I used to go to a crazy cancer support group. The woman who was the sickest among us, who was dying, in fact, never wanted to talk about illness or death. She wanted to talk about how important it was to fold her husband’s shirts very precisely. She also talked a lot about her dreams, which were invariably about as interesting as her husband’s shirts. Her dreams went on and on, in elaborate, painstaking detail. One evening, she finished a 15-minute discourse on an intricate, seemingly endless dream about cleaning her house, then announced something that chilled me to my toenails: “That’s not all,” she said. “There’s a lot more. This dream is a trilogy.” Oh, God.
I took to thinking I needed a second support group to make sure my first support group didn’t drive me totally nuts. I also fantasized about arriving at the group and — first thing — asking, “What do none of us want to talk about tonight?”
I didn’t do it, of course. I was as crazy as everybody else in the group in my own, unacknowledged way, and there were plenty of topics I would have driven thousands of miles to avoid. For some reason, I could talk about death, but so what? Big deal. “I’m more afraid of life than I am of death,” I tell my husband and he looks at me as if I were certifiable. What could be worse than death? Plenty of things.
Take yesterday and today, for example. I’ve spent my time at the computer like a bleary-eyed gambler at a slot machine, cramming in quarters and flipping the switch or whatever they call the damn thing you pull. Over and over. Staring and exhausted, feeling useless, noting I have the attention span of a gnat. I do feel useless when I can’t work, as if I’m wasting badly needed space on this planet, exhausting the oxygen supply, contributing nothing but ennui and aimlessness. The Internet is perfect for times like this, making you kid yourself that you’re learning things and connecting, when, in fact, you are only wasting your time and exhausting yourself by trying not to notice whatever it is you’re trying to avoid.
Whatever it is. For me, it’s the heaviness and sadness that come from losing two friends recently. From the lingering guilt that I could have been a better friend to both of them, but now it’s too late.
But we’re supposed to move on, right? Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps even if we don’t wear boots. Get going, move on, stop wallowing, stop giving into self-indulgence. Grief and sadness — those would be self-indulgent. Avoid them at all cost. Get on with your life.
So, we get on with our lives. We get on by talking about folding a husband’s shirts and exploring fragments of dreams, instead of the reality of malignant cells, and surfing the Internet to avoid everything important and everything that hurts. Except that’s not getting on with life. That’s avoiding life. The laundry, the shirts, the Internet can wait. If you’re going to live, you need to enter the darkness eventually.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
I was once assigned to interview two women about their husband’s cancer-related deaths for a small town newspaper. Both husbands had been notable pillars of the community.
The first woman wanted to talk about everything EXCEPT her husband’s death — so I ended up doing a (rather boring) story on the history of the family. The second woman arrived with her grown daughter and they cried strangely happy tears and told the most beautiful story of how the husband had planned his own funeral and held court at his bedside (he was a judge) and generally presided over his own death. They could not stop talking about what a unique person this man had been and how he handled death with such dignity. I was riveted to every word.
Years later, I still think of the tearful judge’s wife and daughter with their beautiful memories as the people who were “grieving it right.” It’s true what they say — the only way out of grief is through it.
But you probably know that, Ruth.
It still fascinates me how different we all are in this regard — like members of different species.
What you write has touched some nerve more sensative than a tooth root. I want to say something meaningful, but I have just had 3 glasses of wine after a drive home from Portland. Tomorrow. I’ll try to think overnight.
I think grief varies not only from one person to another, but from one loss to another. I have felt guilt (I should have done more) anger (how could she leave me?) and desolation (now I am alone). The sudden absence of a friend or loved one leaves a hole in the universe. The strangest experience with loss that I have had was after I cared for a dying partner for three months before he died of bladder cancer. For several months after I felt absolutely nothing. I worried about this — how could I be so unfeeling. Then one day still, I thought, without any feeling, I began to cry, and I hardly ceased for a week. I couldn’t even talk on the phone without beginning to sob. I asked a therapist about this somewhat later and she said it was “normal”, whatever that means. I guess the lady with her husband’s shirts was just doing what her brain dictated. No other way to cope with such a frightful loss and her own impending death.
I think you’re right, Anne. There’s no good or bad, normal or abnormal in this. What’s hard is when you try to make someone do it your way (why? Because you need the company? Maybe), and this doesn’t work. Or if you get locked into a situation that’s wrong or unhealthy for you. I think we all need as much generosity as we can gather up at times like this. Hell, we need generosity every hour of the day.