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 Kübler-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.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Even Desolation is a Country to be Explored

Last year someone kindly gave me a book of daily meditations for grief, called Healing After Loss, by Martha Hickman. Each day has a quote by someone else and Ms. Hickman’s reflections on the quote. A few days ago the quote was:
“Even desolation is a country to be explored.” Sylvia Townsend Warner
There are some platitudes that people in our culture fall back on when confronted with uncomfortable situations, like being around someone who has just lost a loved one. A particularly distasteful one, to someone who is freshly grieving, is the intimation that the experience will make you a better, stronger person. I have hated the idea that grief could be a growing experience. It’s a horrible concept to imagine yourself profiting by the death of your loved one in any way.
But this quote has a different spin for me. This says: I’m here in desolation, what is this experience? What is here for me to learn?
In an earlier blog post I wrote about my first trip to the grocery store after Arthur died. I was raw and bleeding and it felt like it must be obvious to all who saw me. And yet the woman at the register acted like everything was ordinary. She couldn’t see my pain! I turned and looked around me with wonder: what sorrow was under the surface of all the people around me that I couldn’t see?
In her discussion of this quote Ms. Hickman writes of a Buddhist tale in which a woman whose child has died went to see Buddha to ask him to bring her child back to life. He told her he could help her if she brought back a handful of mustard seeds from a house where death had not visited. The woman traveled far and wide but she could find no one who hadn’t lost someone they loved. This experience taught her that suffering is a part of life. And she found a way to heal her suffering through compassion, understanding, and love for all of humanity.
This week three people I know are exploring their own personal countries of desolation. The first is a single mom who underwent emergency surgery yesterday. Her mother died a few years ago so she was lacking that most basic support. What worries must she have endured in the few days between her trip to the ER and her surgery?
The second is a man who has worked brutally hard for fifteen years to build a successful business. Today he had to tell his lenders that he will default on his loans.
The third is waiting on test results for a fatal illness.
I find myself holding these three in my heart, walking that desolate country with them, holding them close. And I can do this only because I have become so familiar with my own personal desolate landscape.
Through the exploration of the country of desolation—the understanding that everyone lives in this place at least some of the time—I am beginning to experience a profound fellowship with everyone on Earth, bringing a deep compassion to life. I ask every day that my exploration will open my heart to the suffering of others and help me to love without judgment or condition.

Note: The Buddhist story brings to mind Jesus’s admonition that if your faith was as a mustard seed you could move mountains (Matthew 17:20). What is it about mustard seeds? I know they are tiny, but is there something else?
Footnote: I'd like to give credit for the quote but Ms. Hickman does not provide any information for where these quotes come from.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Take More Videos

I have one regret. I don’t have more of Arthur on video. And I have over a hundred hours of him on video. One of the things we did in 2010 was produce a weekly hour-long TV show called “A Question of Meaning.” The show consisted entirely of the two of us talking about subjects of interest to us. This means I have 52 hours of us talking to each other. What a gift…and I still want more (grief is insatiable).
It’s like a miracle when I watch one of the AQOM shows. For an hour it’s like Arthur is right here with me. In the following segment we answer a viewer’s question about the nature of our relationship.

But my advice to everyone and anyone is to take more video. Take more photos. When someone you love dies you will never have enough.
Don’t just video special moments. Video ordinary moments. I have video of Arthur and I playing cards with his parents, for an entire hour (the length of the videotape, this was in 1994). And video of an entire Thanksgiving dinner with them. These are precious because they capture life. Not people posed for the camera, or extraordinary moments of excitement, but those moments that seemed very ordinary at the time but in retrospect have become very precious.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Books about Grief I

I love to read, so I’ve been searching out all the books on grieving I can find. I’ve read mostly memoirs, personal accounts of the author’s passage through grief. Interestingly, the books I’ve found so far are about the loss of a spouse or a parent. For some reason the best-known books in this genre don’t seem to include books by those who have lost a child. Is that loss too painful to write about?
My favorite book, by far, and clearly a favorite of many because it is often mentioned, is C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. The book is very short but quite powerful—raw, immediate, passionate, questioning. There were many passages when my eyes were too full of tears to see the page. I felt like he expressed my feelings over and over again.
Lewis is remarkably honest about the details of his grief and about how his wife’s death caused him to question both his faith and the nature of God (you can read pertinent passages here).
His questioning of God rang true for me. I was shocked that the other writers I’ve read didn’t talk about this. Grief was an existential crisis for me that entailed the questioning of everything. Lewis doesn’t question the existence of God, but asks whether God is a Cosmic Sadist, or a Vet intent on Vivisection, tearing our guts apart while we’re still alive for some reason of His own. I wanted to know what the purpose of life was—what’s the point if we’re just going to die?
Lewis describes how he desperately wants to know where his beloved wife is, and hates platitudes like “she’s at peace” or “she’s with God.” His experience was that once he passed through the early days of desperation and was less passionately seeking her presence, he began to experience her presence in a unique way. Not in the ways he would have thought, but with an unemotional, almost intellectual knowing.
This book gave me the sense that I wasn’t alone, that others had been here before me.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

When Your Eye is Filled With Beauty...

Beauty has been one of my greatest solaces in this year of my grief. I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods in order to immerse myself in beauty. I’ve also started doing some reading on the subject, and my first stop was the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donoghue’s book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (listen to an interview with him). His subtitle expresses my experience: beauty is Nature’s comforting embrace telling me there is Some Thing More to the world than meets the eye.

What is beauty? Is beauty something objective, present in certain objects and absent in others? Is beauty subjective, something “in the eye of the beholder”?
What I have learned this year, and found confirmed in O’Donoghue’s book, is there is a third possibility: Beauty is an essential part what is.
The ancient Greeks thought this way. Plato considered Beauty to be one of the Ideal Forms that constitute the true reality behind our physical world of space-time. Medieval philosophers believed there were five ‘Transcendentals’: Being, the One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. These transcendentals are the foundation of the universe. These five principles underlay everything. This means that no matter where you look, if you have eyes to see, you will see the transcendentals. A whole book could be written on what this means, but I want to stay focused on beauty. What this means to me is that Beauty is at the essence of everything.

O’Donoghue quotes another writer, Francesca Aran Murphy, on this point:
Part of what it means to be, is to be beautiful. Beauty is not superadded to things: it is one of the springs of their reality. It is not that which effects a luscious response in perceivers; it is the interior geometry of things, making them perceptible as forms.
I love the phrase ‘the interior geometry of things.’ This is like the Medieval philosopher’s belief that the transcendentals form the superstructure of the universe. Is this why ‘sacred geometry’ is so beautiful? Why mathematicians talk about the beauty of an equation?

I have written in earlier blog posts about perceiving ‘bounteous beauty’ in nature; what I meant by that is this ‘essential beauty.’ It doesn’t mean seeing an object that I subjectively experience as beautiful, like a flower or sunset, but seeing the profound, awe-inspiring experience that ALL is beautiful. It is precisely the all-embracing nature of this beauty that points me to something beyond the physical.
O’Donoghue agrees with this conception of beauty as an aspect of being [‘ontological’ means questions concerned with ‘the nature of being’]:
Ontologically, beauty is the secret sound of the deepest thereness of things. To recognize and celebrate beauty is to recognize the ultimate sacredness of experience, to glimpse the subtle embrace of belonging where we are wed to the divine, the beauty of every moment, of every thing.
In the 18th century European philosophers began to question the idea of objective beauty; they argued that beauty is also subjective. As time went on the conception of beauty moved farther and farther into the realm of subjectivity; today it seems that many people in our culture believe that there is no such thing as objective beauty.

Of course there is an element of subjectivity in my response to the beauty (or perceived lack) in a particular object. For example, you and I might disagree on the beauty of a painting. I may find the work of Jackson Pollack frivolous and you may find his paintings works of sublime beauty. That’s the subjective level. What modern philosophers are saying (I think) is there is no objective standard that can definitively settle our disagreement.
But the Beauty that O’Donoghue and I are talking about is at a deeper level. This level is embedded in the beingness of things in the world. At a level below that of subject and object.
O’Donoghue had this to say about the concept that beauty was subjective:
We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; there is no accounting for taste because each person’s taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.
When your eye is filled with beauty, beauty is all you see.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Elephant in the Room

I went to a new dentist today. When we were having our initial consult it came out that my husband had died. The dentist was instantly sympathetic; it turns out his first wife died at age 39 from a brain tumor. This was twenty years ago but as he talked I could tell he was still sad about losing her.
We talked about grief a little, and then he said, “Our culture has a real problem facing death. Have you noticed how people avoid talking to you?”
“Yeah I notice,” I replied.
“My wife was quite well known and I couldn’t believe how many people would see me at an event or somewhere after she had died and wouldn’t say anything about her death, they’d just talk about the weather or something. Like they were afraid they were going to say the wrong thing so they said nothing.”
I told him, “What I started doing was just bringing it up myself because I couldn’t stand it. I’d say, ‘I know it’s really awkward but believe me, I’m used to having this awkward conversation now so let’s get it over with.’”
“People didn’t seem to understand that I wanted to talk about it. And when you don’t it’s like there’s this elephant in the room,” he said earnestly.
“And if you have some kind of ongoing relationship with the person, that elephant is just going to keep growing until it crowds out any possibility of relationship.”
Recently a friend wrote me an email after reading the post in which I offered some suggestions on how to treat a grieving person. She thought people were paralyzed by their fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. And she also thought that each grieving person would feel differently about this. I know these are both true. But here was this dentist, twenty years after his wife’s death, talking as if it had happened last year. It had clearly been traumatic for him that people had not spoken to him about his wife.
Last week I read a memoir by a widow called Grieving: A Love Story. The author, Ruth Coughlin, worked as an editor in a newspaper office. After her husband died and she went back to work, half of her co-workers offered her their condolences but the other half avoided her at all costs. A friend had warned her that would happen. She was as bothered by it as my dentist.
This awkwardness is part of our culture’s confused relationship with death. Born from our denial and segregation of death from ordinary life, we try to hold ourselves apart from death whenever it comes close. It’s like there’s this voice whispering in our ear: “If I don’t speak to that woman whose husband died, I won’t risk getting contaminated by death.” That sounds irrational but there’s some dynamic like that at work in our minds.
There is a couple that Arthur and I knew casually. Over the few years we’ve known them I have become better friends with the woman. After Arthur died, I have seen this couple a few times, and the man has not mentioned Arthur’s death once. This is where I learned about the elephant—every time I saw this man there was the unacknowledged reality of Arthur’s absence right in my face. And that elephant kept getting bigger until I was pushed out of his life; I haven’t seen him in a long time.
I think what’s crucial for a bereaved person is to have the death acknowledged. When someone doesn’t speak to me about the death they’ve left our relationship, whatever it may be, frozen at the moment of my husband’s death. So they and I are both reminded of that moment every time we see each other. That’s actually worse than getting it over with and speaking about it for a few minutes. All you have to do is say, “I know. I’m sorry.”

Monday, January 11, 2016

Lazarus by David Bowie

What a beautiful gift David Bowie has given the world with his music video “Lazarus.” This video was released a few days before Bowie died, and from what I understand, was conceived and produced after he was diagnosed with cancer.
In the video, a blindfolded Bowie lies in an old-fashioned hospital bed (with buttons over the eyes), and occasionally levitates, while singing “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.”
There’s a woman who is a little scary, sometimes she’s under the bed or standing against the wall reaching towards him like maybe she’s trying to hold on to him.
Then the scene cuts to Bowie dancing, without the blindfold. He sits down at a desk where he writes furiously. The video cuts back to the figure in the bed singing, “Oh I’ll be free/ Just like that bluebird/ Oh I’ll be free/ Ain’t that just like me” as he lifts his hands to the sky. The video ends with the unblindfolded Bowie standing up from the desk and backing into the wardrobe behind him like a coffin.
Thank you David Bowie for having the courage to make this incredible statement.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


I’ve been mining the box of loose photos that my husband Arthur and I accumulated over the course of our relationship. I found one from thirty years ago that was taken in Arthur’s grandmother’s house. In this photo Arthur is showing his cousin the book a friend of his wrote called White Trash Cooking. Arthur is dead, his grandmother is dead, the cookbook’s author is dead, that house doesn’t exist anymore…Looking at that photo made me think how as you age you start living with ghosts—not in the literal sense, but in the sense that people and places no longer exist on the physical plane but only in your mind.
Maybe this is one of the reasons older people start losing their grip on reality, it suddenly occurred to me. Most of the things and people that matter to them now exist only in their memories, and they prefer the reality of their memories to ‘actual’ reality in which they are alone.
This brought up for me another difficult aspect of grief, which is that you become the keeper-of-the-memories. Our point-of-view, our subjective reality, is shaped by our memories, and as long as we have at least one other person who was there when a particular memory was formed we can confirm that we are anchored to reality. We can confirm that memory is ‘real.’ But losing our partner-in-memory unmoors us. Was it real or did I just imagine it…who knows?

Thursday, January 7, 2016


In my experience, grief stimulates existential questions. An example of a question that kicks around in my head a lot these days is: What is the point of living if we’re just going to die? Are we born just to have kids, work a job, buy stuff, and die?
I was a little gloomy today and brought these questions up with a friend. He said they reminded him of a scene from the film ‘My Dinner with Andre,’ in which Andre tells his dinner companion about a type of self-reflection where you ask
the same questions that Stanislavski said the actor should constantly ask himself as a character: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? And where am I going? But instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself.
The quote from the film brought to mind a passage I’d seen recently from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. 
This is so true of my experience. I have never worried about where I came from, and I haven’t heard anyone else talk about that, although I’ve heard a lot of discussion about what happens after life. Is it because the universe exists in our reality only from our point of view? From our vantage point the universe only truly became alive with our entrance. All that history that happened before we were born is merely wallpaper for the events of our life. But how can the universe go on without us being here to observe it? And who wants to become wallpaper for someone else’s life?
When I got home my cat was playing with her ball. I got down on the floor and played with her. She told me: this is the point of being alive. Being. Experiencing. Loving.
Thanks KittyCat.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Animal Dreams, Continued

Today a hawk reminded me that I’d forgotten my encounters with birds. In yesterday’s post I wrote about a dream I’d had that told me to write about my encounters with animals. So I did. But I forgot the birds.
This morning I went to the dentist. I have an unusual problem, a dental cyst between two teeth. It was removed by a periodontist but he’s unhappy with how my mouth looks; he says he’s not sure what’s wrong. So he sent me to an endodontist to evaluate it. I saw her this morning, and she also seems unsure what to do. She told me she needed to confer with the periodontist before she could tell me anything.
When I left I missed Arthur horribly. I needed someone to talk to, someone to help me through this problem.
A little later I was driving down a street in a neighborhood and I said out loud, “I miss you Arthur, I need you right now,” and just at that moment a hawk flew across the road in front of me. The road curved and the hawk curved and it flew along in front of me, just fifteen feet in front of my windshield, for thirty feet or more, before it turned off into the woods. I felt so blessed. The hawk felt like a calming voice from the universe saying, “I am with you.”

This made me remember a couple of experiences I had with birds in the last year. There’s a special tree I found on the Mountain-to-Sea trail where I feel a strong connection to Arthur. I hike up there regularly and spend an hour or more just sitting with the tree. I also do some qigong while I’m there, which is a Chinese system of movements related to Tai Chi.
The bird encounters both happened while I was doing a movement I came up with myself called ‘Exalt-Bow.’ I hold my arms out palms up and raise them above my head, lifting my face to the sky, then bring my palms together overhead and bring them down, prayer-form, into a bow.
The first time I did that was last April. As I lifted my arms and face to the sky I spotted a bird, I think it was a hawk, soaring right overhead. Just as I spotted it, the bird stalled so it paused right over me. Then it circled higher and higher right over my head, before finally flying off. It felt like a visitation from Arthur, flying high and free.
Last week I was up there again. While I was doing Exalt-Bow and lifting my arms into the air a bird came soaring from behind me and, just when I saw it the bird paused, just like that hawk in April. It held its position for a moment, then began to soar again, slowly, as I continued lifting my arms to the sky. I spoke aloud: “Thank you. Thank you. I don’t know what it means but I like it.”

Monday, January 4, 2016

Animal Dreams

Last night I dreamt about an animal, some kind of cat. The dream woke me up about 3 am. Half-asleep, I turned on the light and wrote on the pad on my bedside table: write about animal encounters in blog. I promptly fell back asleep.
When I saw the note this morning I remembered the dream but wondered what it meant. What animal encounters? Then I remembered the bear, and the deer, and the squirrels…
I’m not a big believer in dreams, but this was so unusual I decided to honor the dream’s message and, as a friend of mine says, follow the prompt.
There are so many things that will always make me think of Arthur. Squirrels are one of them. There have been many times over the last months when I have been despairing and a squirrel has shown up. I live on the edge of the woods. In the backyard there’s what Arthur called a ‘squirrel highway.’ The squirrels take the same path day after day through the trees. A Bradford pear tree is in the middle of their route. The squirrels love that tree—in the spring they hang upside down eating the buds and in the fall they eat the ripe fruit. Arthur loved watching them out of our office window. Countless times last year I would be sitting in the office, sad and bereft, looking out the window, and a squirrel would waggle its tail or leap across a gap between trees and my heart would lift.  

I live at the head of a cove, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, so it’s not uncommon to see bears here. This summer mother bears came strolling through the backyard many times with their cubs. One morning I heard an altercation between two adults, one of them a mother with cubs. The mother and cubs climbed up a tree for safety and I got some video of them in the tree and climbing down an hour later.

One day when I had hiked up the mountain behind my house I was sitting relaxed on a rock outcropping. I heard a noise in the bushes below; it was obviously a large animal. A few seconds later an adult bear emerged, no more than twenty feet from me. I had researched what to do in this situation—first speak to the bear then make yourself look larger if it comes towards you. So I spoke aloud: “I’m here, I know you didn’t expect to find me here, this is a wonderful place isn’t it, I’ll be leaving soon…” and as I talked it looked at me, then turned to amble off to my right. But after a few steps it turned and started moving towards me and I remembered I had food in my backpack that was halfway between the bear and me.
I grabbed a stick that happened to be nearby, stood up and yelled at the bear. It was startled and turned and moved off at a fast pace. I made sure it got out of sight before I let go of my menacing stance. I gathered my things and left. But I was elated. That was the closest I have ever been to a bear in the woods.
I’ve lived in this house for six years now. I’d never seen a deer in my yard until last summer, when I saw a deer in the backyard twice in two days. That was it for deer sightings. In December I read the journal I kept last year. On Christmas Eve about sunset I looked out into the backyard and a deer came strolling through. What was notable about this was I had read the passages about seeing the deer that morning.
Mind the coincidences came into my mind. Not long ago I heard a friend tell of a beautiful encounter she had after the death of her mother. She was in a public place and a woman came and spoke with her. Some of the things this woman said made my friend feel like this was a visitation from her mother. The message she was given was ‘mind the coincidences.’

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Embrace Aloneness

Loneliness is one of the hardest facets of grief. Today I searched through the journal I’ve kept since Arthur died and ‘lonely’ is on almost every page. But I’ve noticed a change in my relationship to loneliness over the last eleven months; I’ll illustrate that change with passages from the journal:
March: The loneliness aches. I’ve realized I’ve really never been lonely before. Certainly not in the last 35 years. I always had Arthur.
I thought I liked to be alone—I often went on hikes by myself for example—but it’s become clear that that was not true aloneness. Arthur was always there when I got home. I never felt this bottomless pit of loneliness before. And being with people makes the loneliness worse; the presence of other people just highlights how alone I am.
April: There is an odd feeling of lonely and not-lonely. I am such a resourceful person and have more things I want to do than time to do them (as usual). At the same time, there is a deep loneliness for Arthur. Some of that loneliness is for someone who knows me deeply, who understands me, who knows my history and my neuroses. All this knowing creates a profound sense of rest. All pretense (or at least it feels that way) can be dropped and it’s okay just to be myself. I guess some people have friends at this level but I don’t.
I feel sorrow for those who don’t have my resources and are truly alone. If I feel the crushing weight of loneliness with the friends I have and the inner resources I have, others must be living lives of quiet desperation and inner devastation.
June: There are worse things than being alone. When I thought of this I laughed because I knew Arthur would love it. Yesterday I went to the grocery store and ran into a couple I know. I really like the woman, but her boyfriend gives me the creeps. It’s hard for me to imagine what she sees in him. “What crazy things people do to avoid being alone,” I thought as I drove home. Let me embrace my aloneness.

July: I’m so lonely. It’s hard going from having someone with you 24/7/365 to having nobody. I find myself just wandering around the house feeling empty. The house is empty. I’m empty. You were always here for me, with me, beside me. The loneliness aches.
August: Tonight I thought: it’s getting really abstract. The thought of missing you, that is. What I mean is so much time has gone by now that I’m used to waking up alone, I’m used to eating alone, I’m used to following my own schedule. So what was once a real bodily sensation of absence is getting to be more and more a mental abstraction. Part of me hates that this is happening.
September: It’s going to be a long time without you. I’m still not happy about that. I still miss you. I’m doing all kinds of things I’d never have done with you here. I love doing these things. But the loneliness for you is always waiting for me when the activity is done. It’s like there’s something wrong with the world; you’re not home waiting for me.

October: Losing a lover. This is something I am really suffering from. My entire adult life has been spent in the company of a lover. This is why I am so alone. Friends don’t even come close to replacing the complete companionship of a lover. I understand now why people re-marry. Once you know the wonder of living with a lover it is hard to live without it.
I am sad, and lonely, and confused. I miss you deeply. But the intensity is easing.
November: I was just wondering whether the fear of being alone has ruled my life. I never lived on my own, not really. I met Arthur within days of graduating from college and six months later we were living together. There were a couple of times over the years when I thought about leaving Arthur; one of the things that held me back was my fear of being on my own.
How much did I buy into some crazy belief that if you were alone that meant there was something wrong with you? That being in a relationship proved my essential okayness?
December: Embrace your aloneness. I think that is the message of this dark time of the winter solstice. Go within. Find yourself. Avoid the impulse during the holiday season to be with people just to escape being alone.
I am embracing solitude, I am breathing it in deeply and letting it feed me.
Chapter #42 of the Tao te Ching:
Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe

Friday, January 1, 2016

What to Do for Someone Who is Grieving

In honor of the New Year’s tradition of making resolutions, here are my suggestions for what to do when someone you know is grieving:
  • Send a real, physical card, whether you’re close or a casual acquaintance. Doesn’t matter if it’s six months after the death. Email is okay, but I was shocked at how high the email:card ratio was (that is, almost everyone only emailed). Doesn’t matter if it’s a dorky card, the words don’t matter anyway, a card shows you went to some effort and that’s what counts.
  • Send flowers if you’re at all close. Send them a week after the funeral. Better yet, send a flowering plant that will communicate love for a long time.
  • The first conversation is going to be awkward. Trust me, the bereaved knows all about that so don’t let that stop you from calling.
  • Be sincere; a bereaved person is very open and vulnerable. I can’t tell you how many people left phone messages, all weepy saying “whatever I can do,” and then when I called them they didn’t really want to talk, or if I left a message they never called back. I could have done without those calls. If you think this is you, don’t call, send a card.
  • Let the bereaved prattle on. In particular, let them talk about the person who died. I’ve been shocked how people seem to think I don’t want to talk about Arthur, as if I don’t want to be reminded he’s gone. Trust me, I can’t forget that, and I get a lot of pleasure telling stories about him.
  • Don’t tell me how bad you feel for not calling him, etc. I’m not really interested in how you feel guilty for not spending more time with him.
  • Don’t assume the mourner needs or wants company. For some people solitude is very healing.
  • As time goes by, send another card, or two or three. It is so nice getting a card that just says ‘I’m thinking of you.” In other words, “I know you’re still hurting and you’re in my thoughts because I love you.”