“The Act of Mourning Itself is a Final, Destitute Version of Love.”

— A Reading List For the Grieving

Sally Oliver Recommends Anita Brookner, Brian Dillon, and More

By Sally Oliver

Grief is one of those experiences that seems like a black-out to me. To comprehend the magnitude of what death really means—that concept of forever—is so challenging on an intellectual level that part of us shuts down in response so we can attend to the thought. Or use all our energy to escape it.

When I was writing my debut novel, Garden of Earthly Bodies, I found the subject of grief almost impossible to write about. There is a passage where the main character, Marianne, has a nightmare about her sister and, when she wakes, becomes completely inconsolable when she realizes once more that her sister is gone. She can feel the truth like “a black spot” moving through her body and eventually into her brain, and she knows she will give into the horror of it quickly.

That is how I feel that grief operates, like a kind of sickness, sometimes in remission but often flaring up without warning. When I think of that concentrated black spot, something automatically forces me to resist it, like my mind has its own immune system. For the most part, I want to be well.

The act of mourning itself is a final, destitute version of love. It is a mangled, tortured, messy last phase of it, one that exists for itself alone, without answer and without hope of being reciprocated ever again. It’s also a small act of rebellion against the world, ignoring all calls to be healthy, sane, responsible. Perhaps there is “a bitter and unbearable relief” in this unravelling, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche writes in her powerful memoir, Notes on Grief: a special, desirable form of “madness” that releases us from any previous obligations and social rules, and which brings “strangely pugnacious thoughts.” It is a form of aggression, of righteous hostility. And though everyone says “time heals,” grief seems to distort your perception of time—you can’t believe it will lessen, or perhaps you don’t wish to believe it. To get beyond the pain is to reduce it to something peripheral; when to live in the center, to inhabit the black spot, attributes value to it. If that value is lost, we know that nothing else can ever live up to it.

I always think of a passage from Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, where a woman’s husband has been killed and a character predicts that she “isn’t going to stay trapped in the moment, no one ever is, still less in the very worst of moments, from which we always emerge, unless we’re sick in the head and feel justified by and even protected by our comfortable misery.” You have to set aside the value of mourning in order to move forward, and this is where remorse slips into the equation. We are no longer loyal in our misery, in our sickness.

Achieving a balance between excessive mourning and rehabilitation is extremely difficult. These books all touch upon grief and mourning in ways that really affected me. You can see the excess, but also the dignity, compassion and sometimes a shade of humor in these passages. It’s a relief to find the experience of grief articulated in such an uncompromising fashion, and to know that somebody else has made that mental leap without losing their mind. That this intensity can be returned to, but with the tools of self-expression at your disposal.

Anita Brookner, A Start in Life

The heroines in Brookner’s novels are often burdened by their sickly, aging relatives. In A Start in Life, the protagonist, Ruth Weiss, doesn’t feel that she can fully exist until she moves away from home and gives up her obligations to her family, yet the guilt of abandoning them keeps her trapped there. Her mother, Helen, is vain and self-absorbed, but she’s physically frail and frightened of becoming irrelevant. Ruth’s father is a delicate man who hasn’t learned to look after himself or his wife. What I love about Brookner’s writing is that she manages to provoke such sadness when you least expect it, and for characters you think you despise. There is a death towards the end of the book that is heartbreaking because of the conflict that precedes it.

Ruth knows she is about to lose this person just before they slip away—in a very humiliating, undignified context—without feeling that she is grown up enough to handle the situation. The death itself is characterized by exhaustion and defeat. It is one of the most moving descriptions of just giving in to death, of finding no strength—and, crucially, no desire—left to sustain oneself that I have ever come across. It almost seems like the character dies through a sudden crash in self-confidence. Brookner loves returning to the concept of will, the sheer force of personality, which is as essential to existence as the heart beating in our bodies. In this moment, that willpower has finally run out and Ruth cannot bear to witness the evidence.

John Williams, Stoner

John Williams’ Stoner is a beautifully written book about lost opportunities. I don’t think I have ever cared so much for a character who has achieved so little that he wanted in his life, and who, in his final decline towards the end, still feels that he never became the person he was meant to be. Williams makes us mourn for Stoner as he looks back on his disastrous marriage, his ill-fated love affair, and his middling academic career. On his deathbed, his wife forms a new understanding of their relationship, and he also considers how easily things might have been different if they had started their marriage with the thoughts they had now: “It was a quietness that was like the beginning of love; and almost without thinking, Stoner knew why it had come. They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other, and they were rapt in a regard of what their life together might have been.”

Instead of mourning what they had, they mourn what they might have had, but this couldn’t have been possible. The generous feelings they now have towards one another are forged through difficult experiences—years of animosity, so many errors of judgement—and they’re also, to a large extent, intensified by grief. It’s impossible to start over and explore this avenue again. This is perhaps the most tragic aspect of the book, that so much passion has been squandered or misplaced. I also felt like I was mourning for this character so much because Williams gave us such a special insight into who he really was, all the hidden nuances of his character, the latent passions and ambitions that were never fully realized.

Brian Dillon, In the Dark Room

Brian Dillon writes movingly of the mixed emotions he feels when revisiting painful memories. In the Dark Room is chiefly about the workings of memory, what certain places from our past can do to us when we return to them, a “house, so swiftly cleansed of all tangible history, suddenly insist[ing] on reminding me that something has happened here.” Dillon writes retrospectively of a very dark period in his life—the intervals before and after his parents’ deaths. His mother died from an autoimmune disorder when he was sixteen, and his father then had a heart attack five years later. The latter loss was sudden and completely unexpected, but the death of his mother came after a long and traumatizing illness. I admire this book so much because it’s unsettling and sometimes unpalatable. The writing itself is poised and cerebral, but you can feel that vein of horror weaving itself into every response.

What struck me as a particularly powerful passage was the moment when Dillon, a confused and shell-shocked sixteen-year-old, sees his mother’s body in the mortuary. Grief is as much a performed duty as a private emotional state. Dillon looks at her face and wonders what he should be feeling, and what the spectacle actually means, overthinking every moment: “I have… no idea how to behave before a body which seems a reminder only of my distance from my mother’s death. And so my lasting impression of that moment is one of unconquerable shame.” Perhaps this is worsened by the fact that this moment had been anticipated for such a long time, not the viewing but the loss itself. His emotions have been pushed to a breaking point. There is a momentum to despair, and it can’t be maintained forever—we would just go mad. Funerals are often places where momentum fails or we’re just too self-conscious to delve into ourselves.

Ella Baxter, New Animal

Amelia is a mortuary cosmetologist. She has always loved the strange solace of preparing the dead for their last ceremonies, painting every face with extreme care. Though she is surrounded by death on a daily basis, she is strict when it comes to her own feelings on the matter: “I’ve learned to adjust by compartmentalizing. I can separate feeling into imaginary boxes inside the mind. In one box, I put all the delicate fractured wounds of the bodies I see all day … Then, in another box, I shove all the vivid warmth and liveliness of the people I see at night.” The book is mainly about how Amelia tries to escape having to go through grief at all, or at least delay the process for as long as possible, by having aggressive sex with strangers and experimenting with BDSM (the more outrageous and humiliating the encounter, the better).

It’s also about the way that we’re expected to behave, and the pressure to derive meaning from every small thing. Perhaps one of my favorite moments in the book is when Amelia visits an exhibition with her father at the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. She is confronted with all these pieces that are so obscure and relentlessly clever that she longs instead for a drink at the bar, to be free of any obligation to feel or think. One piece is incredibly dramatic, but it only irritates her: “There’s something so brash and jarring about the installation that it makes me feel even more disconnected from the world. I can’t relax around repeated invitations to be introspective.” I love this last sentence and it’s a sentiment I recognize. You can’t produce the correct emotional response on demand, and other people’s interpretations of grief can sometimes be oppressive. New Animal is such a great novel about wanting to mourn in a totally unorthodox way, free from judgment, surveillance, and pressure.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Notes on Grief

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s memoir about the grief she experienced after her father died is an incredibly visceral piece of writing. Her words ring with shock and awe as she describes the way her body has reacted; it is no longer benign or even inhabitable. “I did not know that we cry with our muscles… my tongue [is] unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth; on my chest, a heavy awful weight…” There is a lingering sourness to her despair, but it’s also surprisingly exhilarating, her heart becoming “its own separate thing, beating too fast, its rhythms at odds with mine.” Throughout Adichie’s writing, you sense that the process of mourning is one that invigorates her, despite its obliterative quality. Instead of being numb or completely nullified, her consciousness seems to be expanding.

I am struck by her choice of words—a “shimmering panic,” grief “forcing new skins” on her, this luminous, haunting beauty in her writing. You sense that she is riveted by the change in herself and also wants to surrender to it privately, without an audience. Her book demonstrates how reclusive grief can be, in that it can’t be shared and divided so easily. Though Adichie’s family are eager to process their grief together, she longs instead to “sit alone with it” and process it in her own time, without the intrusion of anybody else’s thoughts and observations (many of which are clumsily worded). It’s one of those moments where you can feel her irritation creeping in, and it’s justified—how can we expect to synchronize such vastly different emotional experiences?

Often, a death can cause a “rupture” in the family dynamic, a sudden fault line where tensions deepen, everyone requiring competing modes of reassurance. Though Adichie’s memoir is ultimately about the prevailing strength of family, she also explores how stifling that very strength can be. She often doesn’t have any interest in holding it together for the sake of anybody else. Stoicism is suddenly undesirable because there is nothing as satisfying, as strangely nourishing, as giving into your own despair. And it is rewarding for the most part. Adichie ends her book with the “new urgency” this despair has taught her, to write everything in the time she has (not knowing how much time is ever at our disposal—something her father’s death has compounded). Any reticence or complacency she once had is gone, because life is too short to keep anything in reserve.

Complete Article HERE!

Where Do the Dead Go in Our Imaginations?

My friend was gone. I needed to do something to honor the person she was.

By Anakana Schofield

In the west of Ireland, in County Mayo, where my mother lives, there’s a lovely tradition of attributing words or phrases to people. If they are dead, you add an acknowledgment after their name along the lines of “May the Lord have mercy on their soul.”

I love how this reignites the spirit of a deceased person you may or may not have known. You can build an entire sense of someone you never met from hearing their expressions. And for those who knew them, that person can live again in the utterance of those sayings.

From a young age, I’ve had to contemplate death. Early childhood loss of a parent will do that to you. My father died when I was 6. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand the cumulative nature of grief. The resounding question of my life has been, Where do the dead go in our imaginations? Increasingly as I age, I’ve wondered where I will go in people’s imaginations. Will anyone remember me? Will I still matter to anyone once I am dead?

After all, as time passes, people can become the subject of their exit. My friend who was hit by a car. My friend who had an asthma attack. My friend who took her life. After the pandemic we will also have to decide how we will talk about the lives of those who were taken by Covid-19: Will the lives they lived be overshadowed by the fact that it was Covid-19 that extinguished them? Will their years of living be reduced to the name of a virus that wiped them out in a matter of days or weeks?

These questions confounded me even before the pandemic. Five years ago this month, one of my oldest friends died by suicide (though it is so tempting to say that she “died suddenly”). A lifetime of loss would not prepare me for the way this buckled me in half. I would see my friend in the T-shirts my son put on, every time I picked up a tea towel or made a cup of tea, because this friend was so incredibly generous, she wallpapered my entire life with that generosity and love. It wasn’t about the objects as much as the thought that at the time she picked out the tea towel or the many tea tins that line my cupboard, she did so because I was on her mind. I was alive for her even though I was absent. In that moment she chose to remember me. How can I return this gesture now, when she is no longer here?

In a way, my friend’s endless generosity has kept her alive for me, but inevitably, whenever I experience small mercies or achievements or special moments, her devastating absence is felt as large as it ever was. I can become overwhelmed by the thought that I failed as a friend, since I never sufficiently demonstrated how important she was to me and now it is too late.

My beloved friend was not just generous; she was an extremely effective and reliable health care professional with boundless empathy and patience who did not take shortcuts. I know this because I watched her work through lunches and weekends to fill out charts, and rarely take sick days. I know she was someone who saw and heard patients in all the ways we need to be heard and seen.

In time, I decided that the only way for me to consistently keep this particular person alive in my imagination was to try to do something that would put me into the precise spirit of who she was. But what that something would be was not yet clear.

As it happened, while researching my novel “Bina,” which explores female friendship and the right to die, I began an email exchange with Dr. Sue Hughson, who was volunteering for Dying With Dignity Canada. She asked if I would be interested in becoming a volunteer witness for the organization. It seemed that this would be something my friend might do and that I might be able to keep her spirit alive by being a compassionate witness to others in their dying. I agreed.

Medical assistance in dying or MAID, which was previously known as voluntary euthanasia, is legal in Canada. All applicants require two witnesses to sign the paperwork to commence the application process to MAID. As volunteer witnesses, we cannot be involved in the care of the dying or be beneficiaries of their wills. We go in pairs. We read aloud (or have patients read) a series of statements confirming that they understand the nature of the request they are making, that they have had all their treatment options explored and explained to them and that they are free to change their minds at any time in the process.

The visit is generally not long — roughly 20 to 40 minutes — yet in those moments we enhance our humanity by helping strangers’ requests for their end-of-life choice be heard and considered. “Choice” is an important word: I have never been in any situation where I was in any doubt that the person had absolute clarity and full understanding of what they wanted, because if I had been, I would not have been able to sign the form. The next step involves assessment by two doctors independent of each other to determine whether the patient qualifies for MAID. Once the form is completed, there’s usually palpable relief from the patient and always enormous gratitude to us for volunteering our time.

In such brief interactions there can be unexpected, profoundly moving exchanges and experiences. There can be laughter and humor. There is nothing I have seen more beautiful than patients supported at this moment by their siblings, children or friends, nothing more loving and compassionate than family members or dependents who are struggling visibly through silent tears, yet stay to support and comfort their loved ones.

Occasionally parents become aware their son or daughter is distressed and spontaneously give a soliloquy to all present; they announce that their child is a good son or a good daughter and plead gently, “Don’t be sad. It is time.” Once a man asked us to turn on Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” and we rocked out to it around his bed.

Every time I have the privilege of witnessing in this way, I feel the presence of my beloved friend in that room with me. Her spirit, her patience and her willingness to hear people live in this act. Every day it’s a struggle for me to imagine she is with us no more, and I find myself pondering, “Where can she be? How can she be gone? How is this possible?” I have concluded she lives now in my ability to imagine her right there with me in the room when I witness, for she was brave and nonjudgmental, kind and honest, warm and supportive, which is the truth of what takes place in these interactions.

Recently, I decided to take a full-time job at a nearby lab receiving and processing specimens for coronavirus tests. At the end of the first week, I was exasperated and exhausted and feeling quite useless. I am older than most of the workers, and slower and more easily flustered. The one thing I held on to was the knowledge that my friend would have been proud of me for working in that lab.

So this is where the dead go in our imaginations: They continue to live with us in the moments when we are sad and terrified. They cheer for us. They give us unbelievable strength and the courage we lack to carry on in situations. They coax us through. They lead us where we need to be, to experience the joy and capability that was them. They who have been with us in life manage to teach us how and where in death we can listen for them and find their voices and essence again.

Complete Article HERE!

Here’s The Best Way To Support A Grieving Partner

Actions speak louder than words.

By Natalia Lusinski

Grief is never easy to navigate — but what about when your significant other’s going through it? If you’re wondering how to support a grieving partner, it’s a great question. After all, there’s no official handbook with the “do’s” and “don’ts” of grieving since it differs for everyone. Your partner may want space while someone else may want more togetherness.

“Whether one or both of you are grieving, it can be difficult to anticipate how each will cope,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend The Mind, tells TZR in an email. “Some cope by reaching out to friends and loved ones, talking about it until they feel they have everything they need to say out of their system. Others refrain from bringing it up, isolate themselves for a while, and can even shut down.”

And if you and your partner have different ways of showing — or accepting — your grief, it can strain the relationship. “As a result, you may not know how to support one another in a way that makes the other person feel heard and seen,” she adds. So what are some things to keep in mind when trying to help your significant other as best you can? Ahead, Hafeez and other grief experts chime in.

Listen — Don’t Feel Pressure To ‘Fix’ Or Take Away Their Pain

When your partner loses a loved one, there are certain things you can do, and say, to help show them you care. “Let your partner cry it all out,” says Hafeez. “Let them feel what they want to feel by ensuring they are comfortable around you. But remember, everyone mourns differently, so be there for them whichever way they choose to cope (unless it’s dangerously unhealthy).” Emma Payne, CEO of Grief Coach, a text-based grief support network, says that when a partner is grieving, we feel we need to do something to take their pain away. “But that’s not possible when someone has died,” she tells TZR in an email. “Instead, simply listen and sit with them as they grieve. For many people, once they remove the pressure of having to somehow ‘fix’ or take away the pain, they’re better able to simply share in the experience and feelings their partner is having.”

Talk About Their Favorite Memories & Celebrate Monumental Occasions

Payne says one wonderful gift you can give your grieving partner is to talk about favorite memories you shared with their loved one — and to ask for their favorite stories and memories, too. “Playing music that the person loved, or going to their favorite restaurant, helps to keep their memory alive and shows your partner that the person who’s died is special and won’t be forgotten,” she says. “Also make a note in your calendar with important anniversaries and try to acknowledge those dates every year. For example, the date of death or the birthday of the deceased. This lets your partner know that you understand grief lasts a long time and that you’re there for them, for as long as it takes.”

Marisa Renee Lee, author of the bestseller Grief Is Love, has a whole chapter in her book about the role grief can play in a romantic relationship. In her book, Lee writes, “I quickly learned that finding your way back to unconditional love after grief is akin to finding your way out of a house of mirrors at a carnival. It’s all about, ‘How do you show up for someone you love who’s living with loss?’” she tells TZR.

She explains that she met her now-husband of four years after her mother died. “If someone you love, are married to, or in a relationship with is grieving the loss of someone they love, it’s really hard,” she says. “Sometimes, it can seem easier to walk away from the relationship rather than potentially expose yourself to that type of grief again.” And to maintain or build any type of an intimate relationship, it requires some level of shared grieving. She calls her now-husband her Grief Partner, and clarifies that a Grief Partner is not about sadness so much as support — they come from a place of empathy, understanding, and love. For instance, a Grief Partner can help you celebrate your deceased parent’s birthday or important occasions.

Identify Support Networks And Resources For *Yourself*

Lee says that one of her first pieces of advice to someone who is trying to support their partner through grief is for that person to identify their own support network and resources. This can mean reaching out to close friends and/or a bereavement group, religious leader, therapist, you name it. Or it can be something like practicing mindfulness or using a wellness app. “Because when people are grieving, the impact that grief has on our bodies and minds makes it really hard to be the person who people have come to expect us to be,” she says. “Your partner’s brain is literally reconfiguring itself to accommodate for the absence of someone they’re so accustomed to being in the presence of.”

Be Intentional About Setting Boundaries

When you are trying to figure out how to navigate grief with someone else, Lee thinks it’s also important to be intentional about setting boundaries. “It’s tough being in a relationship with someone who’s going through something that’s really hard,” she says. “You want to be there for them — and you should be there for them — but you also need to set some boundaries around your own care and needs; otherwise, you won’t actually be able to continue to show up for them effectively.”

Show Empathy & Grace

Lee thinks empathy and grace are also key. “I think that goes for the person who’s providing support and the person who’s grieving — because at some point they’re going to mess up in terms of supporting you,” she says. “We’re all human. They’re going to forget to do something that you ask them to do, they’re going to forget to check in on you the way that you want them to, they’re going to make a mistake. So making sure that some combination of empathy and grace are a part of that relationship — and those conversations — is really important.”

Verbalize Your Support

Hafeez adds that you can also verbalize your support with statements such as, “I am supporting you today and every day,” “It’s okay to feel the way you do,” “Always remember that they are proud of who you are,”They loved you very much,” and “Take as long as you need to mourn.” Of course, make sure your actions match your words though. If they’d like your support and for you to spend time with them, don’t suddenly bail. Hafeez adds that you should allow yourself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. “You may find yourself sitting in silence, holding one another when you’re crying and listening to each other talk through what they’re feeling,” she says. “Be there for one another during difficult times, as a shoulder to cry on, or someone to answer condolences for you. The smallest things can help more than you may think, and offering help with distracting your partner with a movie night, puzzle, walk in the park, or just sitting next to them in silence can be all they need.”

Some Things To *Not* Say Or Do

Hafeez notes that it’s important to not invalidate your partner’s feelings. “Let them be sad, mad, hurt, and so forth,” she says. “If they don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves, they may just shut down and bottle up their emotions instead. Similarly, don’t pressure them into going out with friends or stepping outside of their comfort zone too quickly.” She says the key is to let them heal in their own time frame and show that you’re by their side. There are also some phrases to avoid saying, she explains, such as, “At least they lived a long life,” “They’re now in a better place,” “You got this, be strong,” and “I totally know how you feel.”

However, Payne says not to overthink it: If a partner is fearful that they might say or do the wrong thing — they’re worried about “what not to say,” they often say nothing or stay away. “Instead, it’s best to acknowledge that it can be very hard to know what to say or do for a grieving partner,” she says. “We haven’t been taught what to do, and it can be scary. We want to thank the courageous partners who want to help — but may not be sure how to — and give them the tools and language for what they can do vs. worrying about what they should not do.” That said, Payne suggests that supporters stay away from phrases that begin with the words “At least…,” like, “At least they lived a long life,” or “At least they’re not in pain anymore.” “These phrases may make your partner feel that you’re minimizing the deep pain they’re experiencing,” she explains.

Lee adds that actions can often speak louder than words. “When we say something that is intended to make the person feel better, 99.9% of the time, it doesn’t work,” she says. “It’s either based on misguided, outdated notions of grief, like ‘Just get over it.’” Or, if what you say is the kindest, most compassionate, most thoughtful thing, nothing feels quite right when you have lost someone you love. So even the person with the best of intentions may try to find the right words, but they still won’t ever really be the ‘right’ words because the griever is in so much pain.”

How Long Grief Lasts

Unfortunately, there is no particular grief timeline. “Everyone heals their own way and at their own pace,” says Hafeez. “You can reassure your partner that they will stop crying, and eventually, their routines will return to normal. Soon, they’ll laugh again without guilt, and going about their day will be easier.” However, some days will be more challenging than others, especially once holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays come up. In this case, you can let them know that, together, these occasions will be easier, says Hafeez. “Just continue to reassure them that, no matter how long it takes for them to move forward, you will be there for them.”

Payne, too, says there is no timeline for grief. “For as long as you’ll continue to love the person who’s died, you’ll grieve for them, and that’s okay,” she says. “This ‘ball in the jar’ analogy is one of the most common ones for illustrating how grief changes with time. While grief doesn’t go away, it does change over time and we grow around our grief, too.” While you may think the ball (grief) in the jar gets smaller, in reality, the jar around the ball gets bigger (and represents our growth regarding grief).

How A Couple Can Face Grief In A Supportive & Nurturing Manner

As difficult as grieving is, it also presents a profound opportunity to learn about your partner in a new way, and to deepen your relationship with them, says Payne. “Death, much like birth, is a life transition that can bring all kinds of new feelings to the surface,” she explains. “If you listen — without judgment — and provide support and companionship on your partner’s grief journey, you will deepen your understanding of each other. And you’ll learn tools to use again in the future as other difficult times come your way.”

Lee adds that the work of grief is never totally done, unfortunately. “There’s always more healing because there are always going to be these new and different triggers for the griever as you continue to move through life together,” she says. She adds that people can get really hung up on what to say/what not to say. “I think the most important thing that you can do if someone has lost someone they love is to do something,” she says. “This can mean sitting with the person in church, bringing them a meal, or offering to walk their dog or watch their children. Just do something — take an action.”

And she says if you are unsure of what to do — everyone’s sending flowers or dropping off food — do something that is authentic to that person and your relationship with them. “When my husband and I lost our pregnancy back in 2019, tons of people sent flowers, so many that we ran out of vases to put them in,” says Lee. “But one of my best friends sent me a gift box from one of my favorite stores in the world: Murray’s Cheese in New York City. She and I are big wine and cheese people, and have shared that a million times over the years. It was perfect. When we take these kinds of loving actions, that is when people feel less alone with their loss.”

Complete Article HERE!

In life, my sister taught me how to love. In death, she made me want to fix the funeral industry

After Allison’s funeral, Jackie Bailey enrolled in a master of theology. Now she’s an interfaith minister, deathwalker, celebrant and funeral director – and the author of a new book she wrote for her sister

‘I wrote an entire book to say goodbye to my sister’, says Jackie Bailey (left), the author of The Eulogy, pictured here as a child with her sister Allison.

By Jackie Bailey

I hold his lower leg up so his daughter can gently wash underneath his knee. Then she does the same for me. We kneel on each side of her father’s body, which we brought home from the hospital where he died last night.

“You do his face,” I say and move back to the base of the bed where I wring out my cloth in the warm water. My colleague arrives with a cooling plate. His daughter and I finish washing him and drying him, then we dress him in his best suit and place him on a sheet over the plate. The plate means that his daughter can keep him at home until it’s time for the cremation.

We draw another sheet up to his chest. I light candles and place them at each corner of the bed as his daughter scatters rose petals around him. Tomorrow we will place him in a wicker casket. We will surround him with garlands and greenery and carry him out to the hearse. His daughter will accompany him to the crematorium where she will bear witness as her father’s body is placed in the fire.

It’s seven years since my sister Allison died. She lived for most of her life with various degenerative conditions as the result of brain cancer. My family gave her a beautiful send-off. Her adult nieces and nephews, whom she had babysat when little, brought her special mementoes, prepared a slideshow, decorated the casket.

I brought felt-tipped pens so we could write final messages on her eco-coffin. My daughter, then three years old, drew “potato people” on the side of the casket to keep Aunty Allison company on her final journey. Friends and family said prayers. I, my brother and our eldest sister gave the eulogy.

Jackie Bailey and Alison as kids.
‘When my sister died, I was not a consumer; I was a grieving puddle of emotions’

After Allison’s funeral I took a break from writing the manuscript which would eventually become my new novel The Eulogy. I needed some time away from our story. But instead of a holiday, I found myself enrolled in a masters of theology. Two years later I was an ordained interfaith minister, a trained deathwalker, a celebrant and independent funeral director.

Interfaith ministers offer pastoral care outside of religious institutions, creating spiritual services for the nonreligious. Many of my peers became chaplains in hospitals and prisons, social workers, university counsellors. But for me it was always about death. I wanted to give others what my sister’s funeral had given me: a clean wound, ready for healing.

But not everything about my sister’s funeral was perfect. I had chafed under the transactional gaze of the funeral directors. The inflated price of the eco-coffin outraged me, along with the attempts to upsell my grieving mother on urns, nameplates, casket decorations.

I later found out that the funeral company we had hired was not a local family firm as I had thought, but was actually owned by the multinational company InvoCare, which controls more than a third of the funeral market in Australia.

State and federal governments have held a number of inquiries, attempting to make the funeral industry more transparent, recognising that consumers are particularly vulnerable at these times of their lives.

But I want more than competition in the funeral industry. I want there to be no “industry”. When my sister died, I was not a consumer; I was a grieving puddle of emotions. I wanted a human I could trust to walk with me.

My book takes the form of a fictional guide for how to write a eulogy, as the protagonist prepares for her own sister’s funeral.

Australian author and funeral celebrant Jackie Bailey.
Australian author and funeral celebrant Jackie Bailey. She conducted her first funeral in 2017.

In reality I have never been able to find a good guide to eulogy writing. They all seem to assume you are telling the story of a prosperous businessman who has lived to a ripe old age. But what about people like my sister Allison, who had no career, no children, no value in this calculus, even though she was the defining person in my life, the person who taught me how to love?

In the end I wrote an entire book to say goodbye to my sister. But if you only have a time slot in a funeral service, here is my advice: it does not have to be perfect. It does not have to be long. And it is completely OK to cry, laugh or do both simultaneously.

In 2017 I conducted my first funeral. It was for a nonprofit funeral provider in my local area, a charity that believes someone’s death should not be an opportunity to take a company public.

I was nervous before the service began, but once it started, the anxiety just floated away. It was so clear that this event was not about me. I was there to give permission to people to feel whatever might arise: sadness, relief, despair, gladness. I was there to walk with them.

Complete Article HERE!

How to have sex with someone new for the first time after your partner dies

Losing your partner, the person you love and maybe planned to spend the rest of your life with, is one of the worst pains imaginable.

By

The shock may leave you reeling in disbelief, and then the weeks, months and years that follow will be a difficult, painful journey through the many ups and downs of grief.

However, there may come a point after your partner dies that you feel ready to be intimate with someone again.

This may be a purely physical, sexual thing, or maybe you find yourself falling for someone with a deeper, emotional connection. When this happens is different for everyone. There is no ‘right’ amount of time to wait before connecting with somebody new. And meeting a new person or having sex with someone else doesn’t mean you are no longer grieving, or care any less about your loved one.

However, having sex with somebody new after your previous partner has died inevitably throws up complex and challenging emotions.

‘Loss changes you and grief takes you to unknown places where the future feels uncertain,’ says Corinne Laan, a grief specialist and author of The Art of Grieving.

‘The key to embracing a new partner in your life is by getting to know the changed person you have become since the loss. Give yourself the space you need to explore the new you first.’

Corinne believes that even though the life you once had changes forever after loss, you can still live a joyful life.

Take your time

‘There is no rush to get intimate if you do not feel like it,’ says Corinne. ‘Intimacy with a new partner can take time and in the case of a traumatic loss you may need even more time. Take all the time you need to explore this new relationship.

‘If you do feel sexual desire, embrace the fear and doubts with self-love and compassion. You can still grieve the loss of your partner while embracing this new relationship.

‘Sadness and joy can co-exist.’

It’s normal to think of the person you lost

When you are with your new partner, you may think of your past loved one. Corinne says this is completely normal because the love you once shared is still there.

‘Love lives on,’ she explains. ‘Try to relax, breathe, calm your mind and be present in the moment.’

She adds that healthy communication is essential when building a new relationship after a loss.

‘Express what you need emotionally and physically from your new partner and listen to what your partner needs from you by having an open, respectful and honest talk,’ she adds. ‘Communicate with compassion.’

Be kind to yourself and seek help

If you feel resistance when it comes to intimacy, Corinne says it’s important to explore the reason why and the emotions and feelings behind it.

‘Get help from a coach or counsellor to help you move past the obstacles you are experiencing,’ she suggests.

Let go of the guilt

‘Guilt at moving forward too fast is very common and normal as you may feel you are betraying the memory of your loved one,’ says Corinne. ‘Let go of the guilt.’

She adds that keeping the memory of your loved one alive while embracing a new relationship can be tricky, especially when it comes to anniversaries and holidays.

Corinne says: ‘The key here is to do what feels right for you and find ways to blend memories of the past and new experiences into your life.’

Keep working on your grief

‘This is a major life transition and making time and space to reflect on the loss and working through your grief is crucial,’ says Corinne.

‘Keep working on your grief as it will help you gain greater awareness of your strength and ability to build a future you did not think was possible.’

Others may have opinions of what you should do, but Corinne reiterates that it is important not to allow these opinions to influence your decisions.

‘Doing what is right for you is vital when building something new with someone new,’ she adds.

Complete Article HERE!

How Black Joy Helps Me and My People Hold Our Collective Grief

In a world where the Black experience is often marred by tragedy and hardship, finding joy is essential.

Choosing to embrace joy can be intentional — even in the face of grief.

By Nneka M. Okona

I know what it means to mourn. I know what it means to look at what was once a life full of joy and levity — only to see heaviness and despair left as the fruits of the harvest of life. Since 2017, I’ve been in a free fall, rattled by loss. In a five-year period, I’ve lost one of my dearest and closest friends from graduate school, two beloved aunts, and my dad.

In five years, I’ve watched my social circles get smaller as grieving made me shrink into a more fearful version of myself, always crouching somewhere safe within my psyche to avoid experiencing the pain of loss, especially sudden loss.

Often people say that grieving is lonely. And it is. When you grieve, whether a person, place, thing, or a state of being, you are actively calling back the love and affection you poured into that person or thing, trying to understand how to extend that care to yourself again.

That is inherently lonely, because it is your relationship that you are mourning; no one else can know the depth or realities of it. No one else can relate to your pain — your grief is yours alone. Grief requires a reordering within of everything you formerly knew about the self attached to that other entity — work that could assuredly take a lifetime.

The Importance of Harnessing Joy When Living With Grief

My grief that I have carried in this period of life, as profound, life-altering, and cataclysmic as it has been, is not unlike the grief that most other Black people have experienced. Whether it’s due to police brutality, the ills of racism in general, or watching our loved ones, friends, and community members die of COVID-19, there is so much to grieve, so much to mourn.

Black collective grief has been at the forefront of my mind in my time of mourning, as are spots and places of joy. We all will have to endure the inevitable heaviness of life; how we harness joy to keep us anchored to this world can act as our guiding light. Our guiding force. A North Star of Joyfulness.

How we harness joy to keep us anchored to this world can act as our guiding light. Our guiding force. A North Star of Joyfulness.

How we harness joy to keep us anchored to this world can act as our guiding light. Our guiding force. A North Star of Joyfulness.

The queer womanist writer and thinker Audre Lorde is known for writing beautifully about self-care and what it means for Black people to care for ourselves in a world anchored in our degradation. In her book A Burst of Light: And Other Essays, she famously writes words that are often repeated: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Self-care and Black joy are linked; one happened to pave the path for the other. Black joy is many things: Black people centering our levity and ease, cultivating and tending to the safe spaces in our lives for support when life becomes perilous, taking a break from the oppression we experience to be present in our lives in other ways, such as by spending time with loved ones and stepping away from social media when news updates are triggering. Black joy is much more than deciding to be happy and to have fun; it is a direct response to us living in this anti-Black world.

It is us saying, “Yes, the violence of white supremacy is draining and exhausting, but there is still much brilliance, vibrance, and vitality within us despite that.” Being Black is not hard — dealing with the external forces of racism is. Black joy is giving ourselves gentleness and compassion and using that to fuel community care a step further. Choosing to embrace joy is intentional, radical subversion in a world that would prefer for us to only find suffering where there can be delight.

Black joy is much more than deciding to be happy and to have fun: It is a direct response to us living in this anti-Black world.

The origin of the term “Black joy” varies depending on whom you ask. The most general assumption is that it originated as a hashtag on social media. The other prevailing thought is that the concept — and the subsequent movement it has become — are the brainchild of Kleaver Cruz, a writer in New York City who identifies as a Black queer Dominican American. In 2015, they started using the phrase online after feeling overwhelmed by the excess of Black death and pain in their sphere. From there, they have built The Black Joy Project, where they show glimpses of joyfulness in Black people online as a reminder of our joy inheritance.

Where and How I Find Joy, Even When That’s Difficult

Cultivating joyfulness for myself personally is often a challenge. When you’re in a prolonged state of mourning like I have been, giving in to that heaviness becomes instinctual. To shake up my energy, I have traveled a lot while mourning, and that has given me a place of spaciousness. Being able to literally transport myself to other places in the world to be reminded of the beauty that exists all around us has been grounding. In this way, joy has become more than just something to turn to, to search for, but a centering of sorts.

My main source of joy, though, has been connection with other Black people — notably via online grief support groups where I can talk openly and honestly about what it means to mourn as a Black person. One of these is a grief group called Black Folks Grieve, led by the grief guide Naomi Edmondson. In these special spaces designed for only Black people grieving, we share our losses, what’s coming up for us, and how we’re creating space to be buoyed in those happy moments that still come.

Sharing and Spreading Joy

Like the grief support groups that have brought me connection and contentment during a time when I felt mostly emotionally unmoored, there are many other individuals and groups creating space and holding space for others, or simply writing their way toward more joy. Of the latter, Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts wrote about joy and how we can look to it as a means of resistance in her book Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration. Released earlier this year, her lyrical essays on joy are framed as a beacon of hope and a steady reminder of what we can look to grab from this life, even when it seems out of grasp.

There are joy collectors in our midst, and joy reflectors: those who send up a smoke signal that while this life may be painful and full of things to heal from, things to grieve, we can harness something powerful. Something so pure that when the weight of the world barrages our souls, we can look at one another, and at our strength, love, and joy that are rooted in one another, and declare all to be well.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying Differently

— Can Old Ways to Die Help Us Find New Ways to Live?

Changing grief rituals for a post-Covid world

By Brandy L Schillace

A procession makes its way along a high ridge in the mountains. Dressed in bright colors, a group of Buddhist mourners beat hand-held drums by turning them side to side in rhythm. The steady plok-plok is accompanied by the ringing of bells and the singing of chants that echo in the thin air of high altitude.

Above them, as if in expectation, soar a host of griffin-vultures. This slow-marching party and its feathered heralds head for a sacred cliff at the roof of the world; for this is Tibet, and this is a sky burial.

For most Westerners, the idea of leaving remains for hungry birds is unnerving. In the U.S., death tends to be clinical, tidy, followed by a viewing and funeral service at a place specially made for the purpose. Friends and relatives fly in, gathering together for grief, for remembrance, and often for a meal.

But the Covid-19 pandemic changed this. The pandemic and its virulence meant no gathering, no sharing. It meant attempting to process a funeral from afar, over Zoom. It meant being unable to perform those last basic rituals we’ve come to associate with saying goodbye.

What do these changes mean for us now and ongoing? I’ve been asked about this a lot in the past year — interviewed for Jodi Kantor’s piece on changing funerals for the New York Times, and speaking to NPR’s Tonya Mosley on Here and Now about how we can cope.

I think there is much to learn, in particular, from funeral traditions from other parts of the world. Funeral rites have been a part of human communities for a very long time —sky burial for around 11,000 years — but as a social practice, they can change as situations change. Looking at death and grief across cultures can provide a roadmap for coping with our strange new realities post-pandemic.

Sky Burial

I first encountered “sky burial” while writing Death’s Summer Coat. In Tibet, Buddhists have a tradition of ritually dissecting the dead into small pieces and giving the remains to waiting vultures and other carrion birds. The practice agrees with fundamental Tibetan Buddhists beliefs: the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and living in harmony with nature.

The mourners began this particular day by washing and preparing the body, then wrapping it in colorful cloth. They sing and chant up to the ledges, where a special technician will dissect it for the waiting vultures. The body will, by these means, be broken down for easier consumption by the birds, whose lives will be enriched by the man’s flesh and blood. Scarcely anything will be left, and nothing wasted.

Dho-Tarap, Tibet is one of the most remote inhabited villages on earth at 12,000 feet. So this burial is also practical. Not all Buddhists practice sky burial. But you can understand why it is popular in the cold, tree-less mountains (with its frozen ground). You cannot burn a body with no fuel. You cannot bury it in hardened earth. At some point in their long history, the Tibetan Buddhists chose this method as the best means of disposing of the dead. Social traditions can be altered to meet the needs of the time, the place, and the circumstances of the people they serve.

The Dead at Home

During the Covid-19 lockdown, many of our traditions were interrupted. Weddings didn’t happen. Travel ceased. Lives were cocooned, as though wrapped in wool and put away for winter. But amid the seeming halt of everything else, death moved relentlessly forward. We lost loved ones, but often were unable to mourn them the way we wanted to. A wedding might be postponed; what if we could postpone a funeral?

One of the most unusual traditions I encountered during my research (apart, that is, from necrophagy), belongs to the Torajan people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. They bury their dead in a variety of ways, sometimes hanging coffins from cliff-sides or interring remains inside of growing trees, or — occasionally — keeping them in the home, mummified.

Life among the Torajans actually revolves around death, and wealth is amassed throughout life in order to ensure a properly auspicious send-off at death. Raising money can be a lengthy process, and so a family embalms and stores the body in the home until the funeral can be properly paid for. Until the ceremonies are complete, a Torajan is not considered truly “dead,” even if the process takes years.

When the Torajan people lose a family member, perhaps a matriarch, there is grief; there is loss. But in order to mourn her properly (and celebrate her life and legacy), they must delay the funeral. The family will tell others that she is “sick,” and even symbolically feed and nourish her by setting a place at the table.

But when they at last have sufficient funds, an enormous celebration ensues — akin to the kind of work and cost that goes into some Western weddings. They also practice Ma’Nene, a ritual in which dead (now mostly mummified) relatives are disinterred, cleaned, and dressed in new fabric to be celebrated a second time.

Such practices may seem alien to Westerners, but I suggest that they offer reassurance and hope as well. If something has intervened to make the funeral of a loved one impossible in the moment, there is no reason it cannot be delayed to a later time — and no reason why it can’t be celebrated more than once. We may not have the remains among us, unless the person was cremated, but we still have the tangible memory of them that lives in each of us. Perhaps there may be new paths for our grief in the post-pandemic period.

Mementos to Grief

Some may be familiar with the concept of memento mori popular during the Victorian period as mourning jewelry made from the hair of a loved one. But a momento can be many things; a letter, a photo, an article of clothing, an heirloom. I remember walking through my grandmother’s house after her passing, feeling her presence as I touched even the most mundane objects: her favorite jelly spoon, her cast iron skillet. These pieces stand in for the body, and evoke memory through sight, smell, and touch. They can be important parts of grief ritual, too.

During dictator Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia (1975–1979) more than a million people perished from bloodshed and refugee conditions. Family members disappeared without a trace, children never returned home, and no one knew where the bodies were buried. This was particularly hard upon the Cambodian people, whose beliefs required that certain burial and post-burial rituals must be performed over the body. Otherwise, they feared the soul would wander and be lost, unable to reach the next spiritual level. How could this be possible among the burial pits of executed, unnamed victims? At a time of greatest tragedy, they had been denied their death rituals.

So, culture adapted. The Cambodian people created a new ritual, called chaa bangsegoul, explicitly to deal with genocide. Instead of chanting, in the moment of death, over the deceased loved one, the living may choose a photograph or something owned by the dead as a momento stand-in. With this connection to the departed, ritual chants are performed to help the wandering soul on its way, even years after the event. The Cambodian culture changed to make room for grief and death in a new way, incorporating a new ritual to heal over devastating losses.

Many during the Covid-19 pandemic also suffered devastating losses. Whole families have been plunged into grief, and some of us are mourning for those funerals we could never attend. Perhaps we can look at these at-first unfamiliar practices and think about how our own rituals can change to meet new circumstances.

What rituals might we evolve even now to find closure after the losses of the past year — and how might we re-celebrate life, and re-approach death, in the months and years to come?

Complete Article HERE!