Thursday, May 5, 2016

Stages of Grief

A couple of weeks after Arthur died I wrote in my journal, “I don’t remember one of the stages of grief being hell. That’s where I am right now.” A few weeks later I wrote, “I’m in the wanting-to-break-something stage of grief now.”
Two months in I wrote,  My stages of grief so far:
  1. Shock. Total numbness.
  2. NO! This made me feel like a 2-year-old, shouting ‘NO!’ at the top of my lungs while crying. Lasting at least six weeks, this stage isn’t through yet. This is also the time of magical thinking, like a young child.
  3. Goddamn It. Started about week 7. Not anger at Arthur, just general displeasure at how life looks.

After four months I wrote, “What stage am I in now? What comes up is dullness. A dull plodding through the days, because the weight of the reality has sunk in. Arthur is not coming back, I’m going to have to face living the rest of my life without him. It’s an acceptance of sorts, but a very unhappy one. There’s been a return of the bone-weary tiredness.”
For years I had heard about the ‘five stages of grief’: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But when I actually got to the point of experiencing grief these didn’t fit my experience at all. When someone has already died how does bargaining enter the picture?
With a little research I learned that Elisabeth KΓΌbler-Ross delineated these famous stages for people who were dying, not for those who were grieving.
I’ve read a number of books about grief and hadn’t found any that describe the stages of grief in a way that matched my experience until I found Giving Sorrow Words, by Candy Lightner and Nancy Hathaway. Ms. Lightner founded MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Ms. Lightner learned that psychologists have identified various patterns of grieving, and one of these, by psychoanalyst Dr. John Bowlby (1907-1990), resonated with me.
Dr. Bowlby broke grief down into four stages: shock and numbness, yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization.

Saturday, April 9, 2016


Do you know the feeling of having seen a word countless times but still not knowing what it means or even how to pronounce it? Recently I had this experience with the word ‘synecdoche.’ A friend was describing a film and asked if I was familiar with…and here he said something that sounded to me like schenectady. I asked, “You mean Schenectady, New York?”
“No,” he said. “Synecdoche.” (sin-eck-duh-key) “It means when you talk in shorthand, like saying ‘North Carolina lost the final NCAA game this year.’ A synecdoche is a part referring to the whole; the listener knows you’re not talking about the state of North Carolina but the university basketball team.”
Later I looked synecdoche up online. Other examples are: “The White House announced a new plan today,” and “I’ll give you a hand.” Obviously the White House can’t make announcements, and when we offer our hand in help we mean our whole body will be there too.
As I thought about the word I realized this is a painful aspect of the death of a spouse: the loss of your partner in compressed speech. Arthur and I could half-say things because we knew the other could fill in the spaces. He could say a couple of words and I would know the reference, which would set us both to laughing, or nodding our heads in thoughtful agreement. We had a secret language. I miss it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

My Life is Our Life

I have written before about the pain of ceasing to say “we” and “our,” and instead saying “I” and “my” in the year since my husband Arthur’s death. I loved being “we” with Arthur. I often signed things A&K.
The first year of my grief was a sorrowful, halting acceptance of the loss of this “we-ness,” and a slow, scary embrace of being alone. [See this earlier post.]
As I have moved into my second year of grieving I feel ready to move on with life, to explore the ways my life will unfold without Arthur as a living partner.
Contemplating what “my” life would look like, what was “authentically me,” it occurred to me that that was an absurd concept. How can there be a “me” disconnected from all that is around me? Isn’t the truth of who I am a profound interconnection with the All?
Starting from the closest point of intimacy, what I realized is that my life from this point on will still be an “our” life with Arthur. The person I am and everything I do will be influenced for the rest of my life by my thirty-four years in relationship with Arthur. I am deeply shaped by sharing Arthur’s vision of the universe as a Game of God. I am deeply shaped by sharing Arthur’s highest principle: the love of truth. I am deeply shaped by our love.
My life is an “our” life with my family. Who I am and everything I do will be influenced for the rest of my life by my fifty-eight years in relationship with the Tom and Jean Brugger family and all of that family’s branches backwards and forwards in time. I am deeply shaped not only by my parents and siblings, but by my grandparents, and great-grandparents, and uncles. I am now being shaped by my nieces, which I cherish (I don’t have any nephews, unfortunately).
My life is an “our” life with the people of the United States. Who I am and everything I do will be influenced for the rest of my life by my fifty-eight years in relationship with the culture and worldview of the U.S. in the second half of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first. I am deeply shaped by the legacy of the authors of the U.S. Constitution and their vision of equality and liberty for all human beings (as imperfectly as it may have been realized in their time, it was still a shining vision); I am deeply shaped by the struggles of the 1960s to bring that vision forward into our time, the civil rights and feminist movements; I am deeply shaped by the prosperity and opportunity of the social class I was born into…
My life is an “our” life with the planet Earth. Who I am and everything I do will be influenced for the rest of my life by my fifty-eight years in relationship with this beautiful planet, the sights and sounds unique to this place and time in the universe. I am deeply shaped by living on a planet with one Sun and one Moon. How different would it be to live on a planet with no sunset because there was more than one Sun, or a planet with multiple moons? I am deeply shaped by living on a planet with trees and whales and mosquitoes and blue-green algae. I am deeply shaped by the evolutionary lineage that resulted in the intelligent bipeds we call Homo sapiens. I am deeply shaped by the other peoples and cultures that share this precious planet.
My life is an “our” life with the universe. Who I am and everything I do will be influenced for the rest of my life by my fifty-eight years in relationship with the cosmos. Who would I be without the Big Bang?
My life is our life. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Presence as Distinct from Present

“Be present” is a common admonition these days. Eckhart Tolle became famous for his book The Power of Now, which is about being present in the here and now. The idea is to let go of our obsession with the past and future, neither of which actually exist in this moment.

I just read a twist on this concept that I really like. In the book The Spell of the Sensuous, author David Abram writes about the difference between ‘present’ and ‘presence.’  

In my mind, ‘being present’ meant that you somehow managed to step outside the flow of time. But as I read Mr. Abram’s discussion I realized that when you are ‘in the present’ you are, in fact, still in time. You are in this moment of ‘now,’ and then that now, and then that now.

Presence, on the other hand, is about just being. When you are in presence you are not aware of time at all. You are so involved in what you are doing that time becomes meaningless. Most of us have experienced this many times—those blissful moments of play when you lose yourself like a child to the game, or in lovemaking that envelops you in the sensuousness of your body, or while creating art—when you come out of that experience of presence hours may have passed and it feels like minutes.

This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the experience of ‘Flow.’ (This is a link to his TED talk on Flow.)

As I thought about this, it seemed to me that ‘present’ has the feeling of a static state, while ‘presence’ is dynamic, is experience, is being.

Mr. Abram took this concept of presence from Martin Heidegger and his book Time and Being. This is a quote from Heidegger:
Obviously, time is not nothing. Accordingly, we maintain caution and say: there is time. We become still more cautious, and look carefully at that which shows itself as time, by looking ahead to Being in the sense of presence, the present. However, the present in the sense of presence differs so vastly from the present in the sense of the now…[T]he present as presence and everything which belongs to such a present would have to be called real time, even though there is nothing immediately about it of time as time is usually represented in the sense of a succession of a calculable sequence of nows.

Me in presence on yesterday's hike

Friday, March 18, 2016

Why We Say We Lost Someone When They Die

Recently someone said they thought it was odd that people will say, when someone they love has died, that they’ve ‘lost’ that person. I used to think it was odd too…until my husband died. Now I find myself saying, “I lost my husband.”
This came to mind tonight because I wrote in my journal: Oh my love my heart aches for you. The anguish at your loss is still overwhelming.
Of course—this is why we say we ‘lost’ someone when they died. Not because we’re saying death is like losing your car keys and we think the person will be found (although there is that wild irrational hope). It’s that death is loss. Profound loss. When someone we love dies, that means we have lost a part of our life, a part of our self, the part that was that person. I have lost Arthur. I am suffering the loss of his physical being in my life.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Rewriting the Story

In my book We Are All Innocent by Reason of Insanity I describe how we tell a Story that defines our lives. What I mean by insanity is ‘confusing our mind-generated reality with actual reality.’ Our personal narratives are an example of that confusion. We begin to tell stories about ourselves as small children. Our families and teachers tell us stories about ourselves. We spin these stories into a personal narrative. By the time we reach adulthood we have forgotten that this narrative is just a story and believe it is the truth of who we are.

One of the suggestions I make in We Are All Innocent is to ‘question the Story.’

Last fall I was camping with a friend and in the evening we had a long, lovely conversation by lamplight. She told me of a book she had read that started with a description of a man’s life. He was an engineer and totally uninterested in matters of the heart. He had no close friends, no wife or children. Then one day at 40 an illness struck and he found himself in the hospital, close to death. He spent days in his hospital bed “rewriting the story of his life.”

I stopped my friend there—“What an incredible image,” I said. “Rewriting the story of your life. What a powerful concept.”

My friend went on with the story: the man survived and completely changed his priorities. I don’t remember much else about it, because I was filled with wonder at the possibilities inherent in ‘rewriting the story.’

This thought has stayed with me, and I have looked at how I have rewritten my personal narrative over the course of my life.

I grew up in a family I compare to the “Leave it to Beaver” TV show: dad worked, mom took care of the kids, no problems. Part of my childhood Story was “I am part of a completely normal American family.” Then one day in 1974 this storyline was shattered when my father announced he was leaving. At that time, in the upper-middle class town we lived in, divorce was still rare. My narrative told me that being the child of divorced parents meant I was defective in some way.

This became part of my Story. I was flawed. I was defective. I was not good enough. My best friends for the rest of my time in high school were also children of divorce. My husband was a child of divorce. I became insecure about my abilities and talents and didn’t pursue the professional career I had always expected was my future.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Spiritual Productivity

Recently I read The TibetanBook of the Dead, translated by Robert Thurman. More accurately, I read his introduction to Tibetan culture and Buddhism, and only a couple of the actual prayers for the dead. I found the prayers too esoteric to be of any meaning for me.

But I found the introduction well worth reading. A couple of ideas jumped out at me. One was the concept of Tibetan Buddhists as ‘psychonauts.’ Thurman asserts that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is a science rooted in empirical evidence, and the explorers are like astronauts: where the astronaut explores outer space, the psychonaut explores inner space.

The other idea was ‘spiritual productivity.’ Thurman writes that
In contrast to Western ideas, the Tibetan view is that the mental or spiritual cannot always be reduced to material quanta and manipulated as such—the spiritual is itself an active energy in nature, subtle but more powerful than the material. The Tibetan view is that the ‘strong force’ in nature is spiritual, not material. This is what gives the Tibetan character its ‘inwardness.’ Thus while Western and Tibetan personalities share the complex of modernity of consciousness, they are diametrically opposed in outlook, one focused outward on matter and the other inward on mind.
This difference of personality underlies the difference between the two civilizations. While the American national purpose is ever-greater material productivity, the Tibetan national purpose is ever-greater spiritual productivity. Spiritual productivity is measured by how deeply one’s wisdom can be developed, how broadly one’s compassion can exert itself.
What an amazing concept! Imagine measuring our national economy and our personal lives not by the growth in GDP or income but in the growth of our compassion. What if when we meet someone, our defining question is not ‘what do you do?” but ‘what wisdom have you learned? How are you serving others?’

Note: Robert Thurman is a Buddhist, and professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. He’s also the father of Uma Thurman.