Tag Archives: grieving

Living in the Aftershock of Someone Else’s Earthquake

Illustration by Zoe van Dijk

Ashley Abramson | Longreads | November 2017 | 16 minutes (3,939 words)

 

Springtime, just after my parents’ divorce: My dad had moved into a musty one-bedroom set in the corner of a cluster of white, rundown apartment buildings, the exact inverse of the impractical three-story he’d bought us just two years earlier after his promotion to district manager. My mom, who shuffled between jobs frequently, had been front desking at a doctor’s office in the next town over, down the street from the Tastee Freez. Que sera, sera, we would croon, our lips painted white with soft serve, whatever will be, will be. The two of us, singing, on either side of innocence.

The day my mom got busted at a pharmacy called Drug Town, I was 9, almost 10, the same age she was when the river swallowed her twin brother. I, too, would be devoured, inhaled by a force beyond my control. But that day, I was careless, browsing the drugstore’s collection of Easter candy while my mom picked up a prescription, one of the dozens of pills she took for reasons which, to that point, had remained just outside the confines of my life. She wasn’t yet sick enough for me to notice, or maybe she was, and I just hadn’t had a reason to peer beyond my love for her into her world, a place where she could do wrong. Not until that day.

First, two police officers, then me in the drug store’s break room, surrounded by teenage employees just old enough to understand what my mom had done and distract me with knick-knacks from the toy aisle. Still, I heard it from behind the closed door: My mom’s frantic bail phone call to my dad, his irate footsteps minutes later, her excuses in shards, the word “felony.” Que sera, sera. Her life and mine, slowly and suddenly eclipsed by her pills and whatever it took to get them. Whatever will be, will be.

And what, exactly was that day, but a mirror doing its job, reflecting back what had been true all along? On the surface, my mom, being accused again by my dad or someone more powerful than him. Below that, someone who had clearly done something wrong — broken the law — to get the thing she wanted. Another layer beneath that one: A woman who had been betrayed by her body. And at the core, the pain, always radiating, penetrating through, convincing us all that whatever she did wrong was just a glitch, as if her suffering had taken the wrong shape.

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The Condition that Shielded My Grandfather From Heartbreak

Illustration by Hannah Perry

Kate Axelrod | Longreads | July 2017 | 8 minutes (2,056 words)

 

I sat in the Emergency Room with my grandmother on a cool night last June. Hours earlier, Sadie had stood up from the couch too quickly and fallen. She and my mother had been waiting at the hospital for much of the day. Sadie was bored but wouldn’t complain except to be dismissive of her own pain. This is all so dumb, she’d said when I arrived. I’m really fine, so unnecessary for you to come all the way uptown for this. On the gurney next to her, a woman with a British accent sat erect, and asked continuously for the lighting to be alternately dimmed and then brightened, as though she were both the star and director of a one woman show.

Earlier, an X-ray had confirmed that Sadie had fractured her pelvis, but we were waiting for an MRI to see how bad the damage was. At ninety, Sadie was in fairly good shape; she hadn’t been in the hospital since giving birth to my aunt in the mid-1950s, but she had chronic pain in her right knee and had lost much of her vision to macular degeneration. More often than not, she was her ordinary astute and thoughtful self, but there were also moments of confusion and repetition, and resentment about growing old. Just a few weeks before she fell, she told me she wanted to do something, anything. She suggested to my grandfather that they volunteer in the neonatal unit of a hospital; to cradle abandoned infants in their soft, creased arms.

I sat on the edge of her gurney and smoothed my fingers against her wrist, which seemed newly delicate. My brother arrived and read her poetry from the most recent New Yorker. He has the most beautiful voice, Sadie whispered. Hours passed. I played her a guided meditation on my phone. We closed our eyes together and tried to just be, but after a few minutes we were both restless and I shut it off.

“What if I have to stay over at the hospital and Grandpa never forgives me?” she asked.

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Feeding Your Grief

In the photo, my family’s wearing black. Their heads are hunched, and they look miserable. But when I look at the picture, I can’t concentrate on them, on their faces, on their grief. I look instead at a plastic grocery bag my father carries in his left hand. It’s in the foreground of the image, and the local photographer has mistakenly focused on the bag. The caption reads, “The Blum family mourns the loss of their daughter.” There’s no mention of the bag, but it demands attention. The bright, bulging plastic monstrosity leaps out from the photo. It has life in a way that the man holding it does not. My father’s face is vacant, like he’s not really there. And I always think, when I hold the picture up under the fluorescent basement lights, that if you want to find my father in the photo, you can’t look at him. You’ve got to look at the bag. To know Larry Blum, you have to understand why he brought a bag of bananas to his daughter’s funeral.

Isaac Blum, writing in the Iowa Review about his young sister’s death from plane crash debris, the shadow Heinz ketchup casts over his family, and the different ways people mourn.

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A Grieving Parent on Sadness and Yearning

The sorrow and anger that followed Kate’s death, however, pale next to the terrible yearning. “Sometimes I feel panic sweeping over me,” I wrote to a friend, “and I’m so overwhelmed with yearning for Kate that I don’t know how I’ll manage.”

I searched for “yearning” and “grief” on the Internet and found a Harvard Medical School study that concluded yearning after a loss is far more debilitating than sadness or depression. The study included people who had lost a husband or wife, a parent, or a brother or sister. I wrote the author, Dr. Holly Prigerson at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to ask why parents who had lost children weren’t included. Losing a child, she told me, is so many “orders of magnitude worse” that it couldn’t be meaningfully compared to other losses.

On his third birthday without Kate, Steve and I were standing in our kitchen, crying, when he choked out these words: “It’s not that I want her back. It’s not that I need her back. It’s that I have to have her back.”

Nancy Comiskey, in Indianapolis Monthly, on what she learned about grieving, 10 years after the death of her daughter.

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Grief, Loss and the 9/11 Museum

The fact that everyone else here has VIP status grimly similar to mine is the lone saving grace; the prospect of experiencing this stroll down waking nightmare lane with tuned-out schoolkids or spectacle-seekers would be too much. There are FDNY T-shirts and search-and-rescue sweatshirts and no one quite makes eye contact with anyone else, and that’s just fine. I think now of every war memorial I ever yawned through on a class trip, how someone else’s past horror was my vacant diversion and maybe I learned something but I didn’t feel anything. Everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life and be forced to attend it with a bunch of tourists from Denmark. Annotated divorce papers blown up and mounted, interactive exhibits detailing how your mom’s last round of chemo didn’t take, souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with your best friend’s last words before the car crash. And you should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch it be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely.

A heartbreaking reflection by Steve Kandell, in BuzzFeed, on the loss of his sister nearly 13 years ago, and his thoughts after visiting the new 9/11 Museum.

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Photo: tanenhaus

Longreads Member Pick: A Stiller Ground, by Gordon Grice and This Land Press

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Thanks to Longreads Members’ support (join us here), we’re able to bring you outstanding stories from publishers and writers around the world—including today’s Member Pick from This Land Press, which is doing some incredible work out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and whose story by Kiera Feldman, “Grace in Broken Arrow,” topped our Best of 2012 list

Today’s story is “A Stiller Ground,” a devastating piece from Gordon Grice about the loss of a child. The story will be featured in an upcoming issue of This Land, and we’d like to thank them for sharing it early with Longreads Members. A brief excerpt is below.

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I walked in graveyards, gathering trash and fallen branches. I pulled weeds that obscured the names on old headstones, and when I was through, most of the names I’d revealed meant nothing to me. I took special care with the graves of children. I put the ceramic animal caricatures back on the stones they’d fallen off of. After a rain, I thumbed mud from the Lucite-covered photographs set in stones. I took the time to read a turn of the century marker made of crudely hand-lettered cement. On it was an asymmetric heart pieced from small stones. I subtracted compulsively: death year minus birth year equals age, give or take one.

I started, almost always, with the graves of my own ancestors and cousins. My mother’s mother, dead before I was born. Carved next to her name was my grandfather’s. He was still alive, though his name had been written in the city of the dead for thirty-four years. My cousin, a suicide at twenty-one. His epitaph declared his heart too big to last in this world. I read his stone with double vision: the disdain I’d always had for such sentiments; the tolerance I had now for anything, anything at all, to ease the pain. I walked along the rows, taking care of people past caring.

That was my daily routine. Sometimes the woman I loved would come with me. I envied her. She seemed to know how to grieve. To let herself feel things; to take time. She wrote letters to our stillborn daughter. She ordered photographs from the hospital and put them in a scrapbook. She talked. Most of these activities were strange to me, though I clumsily tried to emulate her for the sake of my mental health. I wanted to have my private scene at the cemetery, unwitnessed, and be cured for good, or at least for a little while.

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