Endangered Memories

“When I look at even a tiny scrap of paper in all the ‘clutter’ I can’t part with,” my cousin reflected, “the whole memory comes rushing back, completely reconstructed.” I was having a heart-to-heart discussion with her about hoarding and clutter in general. Being a “declutterer” par excellence I wanted to understand more about savers, and possibly more about why I am so “Spartan” (as a saver friend of mine puts it). So when I asked my cousin why it was so hard to part with what she admitted were “no longer necessary things like the three extra coats my mother had and which are just sitting there in the closet,” she gave me a moving answer: “If I throw something out, I am so afraid I will lose the memory.”

I think my cousin would highly appreciate what some wise aliens had to say to a human visitor who could not fathom why memories of a pleasant event are “just as good” as the event itself. In Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis, the alien patiently explains to the human that memory is not separate from the event remembered:

“A pleasure and the memory are all one thing…What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure. When you and I first met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days until then—that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.”

Now that may be going too far, but so much about religion is about remembering, and by so doing, reenacting the event. The example that comes most readily to me as a Jew is Passover, where the principal purpose of the ceremonial meal (Seder) is to relive the story of transitioning from slavery to freedom. The Sabbath is about recalling the opening moments of Creation and the refreshing break that God took after all that work, which goes for us too at the end of each week. And for Christians, Easter is about “replaying” the events surrounding the end and the new beginning of the life of Jesus. That is a lot of remembering!

When we lose someone, they die. But our memories of them can last throughout our own lifetime. True, they are a distant remove from the “real thing,” but we cling onto whatever we can. Maybe that is why we do whatever it takes to make these memories as enduring as possible. For those of us who identify with a particular faith, we do not want to “forget” the pivotal events that make up our identity and understanding of who we are such as becoming a free and distinct people and receiving the Ten Commandments. As individuals, we want to remember our loved ones through letters (I can’t seem to bring myself to say “emails”), photos, videos, conversations with others who knew them, and through things they owned such as jewelry, awards, or things they created. Yes, things can add up and become clutter. And yes, saving too little can imperil those cherished memories, causing a secondary death.

But whether you are a “saver” or a “declutterer,” there is another even more enduring way to keep them alive: the ethical and other life-affirming deeds we perform as a result of the influence of our loved ones perpetuates their legacy. Just as whenever we read sacred writings we can ponder what is being revealed to us at that moment, when we carry out the good deeds that our loved one has done and has modeled for us to do, these bring our loved one to life anew.

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With permission, this article was reprinted with some modifications from the blog, “Expired and Inspired,” a Jewish Burial Society blog regularly published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The link, of especial interest to the Jewish reader, can be found here: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/231943/mementos-mori-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/ .

Grief Without A Home

Famous essayists can go through it too, and of course express it so eloquently—the kind of grief nobody thinks should count as “real.”  Or has no business being present. Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent and columnist for The Boston Globe Magazine, writes about grieving for her ex-father-in-law:  “My grief had no quarter. I would not be counted as a mourner [at the funeral and subsequent prayer services]. There was no prayer for a former daughter-in-law to say. When I told people of my loss, they said, ‘I always forget you were married before.’ So I wrapped up my mourning in a private bundle…I am stunned at how people interrupted my reminiscences about Milton’s  generosity. I didn’t want to be distracted from my sadness. I didn’t want cheering up. But for losses like mine, losses without standing or status, grief is an orphaned state, and lonely.”

When I read that, I longed to immediately write back to her and say, “How I hear your distress! We chaplains know exactly what you mean and want to listen and not distract or cheer you up. Just give me a ring and I will listen.”

Diamant titled her essay, “Grief, Dispossessed.” That is a much more vivid term than the official term “disenfranchised grief.” “Dispossessed” means being made homeless. Dispossessed grief is like someone throwing you out of your home after all the lights in the town have dimmed. When you grieve someone or something not recognized by loved ones or our society, such as death of an ex-spouse, a miscarriage, hopes one had for oneself or someone else, or loss of a partner in a hidden gay relationship, you get a one-two punch. One for the loss, and one for having to hide the loss or having the loss dismissed by everyone as not legit.

So if you are on the punching end, ponder how to change thy ways. Prescription : reread this post.

If you are being punched, persist until you find someone who will give you a home for your grief, completely furnished with love, acceptance and patience.

Even The Patients Puzzle Over My Offbeat Career

It is one thing for a friend to ask how in the world I can deal with hospice work, but quite another matter when a patient asks me. The way Shirley put it was, “How can you do this job when you have to keep losing people you get to know?” I stumbled out an answer to the effect of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” (No, that quote is NOT by Shakespeare.) To myself, and to my readers here at offbeatcompassion, I will comment on Shirley’s query more searchingly. First of all, it is always of note when a patient says something like that, because it makes me wonder what is behind it, and what it might  have to do with her own feelings about losing other patients she got to know very well and who had died before she did. Unusual for a hospice residence, for one stretch of time, several patients had been pretty alert and visited each other and smoked with each other out in the back before most became bedridden or died. Shirley’s comment possibly touched on her sorrow of anticipating that some day, she herself would lose everyone and everything when her time came.

Anyway, I will stall no longer about how her question applies to me and anyone else who works with hospice patients. Why was Tennyson right?  I think one thing Shirley was implying was, okay, I only get to know my patients for a relatively short time, and this keeps happening over and over, so is the pain of losing them worth the pleasure and experience and reward of having known them in the first place?  The answer for hospice caregivers, as well as for me, is yes, otherwise turnover in this field would be pretty frequent. I once heard at least for chaplains that the average number of years they spend in hospice work is about eight years. That to me sounds plenty long, so there must be a reason for it other than masochism. And it certainly cannot be the pay!

Sure I miss some of the patients I get to know well and find more in common with, like Shirley herself. But the mourning is brief, as the relationships are. When I lose members of my own family, just like everybody else, grieving is not a pretty picture. But I think because patients are strangers and not exactly friends no matter how much we like each other, the grieving is simply not intense or prolonged as with family. On top of that, I must maintain a professional distance in order to think carefully about what a patient needs to talk about and what kind of response will best help them. This leaves me mostly the “better” and easier part of grieving. Such grieving touches on the memories of the interesting things they said or showed me, such as advice about how to relax, pictures of them posing with famous people, or even an audio of a band they played in. At most I may feel wistful about a particularly endearing or admirable person. Writing about some of them in this blog or on Twitter is also an outlet for honoring their memory and my feelings about them.

If you do “this kind of work,” how do you handle the constant leave taking?

Her Reality Star

Pulled over here and pulled back way over there: This is the reality of grief. Newark poet Ms. Lillian Washington captures this sensation in her prose poem, “Her Reality Star.” Night is beguiling, but brings no release. Finally, the woman finds a hint to a way out from her despair from a source that is true to her life path.

Hope was no longer alive.

A spring eternal never sprung.

Her smile, like that in a child’s eyes, was gone.

The hum of the night’s forces as she walked the pavement

Began to fade into the distance.

No longer did she believe that the magic of that day’s night

Would bring her closer to freedom from the pain of her loss.

Daybreak would come soon and the pain of that day

As the pain of yesterday would haunt her again and again.

“Why?” she cried out as she stared into the midnight sky filled with streaking stars.

The deep dark blueness cradled the stillness of the other stars that

Stared back at her tear-filled eyes.

Soon silence came upon her. No longer crying, she stood up and a peaceful look now covering her face, she rose up and declared, “No.” No longer would she believe in magic. She began to realize she should believe in the power of prayer and she would find her way back to the happiness she once knew. With her new direction found, she did not have to believe in magic anymore.

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Author’s biography: In her teen years Lillian Washington performed with soul singer song writer Jackie Wilson at the Branford Theater in Newark, NJ with a female singing group called the Vandettes. Later as a member of the Theater of Universal Images she performed various plays at Symphony Hall and Essex County College in Newark. As a part of a comedy duo she did stand-up comedy at Catch a Rising Star in NYC.  Ms. Washington’s current goal is to become a published writer of poetry and children’s stories. She is a member of my writers’ group, The Angry Bean Writers.

Singled Out Versus Blending In

There’s an old joke in my religion that underscores our almost impish impulse to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the prayer for mourners (called the “Kaddish” in Hebrew and recited towards the end of each service). I have been reciting it for my father who died last December, and the tradition is to recite it for a deceased parent for about a year. In some synagogues only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each custom. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone present at that service who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, as if a screaming scarlet “M” had sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes and minimizes my feelings as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention of course is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually recite the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it. Everyone recites but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.

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A prior version of this article was published September 6th, 2017 in the blog “Expired and Inspired”, in The Jewish Journal: http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/expiredandinspired/224040/two-jews-three-opinions-rabbi-karen-b-kaplan/ Permission was granted to place it here, with minor modifications.

What’s In A Preposition: A Grammar For Grieving

It’s bad enough to grieve for someone you truly miss and who was so affirming of who you are. And it’s plenty confusing, too, to ponder the mind-boggling fact that they are not here. One of my patients recently captured this fact by stating, “I just want my obituary to say ‘Lucy WAS…’ and that’s all.”  She sure captured the essence of the matter: the most basic difference between life and death is existing versus not.

But it feels far more perplexing if not downright contradictory to grieve for someone who was not exactly a model of goodness and caring. Perhaps they neglected you or far worse. You might say, “Who said anything about grieving for that sorry son of a gun? I don’t care and I’m not sad that he is dead. Good riddance.” But wait, we can’t get off the hook that easily. The definition of grief is “reaction to the loss.” No one said anything about that reaction having to be sadness or missing that person’s presence. Maybe you even danced on the grave. But react we must, whether it is relief that he is not there to act indifferently to your latest news, sorrow that he had not been a better parent, anger over how he had mistreated you…you get the idea.

Yet it seems odd to say under such circumstances, that “I am grieving for my mother.” I think part of successful grieving is portraying the process to oneself as honestly and accurately as possible. Otherwise you will hinder  the purpose of grieving in the first place, which is to allow all the feelings, great and small, peaceful and turbulent, joyful and gloomy, an open path for release. Somehow saying “grieving for” sounds like the tears are ready to roll at almost any provocation and that you miss them if not for how they were at the time of their passing, then at least for how they were in better days.

Methinks I have found a solution for us unconventional grievers. Let me know if the sentence below helps you to  express to yourself how you really feel about that louse. Does saying it this way give you permission to stop censoring those less socially acceptable emotions?

“I am grieving against my father.”

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Early on in this romantic time-travel novel, author Andrew Sean Greer (HarperCollins, 2012) clues me in that he is not going to follow some predictable formula. One of his characters is a gay man dying from AIDS who is both gentle and provocative. He says to a woman who had made a petty complaint  about his dog coming close to her flowers “When you were a little girl, madam…was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?”  I, and I suppose just about any of Greer’s readers, immediately pondered this question for myself. What are my own regrets and embarrassments, what my sources of pride and fulfillment?  If nothing else it is a fantastic comeback for any stranger who acts surly about a trifle and who is taking being alive for granted.

Another profound observation comes about for Greta, the main character,  (and for us) when she travels back to 1941. Then, unlike in 1985 when her twin brother, the gay man’s partner, had died of AIDS as well, he is alive. Greta thinks about some irritating behavior of this “restored” brother, and muses, “It was infuriating, and so like my brother, but not in any of the ways I had hoped….And yet of course when the dead come back to life they come back with all the things we didn’t miss.” (emphasis mine.) How astute of the author to refer to an earlier stage of grieving which typically does not include the negative memories that might occur in a later stage.

I am very glad that I read on. Greta gets more insights about love and loss, which we could always benefit from. But while the plot is intriguing on one level, it is confusing on another: Greta cycles between three times, 1918, 1941 and 1985, which is clear. The confusing part is that while she is in one time period, “another” Greta is getting things done and affecting other relationships in the other two periods while she is “away.” Moreover, the reaction of some of the other people in the older time periods to her revelation to them about her traveling to the other two is far-fetched, but the pleasure of the fantasy, the romance and the insights, are well worth the trips.

 

I borrowed this book from the local library. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”