Grief Project

LOS ANGELES — Last Saturday morning, artist Cara Levine stood on a dusty hilltop in Malibu and staked one end of a seven-foot-long string in the dirt. She held the other end of the string taut in one hand and, using the string as a compass, walked in a circle. As she did so, she poured out a trail of crushed limestone powder from her other hand, marking the circle’s circumference on the ground. She then invited the assembled crowd of 20 or so people to pick up shovels and begin digging at the circle’s edge. 

This was the start of “Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In,” a weeklong collaborative project conceived by Levine in response to recent traumas: the COVID-19 pandemic, the BLM movement, the social uprisings over police brutality, and the existential threat of climate change. “I was really at a loss in my studio about bringing any newness forward. I had a bodily desire to create a cavity that could contain the depth of the grief,” she told Hyperallergic.

Take A Note: Poem by Miriam Sagan

This started out as prose–one of my off the cuff blog posts that I enjoy if I can get to the heart of something. However, it wasn’t working and just felt too clunky. Revised into a poem–and sharing it here. I’ll never know exactly why certain things work better in poetry or in prose–a matter of rhythm maybe–but I enjoy the process.

Take A Note

I’m asleep,
which is fine by me.
However, I’m concerned
about whether or not
you are actually dead.
I try and figure it out.
You must be dead,
because I saw your corpse.
Because the coroner
released your body for cremation.
But I’m unsure,
because, well,
it seems we’ve had
coffee together
several times
since you died.
In cafes.
It hasn’t been
because you persist
in telling me
that even though you are alive
you don’t love me any more
and are breaking up with me.

The main reason
I’m upset by this is that—
my story has changed.
It’s no longer the story
I’m committed to,
that you loved me
and died.

When I wake up
my second husband
offers me hot cereal,
and a bunch of copy editing notes.
My grand daughter,
actually she is yours too
but you’ll never know it,
sleeps on my knee
under a red and blue quilt.
She’s picked the batten
out of worn spot.
I like that in a baby.

Please don’t tell me
how Buddhism and physics
agree—there is no “you.”
Say what you will,
but I’m under the quilt too,
wondering if it
will snow again.

Veteran’s Day Revisited by Devon Miller-Duggan

I know I’m supposed to be tougher. I also know that it’s been the week of Veterans Day, not Memorial Day, and I know the difference between them. I know that the hundreds of small American flags planted on the mall of my University (we’re officially supposed to call it “The Green,” but until it has sheep or swans and a mill stream running through it, I’m sticking to “The Mall”) are supposed to make me feel things, and the recent pair of excellent articles in our student-run newspaper on the difficulties Vets face on a campus of not-Vets were meant to wake readers up to the fragilities and extraordinary strengths of those folks.

I also know that it’s been 8 years since my god-son died on the parched ground of Helmand Province and that I am very easily emotional these days because I am taking an aromatase inhibitor to prevent recurrence of my recent breast cancer (those drugs are not for the faint of heart—or more specifically, of mind, joints, sleep). But when I left my smack-in-the-middle-of-the-campus building to go next door to the Chemistry Building to teach Poetry Writing to a group of dazzling young humans who are (mostly) using their Advanced class to write through their own remarkably varied traumas and ran smack into the sight of all those flags, it damn-near brought me to my knees.
I am not prone to displays of patriotism (agreeing with Ben Franklin that it is too often the last refuge of the scoundrel) and (yeah, I know, grumpy liberal) generally find random flag-waving (cars, houses, car dealerships’ football-field-sized flappers) a little stupid more often than not. I know perfectly well where I live and of which country I am a citizen. But the flags that go up in November and late May, those are never not going to hurt, which is probably okay, probably good.
I’m a pacifist and I think territorial expansion is a sin. I think there are cases in which a people has been robbed of a homeland and then abused by their multiple “host” nations, and those cases are a good reason for everyone to grow the heck up and give up some land so that people can have a home and govern themselves, but otherwise, nations need to settle down, and borders need to be both permanent and porous. I think there’s no piece of cloth on the planet worth dying or killing for, and flags are dangerous because people mistake them for something they aren’t.
But I also have profound respect for those who serve, by choice, or by draft, whether or not they are all stellar humans. Their countries owe it to them to be terribly careful of their lives, before, during, and after. And while I did not give birth to “my” Marine, I have been closer to the consequences of stupid wars’ carelessness with the lives of military personnel than most people in my demographic. So those flags, even if I am less hair-trigger emotional after my 5 years on the drug are over, will always call up the war (WWI) that gave the day its birth, and every stupid or necessary, but always wrong and vile battle since. We need to grow beyond this. His name was Sgt. William Chapman Stacey. Google him. Find the cost of our increasingly fragile, frangible freedom. He was, in the words from Raymond Carver that are on his marker in Arlington, “beloved on the earth.” Those who came home and are among us should be, too. Not thanked reflexively, decently cared for, beloved on the earth.

Calling Up The Dead

When Itaru Sasaki lost his cousin in 2010, he decided to build a glass-paneled phone booth in his hilltop garden with a disconnected rotary phone inside for communicating with his lost relative, to help him deal with his grief.

Only a year later, Japan faced the horrors of a triple disaster: an earthquake followed by a tsunami, which caused a nuclear meltdown. Sasaki’s coastal hometown of Otsuchi was hit with 30-foot waves. Ten percent of the town died in the flood.

Sasaki opened his kaze no denwa or “wind phone” to the now huge number of people in the community mourning the loss of loved ones. Eventually word spread and others experiencing grief made the pilgrimage from around the country. It is believed that 10,000 visitors journeyed to this hilltop outside Otsuchi within three years of the disaster.

To Tell or Not To Tell: Grief and Dementia by Devon Miller-Duggan

My mother’s younger sister is dying of lung cancer. My mother doesn’t know and I hope, won’t, even after I take her downstate to see her sister on Monday. We, my aunt and I, have agreed that my mother knowing will serve no purpose. “Knowing” is a relative term in my mother’s case, because her dementia has progressed fairly far. The last death she “knew” about was her favorite cousin’s death 2 years ago. Several weeks ago, she asked me why she hadn’t heard from her cousin at Christmas this year and could I call to see if A____ was okay. When I explained that A had been dead for two years, my mother re-grieved her death. It was awful for both of us. For her because grief is awful. For me because one feature of my mother’s dementia is her increasing conviction that I have magical powers and can make everything in her life okay, if only I would stay with her for most of the waking hours of the day. If you’ve ever thought you wanted someone to think the sun rises and sets over you, don’t. Don’t want that. Because, trust me, there is not enough of you to fill that level of need. Or even to want to.

So I am keeping things from my mother. She doesn’t know that her post-divorce significant guy of 25 years (until she moved in with us 14 years ago because his drinking was out of control) died recently. She doesn’t know that my much younger sister is finishing up chemo for ovarian cancer. God forbid my sister should go down to her cancer, but if she does, God forbid my mother finds out. If I can manage things so that she doesn’t have to process any of this anguish she’s truly not capable of processing, then when she does die and goes to heaven, she’s likely to spend her first chunk of time there being surprised as all get out by who she runs into.

My elder daughter says (bless her) that my carrying these secrets is a mitzvah. I think it’s the best that I can do to protect my mother from pain she is not capable of processing, but I’m also pretty clear that it’s a matter of protecting myself from her desperate conviction that I can make it right. Whether that amounts to a mitzvah, I don’t know. At least it’s a word I can stand hearing. People are super-nice to you when they find out you have a parent with dementia living with you. They tell and tell and tell you, out of the utter generosity of their big hearts, what a wonderful thing you are doing, what a good daughter you are. The worst is people who have done the same gig with one of their parents who tell you that it was the best thing they ever did, how sacred the time was. It makes me feel broken, mean-spirited, bitchy. Because this is very definitely not the best part of my relationship with my mother. And I am more tired than full of love. But tired, broken, bitchy people can manage mitzvahs.

To mix religions, this business of secret-keeping mostly reminds me of one of the lines from the General Confession in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (Episcopalian, for those who don’t speak the lingo). It’s talking about sin, which is not this secret-keeping. Still, the words sum up what this feels like: “… The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.” The only thing that would be worse, and of this I am sure, would be telling her.

NOTE: Since I wrote this, my aunt has died. I’ve never seen cancer progress so quickly. The funeral my aunt planned in detail was lovely and full of graces and gifts. She’s been talking to her younger daughter steadily since her death (the women on that side of my family, well, we’re a little unusual…) and is full of joy and relief. I changed my mind and was going to tell my mother so she could go to her sister’s funeral. I thought I was settled with that. Then I changed it back again after talking to many of the folks I respect most. She’s been unsettled, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she “knows” without knowing, which is not something I can control for. But she hasn’t grieved, or cycled in and out of brute knowing. For the moment, I think this is right. For the moment, this feels like I am acting out of love.

An Innovative Project To Write About Grief: Postcards Tell The Stories

Rachael Chadwick explains-“There’s nothing we can do”, they said. In January 2012, my mother (aged 59) was diagnosed with a very aggressive case of bowel cancer. Just sixteen days after diagnosis, she died in our family home.I spent that year trying my best to cope with what was happening and put on a brave face to the world, as my own world, behind closed doors, felt like it was crashing in around me.
There is very little that can prepare you for the loss of a loved one. You strap yourself in for the rollercoaster of emotions, attempt to shelter from the uncontrollable storms of grief and you try to get on with life as best you can. But life is not as you know it anymore.

The milestones – the ‘firsts’, Mother’s day, Birthdays – felt so brutal. It was almost the build up of anxiety leading up to those days that hit me the hardest. Death, sadly, felt like a taboo subject and I was desperate to shout out to the world about the wonderful woman I had lost. And so, to celebrate what would have been Mum’s 60th birthday later that year, I decided to create a tribute.

To read more and see the project–
60 Postcards: Using Storytelling to Tackle Grief


The Angry Face of Grief by Susan Aylward

The Angry Face of Grief 

an angry sorrow wakes
with me this morning,
navel in knots, and
throat clogged, gasping,
how could it be
I am turning 55? 

when i turned 50
at a full round table in Tomasitas,
my mother, there with me,
was 69

when i turned 51, 52, 53, 54,
my mother remained 69,
that bingo food depot
hospital gift shop hostess,
who shared her smile, and spirit

I want to scream
at the number 
of wheezing fuckers
hobbling along with
hospital stays,
and giving nothing back

yea, some veterans,
but so what?
she was a veteran
of giving, sustaining life,
praying, loving,
and learning to stand
up for ourselves,

we unsung heroes
with the strength, 
if not the choice,
to usher life in,
and out
she deserved to live

if that’s what it takes
i would be proud
i would walk in her shoes
fuck the world
and leave its pale platitudes

about the way life should be
could be would be,
if you were strong enough loving enough
to overcome to heal to succeed to triumph

some seeds take root early in the day
to meld with our foundation,
just as naturally
as railing, life is unfair,
and I owe nothing
to no-one

Women Grieve, Men Replace–True or False?

I’ve never been a big fan of gender wars–Men are from Evasive, Women are from Clingy–or some other pseudo solar system model. The truism that women grieve and men replace turns out to be–predictably in my opinion–completely false. As a woman who married soon after she was widowed I don’t even like that word “replace.” How about–turn to life again? The following, from the NY Times, is a touching portrait of men in grief.
Men in Grief Seek Others Who Mourn as They Do
Published: July 25, 2011

In 1990, Sam and Gretchen Feldman cashed out on their share of a national chain of men’s apparel stores and retired to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. There, they devoted their time to volunteer work and an active social calendar. The following years were golden ones for the Feldmans, but in 2007 Mrs. Feldman learned she had cancer. She died a year later.

The Feldmans had been married 53 years, and Mr. Feldman’s grief was palpable to friends who knew him as a buoyant, resilient personality.
“There was a huge hole in my life that no amount of activity could replace,” said Mr. Feldman, now 82. “And except for my two daughters, there was no one I could turn to for solace.”
There was a local bereavement group for spouses, but Mr. Feldman opted out when he learned it consisted only of women.
“I just didn’t think women would relate to my pain,” he said. “And, frankly, I come from a generation that feels uncomfortable exposing our sadness and vulnerability to the opposite sex.”
The loss of a loved one is a profoundly heartbreaking experience, but it is not the same for everyone. Research increasingly suggests that men and women experience grief in different ways, and the realization has bolstered a nascent movement of bereavement groups geared to men throughout the country. Many of them are affiliated with hospitals and hospice centers.
Concern about reaching men in grief has gained new urgency with shifting demographics. The number of men age 65 and older increased by 21 percent from 2000 to 2010, nearly double the 11.2 percent growth rate for women in that age group, according to census figures. As the gender gap in life span narrows, experts suggest that more men will be facing the loss of loved ones, particularly spouses.
Many will be not be prepared for the experience. The loss of a spouse often is crushing for men physically as well as psychologically. In a 2001 paper published in The Review of General Psychology, psychologists at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands confirmed earlier data showing widowers have a higher incidence of mental and physical illness, disabilities, death and suicide than widows do. While women who lose their husbands often speak of feeling abandoned or deserted, widowers tend to experience the loss “as one of dismemberment, as if they had lost something that kept them organized and whole,” Michael Caserta, chairman of the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Utah, said by e-mail.
The Harvard Bereavement Study, a landmark late 1960s investigation of spousal loss, found that widowers experienced the death of a wife as a multifaceted tragedy, a loss of protection, support and comfort that left many at sea. The men in the study relied heavily on their wives to manage their domestic lives, from household chores to raising their children, the researchers noted.
The grief of men is compounded, Dr. Caserta added, by the fact that so many have been reluctant to directly address real feelings of deep sadness; until recently, men were expected to be emotionally controlled and inexpressive. Simply persuading grief-stricken men to attend a bereavement group is still no small challenge.
“While there’s strong indication that grief therapy helps men, historically men generally don’t join groups,” Phyllis Silverman, a grief researcher and an author of “Widower: When Men Are Left Alone,” said in a telephone interview.
There are also differences in the length of time men grieve, compared with women, and how long it takes to move on. An old axiom that “women mourn, men replace” turns out to be untrue.
“It used to be thought that men grieve acutely and heal more quickly, and that women grieve chronically over a longer time period,” said George A. Bonanno, a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University in New York.
But now, Dr. Bonanno said, many researchers believe that grief follows a more complex pattern in both men and women.
“No matter what sex, we oscillate between positive and negative emotions, between waves of sadness about the loss and hope for the future,” he said in a telephone interview. “This can be frustrating for men, who often seek the ‘quick-fix’ approach.”
Sherry Schachter, director of bereavement services at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx and a grief specialist for 25 years, said in a telephone interview: “While women grieve intuitively, open to expressing their feelings, men are ‘instrumental’ grievers. They’re not comfortable with talking about their feelings, and they prefer to do things to cope.”
In a men’s group she has run for the last few years, she said, “I never ask, ‘How do you feel?’ Rather, I ask, ‘What did you do?’ ”
In some cases, what men are doing is taking grief counseling into their own hands. Mr. Feldman started a biweekly bereavement group for widowers on Martha’s Vineyard, and two years ago spearheaded the Men’s Bereavement Network, a nonprofit organization seeking to establish and support grief groups for men nationwide. The network is helping to establish bereavement groups for men in places as diverse as DePere, Wis.; Clearwater, Fla.; and Danvers, Mass.
At a recent peer-led gathering of the Martha’s Vineyard group begun by Mr. Feldman, eight men in their late 40s to late 80s sat around the dining room table at the home of the session leader, Foster Greene. Dr. George Cohn, a local psychiatrist, sat alongside, for the most part a silent observer.
A retired fisherman, at 85 one of the older members of the group, spoke in a low voice, looking mostly into his coffee cup. His wife of 54 years died in 2010.
“I don’t know about you guys,” he said, quickly glancing around the table of men, “but for me it gets harder, not easier.” The other men nodded.
Later Dr. Cohn said, “Sometimes that’s all a man wants or needs — a sympathetic ear.”

Dear Diary: Malcolm X

I think that THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X is probably the best American autobiography of the twentieth century. I read it as an innocent seventh grader, (more than forty years ago) read it over and over. To this day, I can call up whole passages. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X not only covers crucial parts of contemporary history but has the redemptive curve of a St. Augustine. It is also full of useful information, like how to conk hair and how to tell if a guy is junkie by his performance in bed. I may have been a suburban Jewish girl when I read, but I felt sure all this would be useful to me some day, including how to manage in prison. Malcolm X suggested that the best burglar deterrent was simply leaving the bathroom light on–something I do to this day. Sometimes in the middle of the night I think of Malcolm X.
I was actually writing a kid’s book on Malcolm X’s assassination for Lucent Books (THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF MALCOLM X) during a time in my own life when personal tragedy struck. I had been listening to his speeches on tape. At a very low moment I heard Malcolm X’s voice in my head, insisting “by whatever means necessary.” He’d been talking about social justice and racial equality, but I heard it as a message just for me. I would survive. By whatever means necessary.
We can’t pick our patron saints, or our angels. Sometimes they just come to us, no matter how oddly. Malcolm X’s face is on a stamp. He was once reviled, even threatened, by the U.S. government. He was also a hero, and no matter how different we were, he was also mine.