Death Notices

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

When I met my husband, his mother had been dead for four months. After a short time, he took me to meet his father, and to see the home that he had grown up in, the home that he had moved back into during the the last year of his mother’s life.

When he opened the door, and I stepped into the foyer, I had the sensation that comes when you walk into a room that someone else has just left seconds before. A palpable electromagnetic wake – the air molecules moving in eddies behind some recent but unknown activity. A purse plopped in the chair near the door. A gum wrapper folded neatly and placed in a decorative dish. A sweater with a tissue peeking out of the pocket slung over the arm of the couch in the living room. She was still there. Her presence, in her absence, remained everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the house.

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

A cook book with a page booked marked in the kitchen. A paperback novel, its spine cracked, pages splayed faced down on the coffee table.

It would be several more months after that, long enough for our relationship to consolidate, and for me to understand more about the family’s grieving process, before I would ask David and his father politely and tentatively, if it would be helpful to them in anyway, for me to pack up her things. Yes, they said, it would be very helpful. They were clearly emotionally and logistically at a loss.

When his father was away for the weekend – I spent two full days boxing up a woman’s life while David hid out, painting and listening to Frank Sinatra on the radio up in the small spare bedroom that had been set up as a studio. He had worked hard enough trying to support her through a long and painful dying process.

I began on the lower floors, collecting the objects that were most obvious to me whenever I entered the house. Her purse. Her coats, scarves, mittens and hats. The minty scent of her purse and the perfume lingering on her scarves and coat collar were the first visceral initiation into the profoundly intimate act that I had undertaken.

After gathering the downstairs items, I took them upstairs to set up base-camp, assembling cardboard wardrobes and packing boxes in her bedroom. I opened her closet doors, and discovered her sense of style, her clothes and shoes. I saw that she kept her things carefully and in good condition and had thrown nothing out for many many years – dresses from the 1950’s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s hung throughout the closet, all in the exact same size. She was long, slim, tall, small-breasted, large footed. Her shoes were comfortable and expensive. She wore dresses primarily. Some slacks, but not so many. No blue jeans. Her smell grew stronger, more personal, closer to her skin as I sorted through the clothes.

She liked bright colors, nice textiles, weavings, hand knitted sweaters, clothing embellished with folk lace-work, needlework and embroidery from every culture and tradition. She had formal wear and cocktail wear that was clearly required by her life and her husband’s life in academia – but most of her clothing was beautiful, simple, comfortable, useful, special, one of a kind. No designer labels. Nothing frilly. Never fancy.

Her wardrobe and everyday jewelry showed signs of her Czech-Hungarian upbringing, her familiarity with Europe, the many languages that she spoke, as well as her extensive world travels and time spent living in Israel, in China. Pieces of tile, or hand made ceramics set in silver or mounted as pins.

And collections. Never just one of anything but many: a drawer filled with embroidered handkerchiefs, chests and closets in every room filled with hand woven fine fabrics and textiles. Hand hewn wooden bowls, baskets filled with delicately painted eggs from all over the world, another with hand made painted tops, another with ceramic mushrooms. A box filled with hundreds of carefully wrapped tiny blown-glass animals. Decorative boxes everywhere, painted, or carved, or upholstered in silk – one filled to the top with jade rings in every size. Another with tiny turquoise pins.

I threw nothing away. I placed items that might not want to be saved or given away, in their own marked boxes for her sons and husband to look through for themselves. In this box I placed her tooth and hair brushes, make up lotions, perfumes, powder deodorant, razors and tweezers. The pill bottles from her long sickness. Her under-the-sink-things, her feminine hygiene products, her underwear, slips, socks, bras and panty hose.

I was told to set anything aside that I might want to keep for myself: I selected some textiles and scarves, a yellow linen dress with flowers embroidered around the yoke, a terry cloth housecoat from the 1950’s that was in the back of the closet and had clearly not been worn much at all and not in many years. A short black dress, with a white satin collar and cuffs, also from the late 1960’s, a blue and aqua hand knitted cardigan that fit me perfectly, and that I knew from her basket of yarn and the buttons in her immaculately organized Swedish sewing table that she had knitted herself. They offered me her 1947 Singer Featherweight 221 sewing machine, which is, to this day, my most prized possession.

As the intimacy of these items and this act revealed itself to me, I realized that although I had begun these labors to support those who were grieving: David, his father, I was really doing it for her. This thoughtful meticulous dignified woman, never met, who would have wanted her things collected, regarded, distributed, sorted, as thoughtfully and carefully as she had selected and tended to them in life. Who would have wanted to protect her family from the overwhelm and sorrow of packing her life away.

I imagined who I would want to wrap up my my unfinished business one day, and how I would want them to tend to it.

There is always an aftermath.

And although I do not believe that grief should be pathologized as a diagnosis or a medical condition, there is no psychotherapist who does not contend with the life-long implications of death or the processes of bereavement in some form every single day.

Memories of a weekend spent with the personal effects of the dead woman who would one day become my mother-in-law, are activated whenever I find myself professionally involved in the shockingly intimate processes of supporting people as they mourn the death of people that I have never met. And my mother-in-law’s specter spurs me, as it did that long ago weekend, to remember that in order to support the bereaved, we must, on some level enter into an internal relationship to the deceased ourselves, to understand who they were, to clean up the mess and the grief, to contain the emptiness and tie up the loose ends left behind with the living.

Over the years I’ve sat with parents grieving children, and children grieving the loss of parents, sometimes both at once. Adoptees mourning the death notices of first family members never met. I’ve listened to the unfolding evolving eulogies of siblings, grandparents, extended family, partners, best friends, classmates, chosen family, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, friends of friends.

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

We can mourn total strangers too. Death impacts many people who may not ever know the names of those they mourn: eye-witnesses, doctors, nurses, soldiers, first-responders and psychotherapists can be changed forever by intimacies with those who have left their bodies behind.

I hear these sorrows and traumas too.

And although I remain firmly agnostic about such things – I have on more than one occasion had the sensation that the dead have led a client to my office, so I would care for the the good and bad, light and shadow, that they have left behind in the hearts of others.

And as I support the bereaved, I inevitably wonder: What would the deceased wishes be – how should they, would they have wanted the person in front of me cared for? How would they respond if they were here to witness what I am seeing? How would this client’s mother want me to deal with the rage and pain her death has left behind? How would that dead man want his son treated? How would a deceased husband respond to his wife’s relief at his passing? What might that young woman feel if she saw how her brother suffered after her overdose? How would the dead want me to understand them through the things they have left behind? How would their best-self – or their worst, most-defensive aspects – respond to their survivor’s anger, betrayal, relief, sorrow, terror, pain?

I don’t work from a distance. I frankly don’t know how to – the only way I know to support those grieving and bereaved is to try to learn about the size, shape and feel of their loss as specifically as possible. To use my heart and imagination to understand as much as I can about the person being mourned. To sit with those who mourn by entering into relationship with the dead myself. To allow myself to be affected by their life, their absence, their death.

To be caught in their wake.

I’ve listened to death-tales of suicide, murder, illness, accident, chronic self destructiveness, heroic sacrifice, masochism, police intervention, terrorist attacks, and statistically improbable, impossible deaths, as freakish as lightening on a sunny day.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

I’ve learned how they faced death, who they were before death struck and the consequences that followed their lives and deaths through entire communities of people known and unknown to them.

Loss and life spreads out in concentric circles – in waves, in ripples through time and across communities.

This has happened several times, maybe more times than it should:

I have listened to people, who do not know each other and who do not know that they all know me, as they sit in my office and describe the life and death of the same person. Like the proverbial blind men describing the portion of the elephant that they can touch – I hear from one what it was like to be an eye-witness to the accident, from another what it was like to miss them in an exercise class, from a third how it feels to lose the most important relationship in their lives, from a fourth the shock of hearing of the death of a professional colleague, from a fifth sorrow of losing an old college friend.

And like my mother-in-law, I have come to know them intimately, through their most personal details, their character and their residuum.

We all cut a broader path, leave a larger wake, send out more ever widening rings than we can ever realize.

I imagine such circles of inter-connection surround us all the time. Perhaps I have as many interconnections with the man at the deli, the crossing guard, the woman in the high heels in the elevator who smells of strong perfume. If my job were not to sit still in my office, and listen to what emerges, unmasked, unfiltered by social convention I might never consider this.

And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated;
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

The dead have taught me lessons I could learn from no living person.

Just as my mother-in-law departed before I entered the family, many years later my father-in-law died, just four months before our son came into this world. They never met each other either.

Shortly after my son came home I had this dream:

I was staring into a fireplace – watching the flames, and the logs spark and crackle. My father-in-law’s voice is behind me, a voice-over really- he is present and not present simultaneously. An accomplished scientist, pioneer in artificial intelligence, a biological reductionist my father-in-law believed in nothing romanticized or spiritual about death. Brain and mind were the same thing -and souls were non-existent. And as I watched the fire his voice said: “When you teach the boy about death, or when your own comes it is just like this: The fire converts the composition of the wood into another form of energy. See that spark? It breaks away from the body of the log, is carried upwards in the waves of heat and warmth, it burns out, and seems to disappear. But the warmth stays with you, is absorbed by you and those who are near, you inhale the carbon, the charcoal with all is uses remains long after the fire goes out ”

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

~ John Donne, from The Holy Sonnets, Death Be Not Proud

Whatever I believe or you believe or don’t believe I have no question that life doesn’t disappear.  We leave trails, waves, wakes, after-shocks, hang-overs behind us.

Our lives keep living, unfolding  long after we are dead.

And we are all unquestionably of eternal consequence.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~ John Donne, Meditation #17 From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions 

%d bloggers like this: