Archive for the ‘Grief & Loss’ Category

“We want you back”

It’s only now, 3 days later, than I can begin to cry over the death of Michael Jackson. I experience grief for him the way I’ve grieved for people I know personally; shock, disbelief, sadness; the feeling that the person you’ve lost is everywhere and nowhere at once. Compounding things is the tragedy his life became; the complexity of his legacy; the somber lessons about fame, work, and music that we are to learn from his life & death.

I’ve written before about the need for celebrity grief. Grieving people in the public eye, or with whom we grew up, is necessary and a rite of passage. Our culture is shaped by people who live their lives publicly, and when those lives end we are required to look at them honestly, grieve respectfully, and see them for the complicated, human people they were. Those who want to place Michael (or anyone who has died, for that matter) in an “either/or” box are missing this crucial point: it’s entirely possible that someone can be complicated, deeply flawed even, and yet contribute something of value to the world.

I took special notice of Lisa Marie Presley’s statement, released on her MySpace page. It’s particularly heartbreaking, because Lisa speaks candidly of wanting to “save” someone she loved from his own self-destructive impulses, and of course, being unable to do so. Lisa says,

I became very ill and emotionally/spiritually exhausted in my quest to save him from certain self-destructive behavior and from the awful vampires and leeches he would always manage to magnetize around him.

I was in over my head while trying.

I had my children to care for, I had to make a decision.

The hardest decision I have ever had to make, which was to walk away and let his fate have him, even though I desperately loved him and tried to stop or reverse it somehow.

How many people die every day that could have been “saved?” What is our responsibility to someone who doesn’t want our help? Relatives & loved ones of drug addicts, alcoholics and other risk-takers experience this all the time. How much of ourselves are we supposed to sacrifice? When do we make the decision to stop saving someone else and save ourselves? Which is more important?

Later in her statement, Lisa says she hopes everyone who worried over Michael can be “set free.” I hope she includes herself. And in her case, God bless her, she’s witnessed the same type of death twice, which is two too many for any one lifetime. It doesn’t seem there’s anything anyone could have done.

Perhaps most upsetting is how young Michael seemed; how terribly naïve; how full of energy he appeared to be. Watching him dance and jump and move and laugh is heartbreaking, knowing, simply, that he was so alive and now he isn’t. It’s always a little easier knowing someone died after they were “ready”; when they had made preparations and accepted that their time was over. I don’t think Michael ever could have been in this category as he seemed way too committed to his Peter Pan existence.

And here he is, literally singing to his inner child:


How Pop Culture Helped Me Through My Breakup

In the difficult months following my boyfriend’s disappearance, I’d already uncovered an innate sense that I wanted to surround myself with positive things. I believe that a society’s culture is a window into that society; it reflects our experiences, our hopes, our fears, dreams, intuitions, etc. The key is finding aspects of that culture that will make you better, not worse.

TV: For a while, I couldn’t watch romances. I watched a lot of Law & Order.  But the show that helped me the most was “Charmed.” Yes, “Charmed”! There’s a lot there about trusting your intuition, finding love or finding yourself, when all seems hopeless. In particular, the character of Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) has to learn to trust her intuitions and believe that love will happen for her when it’s supposed to happen. As I was looking ahead to a seemingly endless period of being single, I took particular solace in this.

Film: Two weeks after the breakup, the Sex and the City movie was released. I wrote about it here. The breakup scene, rather than being a trigger, was very well done and thus exceedingly powerful. My decision NOT to be like Carrie was a powerful one.

Another helpful film for me was Shopgirl. The main character’s transition from living life as it happens and falling for an unavailable man, then deciding to give herself freely and receiving love in return, was incredibly helpful. I also found the quiet & slightly ethereal flow of the film incredibly soothing.

Music: This one was hard. I’m a musician, surrounded by music each day, and because of the immense grief I couldn’t stand to hear any music at all for several weeks.

My first return to the world was through the listening of music. Once, on NPR, I heard one of those “new album” reviews. The reviewer described a beautifully sung country song where the singer describes her regret at having left someone who was perfectly fine for her. I related this to my own situation, but in reverse, and my affinity for country music was born.

This was especially poignant, because most pop music (especially R&B) acknowledges romantic pain but offers only misogyny as an anecdote. Hearing singers describe love for their families and their relative happiness was incredibly helpful to me, and I still listen to it.

The album, by the way, was Ashton Shepherd’s Sounds So Good.

I Decided

A year ago this week, I experienced an awful loss. I’ve decided to chronicle it, and its recovery, in this series. This is part two of four. Read part 1 here.

At the beginning, I was confused and bewildered and at a loss as to why things had to end. He treated me well. We laughed a lot. We liked each other’s friends. We had all the “right” things in common. But he obviously had some flaws, the greatest of which was not yet obvious to me.

My mother says things happen “for a reason.” I’m not nearly as religious as she is, but I believe things happen for a reason, too. And if the reason for your trauma isn’t obvious, or if you’re not sure where God is, I believe you should give it a reason. Grief is a big thing, and this is how I got my mind around it.

Even though I couldn’t imagine it, I took the advice of my friends & family who, at that point, had a much better perspective than I, and repeatedly told me that this boyfriend was just a “preparation,” that this was all happening so I could be even more ready for the person I’ve been waiting for. It took me about two months to really believe this.

I also decided that I would be positive, surround myself with positive things, and listen to my intuition and ignore all those self-defeating voices I was used to.

Ceremony: Before he left, we’d been planning our first trip together. He left about a month before were to leave, and when that would-have-been weekend came, I planned my own trip. I got in my car, drove for a couple of hours, and found a beautiful spot to sit and think. Summer was beginning and there were kids running everywhere. I loved it and want to go back.

Travel: I had some money I’d put aside for the aforementioned trip, and immediately booked a three week trip to visit my mom and my best friend. Visiting my mom was tough (two whole weeks!) but it was GREAT to get out of the house.

Religion: I couldn’t yet muster up the energy to pray. My boyfriend had been an atheist, and in my warped “breakup-mind,” praying felt like betrayal. Still, I found a local church where the people were nice enough, and the sermons seemed made for me. I liked getting out of the house, also.

Journaling: Yes, extensive journaling, reflecting, reviewing, examining “patterns” and trying to cobble together an image of what a healthier relationship would look like. For this, I used the help of the aforementioned site.

Visualization: A friend told me that he had an incredibly strong feeling that this breakup was leading me to an even better relationship. On the plane trip home from seeing him, I visualized myself repeatedly running toward him, smiling, ring on my finger ready to show him. The vision sounds cheesy now, but it’s all I had to hold on to. Besides, it’s about to happen in real life. There are worse visualizations to have.

I Prefer Hope

Some of us can afford to simply “fall in love.” Those of us blessed with loving fathers, good examples, and a healthy self worth tend to gravitate towards men who want to treat them well.

For the rest of us, it’s not so easy. In the absence of positive relationship role models, we need to consciously program ourselves to accept love from a healthy person and conquer our fears that we’re not good enough.

My own journey to this acceptance involved lots and lots of fear, certainly not helped by all the hysteria-inducing statistical articles proclaiming, “Singles are doomed!” Like this one at cnn, where the author spends time complaining about how awful things are for Black women (and it’s true, things are a little more difficult for us) before offering a half-hearted note of optimism at the end.

The problem with articles like these is that they put too much power in the hands of others. Relationships aren’t easy for anyone, especially those of us with problems to overcome, but it can be done. I much prefer this article in Sunday’s “Modern Love” column.

In it, writer Kerry Cohen presents her tatooo habit as a metaphor for the self-inflicted pain caused by repeatedly choosing harmful or unsuitable boyfriends. Fitting, then, that she decides to get her tattoos removed when she meets the man who is right for her. No cataclysmic, Oprah-style revelation, no magical bells or music are heard. No exhortations to the reader to “do what I did so you can find love!” The article is short and so light on detail and introspection, but it appears that Cohen eventually just knows when things are right for her and responds appropriately.

Some quick research took me to Ms. Cohen’s webpage and blog, and it becomes clear just why I was drawn to this article. Like many, Cohen has clawed her way out of an abusive-man habit and learned to accept love, and, it appears, love someone else in return.

I prefer these types of articles. For some, healthy relationships come naturally. For the rest of us, we cannot view ourselves as hapless pawns of fate, destiny or statistics. This kind of mindset leads us directly to a broken-record of mistreatment. Instead, we need to be reminded that we have more power than that.

And for me personally, I needed to see that someone who once felt the same way I do at this very moment emerged successfully, and found hope.

“The One Who Looks the Least Crazy Wins”

This seems to be the week for crazy, divorced blondes in the news. I think it’s perfectly fair to take both Christie Brinkley and the YouTube lady, Trisha Walsh-Smith, to task for their public airing of certain marital details.

Personally, it makes perfect sense that someone who has been treated unfairly or otherwise wronged wants people on her side. There’s something about a break up that makes you want others to believe your side, to retain your credibility, to keep your friends.

In college, I spent over a year with a guy I shouldn’t have. He was abusive, mean, distant, unavailable, and this extended to our break up, which he did on my 21st birthday. He broke up with me, saying, “Happy Birthday. I don’t love you.” After a while he said, “I’m so relieved! I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks! Hey, do you still want to go to dinner?”

I was angry–both at how I’d been treated and, of course, of this horrible memory he created for me. Not to mention, my father was killed just a few months prior. This somehow gave him ammunition–he spread rumors about me and told everyone that I had become psychotic because of my father’s death. He played on the sympathy of his friends (and mine) and claimed he’d waited to break up with me because he thought I would die, unable to live without him. Walking through the halls, to our classes, his friends stared and whispered, no doubt believing everything he’d said.

I had the most intense impulses to try and right this wrong, to tell everyone the truth and clear my name. But I decided silence would be my best weapon. I still had to see him several days a week (torture!) and endure the strange looks from people, but I just tried to appear well adjusted–I showed no outward signs of falling apart and found lots of good friends, and devoted myself to my studies. When people dared to ask for my side, I refrained from any comment.

Over time, people came to see who he really was–a jerk. It didn’t take any help from me; his own behavior betrayed his insanity to his friends. I worked hard, defied expectations and graduated with honors, while he barely scraped by and ended up with no friends, an expensive degree and a $5-an-hour job. He was furious and bewildered by my outward success. And, yes, in the end, he was sorry. But by then I was too re-invested in my own life to be concerned about it.

Like many unfairly wronged women, I’m sure Christie Brinkley wasn’t intending to drag her children through the mud and further destroy an already broken family. But no one will remember his despicable behavior; we’ll just remember that Ms. Brinkley’s pain & desire for vengeance superseded her good judgment and her desire to protect her children.

As for the title of this post, I read the quote from a divorce lawyer somewhere online. No matter what either party has done, in front of the judge, the one who looks the least crazy usually wins.

Too Much Grief, Then Too Little

Jack Schafer’s post in today’s Slate Magazine bemoans the coverage of Tim Russert’s recent and sudden death, complaining of the “televised wake” that has pre-empted news coverage on all the major networks for the past several days.

After listing the litany of tributes and whining about all the attention paid to the late Mr. Russert, Mr. Schafer brags about having reluctantly written an article for a friend of his who is now dearly departed. “And the piece,” he sneers, “was only 1200 words.”

Of course, I’m no journalist, but I’m a viewer, and the tributes on television are helpful to me, surely much more heartfelt and honest journalism than the crap news reporting we are usually subject to.

Obviously, some of the excess is due to the shock of Mr. Russert’s death. It’s well known among grief specialists that sudden deaths are more immediately traumatic than deaths following long illnesses. Even the funerals are different; a very long illness might cause one’s friends to slowly fall away; less people may be present at the funeral of someone who “finally died.” But sudden deaths provoke an outpouring of shock and grief. We idealize the lost person, and we are openly (and some say, more justifiably) devastated.

In America, we don’t have a culture of grief. We don’t wear black dresses or armbands here. Wailing and weeping is not encouraged, as it is in other places. People suppress their feelings and are then described as “so strong” and commended on how “well” they are dealing with the loss. I have been reminded of this repeatedly, as I have lost several friends & relatives.

It seems to me that this coverage is therapeutic–not just to those who knew Mr. Russert, but for all of us. Maybe celebrity deaths, and the accompanying journalistic coverage, is the American way of dealing with loss. It’s not an armband, but it certainly helps to contrast with all that Law & Order, Grand Theft Auto style pretend-death we are surrounded with.

Even if we didn’t know Mr. Russert or even watch his shows, the suddenness of his death brings mortality home for all of us. Following the coverage gives us a chance to honor this, to take comfort in the family we have right now and appreciate the fragility of life.

Unfortunately Mr. Schafer’s article reveals more about himself than about the “overdone grief.” He and other journalists who complain are missing the point, wondering what all the fuss is for when Tim Russert is already gone.

But funerals, as even Mr. Schafer must surely realize, are for the living.