Good Grief

Charles M. Schulz, from Peanuts of 27 Sept. 1963

Because my mother is dying, I think a lot about grief. Indeed, because we’ve been in a pandemic for most of the past two years, you too might be drawn into grief with greater frequency than you typically are. In the past year, I’ve listened to countless podcasts and done a bit of grief-themed reading. I’ll post the many sources below, but first — in case it may be useful to others — here is what I’ve learned this year.

Since sorrow is a shape-shifter and since we all grieve differently, I know that some of what makes sense for me may not make sense for you. So, please ignore whatever seems to diverge from your experience. Indeed, feel free to offer corrections or other suggestions in the comments below.

Me and my mother during my most recent visit (October 2021)

Six Lessons on Grief

1. Grief goes on. I once thought that grief had an endpoint — likely because I, like most people, learned that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ “5 stages of grief” ends with “Acceptance.” And “Acceptance” sounds like an ending. But I — and most of us, I think — have learned these stages badly. Kübler-Ross was actually studying how terminally ill patients face their dying. She was not studying how those left behind cope with the loss. In fact, grief does not end; it simply becomes part of you. Nor, for that matter, are there sequential stages. Kübler-Ross understood that Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance might emerge in any order, and can repeat, remix, combine. There are also many other emotional experiences, including humor, anxiety, absurdity, love, and a heightened awareness of the fragility and temporality of human existence. That said, the misapplied Kübler-Ross rubric is useful for thinking about grief. The problems are (a) the dominance of this model and (b) its misapplication to the grieving (instead of to the dying). Because these five states have become so dominant, they feel like fact — like these are The Stages of Grief That We All Must Go Through in This Order. Instead, they’re merely one way of thinking about the process.

2. Make time to grieve. This one I already knew. But Alzheimer’s has granted me so much time in advance of my mother’s actual death. It’s been so helpful to begin the grieving process early. Indeed, I would say that it’s never too early to begin grieving the loss of a loved one. Sure, you don’t want to dwell on the loss of those you love. Far better to enjoy them — to love them! — while they are alive. But nor should you banish thoughts of loss. It’s gonna come. It’s not bad to begin preparing for that eventuality — as long as, of course, it doesn’t consume you.

3. Follow the advice implicit in the German word for mourning, Trauerarbeit, which literally translates to grief-work. There are so many ways of doing that grief-work. When, in April of this year, we thought that my mother might not last the summer, I began in earnest. I wrote my mother’s obituary, receiving helpful editorial input from my sisters Linda, Janet, and Jake. Linda and I also met with estate attorneys to make sure we were well-prepared. I wrote my eulogy. With thanks to Linda and Jake for the photo assistance, I assembled the Celebration of Life slideshow — telling the story of my mother’s life sequentially, via photos labeled with the year and the people in the photo. I compiled a Celebration of Life playlist on Spotify: instrumental (often jazz) versions of songs mom likes, probably about 75% upbeat and 25% wistful. And, since getting fully vaccinated, I’ve been visiting her once a month — each time for at least four or five days in a row. I tell her about her life, hold her hand, give her chocolate, play her favorite music, and sing to her. Sometimes, she sings; lately, mouthing a few words is all she can manage. In ten days’ time, I will fly east again to celebrate her 80th birthday with her.

4. You cannot be prepared for death. My grieving-in-advance may help, but it cannot prepare me for the actual moment my mother’s life ends. That will be different. I cannot fully imagine how different it will be, but I know it will be different.

5. All love contains the inevitability of its loss. Even if a relationship lasts, we are all mortal. Those we love will die. We will die. That’s one reason that love is so remarkable, so powerful, so vital. To love is to open your heart to the heartbreak of loss. And yet love we must.

6. Love survives. I don’t know why. But I know that, when we die, the love we have put into the world — that love outlives us. For this reason, loving other people is the most important activity we do. Period. 

Schulz’s Peanuts of 12 April 1959.

Sources (Podcasts)

I’m sure there were other podcast episodes, but I failed note all of them. Note: These numbers do not correspond to the points above.

1. TED Radio Hour: “Nora McInerny: How Can We Face Life’s Rough Edges?” (23 April 2021). The first third of the hour focuses on McInerny and her TED talk. McInerny’s husband died of a brain tumor at the age of 35. So, this episode gives you a brief version of her insights, plus two other related speakers.  If you’d like the longer version of her TED talk, also featured on a TED Radio Hour, here is that episode (21 Jun 2019).  McInerny also has a podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking.  For me, the utility of each episode is closely tied to the guest.  So, for instance, I liked “The Gift” and “A Good Death.”

2. RadioLab: “The Queen of Dying” (23 July 2021). About Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (“Five Stages of Grief”) and journalist Rachel Kusick’s journey in grieving.  Kusick’s mother died when she was a child. If you’d like more from Kusick, there’s an affiliated episode of the Sex, Death and Money podcast, where she talks with her grandmother — who raised her, and who is now also dying.

3. Deeply Human: “Death” (23 May 2021). In which Dessa invites us into (in her words) “a rigorous conversation about death activism, the guillotine, and the ferocity of human love.” A related episode on “Sad Songs” addresses why we listen to sad songs — & includes Dessa’s song, “Good Grief.” This is a consistently excellent podcast from singer/rapper/memoirist Dessa — I recently learned it’s been renewed for a second season. Highly recommended.

4. Good Grief: a six-part podcast in which people share stories of loss. Lots of wisdom here. As Jennie Burke says in episode 3 (from August 2021), “Grief doesn’t end. You just live in a different world now. And that world unfolds endlessly before you, and grief is part of it. … Grief is just something that I am. It’s a natural part of me. I am living the human experience more fully and completely with my sorrow.”

5. This American Life: “Good Grief” (28 May 2021). No relation to the above podcast (or Dessa’s song, or the oft-repeated phrase in Peanuts). As Ira Glass says of the episode, it’s “about people figuring out how to grieve, most of them kind of inventing it for themselves and mostly doing a decent job of it.”

6. Depresh Mode with John Moe: “Grief Feels Like You’re Losing Your Mind. But ARE You?” (21 June 2021).  Excellent insights from Megan Devine: “Your grief is going to last as long as your love for that person lasts. It’s going to shift and change like any natural process, because it is a natural process.”  And: “Grief is part of love, and love doesn’t need a solution.”

7. Hibernation: “Sleeping Together” (10 June 2021). The episode enters the subject of sharing a bed via what is lost when the person you share it with dies.

8. Radio Diaries: “Living with Dying” (14 February 2021). In which we meet a man who a had double heart attack and was revived after having died — in conversation with his daughter who has (due to a rare genetic disorder) died over 21 times in her 30-something years.

Sources (Books)

I’ve done less reading than podcast-listening, but here are a few good ones.

The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young (Bloomsbury, 2010). So many great poems here. My favorite line comes from Jane Mayhall’s “The Gilded Shadow”: “Or I don’t understand it — / like embracing a mystery hole in our minds, / this complex, heartbreak survival.”

Victoria Chang’s Obit: Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Some favorite lines: “The way grief is really about future absence” (14), “To acknowledge death is to acknowledge that we must take another shape” (23). She has a new book — Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief (2021). I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.

C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed (first published 1961; edition with foreword by Madeline L’Engle, 1989). Since I don’t share Lewis’ faith, this brief series of reflections (written after his wife Joy’s death) resonated with me less than other works I’ve read. But it showed me another side of Lewis. My favorite and the sharpest observation: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory (translated by Sasha Dugdale, 2021) is not about grief, but I love this line from her second cousin Galina: “Those who are dear to us are shaped forever in the heart’s memory, as long as we are alive, and the grief, the pain and the loss are with us, too” (235).

Life’ll Kill Ya; or, This Mortal Playlist

Predictably, I’ve assembled a playlist of songs about death, mortality, mourning, etc. Enjoy! (Or don’t!)

Blog Posts About Mortality, Death, and Grief

Blog Posts About My Mother

As I often tell her, she’s been the greatest mother. Sometimes, I even write about her on this blog. Yeah, I’m a very lucky son to have such a mother — which is also something I frequently tell her.

  • The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3 (31 Mar. 2020). In which I perform my mother’s favorite song (“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”).
  • The Archive of Childhood, Part 3: Earliest Memories (29 Aug. 2018). My earliest memories also feature my mother.
  • For Mom (7 May 2016). My mother was my first best friend. I shared this with her on Mother’s Day 2015. I decided to post it on for Mother’s day 2016.
  • Running Out of Time (15 Jan. 2016). The unnamed relative in the post is my mother. Shortly after I posted it, she responded to my query saying that yes, of course, I could identify her. But, at the time, I decided to simply leave it anonymous.

Sources for images: 1. Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts of 27 Sept. 1963. From The Complete Peanuts: 1963 to 1964 (Fantagraphics Books, 2007). 2. Philip Nel, selfie of my mother and me taken in Lincoln, Mass., 22 October 2021. 3. Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts of 12. Apr. 1959. From The Complete Peanuts: 1959-1960 (Fantagraphics Books, 2006).

2 Replies to “Good Grief”

  1. Thanks for this post, Phil, and for sharing your experiences with your mom. My mom died suddenly and unexpectedly while I was in Houston halfway through my PhD program, and I’ve spent so much time wondering what it would be like if I had known it was about to happen. (Some days it seems like it would be worse, and some days it seems like it would be better. Probably it would just be different, but really none of it is GOOD, even if we can work toward good grief.) I wear her high school ring from Montgomery Blair now and then when I’m thinking about her, and it’s been… something — interesting? educational? comforting? — to notice how I can use it as a sort of token in really different ways now. I wear it when I miss her, but also when I have to do something scary and want to be brave, and when I’m happy sometimes, too. One of my favorite “grief texts” is the poem I read at her funeral — “Bridging” by Marge Piercy.

    1. Victoria, thanks so much for sharing your experience. I think knowing in advance is helpful to me, but I also lack any useful point of comparison (my mother will die exactly once). So, as you say, perhaps it would just be different. It’s very helpful that my mother years ago made peace with her own death and is now ready to go. Though generally cloudy these days, she still manages to surprise us with lucidity: during this afternoon’s Skype chat, she was really working to communicate, and definitely understood me — often better than I understood her (articulating her thoughts is a challenge). I’m hoping for a more lucid afternoon on her birthday, but of course that’s unpredictable.

      I like your story of the changing meanings of your mother’s ring, too. I’m glad it’s accrued such a rich array of meanings — including happier ones.

      Thanks, too, for recommending “Bridging.” I did not know this poem, and have just looked it up. I’m going to post it below for any who may wish to read it.

      “Bridging” by MARGE PIERCY

      Being together is knowing
      Even if what we know
      is that we cannot really be together
      caught in the teeth of the machinery
      of the wrong moments of our lives.

      A clear umbilicus
      goes out invisibly between,
      thread we spin fluid and finer than hair
      but strong enough to hang a bridge on.

      That bridge will be there
      a blacklight rainbow arching out of your skull
      whenever you need
      whenever you can open your eyes and want
      to walk upon it.

      Nobody can live on a bridge
      or plant potatoes
      but it is fine for comings and goings.
      meetings, partings and long views
      and a real connection to someplace else
      where you may
      in the crazy weathers of struggle
      now and again want to be.

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