Wednesday, June 1, 2011

We lay down and wept

I am not good at loss. I don't know anyone who is. But I have a particularly hard time, especially when loss is layered on loss.

It becomes so overwhelming that I can't feel the impact of it until many years later.

Who died first? I think it was Ken, who was not a close friend but a loyal and true member of my church. He sat behind me in choir, sang bass, was one of the support beams and part of the underlying structure of our choir (which at that point was very good). He was always the first to arrive at the church to take care of the myriad tasks to prepare for worship, and the last one to leave.

Then I got a call from the minister's wife in the morning before church. She told me he was dead.

He was driving his truck, pulled over, got out, and hit the ground.

Ken was only about three days older than me. The funeral was huge. I was disoriented, in a teary daze that no one else seemed to share: this should be a celebration of his life, after all! Funerals now have the air of festivity of a carnival, with hand-clapping, rousing gospel hymns and much laughter as friends share the departed person's foibles.

Who went next? Maybe it was Glen. Glen Allen was someone I'd never met. We had corresponded in the old-fashioned way, pen on paper, for fully ten years, as he moved from one newspaper to another. An award-winning journalist, he struggled with alcoholism and mental illness for his whole life. People warmed to Glen, they loved him, for he had a compassion I'd never encountered before, a deep empathy for the down-and-out.

Then someone found him frozen to death by the railroad tracks in Toronto. He had taken a bottle of pills and wandered out of the psychiatric ward in the freezing cold, and at some point passed out. He died like one of the homeless people he loved so well.

Glen was dead.

Gerry went next, I think: or no, maybe it was just my awareness of Gerry, for I had lost touch with one of my dearest friends and didn't know if he was alive or dead. Gerry had cancer, and his passing was not entirely unexpected, but he had been one of my closest church friends for fifteen years or so. Well, he lived into his seventies, so we can't exactly cry at his funeral, can we? Let's put our hands together and celebrate!

I had to keep running to the washroom to cry. Alone.

And Peter, this - . This thing about Peter. I can't talk much about Peter, though I will post a photo of him. In 2005, he helped me through what was without doubt the most harrowing time of my life. When I look back at all those deaths, I wonder why I didn't see it. I thought I had dropped the ball. I thought it was -

I can't talk about Peter much, because he died. I didn't find out about it until very recently, though I suspected it. He has been gone for three years. I suddenly realized I still had all our emails, though I thought I lost them years ago.

I'm not good at death, and particularly not good at the hand-clapping and yee-haws of contemporary memorial services. I don't think we need to dress in black and sit there grimly, but do we have to pretend we don't really mind that the person is gone? Do we have to sit there holding back floods of tears, in isolated pain, a pain which can become badly infected and spread throughout the body and mind?

Oh no: if we feel such inappropriate things, we need "therapy". We need to see a "professional", because we are obviously too antisocial and fucked-up to get with it, to get on-board. So we pony up the $125 per session or whatever it is, and try to "heal", while our friends chatter and gossip and forget all about the departed. For after all, we must "move on".

So the therapist slots us neatly into the "stages of grief", asking us weekly, "OK, which stage are you in today? Denial? Anger?" "Ummmmm. . . how about total despair?" "But that's not a stage of grief. Besides, I think you might have missed one, the one that comes after bargaining. So you're going to have to back up a little."

But I don't know about the right order, because I don't know which person to grieve first. Four is a lot, you see. You fellows had better get in line.