Friday, March 29, 2013

On Bereavement

from Jacqueline

I read an article last week, on the subject of bereavement.  One of the points made was that, in our everything-must-happen-now society, we are expected to get over loss in a fingersnap – just like we’re supposed to get over every other big life-changing event.  Get Divorced – well heck, hit, and you’ll be up the aisle again just like that!  Give birth to a child after Lord knows how many hours in labor, and you’d better be thin enough for spandex before anyone sees you again, and with a svelte figure and doing Bikram yoga lickety-split.  And if you’re in a state of grief because someone you love dearly has died, well, just grab one of the few hundred books out there with seven steps of grieving, twelve steps to get over it, so many days for this to happen and then that, because heaven forbid you linger over the “bereavement process.”  And don’t get me wrong, some of those books are balm for the aching soul.  But what is the rush to get people through the most important transitions of life?  And when did we forget that bereavement isn’t just a useful term, but is to do with the desolate feeling of being bereft.

As some of you know, last year my lovely father passed away.  But it wasn’t the only loss – some four months before he was diagnosed with a serious blood disorder, one of my cousins died, and as fate would have it, my father’s diagnosis came just after another much-loved cousin passed away following a year in hospital undergoing treatment for leukemia.  Then, thirty-six hours after my father passed away, my husband’s mother died. 

So I’ve had a lot of time to think about grief, and to think about this process we call bereavement, and I think we have to find a way between “Just get over it” and the Victorian way of mourning.  You see, you don’t hear that word so much any more, that someone is in mourning.  Yet even the tone of the word seems to describe that pull on the heart.  I’m not suggesting we go back to a time when one wore widow’s weeds, but it was once the protocol – if that is the right word – that when you were in mourning you wore black for a year.  This told people you were bereaved, so they understood. There have been times when I would have liked a bit of understanding – for example, the time I was a bit tardy getting my things together in the line at the grocery store because the sneaker wave of grief had just hit me when I noticed a big bag of liquorice allsorts, and my dad loved liquorice allsorts.  I was remembering the day I came home with a massive jar of them, and he laughed and wondered how many would be left for him, because, in truth, he didn’t eat many candies, but liked to have them in the cupboard to pick at one now and again, though in the meantime my Mum and my brother and I worked our way through that jar in next to no time.  Suddenly a very cross voice behind me in the line was telling me to get on because he didn't have all day.  

A memory can come back to you unbidden, and suddenly your eyes are filling with tears and you’re fumbling around and you wish that someone would realize that you’re just remembering and hurting and you want to howl with the pain of missing that person.  Instead people are looking at you as if you’ve been on the bottle since you got up this morning. But how would they know?  In my grandmother’s day, after the bereaved had worn black for a year, they wore something purple each day - it was the shade that told the world you were coming out of it, that you had managed to weather a year of anniversaries, and you were ready for society again.

And I think it does take a year, for that first dreadful grief to lift.  There’s been the anniversary of the day I decided to call his doctor one week into my book tour last year (while at Left Coast Crime) – I just knew it was more serious than my mother was letting on, and in one conversation had scribbled the name of his doctor, who spent 45 minutes on the 'phone telling me everything I needed to know.  I asked him “how long” and with his response ringing in my ears, I was back in the UK a week later – this time last year.  Another anniversary.  Then there was the first major emergency room rush in the middle of the night, and then the second, and then the hospice, but in the midst of that there were the days when I would take my parents in the car for a drive, just to get us all out of the house – and a month ago, when I was doing my taxes I found receipts from the last two times I was able to take my mum and dad out for dinner.  And it hit me again – the sneaker wave of grief.

So, I think whoever wrote that article has a point.  A time of mourning is not prescriptive.  Another friend’s father died at the end of last year, and a couple of weeks ago she shared with me that one of her friends expressed surprise that she was not “over” it yet.  What is happening when we expect to be over everything so quickly?  Strangely enough, I see a parallel in the way we treat newborns.  So often I see parents in a restaurant  - a noisy place with bright lights and people everywhere – and they have a baby with them who is clearly only a week or two old.  It’s not going to kill the child, but there is something that doesn’t sit well with me, as if everyone is so keen to just get going with life again, that respect for the beginning of life is given the same short shrift as a time of mourning at the end.

This is a year of anniversaries, and by the end of the summer my family will have weathered many firsts.  But in the meantime, if I linger in the line at Safeway, it could be because I can hear my Dad saying, “Ain’t it great over here, Jack  - they’ve even got a bloke who puts your groceries in a bag for you.”  I’ll try not to hold up the line, I’ll do my best not to snivel as I’m paying – but the sneaker wave just hit me again.

 That's my favorite photo of me and my dad.

And today is Good Friday, heralding the start of my favorite holiday - Easter.  It's a time of new life, new beginnings, and with the promise of spring, even though many of you are snowed in. Me? Well on Sunday I'm heading out to Chicago (brrrr), on the next leg of my book tour - hope to see you along the way if I'm in your neck of the woods (  Have a lovely weekend,


  1. Dearest Our J, I just wrote a very long comment and somehow lost it while trying to sign in.

    I wish there were the option of wearing mourning, and that people still understood what it meant.

    And I absolutely agree about the rogue waves of emotion that hit after the loss of someone close.

    I adore you, and this is a lovely post.

  2. Cornelia Read3/29/2013 6:41 AM

    And that was a comment from Cornelia. Almost lost it again... have the flu, in the midst of moving. Not great.

  3. from Jacqueline. My dear Cornelia - oh, no, the flu, and in the midst of moving. I will email you with just the (natural) best stuff to help alleviate symptoms. I've thought the very same thing, about wearing mourning - almost like a shell to tuck one's head into when the rogue wave comes along. Wishing you very well on your move.

  4. Well said, Jacqueline, and my condolences on your losses.

    In the space of three years my husband and I lost a dozen family members (including one sibling apiece) and the same number of close friends. We were reeling, and for months were afraid to breathe for fear of another tragedy.

    At the time I was in a daily walking group. My brother committed suicide, and not only was my family still shell-shocked, but it was just so hard to come to grips with the whole thing. Two or three weeks after he died I started to talk about something related to his death, and one of the other women said "Oh, aren't we done talking about this yet?" I had to stop walking with them, I was so upset. It wasn't as if I talked about it even every week, either.

  5. I keep a journal that I hope will be published as a memoir someday. One segment is on death and funerals. My conclusion was that modern people fear death and can't handle the emotion of grief. Modern religion does not offer the ritual comfort old-fashioned religion did. We are communities of strangers and our families are fractured and scattered. Every person handles grief in their own way from denial to wallowing. Maybe we need to bring back a modified mourning, not to the excessive practices of the Victorians, but the wearing of some item that ritualizes our internal sadness.

  6. This was a lovely post. I so agree with you. I think a person needs to respect their right to mourn a loss and not be jostled out of it. I've lost many people in recent years, and grieving fully helped me come through to the other side of the loss with a deeper understanding of both myself and my loved ones. A "get over it fast" approach robs you of the meaningfulness of what a relationship meant and still means to you.

  7. from Jacqueline

    Thank you,all, for your comments, which seem to be in accord with my thinking on this subject. Karen, your email reminded me of my first reading of the book "Island" - when I was 16, so I might have some of these details a bit skewed in my mind - but a young girl came across a man who had just suffered a terrifying accident, and she made him tell his story time and again, until he ceased to be brought under by the most painful parts of the memory. I do think we need to tell our stories in this way, which is probably why people find grief recovery groups so comforting - though again, I also think there is a suggestion that you can just "get over something." It's not that you get over it, per se, but that you can remember without feeling as if you will never breathe again. That speaks to the point "Anonymous" makes about the fracturing of society - one doesn't necessarily need to wallow in the grief, but with family and close community you can "remember when" together, and laugh and cry at the same time, and when you do that, a little of the scarring becomes less harsh. Elizabeth - I completely agree about bring robbed of the meaningfulness of the relationship. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Jackie. I think of my lost parents almost daily, and I still fight the urge to pick up the telephone to pass along some little tidbit or oddity to my mother.

    Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking" is a very special book for people in mourning. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it--it tells of her journey through the year after her husband's death.

  9. So very poignant, Our J. When my dad died, I alone was left to handle everything, including selling most of my mother's treasured possessions (including my dad's car), moving her to a new place, and dealing with grief and change. And I had to accomplish all that in 6 weeks, so I could return home to other responsibilities, including finishing edits for my first novel. That experience was the most stressful in my life to date. So little time to process the loss. When my mom died eight years later, I at least knew what was looming ahead for me.

  10. from Jacqueline

    Leslie, Thank you for commenting here. I have read Joan Didion's book, and have been wondering whether to send it to my mother - when Dad died, she lost the love of her life, her best friend and soulmate after 65 years together. One memory I hold dear - in the emergency room, just before my father was transferred to the hospice, we were all together when my Dad reached for my mother's hand, looked into her eyes and said, "Haven't we had a great time." What a blessing of a memory that is, though it makes me weep when I see it in my mind's eye.

    Patty, all that "handling" wears you out, I know - and as you say, there is the balancing everything else as well. Although I felt the loss keenly, it was only in mid-January, when my mother left CA to return to England after spending the holidays here, that I felt the full weight of what had come to pass since the beginning of 2012, which is probably why I felt compelled to write this post today.

  11. This great post can also apply to job loss. After a person is fired the advice is "send out your resume! take a class to update your skills! start researching job postings online!" Those how have weathered heavy duty job losses need time to grieve and find a new direction. People don't understand that losing a job/career can be emotionally devasting. Working all day on something that one loves is more than "just a job." Thanks for your thoughts.

  12. from Jacqueline

    I'll try a second time to put down my comment - had the same trouble Cornelia had this morning! Sally, you are so right! A friend of mine lost her job some months ago, following a scary period during which there were several "nights of the long knives" when batches of co-workers were let go, fairly unceremoniously. She was so emotionally drained by the whole experience that it took her weeks to get over it - and even though she now has another job, she is still quite exhausted, despite being terribly grateful to be in work. Thank you for this!

  13. Thank you for giving voice to something I've felt for a while. It does take time to grieve, and to hold someone like a parent in your heart after they're gone means that the grief will continue to come back when you least expect it sometimes. After my mom passed, I would be doing well for a while, and then something would come up that I would want to tell her, and I would reach for the phone, only to remember she wasn't there to call. Easier days will come, when good memories will feel better.

  14. Jacqueline
    I lost my husband of almost 30 years on Valentine's day 2013. Your article is so thoughtful, as mourning is treated like a disease.3 weeks after my husband passed, I ran into a former coworker with her husband in the grocery store of all places. When I started crying,I was given the obligatory I'm sorry,but no empathy or words of comfort. At age 56 I find myself dealing with the most difficult blow of all. Thank you for some measure of comfort in knowing that mourning is not the 24 he flu

  15. Jackie, I share your sorrow. You have said it so well. We have a right to grieve for the our dear loved ones. As well as family losses over the past couple of years I lost two very dear friends in the last three months of 2012. Not a day goes by that I don't remember and shed a tear. It is good to talk (or write) about those that have shared our lives. They have lived and I cherish the memories. Love you Jackie and thinking of you. Have a blessed Easter. Ruby.

  16. Jacqueline, I also had a year like that, where several of my loved ones died in a short period of time. It takes your breath away & time & friends/family that understand & give you a hug when you need it are the best remedy. Take all the time you need. No one can tell you when you are ready to move on. You will know when. Thanks for a very thoughtful & sincere posting. Janice

  17. Love the photo of you and your Dad!