My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me

She encouraged her husband to find new love after she was gone. A year later, he reflects on what her generosity has meant to him.

By Jason B. Rosenthal

I am that guy.

A little over a year ago, my wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, published a Modern Love essay called “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” At 51, Amy was dying from ovarian cancer. She wrote her essay in the form of a personal ad. It was more like a love letter to me.

Those words would be the final ones Amy published. She died 10 days later.

Amy couldn’t have known that her essay would afford me an opportunity to fill this same column with words of my own for Father’s Day, telling you what has happened since. I don’t pretend to have Amy’s extraordinary gift with words and wordplay, but here goes.

During our life together, Amy was a prolific writer, publishing children’s books, memoirs and articles. Knowing she had only a short time to live, she wanted to finish one last project. We were engaged then in home hospice, a seemingly beautiful way to deal with the end of life, where you care for your loved one in familiar surroundings, away from the hospital with its beeping machines and frequent disruptions.

I was posted up at the dining room table overlooking our living room, where Amy had established her workstation. From her spot on the couch, she worked away between micro-naps.

These brief moments of peace were induced by the morphine needed to control her symptoms. A tumor had created a complete bowel obstruction, making it impossible for her to eat solid food. She would flutter away on the keyboard, doze for a bit, then awake and repeat.

When Amy finished her essay, she gave it to me to read, as she had done with all of her writing. But this time was different. In her memoirs she had written about the children and me, but not like this. How was she able to combine such feelings of unbearable sadness, ironic humor and total honesty?

When the essay was published, Amy was too sick to appreciate it. As the international reaction became overwhelming, I was torn up thinking how she was missing the profound impact her words were having. The reach of Amy’s article — and of her greater body of work — was so much deeper and richer than I knew.

Letters poured in from around the world. They included notes of admiration, medical advice, commiseration and offers from women to meet me. I was too consumed with grief during Amy’s final days to engage with the responses. It was strange having any attention directed at me right then, but the outpouring did make me appreciate the significance of her work.

When people ask me to describe myself, I always start with “dad,” yet I spent a great deal of my adult life being known as “Amy’s husband.” People knew of Amy and her writing, while I had lived in relative anonymity. I had no social media presence and my profession, a lawyer, did not cast me into public view.

After Amy died, I faced countless decisions in my new role as a single father. As in any marriage or union of two people with children, we had a natural division of labor. Not anymore. People often assumed Amy was disorganized because she had list upon list: scattered Post-it notes, scraps of paper and even messages scrawled on her hand. But she was one of the most organized people I have ever met.

There are aspects of everyday life I have taken on that I never gave much consideration to in the past. How did Amy hold everything together so seamlessly? I am capable of doing many things on my own, but two people can accomplish so much more together and also support each other through life’s ups and downs.

Many women took Amy up on her offer, sending me a range of messages — overly forward, funny, wise, moving, sincere. In a six-page handwritten letter, one woman marketed her automotive knowledge, apparently in an effort to woo me: “I do know how to check the radiator in the vehicle to see if it may need a tad of water before the engine blows up.”

While I do not know much about reality TV, there was also this touching letter submitted by the child of a single mother, who wrote: “I’d like to submit an application for my mom, like friends and family can do for participants on ‘The Bachelor.’”

And I appreciated the sentiment and style of the woman who wrote this: “I have this image of queues of hopeful women at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. Single mothers, elegant divorcées, spinster aunts, bored housewives, daughters, wilting violets … all in anxious anticipation as to whether the shoe will fit, fit them alone, that the prince from the fairy tale is meant for them. That they are the right person.”

I couldn’t digest any of these messages at the time, but I have since found solace and even laughter in many of them. One thing I have come to understand, though, is what a gift Amy gave me by emphasizing that I had a long life to fill with joy, happiness and love. Her edict to fill my own empty space with a new story has given me permission to make the most out of my remaining time on this planet.

If I can convey a message I have learned from this bestowal, it would be this: Talk with your mate, your children and other loved ones about what you want for them when you are gone. By doing this, you give them liberty to live a full life and eventually find meaning again. There will be so much pain, and they will think of you daily. But they will carry on and make a new future, knowing you gave them permission and even encouragement to do so.

I want more time with Amy. I want more time picnicking and listening to music at Millennium Park. I want more Shabbat dinners with the five of us Rosies (as we Rosenthals are referred to by our family).

I would even gladly put up with Amy taking as much time as she wants to say goodbye to everyone at our family gatherings, as she always used to do, even after we had been there for hours, had a long drive home ahead of us and likely would see them again in a few days.

I wish I had more of all of those things, just as Amy had wished for more. But more wasn’t going to happen for her or us. Instead, as she described, we followed Plan “Be,” which was about being present in our lives because time was running short. So we did our best to live in the moment until we had no more moments left.

The cruelest irony of my life is that it took me losing my best friend, my wife of 26 years and the mother of my three children, to truly appreciate each and every day. I know that sounds like a cliché, and it is, but it’s true.

Amy continues to open doors for me, to affect my choices, to send me off into the world to make the most of it. Recently I gave a TED Talk on the end of life and my grieving process that I hope will help others — not something I ever pictured myself doing, but I’m grateful for the chance to connect with people in a similar position. And of course I am writing to you now only because of her.

I am now aware, in a way I wish I never had to learn, that loss is loss is loss, whether it’s a divorce, losing a job, having a beloved pet die or enduring the death of a family member. In that respect, I am no different. But my wife gave me a gift at the end of her column when she left me that empty space, one I would like to offer you. A blank space to fill. The freedom and permission to write your own story.

Here is your empty space. What will you do with your own fresh start?

Humbly, Jason

Complete Article HERE!

5 Steps for Dealing with Anticipatory Grief

[I]t might be the hardest part of caregiving: Watching your loved one slip away step by terrible step, knowing you can’t stop the decline and grieving the loss of the person you once knew, long before they’re actually gone. Psychologists call this process anticipatory grief, and it’s very common among caregivers and family members of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and other terminal illnesses.

Coping with Your Grief

“As a disease progresses, there is so much frustration and sadness associated with watching the person you once knew go away,” says Vince Corso, M.Div, LCSW, CT. “It can be overwhelming.”

Corso provided care to his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. He found one of the painful milestones of the disease as the point at which she no longer recognized him. “My mom didn’t recognize us, and she confused us with other people. As a son and a caregiver, that was really hard. I had to leave the room.” But after a period of time, he says, he became acclimated to his new reality and began to accept it. He found that sharing the sense of loss with family members can be very helpful. “It’s so crucial that family members talk about the loss.”

Here are some other ways caregivers can work through their feelings of anticipatory grief:

Allow feelings of grief to help you prepare

Take time to examine unresolved issues between you and your loved one. Imagine life without him or her. “Say what needs to be said,” Corso advises. And if your family member is still well enough, settle legal and financial matters and discuss end-of-life wishes.
Educate yourself about what to expect

Learn about your family member’s condition—know the symptoms, the side effects from any treatments, and the prognosis. It may help you to feel in control if you understand what is coming down the pike.

Talk to somebody

Find a support group of people who are experiencing the same thing, whether it is online, in person, or over the phone. “Someone in a similar situation can provide a lot of insight,” says Corso. “And it’s okay to be honest about your feelings. You’re not being disrespectful to your family member if you express your frustration.”

Enlist help and continue to live your life

Reach out to family and friends or hire someone to help with the care of your loved one. Don’t put your life on hold. Meet with friends and try to have fun when you can. “In the long run, it will help the patient and yourself,” says Corso. “You’ll have more energy to care for your loved one and to do what you need to do.”

Create moments your family member can enjoy

Even though your family member is no longer the person she once was, she can still enjoy pleasurable activities with you. Take mom outside for some fresh air, play music for her, do simple puzzles if she is able. In the end, these moments might be what you cherish most.

Helping Your Loved One Adjust

When illness or injury robs your loved one of the ability to remember things about themselves, it can be scary and profoundly difficult. How do you help them cope with the changes in memory and identity?

Look for ways to add new activities to your loved one’s life, or think about how you might incorporate elements of a favorite pastime. If your mother was an avid golfer, she may have no interest in taking up knitting if her doctor tells her to stay off the links. Ask her what she misses about golf, though, and you may realize that she misses the camaraderie more than the activity itself. Would she be able to meet her foursome for lunch after they’ve finished their round?

Remember too that this is a type of loss. Feelings associated with the grieving process, including denial, anger, and depression, are normal. Talking to a social worker, therapist, clergyperson, or even a sympathetic friend may help you or your loved one manage the emotions and come to terms with the loss. If there’s a support group in your area, hearing how others have coped with the changes you’re experiencing can provide insight and concrete steps, and learning that you aren’t alone in your feelings can be reassuring.

Complete Article HERE!

​Woman’s Very Honest Obituary Says She Will ‘Not Be Missed’

By Jess Hardiman

[W]e all love to fantasise that when we pass away people will be lining the roads mourning – the world absolutely devastated, unable to go on without you. No? Just me?

In reality, it’s not quite such an extreme display of mourning, but at least you can always rely on your close family to at least shed a few tears, right? Well, not always, it seems.

The children of one Minnesota woman, who died at 80 last week, have said she will ‘not be missed’ and that the world is ‘a better place without her. Savage.

Most of the obituary reads as any other would, explaining that the woman, Kathleen, was born on 19 March 1938, and that she got married to someone called Dennis in 1957. However, things take a bit of a strange – and absolutely fascinating – turn halfway through.

The obituary read: “Kathleen Dehmlow (Schunk) was born on March 19, 1938 to Joseph and Gertrude Schunk of Wabasso.

“She married Dennis Dehmlow at St. Anne’s in Wabasso in 1957 and had two children Gin and Jay.”

So far, so nice, right?

“In 1962 she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California.”

Oh, hello… Now it’s getting juicy.

“She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay, who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.

“She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgment.”

And for a final sting, it concluded: “She will not be missed by Gina and Jay and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”

Redwood Falls Gazette, where the paid obituary was originally published, has since pulled it from its website.

However, a photo of the published piece had already gone viral – with many people on social media weighing in on the drama.

“So… what’s Dennis’ story?” one person wrote, with someone else saying: “Raised by her parents? I realize this was the 60s but Dennis gets to also abandon his kids because his wife left him?”

Another person asked: “What about Lyle’s kid? Did she have it? Did Lyle’s baby write another obituary?”

Someone else suggested: “I can think of a person who could really shed some light here… @DrPhil care to weigh in?”

Some others criticised Jay and Gina for the harsh obituary, saying that everyone deserves death with dignity.

But either way, it’s certainly a good lesson in how you probably shouldn’t piss off those who will one day end up writing your obituary…

Complete Article HERE!

Out with the Dogs: Yes, dogs grieve

By

Most of the time I am confident I know what is going on in my dog’s head; it’s not hard to figure out. Researchers believe that dogs think on the same level as a human toddler; about two and half years old. Having raised kids and dogs, both, I concur with that belief. But I admit to being surprised by Topper’s reaction to Chili’s death, now 10 days ago.

It has been a conscious plan on my part to always have multiple dogs, usually four, separated in age by about four years. I have done that to insure I am never left dog-less as the older ones pass away. By keeping about four years between the puppies that come to live with me, I have never had to worry that the dogs would become so attached to one another they would end up being companions for each other and not me. It is something that I often give advice and write about; for most families it is not good to take two puppies from the same litter and raise them together. For very active dog owners; those who play dog sports and show their dogs, the inherent problems of raising two puppies together can be circumvented, but for “average family dog owners” it is a huge mistake to raise litter mates together. New puppy owners often think raising two together would be great, so the puppies are not alone. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Two puppies raised together in a backyard develop astonishing behavior problems. Anytime one dog is taken for a walk or a trip to the vet; the one left behind usually goes crazy; vocalizing and often displaying destructive behavior in their frustration, because they’ve never been alone before. I have been told by many owners of a “pair of dogs” how difficult it is for the survivor when one dog dies, but I have never experienced that kind of behavior myself, with my own dogs, probably because of the number and ages of my dogs.

It was (and still is) hard on me losing my beloved Chili, at only 10 years of age. In fact, at this moment, I’m in an angry stage of grief; pissed off at the universe that Chili was taken so young; we should have had five more years together, but I never anticipated how hard losing Chili would be for Topper. A couple of years ago my Schipperke, Bigfoot Bob, died at a young age for a Schip; 13 years old, of cancer.

I started looking for a new puppy last year, but after a “dog deal” going bad with a miserable, dishonest breeder and costing me over $400. I gave up trying to get another pup, leaving me with three dogs. Several months ago, Sweet Little Annie, my Chihuahua, went to live with a good friend in Corning. It was a better home for Annie, with another small dog in the household. That left me with the two Toller boys; Chili and Topper. With Chili’s sudden death, I’m down to one dog and poor Topper has never been an “only dog” before. For the first time in my life, I am now experiencing a grieving dog.

A couple of years ago Chili and Topper were separated for a few days when my friends took Chili off to a flyball tournament. The team needed him, but I couldn’t attend, so Maureen took him. Topper didn’t act any differently, certainly didn’t appear to miss Chili so I guess that’s the other reason I have been so surprised by his behavior now.

Topper was present when Chili died, which raises more questions for me, about how cognizant dogs actually are. Could Topper tell the difference between Chili simply being away from home and dying, knowing he’d never see him again? After my friend picked up Chili for burial that night, Topper was in my room with me.

He was unsettled; wouldn’t lie down and relax and kept glancing at my bed, where Chili normally laid. I stripped the blankets and cover off the bed so there would be no remaining scent of Chili. I didn’t sleep that first night and neither did Topper. Instead of just flopping down and snoring, like usual, he propped himself up against the dresser and kept his head up, resisting sleep the way a kid does; head bobbing as sleep overtook him. His overall demeanor was depressed; he didn’t prick his ears or looked interested in anything. He also clung to me, following my every move. I took him outside and threw a bumper. For the first time in his life, he did not want to retrieve or play at all. We went to the farm and Tops still looked depressed. He finally retrieved a couple of times when we were playing on the pool cover, but his heart was not in it. I borrowed one of my friend’s young female dogs to bring home for Topper, thinking a new playful dog might cheer him up. Nope, didn’t help. For a couple of days, Topper went into the yard, did his business quickly, then lay under my bedroom window whining until I brought him back in the house and wouldn’t give the visiting dog the time of day. Last weekend we went to the farm again, to take my visitor home and Tops still acted depressed. He played and retrieved only a little bit while we were there.

Topper had a favorite flappy toy that he played with like crazy, by himself. That toy was completely destroyed a couple of weeks ago by a visiting German Shepherd. I asked my friends to keep an eye out for a replacement. Maureen found one and brought it over. It was brand new, still attached to the cardboard packaging when I called Topper outside and showed him the new toy. He went crazy, doing a happy dance! I’ve never seen such a reaction to a toy. He grabbed it and immediately did several laps around the yard before trying to get me to throw it for him. Playing with his new favorite toy, Topper appears to be feeling much better about being the only dog. He is still very clingy, not wanting to be away from me, but at least he perks right up when we go out to play retrieve with his new toy. I can’t help but wonder if he would have reacted the same way, if I had given him the new toy, the night Chili died. I don’t have nearly enough dogs now! After this incident, I clearly need at least three at a time. I’ve got a new Schipperke puppy coming in just a few more weeks, but after that, I think I still will need another dog before the year is out.

Complete Article HERE!

What Is Normal Grieving, and What Are the Stages of Grief?

[G]rief is a natural response to losing someone or something that’s important to you. You may feel a variety of emotions, like sadness or loneliness. And you might experience it for a number of different reasons. Maybe a loved one died, a relationship ended, or you lost your job. Other life changes, like chronic illness or a move to a new home, can also lead to grief.

Everyone grieves differently. But if you understand your emotions, take care of yourself, and seek support, you can heal.

What Are the Stages of Grief?

Your feelings may happen in phases as you come to terms with your loss. You can’t control the process, but it’s helpful to know the reasons behind your feelings. Doctors have identified five common stages of grief:

  • Denial: When you first learn of a loss, it’s normal to think, “This isn’t happening.” You may feel shocked or numb. This is a temporary way to deal with the rush of overwhelming emotion. It’s a defense mechanism.
  • Anger: As reality sets in, you’re faced with the pain of your loss. You may feel frustrated and helpless. These feelings later turn into anger. You might direct it toward other people, a higher power, or life in general. To be angry with a loved one who died and left you alone is natural, too.
  • Bargaining: During this stage, you dwell on what you could’ve done to prevent the loss. Common thoughts are “If only…” and “What if…” You may also try to strike a deal with a higher power.
  • Depression: Sadness sets in as you begin to understand the loss and its effect on your life. Signs of depression include crying, sleep issues, and a decreased appetite. You may feel overwhelmed, regretful, and lonely.
  • Acceptance: In this final stage of grief, you accept the reality of your loss. It can’t be changed. Although you still feel sad, you’re able to start moving forward with your life.

Every person goes through these phases in his or her own way. You may go back and forth between them, or skip one or more stages altogether. Reminders of your loss, like the anniversary of a death or a familiar song, can trigger the return of grief.

How Long Is Too Long to Mourn?

There’s no “normal” amount of time to grieve. Your grieving process depends on a number of things, like your personality, age, beliefs, and support network. The type of loss is also a factor. For example, chances are you’ll grieve longer and harder over the sudden death of a loved one than, say, the end of a romantic relationship.

With time, the sadness eases. You’ll be able to feel happiness and joy along with grief. You’ll be able to return to your daily life.

Do I Need Professional Help?

In some cases, grief doesn’t get better. You may not be able to accept the loss. Doctors call this “complicated grief.” Talk to your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Trouble keeping up your normal routine, like going to work and cleaning the house
  • Feelings of depression
  • Thoughts that life isn’t worth living, or of harming yourself
  • Any inability to stop blaming yourself

A therapist can help you explore your emotions. She can also teach you coping skills and help you manage your grief. If you’re depressed, a doctor may be able to prescribe medicines to help you feel better.

When you’re in deep, emotional pain, it can be tempting to try to numb your feelings with drugs, alcohol, food, or even work. But be careful. These are temporary escapes that won’t make you heal faster or feel better in the long run. In fact, they can lead to addiction, depression, anxiety, or even an emotional breakdown.

Instead, try these things to help you come to terms with your loss and begin to heal:

  • Give yourself time. Accept your feelings and know that grieving is a process.
  • Talk to others. Spend time with friends and family. Don’t isolate yourself.
  • Take care of yourself. Exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep to stay healthy and energized.
  • Return to your hobbies. Get back to the activities that bring you joy.
  • Join a support group. Speak with others who are also grieving. It can help you feel more connected.

Complete Article HERE!

Can food help us cope with grief?

After the death of someone close food can seem unimportant. Grieving can make us lose our appetite and the motivation to cook, but food can also play an important healing role in remembering those who have gone.

bowl of borscht

By Anne-Marie Bullock

[R]ob Tizzard lost his mother Rita just after his 30th birthday.

“It was very sudden. She had a problem in her leg and you think nothing of it, and then I got a phone call saying she was in hospital and she had cancer,” he explains.

“It was a huge shock and just five weeks later she was gone. She taught me to appreciate the little things in life, so I have managed to deal with it well.”

In his kitchen, the smell of cinnamon fills the air, as he has been making bread pudding. It is a dish that holds wonderful memories of his mother, and he has been trying to replicate it.

“She used to make it using crusty bread – to use up the stale bread,” he says.

“I’ve left the bread to soak in the milk and the eggs overnight, rather than for just an hour. I just want to get it as close as I can to the way she made it. Hers seemed to cook browner than mine.

“Mum used to make it as a gift for friends a lot. I’m not sure if she liked it that much herself but friends would rave about it and loved her way of doing it and practically beg her to make it.

“Growing up I was interested in cooking and she’d sit me on the kitchen surface as she made cakes and tried new recipes.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Claudia Herbert says cooking can have restorative powers for those grieving, once the initial pain is overcome.

“Food is a connective aspect in our lives and they would have probably shared many experiences that would have involved the preparation, shopping for or sharing of food and taste experiences – this can lead to memories which can be triggered in a positive or negative way,” she explains.

“It may lead to sad or bitter reaction earlier in the bereavement process, but later on a reminder may connect them to the loving memories they shared.

“It can give them a sense of comfort and eating the food may bring them back to the good times they enjoyed.”

Many people have memories of loved ones tied up in food.

For me, Sunday afternoons at Grandma Joan’s were a wonderful time, and she always fed us well, and taught us how to bake and decorate cakes (and how to clean up afterwards).

I lost her several years ago and shepherd’s pie is a comforting food for both my sister and I, which reminds us of her.

Mine never quite tastes as good. I wish I’d listened more carefully to her instructions, but I will keep trying.

I know others still trying to conjure up the magic balance that emulates their grandmother’s goosnargh cakes (a type of shortbread), gravy, or pea and ham soup.

Keen cook and food blogger Bridget Blair has already thought about how to preserve the culinary influence of those close to her.

She has compiled an album of treasured recipes from friends, relatives and neighbours which she shares with her children, and plans to pass down the family.

The battered book is covered in splatters and fingerprints but each recipe has a story attached.

“I do have that smug factor because not everyone has these recipes,” says Lucy Blair, her daughter.

“These have been handed to us by someone quite special and not just some bloke off the telly.”

Geoffrey Wicks has learnt to cook since his wife died and loves a good trifle

But sometimes the early painfulness of losing someone special can remove the pleasure of food, and leave people unmotivated to cook.

Some hospices now run cookery courses to help relatives in the bereavement process, like at the Hospice of St Francis, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

I went along to meet six people, who had all lost someone, and watched as they cooked a dinner of lasagne, goats cheese and herb bread and trifle – dishes they had asked to learn to make and which they ate together.

Some of them had started with no cooking skills at all, having lost a partner or parent who took on that role.

“I’d been struggling for a year before I came on the course – eating takeaways, not proper food, and putting on weight,” says course attendee William Knight.

“My mum was a very good cook so I’d let her get on with it, but unfortunately that meant I didn’t get the experience.

“I would go in a kitchen and panic – I could burn water. By the end of the first day on the course I had learnt more than I thought I ever would and now have confidence to cook,” he says.

Jo Ash lost her husband a year ago.

“You don’t want to do anything as you’re in a bubble,” she says.

“It was far worse than I thought it would be – I’ve lost family members before but never a partner – it’s like losing half of your own body.

“You just get to a stage where you can’t make anything because it’s showing a form of love and you just can’t do it. This has helped me get cooking again and get interested.”

Geoffery Wicks lost his wife a year ago and has since learned key skills and has mastered several dishes including a personal favourite, trifle.

“I’m of that generation of men who hasn’t a clue and his wife did all the cooking. I found myself unable to do anything except open ready-made packets. I became an expert at that,” he says.

But the course has meant he has been able to embrace cooking and find enjoyment in life once again.

“My dream is to do a roast dinner as I’ve never been able to do that. Last week I made a ‘coq au vin’ – yes there are pictures to prove it and they all enjoyed it.”

Complete Article HERE!

Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death?

As the media brings us constant news of strangers’ deaths, grief memoirs fill our shelves and dramatic meditations are performed to big crowds, we have reached a new understanding of mortality, says Edmund de Waal

A 2016 performance of An Occupation of Loss. Artist Taryn Simon gathered professional mourners from 15 countries to demonstrate how they perform grief.

[B]ereavement is ragged. The papers are full of a child’s last months, the protests outside hospitals, the press conferences, court cases, international entreaties, the noise of vituperation and outrage at the end of a life. A memorial after a violent death is put up on a suburban fence. It is torn down, then restored. This funeral in south London becomes spectacle: the cortege goes round and round the streets. The mourners throw eggs at the press. On the radio a grieving mother talks of the death of her young son, pleading for an end to violence. This is the death that will make a difference. She is speaking to her son, speaking for her son. Her words slip between the tenses.

Having spent the last nine months reading books submitted for the Wellcome book prize, celebrating writing on medicine, health and “what it is to be human”, it has become clear to me that we are living through an extraordinary moment where we are much possessed by death. Death is the most private and personal of our acts, our own solitariness is total at the moment of departure. But the ways in which we talk about death, the registers of our expressions of grief or our silences about the process of dying are part of a complex public space.

Some are explorations of the rituals of mourning, how an amplification of loss in the company of others – the connection to others’ grief – can allow a voicing of what you might not be able to voice yourself. The actor and writer Natasha Gordon’s play about her familial Jamaican extended wake, Nine Night, is coming to the end of a successful run at the National Theatre. The nine nights of the wake are a theatre of remembrance, a highly codified period of time shaped to allow the deceased to leave the family.

Theatre of remembrance … Hattie Ladbury and Franc Ashman in Nine Night, Natasha Gordon’s play about a Jamaican wake.

Julia Samuel records in Grief Works, her remarkable book of stories of bereavement, a woman who “asked friends and family to sit shiva [the Jewish mourning tradition] with me at a certain time and place”. And that there was anguish when these particular times were ignored: two friends came at times that were “convenient for them rather than when she was sitting shiva, thus ‘raising all the issues I was temporarily trying to keep contained’”.

As an academic writes in the accompanying notes to artist Taryn Simon’s performance An Occupation of Loss, recently staged in London, “communication between the living and the dead is possible only in mediated forms”. There are obligations we have to fulfil to those who have died. Simon gathered professional mourners from 15 countries (Ghana, Cambodia, Armenia and Ecuador, among others). The mourners wailed and sobbed and keened, the intensity of their expression, their sheer volume, a challenge to the idea that there has to be a silence that surrounds bereavement.

There are silences. Contemporary books on death often take as their premise that to be writing in the first place is a breaking of a taboo. “It’s time to talk about dying,” writes Kathryn Mannix in her book about her work in palliative care, With the End in Mind. “There are only two days with fewer than 24 hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookmarks astride our lives: one is celebrated every year, yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious.” These books record the silence that we in the west have created. By removing dying into a medical context, where expertise and knowledge lie so emphatically with others, we have made death unusual, a process clouded by incomprehension. And by novelty.

So one kind of language we need is that of clarity. A lucidity that allows for the involvement of family and friends alongside healthcare professionals. Clarity, writes Mannix, around the questions such as “when does a treatment that was begun to save a life become an interference that is simply prolonging death? People who are found to be dying despite the best efforts of a hospital admission can only express a choice if the hospital is clear about their outlook.” Conversations about palliative care need extraordinary skill and empathy. These are skills that can be learned.

But for someone writing about their own grief, there are no guidelines. You might have read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, or the poems of John Donne, the theories of John Bowlby or Donald Winnicott, Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, but it simply doesn’t register. Being well read doesn’t help when someone who matters dies. Part of this attempt to start again, to find a form out of the formlessness of grief, is a reluctance to take on the generic language of sympathy, the homogeneous effect of cliche. Bereavement is bereavement, not a masterclass in being well read in the classics. “The death of a loved one is also the death of a private, whole, personal and unique culture, with its own special language and its own secret, and it will never be again, nor will there be another like it,” writes David Grossman in Falling Out of Time, his novel about the death of his son. A death needs a special language.

The language of loss and the framing of sympathy in everyday life is so impoverished, so mired in cliche and euphemism, that deep metaphors of “passing” become thinned to nothing, to sentimentality. The iterations of “losing the battle” and the valorising, endlessly, of “courage” is a way of making the bereaved feel they need to enact a particular role. And then there is the “being strong”. If you are told how wonderful you are for not showing emotion, or for continuing as before, where does that leave being scared? How about denial? Or anger, terror, desolation, loneliness? How about confusion? Why only endurance, resilience, strength? In this need to name, to find precision, accuracy is a measure of love. I think of Marion Coutts’ book The Iceberg, on her dying husband Tom Lubbock’s language, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, charting everything, weighing her responses to her grief. This is different, they say, writing this is a work of mourning.

The greatest of these books find a language that encompasses the sheer confusion of bereavement. In her forthcoming book Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love, Lisa Appignanesi writes that “Death, like desire, tears you out of your recognisable self. It tears you apart. That you was all mixed up with the other. And both of you have disappeared. The I who speaks, like the I who tells this story, is no longer reliable.” This is the other loss, that of selfhood, of control, of a forward momentum, of certainty. Appignanesi’s grief at the untimeliness of her husband’s death makes time itself deranged. Her days and weeks and months go awry. Her sense of the past is also called into question. It is excoriating: “My lived past, which had been lived as a double act, had been ransacked, stolen.” Bereavement, she notes, has a deep etymology of plunder. It tears you apart. Where all these registers go wrong, you oscillate between kinds of behaviour that are disinhibited, a derangement of self. It can be physical, a falling, a losing your way. I think of the crow in Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers as the deranged, ransacking presence in a family where the mother has died.

A deranged, ransacking presence’ … Cillian Murphy in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.

These are images that go deep into history. In the Book of Lamentations we read that God “has made me dwell in darkness … he has walled me in and I cannot break out … He has weighed me down with chains … He has made my path a maze … He has forced me off my way and mangled me.” The Hebrew word eikh (how) opens the Book of Lamentations and then reappears throughout the text. This how is not a question, more a bewildered exhortation. You are beyond questions. All you can do is repeat.

In Anne Carson’s poem Nox, a response to the death of her brother, she refused to accept any conventional form. So the poem comes like a box, a casket, of fragments, attempts at definitions, parts of memories. This seems appropriate. The shape of grief is different each time. That is why the shard – the pieces of broken pottery that are ubiquitous across all cultures – is often used as an expressive image of loss. Think of Job lamenting to God, sitting on a pile of broken shards. In my own practice as a potter, whenever I pick up pieces of a dropped vessel I notice that each shard has its own particularity. Each hurts.

In her study of the deaths of writers, The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe writes that “moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” Bereavement takes a pathway that is different for each and every one of us. It takes different registers, different words. And that is what I take away from this very particular nine months of reading and reflecting on mortality. That there is change in the public space around death. This change is remarkable and wonderful when it comes to end-of-life care: the hospice movement and the training in palliative care are one of the greatest and most compassionate changes to occur in the last 30 years.

And, more slowly, it is happening outside the hospitals and clinics and hospices. People do want to read and talk about grief. For this we have to be grateful to those writers who are trying to find their own shard-like languages to express their own bereavements.

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