Grief is always personal and universal. Nobody understands anyone else’s grief . . . except possibly everyone and anyone capable of empathy. You don’t have to be an empath to resonate with another person’s grief; you just need a heart that lets you feel along with someone who’s suffering pain and loss. At some point or another, we all experience pain and loss. Grief is always a unique and common experience.
I’ve written about and practiced psychotherapy for about 35 years. In my classes I give impassioned lectures about the power and significance of emotion. Nevertheless, I’m still stunned and puzzled and humbled when the waves of emotion roll on in. There’s nothing quite like the rush of powerful sadness.
Last Thursday I made the mistake of playing a melancholy song of loss at the beginning of my University of Montana Happiness class. Maybe it wasn’t a mistake, because I learned that if you want to cry about the death of a loved one, this particular song—Golden Embers by Mandolin Orange—will help with that. If you want to cry now or later, you can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEt2lf7L13g.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to begin your online Happiness course by struggling to contain your tears and grief, take my advice, don’t play it right before class starts.
I’m a fan of emotional openness, honesty, and vulnerability. But choking back tears as you welcome everyone to Happiness class isn’t the nuanced and titrated professional vulnerability I prefer. Perhaps no one noticed my misty eyes via Zoom; perhaps they also didn’t notice my brief my slide toward verbal incoherence.
After a long unplanned, and unpleasant dementia experience, my mother gracefully died of COVID last year. We (my sisters, family, and I) were all very sad. My mother was the Queen of Caring. She never let a conversation end without an “I love you” and never let an in-person meet-up end without a hug. For me, the long, drawn-out dementia experience muted my grief. I was glad for her passing. I believe, had my mother had a functional brain, she would have been even gladder. We had lost my mother several years earlier. COVID just made it official.
But that damn Mandolin Orange song punched the mute button off my grief. Had the class not been ready to start, I could have been in heaving sobs. You probably know what I’m saying. Have you ever had the experience of envisioning and knowing how deeply emotional you could be, while barely managing to keep it at a distance? I could see myself sobbing . . . and . . . I stopped myself from sobbing.
Ironically, the first focus of class was a quick recap of James Pennebaker’s 1986 study on the physical toll of emotional inhibition. Seriously. Who writes these scripts? Pennebaker’s hypothesis, later affirmed through many more studies, was that emotional expression plus insight is emotionally and physically healthy. The opposite, the stuffing of significant emotions, along with the deadening or distancing from understanding our emotions, is emotionally and physically unhealthy. The physical unhealthiness seems linked to the physical exertion it takes to engage in chronic restraint of emotional expression.
Emotions are more like a river than not. You can try to dam them up, but they prefer flowing freely.
The next day, my partially unexpressed emotional river of grief over my mother joined up with my relatively unexpressed anticipatory grief for my father. As I write this, I’m in the Seattle airport waiting for a flight to take me to see him and possibly say goodbye. He’s been on this particular deathbed for years (literally), and so this may or may not be the end. Being the cosmic inverse of his wife (my mother), his brain has continued to process information, crunch numbers, and engage in abstract reasoning. Instead of dementia, his body wore down. He’s been bedridden for about three years. . . bouncing back from a broken hip, then a re-broken hip, then a stroke, then two collapsed lungs, and a myriad of other near-death experiences. In his latest medical exam, the verdict was that his skin is wearing out, splitting, coming unhinged, revealing muscle and bone.
Despite all this, the next day (after my Seattle airport writing and late arrival into Portland), when I walk into his room, he briefly awakens, offers a grin, and exclaims, “Hi John.” He says nothing more, and quickly drops back to sleep, because talking has become immensely difficult; it takes all he’s got to get out two words.
On this visit, I’ve been on the emotional edge, remembering vividly his reliable presence for me and for others. Being self-employed, he worked long hours, including many evenings and weekends. Being self-employed also gave him flexibility. He might go back to his shop to bend steel pipe in the evening, but he managed his work schedule so as to never miss one of my baseball, football, and basketball games. When I got in my first (and only) fight in 8th grade, he found me walking home alone, ashamed, embarrassed, and with a swollen eye. When my sister and I were in a car wreck, he got there nearly as quickly as the ambulance. When the Black kids or the Gay kids down the street wanted to come over to shoot baskets, swim in the pool, or eat food, he’d open the gate or the door and his heart, and let them all in . . . never scolding, never yelling, never criticizing. He even welcomed the White Christian kids.
For this visit, I brought old photos, scrapbooks, my old baseball glove, and game balls from the two no-hitters I pitched my senior year of high school. I had hoped for some mutual reminiscence. Instead, he slept, awakening occasionally with looks of confusion, while I murmured on about our trips to Boston and New York, his favorite dog, being dumped into the Belize River, the first time he let me work with him, and random memories that only we share.
Today, that’s the hardest pieces of my particular grief. We have shared memories. No one else has them. As soon as he passes, I will be the sole keeper of our mutual memories. The loneliness of that thought crushes my heart.
In the world of grief, there’s a thing called complicated grief. Grief becomes increasingly complicated when the person grieving has mixed feelings and bad memories of the person dying. My grief is simple. I loved my father. He was as near to perfect as I can imagine. I am grateful to have no bad memories to complexify my grief. In my simple grief, I only have the stunning and painful emptiness of a world without him.
Before I leave for the day, I wake him up. His eyes struggle open. I say, “Dad, I’m going now. I love you. You know I love you.” I watch his massive effort to respond, “I love. . .” He tries for the third word, but comes up empty. I say, “I know. You love me.” He relaxes, and immediately loses his grip on the slippery slice of consciousness he has remaining, and drops back to sleep.