John Ostrander: Now… now… now
There are some things they don’t tell you how to do. Sometimes it’s things no one can tell you; you just have to experience it for yourself. Sometimes it’s just stuff people don’t like to talk about. Stuff like death and grief.
I’m going to tell you what I know. Obviously, I can’t talk about what it is to die; I haven’t walked that road yet and I hope not to for a while. I can tell you, however, what it’s like to deal with death and with grief — at least, what it was like for me. As they say on the car commercials, your mileage may vary.
There are all kinds of death that you experience in your lifetime. Some are not physical — the death of friendship, the death of a dream or hope, the death of an ideal. These are no less real; the grief we feel for any of them may be no less than experiencing a physical death. However, they are different.
Perhaps the first real sense of my own mortality happened when I was about eight; it was one Saturday in late spring and I was outside on my bike. Our house was actually across the street from our church and I watched a funeral procession come up the street to the church’s front door. As I watched, I was hit with the thought that one day I would be in a casket and a boy on a bike would be watching me pass. With that vision came the realization that the world wouldn’t end with my death and that, consequently, it hadn’t begun with my birth. The axis of my own private earth shifted. I pedaled away but I have never pedaled far away enough.
This all comes to my mind because it is the tenth anniversary of the death of my wife, Kimberly Ann Yale. She died of breast cancer in March of 1997 — too soon, as many have noted. Here’s some of the hard facts I learned from that experience.
The death of a loved one is primarily about them — not you. God is not punishing you by killing someone that you love. Your pain is collateral damage. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh but I’ve encountered too many people who don’t always get it. Your pain is real but they are the ones who are doing the actual dying. That’s a lot tougher.
That said — if you’re the primary caregiver for someone who is dying, you have to take care of yourself as well. This is the part I didn’t always handle well. Accept offers of help. If your health insurance (if you have health insurance) allows for any kind of assistance, make full use of it. Make certain you know everything to which you’re entitled under your insurance policy. Do everything you can but don’t kill yourself doing it; that doesn’t help the person who is dying. Forgive yourself in advance for not being perfect.
Try to have everything ready before the end. Is there a will? Is it up to date? Where is it? Who is the executor? What arrangements will there be for afterwards? Burial or cremation? What sort of service — if any — will there be? Legally, you may be required to have a funeral director. Are those arrangements ready? You don’t want to be making them afterwards if you can avoid it. It helps you to have a friend or family member who can help you with this.
Once a person is declared legally dead, certain things may happen by law. The funeral director is notified and the body is taken away. If anyone wants to be able to say "goodbye," that needs to happen before this point. If possible, call them before the deceased is declared legally dead. The person wanting to say good-bye needs to be relatively nearby. You may be able to delay this by a little if the person dies at home but I’m not certain what the protocol is at a hospital. When in doubt, ask.
We had several memorial services for Kim, including one in Chicago. As part of the service or at the reception afterwards, people were able to get up and tell stories about Kim if they wished to do so. The stories could be respectful but some also were just wonderfully funny and, in all that, it was the most comforting and healing part of the service for me. It’s what I knew most — stories and storytelling. Kim lived again in those moments in all her contradicting glory. It was what she and I were all about — telling stories. It reaffirmed not only her life but the fact that one of the primal reasons we, as a species, tell stories is to share experiences, to celebrate, to grieve. I can’t think of anything more perfect. There were some who got up to speak and couldn’t because of their own grief and that itself was eloquent. The storytelling session itself now became a story.
When the funeral is over, when the burial is complete and the stories are told, when everyone goes back to their own lives (as they should), then comes the next stage. The grieving. This is the stage when you come to grips with the loss. This stage is unique, I believe, to each individual and their relationship with the deceased. It may be deep and overwhelming, it may slight and passing. All I can do is describe what it was like in my case, knowing in advance that it will be incomplete. Like most major emotional experiences in our lives, grief defies definition with words.
My world ceased. My world was based on Kim and I getting older together. She and I both had always assumed that I would die before she did. We were wrong. Everything I had been working for — getting the house, building my career and so on — really had as its center and focus our life together our growing old together. That was gone.
What I also remember is exhaustion. I slept a lot at first. I withdrew from people a bit; contact seemed almost painful. I’d cry at different moments. I felt ambushed by memories sometimes; I could never tell what would trigger them. I was at my niece Kathy’s wedding and I had to leave the reception because I knew another round of sorrow and tears was coming. I felt happy for her and her new husband but I couldn’t keep the tears back. It was all still too raw. That’s okay; if Kim hadn’t mattered, it wouldn’t have hurt. Kim was worth the tears.
For that first year, the constant subtext to everything that I did or that happened to me was that "A year ago at this time, Kim was still alive." Even if Kim was declining and dying that year earlier, still she had been there. My world was intact even if it was doomed.
I knew I was healing when I heard them play Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel on the car radio. I flashed on the video of it; without fail, every time the chicken carcasses started dancing, Kim would start to giggle. This time when I heard it, I could hear Kim’s giggle as well and I heard it without that stab of grief that I had been experiencing. There was some pain but more pleasure in the memory and I smiled.
There was once a tradition of a "year of mourning" during which the bereaved wore black. Social engagements were avoided; I guess you didn’t date and so on. While I’m not in favor of rigid formality, I think there is something to be said for that "year of mourning." A time of observance, a time when everybody knows you’re grieving and gives you the room and the benefit of that. It also, at the end of that year, provides a sense of closure. Really, it’s just a number — just as ten years later is a number. We create the mileposts. We make the maps. It’s part of the way we describe our geography — external and internal. They have their uses — so long as we don’t mistake the map for the journey. They’re just guides.
So — how long do you grieve? How long before you get over it and back to normal? Straight, simple, hard answer — you don’t. If the one who dies matters to you, their death changes you. You miss them forever. I still miss my father who died back when I was a freshman in college. It’s a rule of life — you can’t go back. You can only go on. The alternative is to become mired in where you are. Some people do that — they keep the wounds open. Maybe that makes them feel alive. Maybe they can only define themselves by pain. I don’t know and I’d better not judge. However, I think healing is natural and, if possible, the body, the soul, and the mind will all heal if the chance is given for them to do so.
I learned from a grief counselor, before Kim died, of the concept of what I call "strange gifts." From terrible events, from terrible loss, there are things that you can learn — wisdom, if you will, that can’t be acquired at a lesser price. You have to seek them out and be willing to accept them but I have discovered they are there. Given the choice, I would infinitely prefer to have Kim but that’s not the choice. The choice is to accept these strange gifts or not.
One of the gifts I got was a deeper understanding of now. That’s what we have — now… now… now. This second. This second. This second. Now. We should never assume we get the next second. Kim realized, at the end, that she hadn’t done all the writing she wanted to do. That she could have done. She found "reasons" but, at the end, none of them were more than excuses. Regret is what you have when you waste the now.
Kim’s life wasn’t wasted; far from it. Her real achievement was the lives she touched with her smile and her spirit; the memories of both live in me as I know they live in others. Her gift however is NOW. Do you have something you want to write? Do it now. Is there something you want to do? Get started now. Is there someone you love? Love them now. It’s what we have; the next second is not promised to anyone.
Kimberly Ann Yale died March 7, 1997. This column is dedicated to her memory kept green in my heart and the hearts of others.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman.