Saturday, March 26, 2011

Searching For Memories

The whole world is watching as the Japanese rebuild their lives with quiet diligence.

News reports show incredible pictures of houses ripped from the earth, cars piled on top of each other and even the concrete tsunami walls built for protection have been broken up and easily tossed aside.  And then there is the nuclear issue...The enormity of the human and physical devastation in Japan as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is difficult to comprehend and just seems endless. 

But one man in particular stands out for me.  I recently read an interview with this Japanese man, who asked to be called by his family name, Kikuchi, and his sentiments immediately struck a chord.  Through his shock, he was saying that we, as a larger human family, really do have so much more in common than we realize.

"My daughter is missing.  She is gone.  I was up in the hills above town and couldn't get to her in time," he said in a Reuters interview.  "I am looking for something that can remind me of her.  There must be something here," Kikuchi said as he continued his search through the broken-up wreckage for any little piece of something that might belong to her or remind him of her.

The primal need to connect to someone loved and lost is an emotion that touches everyone.  No one can take away Kikichu's memories of his young daughter, but his desperate search is for something more.  He wants physical proof of her, something that he can hold, perhaps something she once held, to reassure him that she will not be forgotten.

Sometimes you keep a possession that once belonged to a loved one because of what it evokes.  It's not really about what the object is.  It's about how the loved one used the object and how it reminds you of how much you cared about that person and how much you miss them.

When my Nana died, I wanted the small metal oblong telephone directory she kept by her bed.  To this day it reminds me of her because all the names, addresses and telephone numbers were written in her distinctive handwriting and no one else had anything like it.

When it was closed, the cover had a vertical list of the alphabet on it.  Beside the alphabet was a piece of metal that was shaped like an arrow and it was on a track so you could slide it up and down the alphabet.  Once you picked the letter you wanted, then you pressed a bar at the bottom of the cover and, presto, the directory would open.  It's a precious memory for me.  In my mind, I still see my sweet grandmother in her lavender bedroom picking it up and using it.

I also talked to a young mother I know about this need to connect through a loved one's momentos because her mother died when she was a teenager.  She immediately knew the emotion I was trying to explore and proceeded to tell me a story about how she and her father were cleaning out a closet a few months after her mother's death and they found a raincoat that belonged her mother.

They both thought they had gathered all of her mother's clothes so the raincoat was a total surprise.  She said her father just stared at it and didn't say anything but she immediately grabbed it and wanted to smell it to see if her mother's scent was still on the material.  The best thing, she said, was when she put her hand into the pockets of the raincoat and she found some balled up kleenex.  "I put them in my hands and closed my fingers around them as though I was holding my mom's hands because my mom had held these kleenex at one time and I just felt closer to her."

Let's think of Kikuchi in his time of sorrow and hope that he finds something that belonged to his dear daughter; something he can hold close to his heart. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Stop All The Clocks. . .

Someone you love has died. 
Everything around you, people, conversations, situations, the Earth, even life itself, feels like it has suddenly stopped. 
To me, this moment is very similiar to being in a car accident.  After the screeching brakes, the moment of impact, the shattering glass and the crush of metal hitting metal, there is an eery silence; a tingling in your ears. 

Your eyes see but what you see doesn't look real; your ears hear but what is being said doesn't make sense and you can't seem to get your breath and breathe.  Nothing is computing and your brain is shutting down because you can't seem to process what is happening.  You might even feel that you have separated from yourself and are outside of your body watching yourself from afar.

You immediately want to go backwards.  Take me back to an hour ago, take me back a half hour ago, take me back 5 minutes, take me back 1 minute.  I don't care how far you take me back, I don't want to be in the present time.  I remember looking out the window of my house the day after my husband died and I was really surprised to see people walking around and cars traveling up and down the street as if nothing had changed.  Everything outside appeared normal even though it wasn't for me.

That is why the W.H. Auden poem resonates with so many people..."Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone..."  It might be tempting to follow your gut feeling while you are in the midst of new grief but I found myself most comforted when I reached out to people I trusted with my vulnerability.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


In honor of St. Patrick's Day, a day when everyone likes to think they are Irish, I thought it appropriate to share the lyrics to a gentle Irish song, "Carrickfergus."  When my husband I traveled there many, many years ago we were having dinner in the town of Listowel and he was mistaken for a native Irishman a number of times.  Men would walk up to him and start speaking Gaelic.  They were surprised and sometimes frustrated that he could only speak English.  It still makes me laugh when I think of the expression on both of their faces as they tried to communicate with each other.

Carrickfergus was played at President John F. Kennedy's funeral and HBO has made it popular again for its use in the recent series, "Boardwalk Empire."

Carrickfergus (Traditional)

I wish I was in Carrickfergus
Only for nights in Ballygrand
I would swim over the deepest ocean
Only for nights in Ballygrand
But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over
And neither have I the wings to fly
If I could find me a handly boatman
To ferry me over my love and I
My childhood days bring back sad reflections
Of happy time there spent so long ago
My boyhood friends and my own relations
Have all passed on now like the melting snow
So I'll spend my days in this endless roving
Soft is the grass and shore my bed is free
But to be home now in Carrickfergus
On the long road down to the salty sea

And in Kilkenny it is reported
On marble stone there as black as ink
With gold and silver I would support her
But I'll sing no more now till I get a drink
For I'm drunk today and I'm seldom sober
The handsome rover from town to town
Ah but I am sick now my days are numbered
Come all me young men and lay me down
Come all me young men and lay me down

Saturday, March 12, 2011

More Humor Therapy

Grief is a journey that sets its own schedule.  Some cry, some talk, some paint and some even throw plates or other breakables to get rid of their anger. 
 Unfortunately, there is no set time for healing.
It is always difficult to adjust to life changing circumstances and face the outside world on your own.  But since we are all in this together, it is essential to reach out and extend a helping hand and let others know they are not alone in their journey.
I found the following story by Ken Garfield of Knight Ridder Newspapers and am sharing it with you in the hopes that it will help you smile:

Don't Let Death Have The Last Laugh
By Ken Garfield
Knight Ridder Newspapers

     We were on the way to her husband's funeral when my sister turned to me in the limosine and said, "I wonder if I should have worn a black veil."
     For just a second, I was taken aback.  How could she make a joke at a time like this?  Then it hit me.  How could she not make a joke at a time like this?
     When I realized what a brave and important thing my sister had done, I knew what to say.  "We still have time to run into Hecht's and buy one," I joked as the limosine drove on to the chapel.
     I never knew how sacred humor could be until tragedy struck our family.
     While my 51-year-old sister, Carol, was away on a weekend with cousins, her 56-year-old husband died of an apparent heart attack at their home in Boca Raton, Florida.  Eddie was a sweet and generous man who adored my sister.  In the last six months of his life, he finally landed a job he loved.  When they found my brother-in-law's body in bed, they also found in the kitchen the lunch he had made for work the next day.
     The memorial chapel was filled with elderly folks from the condominium complex where he worked and did good deeds for his friends, the tenants.  Grief darkened our days, of course.  My sister and her husbad, who had chosen not to have children, traveled through life together as soul mates.  For one to suddenly lose the other after 26 years broke our hearts.
     But just when it seemed as if the darkness was about to overcome us, the light returned in the form of a funny memory or whimsical story.
     In his eulogy, my father recalled how Eddie had told Carol that he didn't know where she was going on their next vacation -- but he was going to spend it at home with his beloved ballgames and TV remote control.  Carol recalled that the only thing Eddie feared more than a shirt ant tie was a social event to dress up for, and she noted that her home was filled with well-wishers after the funeral.
     "Eddie would have hated it," she joked.
     People who live with death know that humor helps mourners endure the pain.  Brandon Cook, of Hankins & Whittington Funeral Service in Charlotte, NC, said a funny story reminds the bereaved that life is a mixture of emotions.
     One story making the round tells of the daughter who had her mother's coffin wheeled into the service after everyone was seated.  Mother was late for everything else, the daughter told the mourners, so why shouldn't she be late for this?
     If you need encouragement to have a healthy laugh, Cook said, look to Proverbs 17:22: "A cheerful heart is a good medicine."
     A hospice chaplain told me that humor becomes truly sacred when it helps you understand that grief doesn't have to have the last word.
     I start welling up thinking about my sister facing life alone.  Then I'll laugh at a funny story, and the tears subside.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Humor Therapy

Do you know there is actually a medical term or name for using humor to help yourself feel better?

According to WebMD, humor therapy or therapeutic humor, purposely uses the power of smiles and laughter to promote healing and distract the person from pain, or in this case, the emotional confusion permeating your life while grieving.

New grief is all about learning to live with a sense of unreality.  Unfortunately, until you actually experience this raw emotion, you can't really imagine how it feels.  You think you know, you think you can conjure up those feelings of deep pain but it doesn't work that way.  I think that's why people who have been lucky enough not to experience a death in their families think you can "get over" the loss of a loved one in six months or a year.  To put it simply, grieving is not the opposite of happiness. 

For years, you wake up next to a person, talk to them every day, eat with them, love them and share everything with them.  Then, suddenly, instantly, they aren't with you anymore.  But you are expected to carry on.  And somehow you manage to figure out a way to do this.  It may not be what everyone else thinks you should do but it works for you and that's what's important.  There are no magic formulas.  You find yourself saying things such as: "I can't believe he (or she) is gone." "This is so unreal."  "Where is he (or she)?"  "I would just feel a little better if I knew exactly where he (or she) is; that they are somewhere where I know they are okay.  Do you think they're okay?"

Even now, eight years later, I wonder where my husband actually is.  Okay, maybe I made you laugh by saying that, but it's true. 

I try to imagine that he is doing something he really liked A LOT because that always makes me smile.  Depending on the time of year, sometimes I think he's at  a Yankees game, eating a hotdog and wearing his favorite hat or he's at a Giants football game, eating a hotdog, wearing his other favorite hat and screaming his head off.  Then again, maybe he's at the beach lounging in a chair, reading or swimming.  Sometimes, I imagine he is with his friends who have also died and they are all sitting around in some heavenly bar drinking and telling each other non-stop stories.  I don't know. . . Maybe he's doing all of those things.  Or maybe's he a child again.  After awhile, I have to put the brakes on myself because I start to get overwhelmed by the very idea of it.

But I think I'm pretty sure about one thing:  he's probably not at the cemetary.  While there is a marker there for him, it's more of a touchstone for us, the people who cared about him and loved him.  Sometimes we go there and do silly things that we think he would like.  We've scattered his favorite cookies all over his grave, released balloons and arranged flowers that were his favorite color.  Once, we were going to put hash marks in the grass like a football field but we figured we would get into trouble for that so we put the kibash on that idea, at least temporarily.

Continuing in the same vein of therapeutic humor, one of the more irreverant things my family ever did was in the cemetary after my husband was just buried.  It was early December and he still didn't have a marker on his grave yet.  It had snowed and we kept guessing where he was and we fogot to look for the metal ring in the ground so we all kept guessing different places which got to be ridiculous.  We were in the right neighborhood but not in the exact spot.  Finally one day some people in my family had had it with the guessing game and the lack of a marker.  I think it was one of those "perfect storm" moments when strong emotions came together and they decided to act.

They saw all these small Christmas trees on a large headstone and spontaneously decided to take one and put it in the place where they thought my husband was buried.  I can't even remember if it was the right place or not.  Anyway, then they put lots of other Christmas decorations around the tree they had erected in the snow to mark off his grave so they would definitely know where he was and where to go the next time.

As always, I know they acted out of love plus you have to remember that they were trying to deal with their own feelings of loss.  It was our first Christmas without him and it was important to them that they knew exactly where he was and so they fixed it.  Grief is definitely an uncharted journey that takes you AND others to some funny places.