Virginia Woolf and One Woman’s Grief Illuminated

Guest blogger Professor Johanna Van Gendt discovers that Virginia Woolf’s insights about aging and loss clarified what losing her father has been all about. This post reminds all of us how literature can be a source of comfort and self-awareness as we face loss.

“This is no book report. Rather, it is a thank you to Virginia Woolf for sharing her glorious prism of a novel, Mrs. Dalloway, whose scenes, characters and quotes have reverberated throughout my mind and my life since I first read it as a twenty-year-old.

The narrative is bookended by party preparations and a death; the backdrop is both post-war fatigue and the intimate bustle of Clarissa’s city. Each of these magnify not only the preciousness of life, but also of each passing moment. The centerpiece of the novel, for me, is this one insight from Mrs. Dalloway’s former lover, Peter Walsh: “The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” (p. 79) For me, nothing has been clamoring louder ‘to be turned round in the light’ than my father’s life and his recent death.

On one trip to Albany to clean out my father’s house–my childhood home–a neighbor stopped by. She said “your relationship with the deceased continues to grow even after death.” I thought that was an amazing premise. It’s true that as we cleaned, we discovered new things about his life. Commonly, adolescents react in frustration to their parents’ limitations. As an adult, their shortcomings seem not only forgivable, but also completely understandable, as your perspective grows—their intentions can still change, can become better. The leap from how I understood my father as a teenager to an adult, is nothing compared to the leap in understanding him that I made after his death. Attempting to appreciate the entire scope of a parent’s life is a project no less daunting than grief itself. As we sorted through his papers, we found documentation that he sold his wedding rings—our mother predeceased him–to pay for my sister’s law school—really only one example of how solidly he placed his life force behind our happiness and educations.

When I first read this novel as a twenty year old, I knew that it would be one that I returned to over and over again. I was a term abroad student, studying at the University of Sussex, living not too far from Monk’s House–Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s retreat. The house seems like a beautiful manifestation of the inside of the writer’s brain; as brilliant and comforting as the best of her writing. When I saw it as a twenty year old, it appealed to me as the sort of home I’d like to create; vibrant colors everywhere. Over the summer, as I’ve been cleaning out my father’s house and my childhood home—it’s even more obvious to me how home is imbued with self. Every item we donated, saved or threw away was filled with his energy; imprinted with his memories and way of thinking.

Home is self and Virginia Woolf understands this. A party–the opening up of one’s home to others—is an act of love. Clarissa knows although Mr. Dalloway doesn’t understand. Or perhaps a party is an act of ego. For her social status, she would want everyone to know that she is a good hostess—although an insult when coming from Peter Walsh. As for me, I love the anticipatory joy of preparing food for people I love.

Woolf captures feeling through her darting sentence structure. So much joy; and nervousness, too! Conventional sentence structure cannot contain; thoughts slammed against one another; running exuberance slammed against semi-colons; which slow down; but do not contain; unfettered joy. Or is Woolf’s Clarissa caught up in the mania of London’s city streets; whose shops beckon with bounty; or whose apartments are bursting-at-the seams with so many lives, stories, and perspectives that no novel could ever contain them. No party would be spectacular enough to express and share them. All we can do is dash down the street; as we complete the errands; to cultivate and share and experience; the night of a party; with the people we love.”

–Professor Johanna Van Gendt teaches English as a Second Language at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, New Jersey.  This article is a reprint from that school’s  September 2015 Faculty Senate Perennial, a faculty magazine.

The Sound of One Phone Ringing

Offhand the answer to the following question might sound as obvious as choosing between getting a back rub while relaxing at the beach versus doing the back-breaking work of moving furniture around. If you were a grieving family member of a patient on hospice, would you prefer that the bereavement counselor telephone you or visit in person? If I could see a show of hands from my readers, my guess is that most of you would be wildly waving your hands in favor of the home visit. And if you could explain why, you and a few others chiming in might say something along the lines of, “A phone call is impersonal and quick. It doesn’t take much effort. A visit involves travel and a real time commitment, so that would show the counselor really cares. Besides, there’s nothing like someone being right there with us and understanding what we are feeling by seeing our expressions and gestures. Not only that, we can get a hug that way or a pat on the arm.”

In terms of supervisors evaluating the work of their hospice team, home visits, implicitly or explicitly, trump phone calls. So even hospice professionals themselves assign more value to home visits. They “count” more. I sometimes got skeptical feedback from the supervisor when “all I did” some days was to document that I made about a dozen phone calls.

Ah, but hold the phone. It wasn’t like I was being lazy about going out into the wintry mix and traveling twenty miles. It wasn’t like I was hinting that I was busy or did not let on that a visit could be in their future. If I do not include the calls where the bereaved did not wish to talk with a counselor at all, almost everyone I called preferred a phone call over a visit. You might then say that is because a grieving person can feel unworthy and small. Indeed. Thus if he/she did not out and out decline a visit and seemed at least lukewarm about my proposal, I assured them that for example I would “be traveling right in your area” and the like. Even with that sales pitch, there were relatively few takers. I did start to feel like a pushy salesperson by mentioning visits so much, so as I became a more seasoned chaplain, I learned that what mattered most was to get a conversation going then and there.

Some mourners not only wanted to talk on the phone when I called to offer condolences and see how they were doing, but also wanted to receive subsequent calls. I got to know one of them well enough to reflect why so many in her position did prefer calls over visits. For one thing, she did not have to worry about tidying up the house. For another, she could shed tears without my being aware of it. Nor did she have to feel obligated to talk a relatively long time; accepting a visit implies more of a time commitment. That is, a phone call gives the mourner more control over the length of the interaction.

By far the most interesting reason is the ability to hide feelings, which is something to explore in a future (next?) post. For now, it is of note that the bereaved can be low in energy, and that a visit may be far more taxing than a call. As in much chaplain work, the crucial element is not whether I talk with a person via the phone or Skype or face-to-face or for how long. My job is to deftly clear away the debris of small talk and thus join them in their effort to unleash what they most urgently need to say.


Radio  Event:

September 18 th  2014: Grief expert Chaplain Chaz Wesley  interviewed me on his radio program, From Grief to Grace. Here is the program  link:  Author Karen B. Kaplan on ‘From Grief To Grace, with Chaz Wesley’

Update during the Corona virus:   Jane Brody wrote in her New York Times article about social distancing that, “Face-to-face relationships have already been undermined by electronic ‘conversations’ during which human needs and feelings are less honestly conveyed.” (March 23, 2020) Her statement would seem to condemn the phone option. For professional listeners such as chaplains and therapists though, her claim does not necessarily apply. We are good at “priming the pump” under all sorts of challenging conditions. I am amazed at how often when a person on the other end first says they have nothing to say, and then a minute later the outpouring begins and they end with, “Gee, I had no idea I was going to say all that to you.” A good listener knows how to give their client or friend permission to honestly convey their feelings. The medium is not the message. Letting the person in distress know they can open up to you and take all the time they need at that moment is the message, whether it is through writing, phoning, talking face to face, or smoke signals I suppose.


Not for Sale

All the signs in the tiny town of Fitzwilliam in New Hampshire had the same bold and unadorned lettering, whether for selling antiques, welcoming travelers to a bed and breakfast, or announcing an art exhibit in the library. Only a diminutive place like that could be so consistent across-the-board; I bet the town council vote that must have been behind the phenomenon. The art exhibit sign announced that the artist was Bill Barefoot. Who could pass up checking out an artist with a name like that? Besides, it was the only art show in this town of some four thousand people and I happened to be passing by during the small window of hours when the library was open. The paintings were relegated to the perfectly silent top floor, far far away from the auditory trails of murmuring patrons and of the children’s unedited voices below. I figured I would see something banal like nearby New Hampshire landscapes. They were landscapes, and they were from the area, but pleasing. And they were for sale.

As I came up to the front to leave a trace of my presence in the guestbook as evidence that someone that day cared enough to have a look, I noticed one painting to the left, marked, “NSF”—Not for Sale. It depicted the artist as an aging man hugging his likewise aging Collie to his chest. Mr. Barefoot’s hair was whitish grey, as was the dog’s fur. They must have been there for each other in many ways for a good long time. It was the best of the lot, but not for sale. Too bad, I thought, for no other painting drew me into its emotional field. What a teaser a NSF sign is! I wondered if the dog were no more. What was the artist remembering and feeling during the embrace and afterwards as he painted it? What was the dog experiencing? I wondered why he could not part from the piece, and I pondered other artists who have displayed artwork “NSF.” From what I remember, the ones not for sale were always the better works. Or is this just the phenomenon of forbidden, and therefore much more unavailable, fruit?

After signing the guestbook with the comment that “I felt the most emotionally drawn to your self-portrait of you and your dog,” I stood before it again. Maybe for Mr. Barefoot selling it would represent devaluing the meaning of the work, or that of his feelings for his dog, or feelings about ageing, or of whatever else ranked of high importance. Or perhaps he feared lest the buyer would not look upon it as he had but just as a “pretty painting.”

At times it must be hard for a graphic artist to part with an original. (We writers are so lucky. We can sell infinite copies of our books, like the “same” flame lighting candle after candle. The notion of an “original” for me is somewhat unintelligible anyways. I do not feel attached to how this post is stored on my hard drive before I put it online.) I imagine that if Mr. Barefoot were to part with that painting, it would symbolically be one way of parting with his dog, or with something—perhaps his unverbalized emotions about aging– that defines who he is. He would not be quite the same without that painting, like a dog suddenly missing one toe. When someone close to us dies or leaves us, we are no longer the same; we go on minus the interactions we had with them. That which we have lost is irretrievable, and no longer available at any price.



A First for Buster, Max, Princess and Molly: Pet Blessings

Buster’s latest diary entry: My owner Stacey makes sure my life’s not dull. Yesterday it was a pet costume contest where I had to strut around in a suffocatingly hot Superman outfit. Ugh! Today it was a pet blessing ceremony. As usual, I had begun my fitness routine in a dog run in a city park, but I knew something was up when Stacey trotted on over to the nearby gazebo, where plenty of other doggies were milling around, plus one cat that doggedly remained seated on her owner’s lap. I’m like what’s up, and then some alpha human named Chaplain Daniel started talking and we and all our owners all settled down along the edges of the gazebo. The word that most stood out in my mind in that chap’s introduction was “treats,” so I figured if that was on the agenda it would be worth my while to sit still. The other dogs were just as smart, because they arrived at the same conclusion and didn’t interrupt overly often.

The ceremony was not half bad as human noise making goes, and a guitar in the background made up for some of the “for humans only” type of chatter. But man my ears went on triple alert when I heard later on I could get my very own individualized blessing. That was a doggie of a different color; almost as valuable as a treat–well maybe that’s pushing it. Anyhow, a great big line of dogs formed along with their owners to wait their turn for Daniel’s made-up-on-the-spot blessings. As I waited in line, I swear I couldn’t help overhearing what the other dogs’ issues were. I thought their blessings were gonna be things like, “May your bruised leg get better soon,” or “hope you get frisky again like when you were younger.” Nope. Most of the blessings were about emotional things like, “May your dog lose her timidity and come to enjoy dogs and people more and more.” Or, “Molly has been sad and not sleeping well. May she find her zest for life again and speed along the dog run with new-found joy.”  The blessing I got was pretty lame: try to give Stacey (my owner) more slack. Argh! as Snoopy would have said. I thought the blessing was supposed to be for us, not our owners.

By the way, pets that were absent were part of this deal. I don’t mean just that they were not there, I mean they were gone forever. When Chaplain Dan said, “Bless our cherished pets  who have left this world but not our hearts,” I almost whimpered with sad memories about my parents. The chaplain then paused for people to say the names of their lost pets, and I was astonished at hearing a whole pile of ’em. A cat owner even got up to read a poem in it’s memory, how about that? Later I heard Karen, another chaplain (Sheesh, how many chaplains do you need at one time, anyway?) go over to that lady and mention how often  humans can be so insensitive about other people’s pets dying and act like grieving over them is nonsense. The lady basically replied, “And how!”

Oh, and I almost forgot: the treats, including animal crackers and bone-like strips got 5 stars, according to yours truly.   Yours truly, Buster

(Editor’s note:) The fancy shmansy word for types of grief that society delegitimizes is “disenfranchised grief.” Pet owners, and even fellow pets that lived with a pet who has passed (that’s another story), have every right to grieve for their pets as they need to. Not only that, did you know there’s such a thing as pet hospices? It’s true. They are all over, and two of them are called “Pawsitive Passings” and “Compassionate Care Cat Hospice.” You can see for yourself at the website of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care. Their address:

An Occupational Secret

If you were to happen upon a picture in a magazine of a broadly smiling face whose caption read, “I’m so miserable,” or see a companion picture of a frowning tear-speckled face with the caption, “Things are going very well thank you,” you most likely would think, “Something is wrong with this picture.” Or maybe, to avoid the cliche, you’d declare, “Off with the editor’s head! They  must have reversed the captions by mistake.”

Not so fast. The widow Shirley would have been a fit subject of the first picture. Upon my arrival, she would joyously usher me into her stylish home.There she was, lively as could be, with her favorite kind of music purring from the living room and a batch of homemade “very very healthy granola” cookies ready to bask in the warmth of her oven. After her husband died, I visited her once a month for about a year, the maximum time that hospice workers offer to stay in touch with the bereaved. Shirley had a very complicated story, but her way of telling it did not go with the meaning of her words. She would talk of how terribly she missed Elliott and how devastated and lonely she was, but she smiled and smiled at me as if drinking me into her digestive system, her mascara-bedecked eyes dressed to kill, her arms migrating from the table to her cheeks to her forehead to the air and back round again as she pointed out photos of “the most wonderful man there ever was.” He truly was. Who else would take stopping at a red traffic light as an opportunity to get in yet another kiss during their day? Who else arrived at breakfast as if it were a date? Whew! Shirley really raised the bar on attentive spouses alright. What made her story truly poignant is that this perfect man was her second husband, who she was married to for a scant 6 years, but not until his predecessor obligingly got out of the way for him after 50 uninspiring years by leaving this earth.

The incongruity between what she was expressing and how she was behaving tipped me off to a much deeper story. How could someone so depressed flash around like she was hosting a surprise birthday party? How could a mourner so devastated be practically singing as she spoke? Picking up on this sort of thing is one of my occupational secrets. When something does not match, I know there’s much more going on that the mourner might need to become aware of or talk about. One of the many deeper layers we touched on during all those visits was that my being there brought a little of Elliott back to her. As I gave her the opportunity to speak about him at length, she got to feel close to him all over again as she passionately listed one marvelous quality of him after another.

Later in the year, I helped her to look at other layers that her cheerfulness might have held at bay, such as guilt she might have felt at being released from her less-than-ideal hubby Number One. Her demeanor and what she was saying started to match up more and more closely, Shirley was able to let her picture of Elliott become just faded and dusty enough to broaden her devotion to other people and other interests who were just then starting to come into focus.