The tragic losses of 2016

Americans like statistics almost as much as baseball aficionados. As we wend our way toward the end of a year, we see them, those statistics.

  • Most important news stories
  • Best books of the year
  • Top-earning movies of the year
  • Deaths of famous people.

In the social media, people have been saying 2016 is a bad year for the high number of deaths of famous people, most recently Carrie Fisher and Watership Down author Richard Adams. And a few days ago, George Michael. Those who die younger than some unknown age are said to have died too soon. Even so, the loss of people who have lived well past the normal life expectancy is said to be tragic.

statsCelebrities impact us in larger-than-life ways. So, it’s not surprising that the deaths of well-known people impact us more than the numbers of people who died in Aleppo or the fact that traffic fatalities exceed the death tolls of most (if not all) of our wars.

So, we mourn the losses of the rich and famous whom we don’t personally know as though they are close friends and family. Those we don’t know, aren’t on our radar because–suffice it to say–in spite of the large numbers of dead in Aleppo, there’s no apparent connection between us.

That lack of an apparent connection is one thing that, quite possibly, keeps us sane as individuals, for we do not have the capacity to mourn everyone who dies with the same level of grief that’s present when we lose a spouse, parent, or child–or, apparently, a celebrity.

In some ways, celebrities are stand-ins for the heroes of old, and we celebrate them for doing and being what we believe everyone should be capable of doing and being; likewise, we chide them and turn on them when they disappoint us almost as though they’re our own wayward children.

How odd life and death are. We know in our hearts that everyone dies, yet express surprise when they do. As a writer, I often wrestle with this seeming paradox, but I have to tell you I haven’t come up with a suitable answer to it. In my other blog, I wrote that It’s hard to say goodbye to Princes Leia.  And it is. It seems natural that it is and it seems ironic that it is when those closer to home who are, say, friends of a friend impact me less. I hate to dismiss all this with something lame like “that’s just the way people are.”

Perhaps like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, I mourned the loss of Janis Joplin in 1970 while wondering why I was mourning her loss. Yes, I liked her music. But I never met her, never saw her in a concert, didn’t have an autographed picture of her, hadn’t memorized her discography, and didn’t drink Southern Comfort. But still, I felt bad about it more than just shaking my head at the lost potential of her “going too soon,” “dying too young,” and the other things people said when when she was gone.

I still don’t understand the tragic nature of death or why the deaths of strangers often impact us more than the deaths of people who, by all reasonable statistics, are much closer to us. But mourning is what we do in good faith and quite naturally, so other than wondering about it as an author might, I can only say that it’s the way things are. That’s okay, I guess.

Malcolm

The Messy Spiral of Grief

patToday’s guest post about grief and coping with the death of a spouse or a life mate, is by author Pat Bertram (“Light Bringer,” “Daughter Am I,” “More Deaths Than One” “A Spark of Heavenly Fire”)  who, I’m happy to say, has stopped by Malcolm’s Round Table several times before for some great discussions.

Pat’s most recent book is “Grief: The Great Yearning.”

The Messy Spiral of Grief

I am no stranger to grief. In December, 2006, I lost my younger brother, and exactly a year later, I lost my mother. I thought I knew what grief was all about, but the grief over those deaths in no way prepared me for the depth and breadth of the grief I experienced after the loss of my life mate/soul mate.

I’d known he was dying, and I’d prepared myself for the inevitable — in fact, at the moment of his death, I felt only relief that his suffering was over. When I returned home without him, I realized he was truly gone, and grief slammed into me with such ferocity it stunned me. It wasn’t just mental agony, but also physical pain. My chest ached so much I felt sure my heart had shattered. My stomach hurt. My arms ached. I felt dizzy and nauseous. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t even think. The only way I could relieve the incredible stress was to scream. And so I did.

One of the worst aspects of grief was the feeling of his goneness. I could feel the void in my life and my soul where he’d been ripped from me, but I couldn’t sense him at all. Toward the end, as we struggled to go our separate ways — he to death, me to continued life — we spent much of our time in separate rooms, and somehow I figured that’s what it would feel like after he died, but it was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I still have no words to describe the finality, the undoableness, the vacuum of death. He was part of my life for thirty-four years. We breathed the same air. We were connected by our thoughts, our shared experiences, the zillion words we’d spoken to each other. And then he was gone from this earth. Erased. Deleted. Almost three years later, I still can’t wrap my mind around that.

griefOne of the ways I handled my grief from the beginning was to write letters to him. For all those years, I’d talked over everything with him, and I desperately needed to talk to him about this horror that had befallen us. So I wrote him. Sometimes it even made me feel connected to him for a few brief moments, as if perhaps we were still in this situation together. I also did some stream of consciousness writing to help me try to figure out what was going on.

My grief, and the grief of most people I have met since, does not follow the neat timeline of Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. Grief is such a messy spiral of hundreds of different physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual permutations that it’s almost impossible to know what is going on, and writing helped me make sense of it.

I never intended to make my grief public, but shortly after he died, I read a novel about a woman who lost her husband, and the only acknowledgment of her grief was a single sentence: She went through all five of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. That so appalled me that I decided to tell the truth about grief after the loss of a spouse, if for nothing else, to keep novelists from such superficial descriptions.

Selections from my letters, journal entries, and blogs have been combined into a book, Grief: The Great Yearning, which chronicles my struggle to survive the first year after his death. Grief: The Great Yearning was published by Second Wind Publishing, and is available from Amazon, B&N, and other online stores.

Pat’s Website: http://www.patbertram.com/

Pat’s Blog: http://ptbertram.wordpress.com/

Perhaps True Grief Begins After All Has Been Said and Done

Yesterday afternoon, my wife Lesa and I attended the memorial service for our long-time friend Gordon Carper (May 10, 1935 – September 3, 2011) at the Berry College Chapel in Rome, Georgia. We listened to “You Raise Me Up” (Celtic Woman), “If I Can Dream” (Elvis Presley) and “Amazing Grace” (from both granddaughter Kallan Carper and Celtic Woman). We heard joyful, heartfelt and often humourous remembrances from Dr. Carper’s former Berry College colleagues (Richard Lukas, William Hoyt and Chaitram Singh) and from his former students (William Pence, Bert Clark, Timothy Howard and Greg Hanthorn). The memorial service, led by the reverend Paul Raybon, truly was the Celebration of a Life.

After the service, we spent time with family and friends at a reception at the college’s historic Ford Buildings before going back out to the Carper’s house. Lesa and I hadn’t seen some of those people in over 30 years. In the “Ford Living Room,” we continued what began at the memorial service, remembering and telling stories. A nationally known scholar, Gordon Carper taught at Berry College between 1965 and 2003, and those years overflow with memories from the untold numbers of colleagues and students impacted by Gordon’s teaching, mentoring and gregarious, you-oriented storytelling.

After a death, family and close friends are suddenly immersed in details. Doctors, funeral home directors, pastors, newspapers, florists, caterers, and others suddenly loom large in the daily schedule. While details steal away time for grief, they also provide a focal point of necessary busywork that can help friends and family cope with the loss during the stunning and confusing limbo of thoese first days.

Personal Notes

My wife Lesa was one of Gordon’s students at Berry College. I was one of his colleagues between 1977 and 1980. We were married at their house in 1987 with Gordon and Joyce standing beside us, and with their sons Noel and Todd and other friends standing around us. We can spin yarns about Carper-House Moments, Gordon and Berry College until the cows come home, and while staying with his wife Joyce for several days this past week, the stories we knew became intermissions of levity in between the tasks required to prepare for yesterday’s memorial service and all the guests who would arrive.

I won’t presume to speak for Lesa or Joyce, but I felt that we were all too busy to truly grieve. Lesa and I have spoken of this before: the fact that the paperwork and details of a death are so often the full focus of attention until after the memorial service or funeral come and go that there’s little time to think of much else. Not that the paperwork ends there, but it begins to fall away and during the long nights grief is likely to become a close shadow in all those streets, parks, rooms and other places where the memorial service memories and the Ford Living Room reception stories were born.

Lesa and I were part of a close-knit group of faculty and students who came together in the 1970s out of mutual respect, friendship and to support each other during an era in the college’s history when labor troubles tried very hard to trump the process of education. The “dark time,” as we call these years had a huge impact on all of our lives. Time has healed most of the wounds. Perhaps the wounds made us all stronger. While there was much to be said and done during the past week and at yesterday’s memorial service and reception, major dark time stories did not occupy center stage. We all know those stories and they flavor our thinking and they are, perhaps, a subtext to the wonderfully humorous and inspiring celebrations of Gordon’s life at public gatherings and during one-on-one conversations.

Yesterday, we—as a group—were given an opportunity to celebrate and consider the impact of a teacher, mentor, leader, and friend in our lives and in the lives of Berry College’s graduates for over a quarter of a century. Now we personally have time for the grief that begins after all has been said and done.

–Malcolm