Good Grief, Bad Grief

I’ve been a fortunate person for someone of my age.  Grief is an unfamiliar emotion to me.  Over the past few days, I’ve been astonished by its insidious power.

1) I can’t think very well.  That’s why I’m making another list.  Lists require no transitions.  They create their own kind of shape.  They make you feel organized and in control when you’re a mess.

You should see my to-do lists:  Call minister.  Notify people.  Make decisions about Biblical passages and hymns for the service.  I don’t have to put remember to grieve on my to-do list.  It comes and goes as it will.

2) Normally, I’m a fairly energetic person.  I walk at a brisk pace.  Right now, I have no energy whatsoever.

I would say I’m emptied out, but I’m not.  I am heavy and weighed-down.

3) I think of a good idea.  Go to a movie.  Yes, a movie!  Perfect!  “We’re going to a movie,” I tell my husband.  He nods and tells me to wait a few minutes until he’s finished writing something.

A few minutes later, I have changed my mind.  A movie?  That sounds terrible.  What an awful idea.  I want to lie on the couch and never move again.

4) My sister writes that Daddy loved the 23rd Psalm and the hymn “He lives!”  I remember that hymn, standing to sing it in a church with my parents.  It lingers with me, its chorus repeating again and again.  Sometimes, I find myself mouthing the words.

5) I wake in the middle of the night thinking about my father’s hands.  My mother once told me she fell in love with my father because of his big, strong, capable hands.

When I visited him in the assisted-living center, we would hold hands.  I wish I’d known, when we left Austin in August, that that was the last time I would ever touch his hands.  I didn’t stay long enough.  I never stayed long enough.  I never thought this would be the last time.

6) TV is perfect.  But nothing too challenging.  No PBS, no detailed series.  Just mindless chatter, flash, loud noises.

7) I have a need to be useful.  I am always reading, puttering, working.  Not now.  I am useless, aimless.

8. My husband and I, normally mild-mannered sorts, spend our time getting into loud arguments with people over the phone about arrangements.  We seem to intuitively play good-cop, bad-cop — somehow never arguing with the same person.

All the emails about arrangements my husband sends to my sister have the word assholes in the subject line.  He also repeatedly refers to one guy as a “dufus.”  I tell him he needs to use the proper spelling, doofus.  I may be stupid with stress right now, but I still have standards.

9) The death of a second parent is different from the death of a first.  Something bigger dies with a second parent — a generation, a marriage, a status of being someone’s child.

10) Relief comes in strange ways, shows up in strange settings.  We go to a Yankees game with our friends Mary Jo and Bill.  The organist plays “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  Mary Jo drags me to my feet and puts her arm around me.  I sing — no, scream — the words, swaying back and forth, yelling at the blue skies, the swaying crowds, the crazy spectacle of it all.  I don’t care if I never get back.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about how sometimes the kindness of strangers is all you can hope for

21 comments… add one
  • Ruth – I am so sorry to read about the passing of your father. As always, you have taken what you are experiencing and put it down in a way that so many of us can relate to. Although I have not lost a parent, I have lost other cherished family members and your list rings true with me in many ways. I’m sending you love and support and hope you continue to share what you are going through so we can be here for you.

  • I think you know, and are learning as well, that each circumstance of grief is different, and that there are gifts in the grieving as well as hard times.

    thinking of you and your family as you go though this time

  • Cindy A Link

    You have so painfully captured the whole numbing experience of it. Now you must capture all your memories of your father and laminate them. 

    In case it helps:

    If you could throw a funeral like you would throw a party, my co-worker’s efforts for her maiden aunt last year were stellar. At the end of a standard minister-gets-up-and-says-forgettable-things, she asked members of the audience if they would like to tell us of any special memory they had of her aunt.  OMG, people stood up from their seats and told the most amazing stories about this crusty old lady with the heart of gold.  I will remember her aunt forever — and I never met her!

  • Aw, Ruth, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I know that sayings like “he’s in a better place” or “it was his time” offer little solace, so I hope you’ll take comfort in the memories you’ve gathered over the years.
    When my dad died, one of my responsibilities was copyediting his obit (I thought the funeral home did an awful job of writing it, but maybe I was just bitter and nothing would have been satsifactory). It was the worst assignment of my career, but at least Dad’s memory will be free of comma splices! Your anecdote about the correct spelling of doofus reminded me of that.

  • Ruth, I notice your last two posts are numbered lists. I wonder if you’re trying to create order during a time of crisis when things must feel chaotic and out-of-control.
    Be kind to yourself and do all the wallowing you need. And i hope you find a measure of comfort in your ability to write so well about your grieving process.

  • You captured that hollowness that comes with grief.  You speak of remembering your father’s hands. With me it was clouds.  He has once worked for the weather bureau, and always looked up and identified the various shapes of clouds and explained their meanings. He died 13 years ago, but I still cannot look at a cloud without a pang of loss.
    Take care of yourself.

  • Ruth, I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I can’t imagine the stress you’re under. Sending lots of love your way!

  • I’m sorry you’ve lost your dad. Mine died last year and I still remember the numbness of driving to the nursing home in the middle of the night, only to think, “I’m an orphan now.”
    May your memories of your dad as he was, give you a chance to smile during the next few days/weeks/months.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss! Losing anyone who had a big presence in our lives is hard, but a parent is especially so. It takes a long time to ebb too. You write about it well, though. Sending you lots of comfort and loving energy.

  • Just wanted to say I’m thinking of you.

  • Dear Ruth,
    What a lovely post, and so very apt. I was especially moved by your observing that “something bigger dies with the second parent” — this has been my experience as well, after losing my mother last year and my father eight years ago. It sounds like you have many resources, but I did want to let you know that, the website I work part-time for, has some pretty usefull resources to help you after a parent dies, including tools to help you create a memorial service, write an obituary, etc. It’s all in the “End of Life” section. I’m thinking of you and sending supportive thoughts.

  • I was the first in my circle of friends to lose both parents.  You are so correct about that “something bigger dies with the second parent” idea…  Becoming the Matriarch of my family moved something inside me that apparently only goes in one direction….
    One thing I’ve learned – the physical death of a parent is certainly not the end of that relationship.  Voices in your head, memories that have a life all their own, your father’s body may no longer be part of your experience but his love for you and your love for him lives on.

  • Ruth, I am so sorry for the loss of your father. I know how hard (and helpless) it is to learn of a family death from a distance. It happened to me with my father. You’ve aptly and beautifully described that since of emptiness that permeates the day. I could hear the strains of “He Lives” as I read this essay, it’s a song well-remembered from my Methodist childhood. Thank you for telling us about your dad and about the attempts to cope with his loss. I’m thinking of you and keeping you and your family in my thoughts.

  • musingegret Link

    Thank you sincerely for writing so candidly and openly about the heartwringing experience you’re going through; I’m learning through you. I’m so sorry for your loss and the frustrations y’all are having in dealing with the logistics. Remember to breathe.

  • Oh, dear Ruth. I’m so very very sorry to hear this, and your posts – this and the last one – have touched me so deeply as have the comments. This is the one huge event I feel like I dread all my life, knowing that the passage of time will bring inevitable, great losses in my life.  I like what TexasDeb says about how the relationship doesn’t end with physical death – their voices in your head, their memories, all live on and have their own reality and eventually, perhaps will provide solace to you. I hope so. I’ll think of you so much as you go through all this – take care.

  • I am so glad you are writing about this. Grief opens us up in a raw way, like nothing else. I’m sorry that you have to go through this, and thank you for allowing us to share in your journey and to help carry you in any way that we can. Love to you.

  • Winston Link

    Ruth, I understand the inner dishevelment you feel.  Remember grief takes a full year, moving through all the cycles, events, holidays and seasons of being that new orphan.  When that first anniversary passes, you do feel a noticeable abatement of the grief.  I knew this at the time of my own deep grief.  Whenever I would wallow for a while in my grief, I would get a hold of myself and say to myself, “This is enough– for now.”  I used that phrase as a bookmark as I moved through the chapters of grief.  I knew  I needed to reach the end of that book, so I always allowed myself to put it down with full permission to return to that book and wallow again.  Don’t ever force the end of grief, allow yourself to pass through all the chapters.  It’s natural.  It’s permissible.
    Ruth, I appreciate your statement #9 of this post.  Now I know you grasp what I meant in my comment on your previous post.  And also, Ruth, remember that you are a cancer surviver.  This kind of grief and generational transition is part of the life that you could have otherwise missed.  It’s all part of having a long life.  As grief subsides, be thankful for being able to pass through even this leg of your extended journey through Life.

  • Reading your description your grief process was like reading my own.  I have recently been trying to deal with the sudden death of my sister, some days so much better (or worse) than others.  The pain you’ve suffered  is abated just a bit in the description of it, from my experience.  Thank you for sharing. 

  • My father (I always called him Daddy) died in 1994 (April 22 — the same day as his nemesis, Richard Nixon).  I knew the last time I saw him was the last time.  He also had some dementia, though he died of heart failure.  There is no way it can be easily got through.  The grief will never entirely disappear, and one doesn’t want it to, anyhow.  Grief is part of life and remembering.   Parent-child interactions are always difficult, more so when one or the other is not entirely sentient.  I still blame myself for all sorts of things I could have done, should have done, didn’t do.  When I die my children will feel the same kind of regret.  It can’t be helped.
    I’m sure he loved you.

  • Ruth; another incredibly moving post for me. I have no idea what it will be like to lose a parent, both parents but I know it won’t be long before I do know. I connect with your observations about what this feels like; none of this is surprising. Ones life suddenly comes into sharp focus while at the same time stays muddied about t he edges….
    Let your family and friends surround you with love in this difficult time. Thinking of you.  Keep writing.

  • cousin Per Link

    Big hug from us Swedes. We will see you soon. A real one then. You write so moving about this! As always.

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