that cause them to be less able than women to cry and speak about their grief. This ranges from differences in the male brain in regards to areas that process emotion and control the interaction of the hemispheres to how men value their aloneness in grief. Although, if the phrase “man cave” means anything, it means that men value their aloneness even out of grief. In both men and women, it seems all emotional needs become more intense and acute and, well, desperate (in the sense of rising from despair.) In any case, it probably is very accurate to conclude that trespassing on a man’s alone time when he is grieving is probably more egregious than any other.

The best takeaway from this side of the book is:

Our culture discourages men from opening emoting. At the same time men have been judged for not emoting [after a loss] and therefore may find themselves in a double bind.

Good thing to know! We should have some extra empathy for those caught in the double-bind.

Lastly, one of the big themes of Thomas Golden’s work is the idea that men move forward through grief through action compared to women who use interaction to heal. I’ll see if this holds up as I start filming and working with men and I find out what they have to say about it.

More on author James E. Miller at Willowgreen and on his blog, Grief Helps.

More on author Thomas Golden at his website, webhealing.com.

Resources for Grieving Men has been updated and I’ll continue to add notes as I read books and come across new information. If you work in the field or are a person with experience in bereavement and you have suggestions, please send them in.

96-year-old Widower Writes Song About His Late Wife

I’ve got a book sitting in my research pile that I already know talks a great deal about men’s need to memorialize in some way the person they have lost.  This darling video is proof of how some men live out that need.   And you really feel what a loving man Fred is.

Still in pre-production and research. I’m very much enjoying, if that’s the right word, Widower, by Scott Campbell and Phyllis R. Silverman.  It’s a great book for research for a film in that documents in interviews (just like a doc!) the experience of over twenty widowers in different phases of the grief.  Some of the book’s subjects are speaking only months after their loss, others more than a decade afterwards.   In the ten months that I’ve been working with my own bereavement group, I’ve had no clue what goes on with straight men when they lose a loved one. Widowers don’t come to group to sit around and talk with us ladies!  My big takeaways so far:

Men deal with many of the same bugaboos that drive women crazy after loss: The feeling that everything sets everything else off (especially early on) Useless advice, platitudes and indifference/impatience from family and friends  (One widower in the book, Bill, specifically identifies his need to “re-people” his life with new acquaintances after being treated roughly by those upon whom he thought he could rely.  As he says, “I know them for they are now.  I call them friends but I know they are not.  I forgive them for what went on but I don’t forget.”) Social isolation (Although men seem to experience this more in the physical sense as being untouchable) Some of the ways that men’s grief experience differs from women: They are more like to face the expectation from others that they will rise above their feelings in some regard Widowers are surprised that they are impotent for a period after their wife dies.  …This one was kind of peculiar to me for a variety of reasons.  The first being that pretty much ALL of the men who have lost their wives experience impotence but they are ALL a bit surprised when it happens to them.  This points perhaps to how little they talk amongst themselves about these major life events and how slim the shared knowledge.  (Hopefully, making a film and getting more men’s bereavement groups going can address this.) The other aspect that is interesting to me as a woman is that this is a thing at all.  Death and the shock and grief of it kills a person’s sex drive.  Period.  Man or woman.  Women who lose their husbands have no desire for another man when grieving either.

The sex-drive-in-grief thing was one of my complaints about Silver Linings Playbook.   It was so right-on with so much of the depiction of bi-polarity that the fact that the Tiffany character became wildly promiscuous in her grief and slept with everyone in her office was a giveaway to me that the film was scripted by a man (even if it was simply a plot device needed to give her a “problem”.)  I don’t know ANY women – and I now personally knows tens of women who have lost a spouse – who have turned to sex for comfort or acted out sexually in their grief.    I’m not saying a widow who uses sex for comfort and/or distraction is like a unicorn but its very uncommon to turn to sex indiscriminately if you weren’t already a person who comforted yourself that way beforehand.

Anyway, still have about a third of Widower left.   And a continually growing pile of other research.