Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mourning is Work, but Grieving is a Business

Dated 6/27/2011, a letter from Heartland Hospice's Bereavement Coordinator begins: "Dear Susan, whenever a loss is experienced, grieving will occur."

But who experiences loss and where will grieving occur? Where in the body do you begin to chart grief? And where does it end? (Or does it have boundary issues)?

The letter continues: "At Heartland Home Health Care & Hospice ®, we understand that grief is a normal experience and takes time."

Grief takes time. "Takes" is the active form of the verb, rather than "is taken," though the person we have lost "is taken" from us, offers us to grief, which then takes time through us. Grief is a commuter, we its H1 or its country road.

With the letter, I received a CareNote called "Grieving the Loss of Your Parent." "Take One--and take heart," it reads. "Give One--and give hope." Shaped like a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet, it comes from One Caring Place, Abbey Press, St. Meinrad, IN 47577. Over 400 "helpful topics" are covered by CareNotes

This time we don't take time to grieve, we take a pamphlet, and we "take heart," good less tangible than paper folded and bound by two staples. Somehow time seems more tangible than heart, if less so than paper, but I don't know why that's the case. My son is taller than before. Is that not tangible fact? That he has a good heart means something else, something I cannot touch. I see it when he strokes the cat, but it's not the same as the cat stroke itself. Interpretation is what happens when public kindness becomes idea, is rendered private, if not privatized.

This CareNote comes dressed as a story. To the right of a color photograph of the sun setting over mountains beside a lake, I read about a daughter who is bidding her mother farewell. Her mother asks her if it's raining. She says, no, it's beautiful outside--"and it's even more beautiful where you are going."

Does that mean there is no rain in the afterlife? Is rain not consonant with beauty? And where is the where in "where you are going"? I got another letter a few weeks back, offering me condolences and thanks from the Georgetown Medical School, which is where my mother's body went after she died. She was not transported in a carriage, but in an SUV. As ever, my mother's version of the afterlife was literal, rather than figurative. Her body given to science. What comes before the after-life? The during-life. Enduring, in its twin senses of lasting and surviving, where the latter is not easy, is when it rains.

I am advised to do three things. "Find ways to cry and talk." "Forgive yourself for being human." "Grow from your experience with this tragedy."

I am told that my deceased parent understands and forgives me, that my tears, when they form, need to be shed, that I am preparing for my own aging. I am told to turn my losses into gains, to use them as tools to help me grow in my understanding. I am told to take heart. I am told that I am moving to "center stage to leave [my] mark on the world." I am told that I bring who I am which is because of them. I am told my life has new meaning. I am told there will be a heavenly reunion. I am told--by way of the author of the pamphlet--that my mother is my partner now. I am told these things with exclamation marks. I am given a website to find the complete catalogue.

I want to laugh at all this. I want to go all English 101-y on the author. I want to give her a low grade and tell her to rewrite this. But what's the point? They're not going to send me Marcus Aurelius, are they? I find, among his on-line quotations: "Death is a release from the impressions of the senses, and from desires that make us their puppets, and from the vagaries of the mind, and from the hard service of the flesh." That hardly seems consolation--not like "If you have buried one or both parents, use the experience as a lesson in life." Or: "Learn . . . how to express your love for the special people in your life."

At a poetry reading yesterday, Janine Oshiro read a poem against analogy. It posed the simile, "you are like a giraffe," but added (subtracted!), "except you don't have a long neck." Even so, her poems were full of analogies, good ones.

Hence, mourning is work. Freud says so. If you don't do the work, you end up melancholy, and that's Sisyphus's job description. The work analogy is folded into a metaphorical field. If the gravedigger digs the grave, the bereaved digs into emotional earth. The pamphlets Heartland Hospice (subset of ManorCare, subset of Carlyle Group) sends me is what happens when grief is not so much work as business. No longer a mystery (spiritual or otherwise), it involves a process. The uninitiated can be directed through the process, in the way that a driver can be told how to get somewhere on the road. (The journey toward healing is like the road to Honolulu.) Go to the light and take a left. Feel guilt and then forgive yourself for being human. Take Kahekili to the Likelike and go right. Take time for grief, because grieving takes time.

Some analogies follow:

Buy shares in my grief.
Take a tax deduction in my grief.
Inherit my grief (it's like the wind!)
Invest in my grief.
It's capital, my grief.
Get a planner for my grief.
Make my grief your ring tone.
My grief needs a college fund.
My grief shall be your nest egg.
Find me a good grief lawyer.
Sue my grief.
My grief reaps dividends (sic).
My grief offers a high rate of interest.
Take out a second mortgage on my grief.
My grief can be high or low risk.
Mutual funds in my grief are a good buy.
My grief is socially responsible.

But we keep as much as take time in our grieving. Janine Oshiro writes:

I kept the time by her going.
I prayed for her return and I prayed for her
return to the dead.

Keeping time is less industrious than taking it. Keeping time is less business than vocation. Keeping time is holding on to it. Keeping time is not reaping it. Keeping time is singing time.

I want a song not a cash register. I want "give a note" to mean a sound and not a pamphlet.

I'm not sure I like mourning described as work, but at least I'm self-employed. (I feel like I stole that from Charles Bernstein, but I didn't.)

I'm on the same line as before; it's just that the points have shifted.


Post-script. At the end of yesterday's reading, Carolyn Hadfield of Revolution Books got up and told us a story about prisoners at Pelican Bay, where all are kept (different sense of "keeping," more like "taking") in solitary. She told a story about one prisoner's joy. After 20 years during which he had seen only his fellow human beings and the blank walls of his cell, one day he saw a dragonfly. (If this punishment not be unusual, then none is.)

Dragonfly momentary in the sight, wings liquid against the light of a prison library. Fill in the analogy to grief's passage here. As you do, be aware that prisons are big business.

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