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.
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.
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.
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
- I’m lucky to be here. #PlagueSongs, no. 27 (5 Jan. 2021). I perform Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” and address the need to mourn.
- Plague Is Halfway Over (If You Want It) (18 Nov. 2020). On living amidst a mass death event, and how to keep going.
- No matter how I struggle and strive. #PlagueSongs, no. 11 (26 May 2020). My performance of Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” along with several far better renditions.
- Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat (3 May 2019). My eulogy (via video) for my uncle, Terry Webb – my mother’s eldest brother.
- Terry Webb (1934-2019) (23 Apr. 2019). My obituary for my uncle, Terry Webb.
- Just a Shot Away (12 Apr. 2016). A piece written for Inside Higher Ed on campus carry’s mortal threat to human life and higher education.
- Running Out of Time (15 Jan. 2016). Written for my late friend Alison Piepmeier’s blog – and listed again with “Blog Posts About My Mother,” below.
- Legend, Gentleman, Friend: George Nicholson (1937-2015) (4 Feb. 2015). A tribute to my late agent.
- In Search of Lost Time: Further Reading (3 Mar. 2014). A link to my piece for Inside Higher Ed along with some related reading.
- This Job Can Kill You. Literally (19 Sept. 2013). On Margaret Mary Vojtko, killed by the precarity of laboring in higher education.
- Antonio Frasconi (1919-2013) (13 Jan. 2013). On Antonio Frasconi, who kindly talked with me about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.
- Remembering Remy Charlip (1929-2012) (8 Aug. 2012). A tribute to Remy Charlip, including excerpts from my interview with him.
- Stayin’ Alive (2 Aug. 2012). After being hit by a car, I’m lucky to be alive.
- That’s Life (31 May 2012). On death and children’s literature.
- The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012 (9 May 2012). A tribute to Maurice Sendak, including excerpts from my interview with him, links to many other tributes – among them the obituary I wrote for The Comics Journal.
- David Bowman, Surrealist and Satirist (8 May 2012). A tribute to the novelist.
- The End: Children’s Authors’ Last Words (15 Feb. 2011). The last words of some famous writers for young people.
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).
Victoria Ford Smith