Experiencing Grief, by John Ostrander
Muriel Kubert, Joe Kubert’s wife, died last week. You may have seen the story here at ComicMix . I went to the services. When I saw Joe, I asked him how he was doing (the same lame question most of us ask of those who have lost someone vital to them). He shrugged and said, “You know.” Then he looked me in the eye and repeated, “You know.”
I do. Kimberly Ann Yale, my own wife, died over eleven years ago, something that I’ve talked about more than once in this column. It strikes me that we don’t really talk about the grieving process much. It’s been studied and Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross charted its stages, noting them as shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance. That’s certainly useful in an intellectual way but I don’t know as it really prepares you for the emotional impact.
We don’t like to talk about grief. I didn’t, before Kim died. It’s death. It’s scary. If Death hears us talking about it, maybe it’ll come over to hear what we’re saying. That doesn’t make sense but that is sometimes how it feels. Emotion has its own logic. If we don’t talk about it, maybe Death will go away. Knock on some other door.
Grief is something that should be talked about. The only person with whom to really discuss it is someone who has been through it. Not someone who is going through it at the time; they’re trying to make sense of everything and it won’t make sense. It has to be someone who has come out the other side.
To start with, let’s confine the discussion. There are all kinds of grief and they’re all real because there are all kinds of death. The loss of a beloved pet, a home, a job, a love even if the person is still alive. Grief comes with all that and it’s all real. You’ve experienced some kind of loss and grief if you’ve lived at all.
This discussion is about losing someone very close to you. A spouse/partner or a child. Something on that level. My father died just when I entered college. I loved him and still do and still miss him but it was nothing like the sorrow I experienced at losing Kim.
One other caveat – I can only tell you what my experience was. I don’t mean it to be a universal set of rules. However, this is what we do in life – we share one another’s experiences, we tell stories about those experiences. In your story I learn something that applies for myself or to which I nod my head and say, “Yes, that’s true.” It’s what we do. We share lives. So this is what I know.
First the good news – if you let yourself, you’ll heal and come out the other side. It takes time, however. The first year is tough. For the first year, I kept saying, “A year ago, Kim was still alive.” As a society, it used to be that, when someone you loved died, you spent a year “in mourning.” You dressed in black, withdrew from society, and so on. Today, if you dressed in black 24/7 you’re called a Goth. If you’re still grieving after six weeks, people start suggesting politely that it’s time “to get over it and move on.” The people who suggest that are generally people who have never suffered the same kind of loss.
I think there’s something to be said for marking that first year as a “mourning period.” Not necessarily wearing black and never going out and all the other “rules” that used to comprise that time of mourning. We should, however, give the person time to grieve. Give them room to do it in. Don’t expect them to “be themselves” or “get on with it.”
Now for the bad news – it hurts like hell. It can feel like physical pain even if there isn’t a mark. Crying – deep down tear your guts out crying – is hard work. It takes a lot out of you. It took a lot out of me.
Crying wasn’t constant, but it would catch me off guard. I found myself “ghosted” by places or things – it would be something innocuous but I’d get ambushed by a memory of Kim and I. It would be a place we went to or looked like we went to or it could be someone who vaguely looked like Kim from a certain angle or I’d hear a laugh that reminded me of Kim’s. I could be driving along and hear Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel on the radio. I’d remember how Kim always – always – laughed at the dancing dead chickens in the video and then I’d be sledgehammered by the memory and would have to pull the car over. I couldn’t see because I was crying too hard.
A very short time after Kim died I went back to Chicago to be at the wedding of one of my nieces. It was a beautiful affair and, at the reception, they had somebody coming around with a microphone and a video camera so guests could say how much they loved the wedding and the bride and groom. I fled as they approached our table. I was happy for them but I was missing Kim so bad and remembering our own wedding and I knew that if I stayed a moment longer I would started crying and not been able to stop because the pain was that bad.
Family followed after to check on me; everyone was very concerned. I assured them I would be okay but that I had to go back to my hotel room and be alone for awhile. Absolutely completely needed to do that. Everyone understood, including the bride and groom.
The first date I went on after Kim’s death, I started crying at the restaurant and couldn’t stop. The woman with me knew my story and understood but it would be a long time before I tried dating again. Truth to tell, I was never very good at it, even before Kim and I married. Grieving didn’t make it better.
It wasn’t just the crying. For ten years, it hadn’t been just my life. It was my and Kim’s life together. I’m a writer and that’s what I do and that’s what I love and that’s how I make my living but it was supposed to be a life together for me and Kim. She was supposed to be there. We were supposed to grow old together. Kim was my world and the purpose to my world. I know that sounds like wonderful romantic twaddle but she centered me. Then she was dead, the future I saw was shattered, the world as I knew no longer existed, and I was left adrift. There was a large void where Kim was supposed to be. I ached all the time.
I liked to buy little things for Kim. She liked getting little gifts; they delighted her. They were never expensive – maybe some kiwi fruit or something. They just said, “I was out and I saw this and I thought of you.” Little gestures of love. Now she was dead and I had no one to give those things to. I missed that.
So – what do you do? You cope. I used music a lot. Some CDs I played over and over again. I knew I was clinically depressed and went on medication for awhile. I worked. Work was where everything somehow still made sense. Different people find different things. The reality is that any organism in pain will seek to find a way out of pain. Some solutions are better than others; some can solutions can become problems of their own. Don’t expect someone who is grieving to make the wisest choices; they’re not really themselves.
What else do you do when you’re grieving? You find any moment of joy or laughter that you can. The first time I saw the movie Waking Ned Devinewas during this period. I won’t give anything away but I’ll just say that the climax is a perfectly timed and very black bit of physical comedy. I burst into almost hysterical laughter at the movie theater and then tried to bury it because everyone in the theater was looking at us. I was literally falling out of my seat trying to muffle myself and was as much of the comedy as what was on the screen. I still laugh at that moment every time I watch the DVD. Funny is funny.
Family helped when I would let them; friends helped when I would let them. The fact is, however, that Kim was worth the tears, the pain, and the grief. You don’t grieve someone that you never really loved. The ones we love are worth the tears we shed when they die.
You do feel guilt. Not because you’re alive and they aren’t but because you go on living and because it does get better. I felt guilty because, after awhile, I was healing. Somehow, that felt like a betrayal. You never go back to the way you were before. Never. You go on. You become someone else, someone related to that other person, growing from that person, but different.
Now I will tell you something terrible. I am a better man for Kim’s illness. I am a better man for her death. I am a better man for having grieved her. I am a better man for having gone past that grief. I wish I could tell you otherwise; I wish Kim was still alive and had never had cancer. I wish I had died instead of her. That’s not how it is. That’s not the truth of it. I have a new life, I have a new love. That’s the truth of it. Life goes on and, if we let them, our lives go on.
That’s pretty much what I know about grief.
The graphic above is the Kanji (Japanese writing system for Chinese characters) for Sadness – Sorrow – Grief.
John Ostrander writes GrimJack (yep, there’ll be another one starting around 2009) and Munden’s Bar and Star Wars Legacy and a new series debuting towards the end of the year here at ComicMix.
Beautiful essay, John. As near as I can tell, from witnessing such losses up close and personal (although not for myself), the memories of our loved ones remain as gifts. We are blessed to have them in our lives, and we will be blessed to keep them in our hearts. I can't walk past a street fair in the summer without remembering Kim's excitement at the prospect of patchwork vests.
Nice job.Having had (yet another) brush with loss recently I found myself back in the 80's feeling a lot things I thought I'd successfully 'pushed to the back' of my feelings and memories.After a few days of thinking about things I'd come to the conclusion that having the good stuff as a take-away and the bad stuff as a leave behind would be best way to remember things.Only took 20 years.
My divorce was very similar, emotionally. Quite often, I found myself treating the situation like she HAD died. Some stages are very very difficult to get past. Hell, after eight years, it still hurts.
I am not married yet, but I am engaged. I feel as I need to pay more attention to her now and savor the time we have. You never know Do you?
This is the type of article that can be of help to someone when death and loss occurs. There are times that I am hit with the dread of the possibility of losing my wife because she is my life. Without her, I would have nothing and nobody. So reading this article helps me to see that the suffering has purpose, that there is another dawn after the night season, and that life, indeed, goes on. When Tony Snow died recently of cancer at only 53, leaving behind small children and a wife, you just have to say that sometimes God takes the best of us early and leaves the rest of us stinkers behind for a while, it seems.
I'm not sure that I agree with the last statement, John. (Good name, by the way.) Death comes to everyone, good and bad, young and old, rich and poor, and so on. We try to make sense out of it or out of the timing of it but I don't think there is one. Kim died too young but so have a lot of other people. My aunt is 101 and a very good person. Death is not a punishment, it's not a reward — it's just death. it's a part of life.May your wife live a long time and be as happy as she can. You, too. All the best —- John O
My daughter died 15 years ago. While I'm okay most of the time (I'll be with her again someday), there are days (Mother's Day, Father's Day and her birthday especially) that it still hits me like a truck. Life does go on, but I don't think I'll ever be beyond mourning her – and I'm not sure I want to, because maybe that will mean I've forgotten her.
Dave,I am truly sorry to hear of your loss.Honestly, I don't think 'getting beyond' mourning someone ever happens. It wouldn't hurt if you didn't love your daughter that deeply. Sometimes I think love defines itself that way.Sometimes trying to focus on getting 'through' the experience is an important first step. My best friend died 12 years ago. His birthday was January 1st so you can bet there's not much partying in my house for the holidays. It's taken over a decade for me to learn how to get through that time of year and reconnect with the holidays.Our loved ones would not want us to live unhappy lives. Yet, sometimes it's difficult to be happy. Think of the how much richer your life's experience been because of your daughter.The black days can be tough but learning to manage them is tougher.Hang in there.
Any time, brother.Ultimately, it's the way we treat each other that truly matters.
From what I've seen, I think it's harder losing a child than losing a spouse. My sympathies go out to you. You were robbed. You never got to know your child as an adult. That's not right.Good luck, man. All the best.
We're losing thousands of children — hundreds of thousands, if you can count past the Americans — in Iraq, for no good reason. Let's take a moment to respect their sacrifice, and that of their families and friends.
Excellent piece John. I lost my grandparents while I was in college (back in 2000-2004). It was painful, but expected (my grandfather was ill, and I knew how codependant my grandmother was… not to be stark about, just saying…). But lately I've noticed my own mother, and how she's not over the loss. When you say that (if you let yourself) after the loss you heal, and become a new person at that point, that really made me think. My mother has truly changed since the loss of her parents. I've tried to help her when she'll let me, as it's all I can do. I hope in time (however long it takes) the healing can finish. I feel as if she's let herself heal to a point, and preserves just enough pain to bring it out in small places. I want her to heal, and reading this piece made me realize that I can only do so much. Alot of it will be up to her.Again, wonderful essay. I'll look forward to the next one.
Sometimes we hang on to the pain because we're afraid that, if we don't, we'll lose the one who has died. Really lose them. Forget what they looked like. Forget how they laughed. Maybe forget we loved them. We don't want to "lose" them and, perhaps, the only thing we have to make everything still vivid is the pain. I don't know. Maybe we think if we give up the pain, we've stopped loving them?What is key is what you said, I think, is that there is only so much YOU can do for your Mom. Maybe there is only so much she can do as well. Just love her. That's really all you can do. As you said, the rest is up to her.
The grieving process takes different amounts of time for different people.My in-laws were good friends with a couple (let's call them Rick and Kathy) where Kathy developed Alzheimer's. Rick took care of here throughout the illness, even when she got to the point where, mentally, she was like an infant. Less than a year after her death, Rick remarried. At first I thought "Wow, that was fast." – but I realized that his grieving process had probably started long before she died.Me, my wife passed away about 6 1/2 years ago now; while she had a variety of medical problems, this was definitely not expected. Since Rick remarried my in-laws have asked if I'm dating (they want me to, which really weirded me out the first time they said it) on several occasions.On the date she died, I always have a hard moment at some point. I have bad times probably once or twice elsewise throughout the year (specifically related to her and her memory).In some ways, I'm still struggling to let go. About six weeks ago I went to a singles activity at my church, which is the first time I've expressly done anything where I'd expect to potentially meet someone to date (all of my friends are married).John, thanks for talking about this (I think i've said this before, but I don't mind repeating myself). It's a definite help to others.
That was the most touching and beautiful thing I've read in some time. Thank you.