Archives for posts with tag: Grief

Three years ago my step father, Frank, passed away from complications of ALS. The disease robbed him of his speech, his ability to eat, and the use of his arms before it eventually took his life. I’m still not very comfortable talking about how cruel ALS proved to be when it struck my family.

As the #alsicebucketchallenge grows exponentially it seems necessary pin down how I feel about this social media madness. I feel annoyed that my newsfeed is overrun with these posts. I feel embarrassed for all the people that drop the bucket on their heads. I feel a pull at my chest each time I hear or read those letters “ALS”.

That’s where I get stuck. That pull at my chest. ALS feels like a swear word. I don’t like saying. I don’t like hearing. It doesn’t sound like any other disease to me. It sounds hopeless. People forget when they post these laughing and shrieking and even stoic declarations of support that real people have ALS. Friends and family members of ALS victims see these posts.

This man doesn’t know ALS will take him before he turns 60: Frank

On the other side, as I’m sure Frank would argue, this has generated a tremendous amount of money and support for the cause. For all the pulls at my chest and all the annoyances, that’s certainly worth something.

If you’ve been challenged or you’d just like to donate to a good cause let me suggest donating to the Robert J. Packard Center at John’s Hopkins University. Their focus is research over awareness and that research is damn impressive. 

Who says silliness can’t benefit a good cause?

 

I’ve read three books in the last two months at wildly different paces. While the pacing can occasionally be blamed on the authors, it’s mostly my fault. If you don’t feel like reading my rambling let me start by saying you should read all three of these books. They’re good. I promise.

Anyway, here’s the breakdown:

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (four days):

wave deraniyagala

Sonali Deraniyagala lost everything in the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 – her husband, two sons and parents. Her grief is palpable if blessedly unreachable. This book should be read quickly. As quickly as one can stomach this much grief.

Simply flipping through this book one can see the pages are spare, the margins wide. Page layout encourages a quick read. If not for the sheer devastation within, I would have finished this book in a single day.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (one week):

life after life - atkinson

I’m a sucker for a historical novel. Set it during WWII and I’m double sold. Atkinson delivers a lovely piece of the past with a bit of a mystical spin. Our protagonist, sweet Ursula Todd, dies over and over until she gets life right. At least I think that’s the moral of the story. I enjoyed the book even though I’m not exactly sure what I was supposed to “learn” from it. Maybe there isn’t a moral. Maybe it’s just a book.

Despite the heft (560pages) the chapters passed quickly for me once I found a rhythm. There is a special kind of satisfaction to eating a book this quickly. That’s kind of why I’m writing this blog. That satisfaction makes me want to brag a bit. It makes me want to big up another 500 page book and finish it over the weekend. (I won’t. This is hubris. But still, it feels good)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (one month):

white teeth smith

Yes, I just read this. I’m slow. That’s the point of the damn blog. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it. A book like this gets talked about for a reason. It’s good.

When I reached the end of this novel, I wish I’d read faster. After twisting ever forward, through generations and friendships, Smith swings around at the end to reference the initial sections of the book. I saw it happening. I saw my slow progress coming back to bite me in the ass. While I understood the moment was significant I had no recollection of the initial scene. Damn you procrastination!

Just read. Fast. Slow. It doesn’t make a difference. Reading is fun.

Comedian, Laurie Kilmartin, is currently live-tweeting her father’s death. As vulgar as it might sound in concept, in practice it seems pretty amazing:

twiter1

I can relate to this kind of gallows humor – a dark kind of humor that touches at a place of discomfort and recognition all at once. It’s uncomfortable because it’s familiar. Viscerally true. Humor doesn’t cover the grief. Humor allows one to sneak up on a difficult emotion before it has a chance to hide again.

I’m not on Twitter but projects like this make me think I should be. See more of Laurie Kilmartin’s wonderful madness here. But be warned:

twiter2

Upon learning of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I felt a deep sadness. The kind of sadness that pulled like a weight through my chest. More emotion than I have a right to feel. Yet, I am not alone. Blogs and news sites and social media are awash with fans expressing their collective shock and grief.

doubt

Watching this outpouring I’ve come to understand something about why we grieve for celebrities, people who are strangers to most of us. We have a shared relationship with these people. My relationship to Hoffman was likely the same as yours. His acting moved us. Doubt rocked our conscience. Capote made us wonder if the real Truman Capote had been brought back to life. We have all lost that inspiration.

This grief is more accessible than a private tragedy.

I’ve long wanted to write about my own family’s struggle with grief. Two years ago we lost my step-father and aunt (ALS and breast cancer, respectively). Even now, I struggle to find the words. They were in their 50s, too young. Too fast. They were good people, amazing people. What am I supposed to say? How can I explain what they meant to me?

My relationship to and love for each of them was complicated. One I still struggle to understand and explain. Partially, I’ve learned, I keep this to myself because a hierarchy exists, even if that hierarchy is unspoken. My grief is different from that of my mother, brother, and uncle. Our grief is different from that of the extended family. Their grief is different than each circle beyond. In theory, grief diffuses.

With a celebrity we can grieve on an even plane. We can talk about grief without fear that we are feeling more or less than we should. We latch on to these celebrity deaths because we’ve been waiting to talk about death and grief and loss and life and longing.

So let’s talk. Grief should be shared.

I’m really not sure what made me pick up this book – the sparse style, the width, the beautiful cover art, the title – but I’m glad I did.

let's take

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a memoir of friendship and grief. More friendship than grief until the last forty pages. Specifically, Caldwell has written the story of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story). By the hundredth page it’s clear Caldwell can’t bring herself to write of her friend’s death. Maybe if she doesn’t put it on the page it won’t be true. It’s easier to focus their love of dogs and rowing and writing. Anything but death.

When she finally gets around to writing about Caroline’s death (“Grief is fundamentally a selfish business.”) she does so as eloquently as writer before her. If found Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking useful/enjoyable you’ll like this.

Near the end of the book, after Caroline’s death, Caldwell’s dog is attacked by two pit bulls. She survives, don’t worry. But all I could think was how would I save my sweet little poodle? She pulled me back in. When the grief has pulled me down a sudden urgency returned to the narrative. Like a gulp of fresh air after staying under water too long. That’s the real joy of memoirs. Sometimes life gives us these plot points that wouldn’t seem believable in a novel.

I love nonfiction.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for almost a year:

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, in case you haven’t heard, is mostly narrated by the nine year old son of a man who died on 9/11 in the Twin Towers. Yeah, it’s heavy. A variety of forms – pictures, single lines of text, letters – offset the subject matter a bit. But just a bit. You can’t run from the grief of a child.

Or grief in general.

Safran Foer handles grief in a way that might bother some folks. Described but not discussed. A background more than a subject. Then again, maybe I only notice the grief because I have been thinking about it.

I bought this book to give to my uncle while my aunt went back in the hospital with breast cancer. She slept a great deal. He needed a book. Or, I thought he needed a book. I bought this novel because I saw it around; it seemed like a title he would have heard about. Christmas came and went. My aunt moved to hospice.

How could I give him a book about grief now? I couldn’t, I can’t.

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