Category Archives: Grief

Grief Makes People Say the DUMBEST Things (..big sigh)

This week’s My Turn column in Newsweek is written by a woman who clearly is in the anger stage of grief – a place that invites raw, honest writing. 

I’ve long supported public education of what NOT to say to someone who has lost a loved one, be it a person or a pet. I can’t believe how many people said to me just a few days after my husband died, “Oh, you’ll meet someone new” or “Do you think you’ll get married again?” Good god, folks! I know they were well-intentioned and didn’t mean to upset me, but that’s no excuse for their inability to ask themselves, “Is this REALLY an appropriate comment at this moment or at all?”

I was appalled by the story the author told about the deacon who attended her father’s funeral: “On the day of my father’s funeral, we were greeted by a grinning deacon who shook our hands and chirped, “Isn’t it a beautiful day? I’m so glad you have sun for your memorial!” I wanted to shake this woman. Couldn’t she invoke a solemn tone for at least five seconds on the darkest morning of my life?”

You just don’t say shit like that to people who are grieving. You just don’t. Period.

There are only a few things people said or did that I choose to remember most from those dark days. One was that my friends traveled 200 miles from Minneapolis to be with me, not knowing what to expect or what to say. They were just there and they held me and cried with me and let me know they loved me. Another thing was a card I received from a woman I’d never met before. She wrote an incredibly heartfelt letter about how sad she was for me. She was around my age, had a baby, her husband was a farmer, and she wrote that while she obviously couldn’t empathize with my situation, she could sympathize and she sent me her warmest and kindest thoughts.

It’s something my pastor said to me that has stuck with me most all these years and I share it often with others who grieve. He said that time doesn’t heal, it only gives you perspective. At the moment he said that to me, I remember being angry.

“What do you mean time doesn’t heal?” I cried to him. “It HAS to! It MUST! How else am I supposed to feel better and good and normal ever again if SOMETHING doesn’t heal me?”

“Time doesn’t have the power to ‘heal,’” he replied. “Healing implies it all goes away, but years from now you’ll be able to recall this time and feel everything you feel at this very moment. In time, you will get stronger, you will feel joy again, you will build yourself up, but this comes from inside you, not because a certain amount of time passes. It’s a lot of work and you won’t be the same person you were before he died. You can’t.”

He was right. When I realized the long, arduous road of grief, I was better able to deflect the idiotic comments of people who thought that in six months time I should no longer be grieving. Grieving people deserve honesty. They deserve to hear stories of their loved ones, they deserve to know you’re sad for them. They deserve the truth. They deserve to cry. Offering them joy in their sorrow, asking them to think ahead to better days is just wrong.

OK, I’m stepping off my soap box. But I still think you should read My Turn.

I Need To Talk to Courtney Love

I have a friend who is friends with a woman who recently met Courtney Love by chance in Hawaii and the two of them spent an evening in the hotel bar smoking cigarettes and talking.

Alas, nothing cool like that ever happens to me, and even if it did, I don’t have enough in common with Courtney Love to keep her attention for longer than it would take for me to light a match for her ciggy. I don’t smoke or do drugs (although I do swear like a sailor sometimes). I was never in rehab. I pretty much respect authority and don’t wear a lot of lipstick. I’m not tall or wear really cool clothes, and I can’t play the guitar or write music. I’m certainly not an actress and I was never married to a rock star.

It would seem that Courtney Love and I are quite opposite, but her recent decision to sell Kurt Cobain’s personal belongings made me realize that we’re not so different after all. We do share a common denominator: both of us were widowed soon after giving birth. That would be a subject we could chat about over a few martinis.

When someone dies, especially unexpectedly, he leaves behind all the ordinary living kinds of things – a toothbrush and razor, combs, aftershave, clothes, letters from old girlfriends, tax records, photos, school yearbooks, newspaper clippings, vacation journals, maybe a car and all the crap stuffed under the seats, trinkets and gifts that decorate the house, a CD or record collection, movies, a bike, a favorite blanket…the list goes on and on. Think about it. If you died today, all the stuff you own and use that make your life the way you know it would become someone else’s to deal with, and all that stuff has to go somewhere.

“(My house) is like a mausoleum,” Love told “My daughter doesn’t need to inherit a giant…bag full of flannel… shirts,” said Love. “A sweater, a guitar and the lyrics to ‘(Smells Like) Teen Spirit’ – that’s what my daughter gets. And the rest of it we’ll just…sell.”

I gave away most of Bruce’s clothes when he died (I kept his bowling shirt) and threw out his toiletries. But I’ve hauled around boxes of his stuff from house to house to house, from marriage to marriage to marriage, and I’m thinking it’s time to lighten the load a little. Maybe it’s time to let our daughter decide what she wants to keep and what she wants to sell or toss. I have our wedding album, some photos, his letters and a memory. That’s all I need.

Well, that and perhaps the television.

Yesterday, I gave away all the things I was going to sell at a garage sale because I don’t have the time to host a garage sale. One of the things that has sat in my garage (and every garage I’ve had since 1983) is the Hitachi turn-dial 13-inch television my parents gave us for our wedding. When the guys were loading the truck yesterday to haul all my stuff away, the television was on the chopping block. But when I saw it there on the floor, waiting its turn to be lugged away like all the other useless stuff, I caved and told them to leave it.

I couldn’t let it go, even though it’s just sitting there reminding me of what was. I don’t need it, I don’t use it, so why do I keep it around?

Maybe it’s because it’s more tangible than a photograph. Bruce used this television. Touched it, watched it, moved the antennae around. We watched the last episode of “M*A*S*H” on that television. I laid in his lap, I was very pregnant and very emotional, and cried the entire two hours. We watched “Shogun,” “Winds of War,” “East of Eden” (the movie that inspired us to name our baby Caleb if it was a boy), “Family Ties,” “Fridays,” and “Saturday Night Live.”

There was no remote. We had to get up and change the channel. I liked watching his Wrangler- or Levis-bound ass as he walked to the TV and bent over to turn the knob. We fell asleep watching “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons the first few days of Carlene’s life, she tucked between us, this little family. It’s the one functional thing I kept from our good life, our real life. I don’t want to let that go. 

So what’s a little space in the garage? I’ll let Carlene go through the rest of the stuff. The television will stay where it is.

Maybe one day, Courtney Love and I can discuss the merits of keeping an old television set in a garage. I’m sure she’d understand.

Just Another Day

Things I learned today: Quinoa tastes like fish eggs in my mouth and I don’t like that feeling; our neighbors across the street are inconsiderate bastards; I’m capable of being positive even when an early spring snow is on the way (I hate early spring snow); my siblings are better friends than I realized; mixing mayo and Dijon and tarragon and garlic and onion and lemon juice into a tuna salad works much better if you flake the tuna first.

Nothing profound. Just an ordinary day.

Tomorrow would be my 25th wedding anniversary and I wonder what my kids would have bought us to mark the occasion. I was 13 when my parents celebrated their 25thanniversary and on behalf of my siblings (being the middle kid, I was in charge of all group gifts and get-togethers – still am), I bought our parents a commemorative 25th anniversary interior decorator-type plastic wall hanging from the downtown Rexall Drug. I couldn’t drive and had no other shopping options. At the time it seemed like a good idea.

The Rexall Drug in downtown Jasper was my third favorite store on Main Street . My dad’s grocery store was my favorite, and in second place was the variety store – I can’t think of its name – where I bought apple flavored Bubs Daddy bubble gum, Charleston Chews and massive amounts of Sweet Tarts. My friend Jeanine always bought Mike and Ike’s and Blackjack chewing gum. She never had to worry about sharing her candy with anyone. Yuck! I’d rather chew concrete than eat licorice.

The Rexall Drug Store is where I bought every Trixie Belden mystery series book and the latest Tiger Beat magazine.

My other favorite store on Main was Frackman’s Hardware. I bought my really cool black and white boys hightop tennis shoes there and my first 5-speed bike. Paulie, the owner, also sold me ammo for my .22 and .410 and my dad’s 20-gauge. I don’t know if I was old enough to buy it, but he sold it to me anyway. Keep in mind, this was 30 years before the Patriot Act.

All I know is on this ordinary day, I talked to my stepsons on the phone and told them how totally excited I am to see them on Saturday (they’ll be here for the week and my oldest stepson, Andy, told me TWICE that he loved me – major kudos). I’ll make them Puppy Chow and peanut butter pie, per their request, and take them to Pittsburgh and listen to really good rock ‘n roll in the car because that’s what good stepmothers do.

I wish my stepsons had a Rexall Drug and a variety store and a tennis-shoe-selling hardware store they could visit while they’re here. I will not serve then quinoa, however, and they will make the snow more palatable just by their presence.

Yes, I would have been married 25 years tomorrow. I’m not. But what I have in exchange is pretty damn good.

How We Met (and there are photos)

I had a huge crush on Bruce when I was 13 years old. He dated my sister’s best friend and would come over to our house once in awhile, but he never paid any attention to me. After all, he was 17, a jock, and the best singer Jasper High School ever produced. Even when I wore my junior high cheerleading outfit to school on game days and went out of my way to walk past his locker he didn’t look at me.

I didn’t miss a single performance of “Oklahoma!” when he played Curly and I had a front-row seat at homecoming coronation. He still didn’t notice, but that’s OK, because four years later he did notice, big time.

I lived in Minneapolis the last three years of high school. Bruce went to South Dakota State University. Our paths didn’t cross again until June 1981 at a Styx concert in Sioux Falls.

I broke my foot earlier in the week (a little mishap in a bowling alley in which alcohol may or may not have played a role) and needed crutches to get around. My friend Curt ( who unbeknownst to me was Bruce’s best friend) said he’d save a seat for me in the arena since it was a general admission concert with no reserved seating. My friend Lisa (who later became Curt’s wife) didn’t leave me alone and helped me find Curt and his friends in the stands. 

I settled in next to Curt and scoped out my surroundings. Curt was at the end of a line of about eight or nine guys I sort of recognized from my years at Jasper High School, but it was the boy next to him who really caught my eye.

“Who is that next to you?” I whispered in Curt’s ear.

“Bruce Bouwman,” he said.

I’m quite certain my heart stopped for a second. I know I stopped breathing.

“That’s Bruce Bouwman!” I squeaked in Lisa’s ear. About that time, Bruce was whispering in Curt’s other ear.

“Who’s that girl?” he asked.

“Lynn Haraldson. You know, Debbie’s little sister,” said Curt.

“THAT’S Debbie’s little sister?” said Bruce.

Finally, he noticed. I guess growing boobs and a few inches taller helped my cause. I’m pretty sure the lack of orthodontia was a plus, too.

I tried to concentrate on the concert, but all I could think about was Bruce. Apparently all he could think about was me because the next night he greeted me with a huge grin when he saw me walking down Jasper’s Main Street. He was sitting on one of his friend’s cars, wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, jeans, and a yellow polo shirt.

“We’re going to Granny Kindt’s for a party,” he said.

“So are we,” I said. My friends and I still traveled in packs.

“So, I’ll see you out there?” he asked.

“Absolutely.” I was in full-flirt mode and having a good hair day.

Everyone 25 and younger who’d gone to Jasper High School was at the party. These were massive events with rows of kegs and a dance floor in the barn. There really was a Granny Kindt – the grandmother of several of the boys from our school who threw the parties – and she loved having “the young folks” out at her house. She usually stayed inside, but everyone loved her and would always stop to talk to her when they used the bathroom.

Bruce and Curt gone to the party with their friend, Brian, and I’d driven my car with a few friends in tow. Somehow, Bruce and I convinced Brian to drive my friends back to town after the party, and Bruce and Curt and I went back to Curt’s farm where I made us breakfast.

I made the perfect after-keg breakfast: cheesy scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we laughed a lot and it felt an awful lot like the night before Christmas. I was full of anticipation and had all those wonderful butterflies floating in my stomach.

I drove Bruce back to his car in town. He said there was another party the next night and asked if I wanted to go? Yes, I did, I said, and he leaned over and kissed me lightly on the lips – no tongue, no other body parts touching, just the most beautiful kiss I’d ever known.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said and got out of the car.

I floated home and couldn’t sleep and waited and waited for the next day to end so I could see him again.

Which I did, but of course, love is never simple. We bent back and forth all summer – he was trying to figure out what he wanted in life while I was trying to figure out how to live on my own for the first time. All of this is a long and complicated story that is still lodged in my head and not ready to come out yet. Some day, maybe. But for now it’s suffice to say we figured it out.

Here are some photos of us. Keep in mind this was the early 80s – please be kind when assessing my hair.  Click on the pictures for a larger image.

Wedding1 Wedding2


Apple died last night, I said

When I was a little girl, our family had a canary named Charlie. He was probably a she because he didn’t sing much, but we loved him anyway.

Charlie was a birthday gift for my mother. He was supposed to be a secret, but when my dad and older sister wouldn’t let me pet him when they brought him home, I stormed into the living room where my mother was sitting and told her, indignantly, “They wouldn’t let me touch that bird!”

Mom, of course, acted surprised at the unveiling later that evening and Charlie took his place in the corner of our family room for the next several months.

It was my little brother’s job to take the cloth off Charlie’s cage every morning and feed him some seed. My dad was always there to “help,” which was a good thing since one morning, Charlie was lying, feet up, on the bottom of his cage. This upset my brother immensely, but, being the tough little camper he was even at age 3, he didn’t cry. He got mad. He walked into the bathroom, where our mother was brushing her teeth, and declared, “Charlie died last night I said,” and walked out, slamming the door.

And so it was with us the last few days – anger and sadness over the death of a beloved pet. Yesterday, my pregnant daughter and her husband had to put down the best cat who ever lived, little Apple. She caught a freak case of pneumonia after being spayed last week, and her 7-pound body just couldn’t fight it.

Apple was born in a barn last August and had lots of brothers and sisters, and her “owner” was a kid named James who took really good care of her. But James’s house caught fire and burned to the ground in October and his family couldn’t care for Apple and her siblings much longer. My daughter fell in love with the little brown and orange kitty and named her Apple.

Apple loved to play with the little porcelain covers from the bolts that held the toilet to the floor. She’d toss them down the stairs and chase them all the over the house. Her best day was when Cassie and Matt installed wood floors. Those little covers FLEW across the room with Apple in hot pursuit.

The doctors tried everything to keep little Apple alive, but her lungs couldn’t clear themselves. Cassie was mad and sad and called me sobbing. Apple died last night, she said. She and Matt buried her under the trees in the back yard.

But the scales of life tilted in our favor today with the heartbeat of a baby, my little grandbaby. At Cassie’s doctor’s appointment today, its little heart sounded out loud and strong, and at that moment, life was balanced again. Sadness was sidelined, put into perspective. 

It’s been a long few days. Hell, it’s been a long old month.

Apple died last night, I said.

I’m alive and well and growing, my grandbaby said.

Thank god for little indignant voices.

Telling Stories

Last week I wrote about the Common Ties website, the site where people are invited to tell the stories of their lives – not their entire lives, but things that happen in those small moments of time. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time to browse.

Well I found another site this week that is on the same lines as Common Ties, but with a bit more bite – Its taglines are: “Everyone has a story to tell. Tell yours here” and “SMITH explores storytelling in all its forms. We’re personal and participatory. Read a story. Write a story. Come in.”

My favorite feature of the site is the popuLIST. Every week they ask a question based on something from the week’s news and people submit their answer in 100 words or less. This week’s question is: “What three minutes of your life would you like to upload and watch again and again?” I find myself thinking about that question frequently during the day. Coming up with one three-minute event from the past 43 years is tough. There are moments of looking into someone’s eyes and kissing them for the first time, that I wouldn’t mind watching over and over again or the time I drank my first beer. That was pretty fun.

I’d really like to watch me holding my children for the first time, right after they’d popped out all wet and fresh and new. I was a little busy being overwhelmed that I missed absorbing those moments.

I’d even consider the three-minutes at the cemetery just before they buried Bruce. I was standing near the casket. It was snowing and ironically a train was passing by, blowing its whistle (Bruce was killed by a train). The pastor was praying and everyone had their heads bowed. I looked up and scanned the crowd. My friend Todd was looking up, too, and he caught my eye and gave me a look so full of love and concern that I can still feel its effects deep in my heart. Nothing in our lives prepared us for a moment like that and yet he conveyed to me in one look what all the flowers and hugs and money from everyone else couldn’t begin to express. Yes, I think that’s the three minutes I’d want to watch again and again. 

Also at smithmag, I really liked the winners of the Six-Word Resolution contest. They include:

Run faster, fret less, kiss more (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Stop whining. Keep Walking. Eat Chocolate (Rebecca Drooks)

Eat right, vote left, stay centered (Dave Zee)

Change the World, or my underwear (Scott Weaver)

I will make all new mistakes (Wesley Stewart)

Less Things, More Gratitude, Goodbye Mustache (Mr. Fancipants)

Maybe I’ll try Buddhism. Why not? (jbrown)

My favorite was “Kiss Jon Stewart on the mouth” by Martha Garvey, however, I’d probably change it to Jay Thomas. Just sayin’.

I tried my hand at six-word resolutions and came up with two that sounded doable. To address my miserly loner-like existence: “Get out there and meet people.” And to address my issues of self-doubt: “Believe in myself for five minutes.” Boring, yes, but more probable than kissing Jay Thomas (or Jon Stewart, I’m not picky) on the mouth.

So which three minutes of your life would you want to replay over and over again? What’s your six-word resolution? We all have stories to tell and share. At least think about it. It’s pretty fun and very cathartic.

Resurrecting the Dead

I forget his face sometimes. I mean, I can’t see it resting in my hands like I used to do when he’d stand over me, his hands around my waist. I can’t see his eyes looking into mine. I can sense the body but I can’t see the eyes. I guess there was no time I told myself to remember the moment. Why remember something you believe will be there the next day and the next?

I know I looked in his eyes at our wedding when we said our vows. I know I was holding his hands. I know I kissed him at the reception every time someone clinked their glasses. But I don’t remember looking into his eyes. I remember stopping at the bowling alley and eating hamburgers still in our wedding clothes before we drove to Sioux Falls. I remember taking the dozens of hair pins out of my hair in the hotel that night and laughing at the sticking up curly mess they left. I know we made love but I don’t remember the details. I remember opening gifts in the living room and laughing at the big ugly green lamp we received, but I don’t remember the sound of his voice.

It’s because I don’t remember his eyes or the sound of his voice that I’ve been afraid all these years that we never were, that he never existed, that his death also took our history. Our daughter exists and she is real and her eyes look like his, but as she stares back at me she is our daughter, not her father, and her life is her own creation because she was only 11 days old when he died. We didn’t raise her. I did.

But on this dark, gray, rainy morning more than 23 years later, listening to Roberta Flack sing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a small detail emerged. It unfolded in my brain like it was always there but was covered by a piece of paper and today that paper blew away. It was just there, so small, and yet I burst into tears in the parking lot of the gym so happy it was there and so sad that he wasn’t.

I remembered the softness of the hair on his chest, quiet and warm.

And from that remembering came a whole bunch more and I thought of them eagerly, voraciously, my eyes shut tightly not wanting to forget again. ‘That’s right!’ I thought. I loved to touch his hair lightly, run my fingers across his muscles, with my head resting just below his shoulder. We’d lie on the bed and talk for hours listening to music with just the light from the stereo shining on us. I could almost feel it.

I’ve always remembered the feeling of missing him when he was away at work, the thrill of hearing his truck pull into the drive, holding his hand while we drove, watching him drum the steering wheel to one of his favorite songs. I remember watching him feed cows and vaccinate pigs, sitting with him in the tractor in the pitch dark waiting for his brother to return from combining beans, singing at the top of our lungs. He was Diana Ross and I was Lionel Ritchie. I remember taking off my shirt one Sunday afternoon in spring, walking through the pasture, feeling free, making love, feeling so alive. I remember watching the last episode of MASH, crying on his lap. I remember hearing him sneak back in the house to grab a vase in which to put the flowers he’d bought me for Valentine’s day. I remember how he cried when he cut Carlene’s cord and held her and sang to her for the first time.

And now I remember the warmth.

Sometimes I think I’ve clogged my life with so many people that I don’t know which ones are truly important. Thank god for this morning and for Roberta Flack and for that bittersweet song that helped me remember that long ago there was a boy who made me feel unlike anyone ever has and that he had soft hair on his chest that I loved and that I’ll never forget again.

First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The first time ever I saw your face

I thought the sun rose in your eyes

And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave

To the dark and the empty skies, my love,

To the dark and empty skies

And the first time ever I kissed your mouth

I felt the earth move in my hands

Like the trembling heart of a captive bird

That was there at my command, my love

That was there at my command

And the first time every I lay with you

I felt your heart so close to mine

And I knew our joy would fill the earth

And last till the end of time my love

It would last till the end of time

The first time every I saw your face, your face, your face