What is grief?

purple-gorillaWikipedia calls grief “….a multi-faceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something to which a bond was formed.”

Mirriam-Webster defines grief as deep sadness caused especially by someone’s death.

The Mayo Clinic offers a 245-word article, “What is grief.”

Simply put, grief is the physical, emotional and spiritual reaction to loss.  But in my experience, it’s not really that simple.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver likened grief to the heaviness of a swimmer’s long hair dragging in the water. For author Claire Bidwell Smith grief became a giant sad whale she dragged behind her.  Poet Matthew Dickman called grief a purple gorilla.

A writing exercise I like to do with the kids from the Children’s Grief Center is to respond to the prompt, “Grief is…”  And the answers can be very revealing–one kid called grief a friend who doesn’t want you, but won’t let anyone else have you either.

Here’s what I wrote the last time I did this exercise:

Grief is a pillow I can lay my head on when I am tired.

Grief is a presence, ephemeral, something I can’t touch or hear, but feel in my gut. Sometimes grief is indigestion.

Grief is a fashion style–my collection of black sweaters, my propensity for black shoes, black headbands, and my black leather coat.

Grief is a blanket that is too heavy and warm and makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

Grief is a fog around my mind’s eye keeping me frm seeing, imagining my own future, or remembering the times before cancer, before death, the times when life was good and we were a family taking picnics to the beach or talking over dinner.

Grief is annoying, I want to be done with it. I want to move one, kick it to the curb, put it on a funeral pyre and watch it go up in flames.

Grief is like a small rock I put in my pocket. I’ve fingered it smooth. Sometimes I take it out and show people.

What is grief to you?

Posted in grief

Grief (reading) takes a holiday

still pointOver the last several months I’ve read several grief narratives–memoirs mostly.  Actually this whole year has been devoted to reading grief, and of course writing grief.  Not all these books are necessarily classified as “grief memoirs” but I wanted to read them because they deal with grief in some way.  Here’s a brief list of some recently read:

Half a Life by Darin Strauss (which I reviewed last month on this very blog)

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp

Somehow Form a Family  by Tony Early

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

But grief gets overwhelming sometimes, so I  read The Kalahari Typing School for Men: A No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Novel (4) by Alexander Mccall Smith. I’d read the first three, purchased this, or it was gifted to me, and it sat on my bookshelf unread!  It was delightful. 

I’m also about halfway through Isabel Allende’s Zorro and started to re-read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott…. and I even started reading Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps.   One of the benefits of an MFA in creative writing is the learned ability (grad school survival skill) to read several books at a time. I have many more grief memoirs to read, not to mention essays and I’ll get back to commenting on them on this blog, but for now, for my own writing, I felt like I needed something else.

I needed a break from other people’s grief because really, my own grief never takes a holiday.  Not entirely.  It’s like it goes away, maybe down to Cabo, or takes a pub tour of Ireland, but still it checks in on Facebook every now and again or tweets  status updates:

  • Cleaning out my desk! ran across this letter my mom had written to my grandma…  I recognized her handwriting instantly
  • Hmm. wondering: was mom happy?
  • Thinking about Dad– what would he think about in no particular order: Obama, the iPhone, Syria, Treyvon Martin, same gender marriage, Breaking Bad

Thirty some years down the road grief is no longer the kind of gut-punch grief experienced right after a loved one dies, but still, there are moments of pause, sometimes, still, even a tear.

So while grief may not be taking holiday, I’m taking a break from reading about grief.  At least until I finish the books on my nightstand.  There’s others waiting in the wings:  Son of Gun by Justin St. Germain, To The Last Breath by Francis Slakey, Comfort: a journey through grief by Ann Hood, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala….  People. They just keep dying. Writers. They just keep writing about it… I keep writing about it.

Posted in creative writing, grief, grief memoirs

Grief Literature Spotlight: Half a Life by Darin Strauss

A little over a year ago I earned my MFA in creative writing, a program that includes a bunch of courses in writing and literature, the actual writing of a book-length manuscript, and the successful defense of the aforementioned manuscript.

Although my committee chair Greg Martin told me that he thinks of the defense as a “conversation about this draft” I still imagined donning Wonder Woman’s indestructible bracelets to deflect the incoming bullets comments about my manuscript.  Fortunately Greg’s vision of the event was how it actually played out.  One comment from my committee member Sharon Warner, however, haunted me.

“You need to stop apologizing for writing about death and grief. You should embrace writing about these things,” she said.

Since that time (April 2012) I have spent a lot of time reading grief memoirs.  You’ll find an annotated list here on this site, but I’ve not read all of them.  (not yet anyway!)  I also taught a Writing Grief class.  I still sometimes apologize, but I find myself embracing the fact that I write about grief and death and cancer more and more.


Enough about me, all that intro was to tell you I’ll be reviewing in more detail the grief memoirs I’ve read here, on this very blog.

I recently read Darin Strauss’ memoir, Half a Life at the suggestion of (it was actually assigned by) writer Emily Rapp (with whom I studied over the summer). 

From the first line, I was hooked. In fact, this may be one of the best first lines ever:

Half a life ago, I killed a girl.

Genius.  Now of course this first line works so well partly because of the lines that follow, the words that put the reader in a time and a place, and in sympathy with the narrator:

I had just turned eighteen, and when you drive in new post-adolescence, you drive with friends. We were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt-putt. It was May 1988.

In the text that follows we learn about Celine, who was riding her bicycle on the side of the road and for unknown reasons turned into the far left lane, into Darin Strauss’ car.  And she died. It is not his fault according to witnesses, to the police.  This thing that happened to him became a story he will keep secret.

Not only is this story of delayed grief, of guilt, and of trauma  compelling,  it is rendered beautifully.  The crisp clean prose, especially in the beginning works well to contrast the chaos of trauma.  The main narrative, the “what happened” and the “then what happened” is written in short chapters.  Those chapters are then interspersed with tiny chapters, some only one small square of text, like a photo, a flash of image, a memory, a thought, a realization.

Celine Zilke, the girl I killed, was sixteen and always will be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts–Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off some notes in the public speaking class we took together. Celine sat by the window.

When I look back now, she strikes me most of all as young.

Another favorite tiny chapter is just three sentences long and rests in the middle of a page surrounded by white space:

I’ve come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn’t properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That’s what shock is.

If you’ve experienced trauma or a death, then this probably resonates with you as much as it does me….

I’ll be writing about more memoirs, as I gather my thoughts and read more….   let me know of any grief memoirs that are not already on my list.  I’m also interested in great grief essays and poetry so feel free to share those as well.  I’ve started a list online here as well.

Posted in Book Review, creative writing, grief, grief memoirs

Honoring Jane Catherine Lotter and my Granddad

Ever since I read about Jane Catherine Lotter’s death, and the fact that she had written her own obituary I’ve been intrigued.  What if we all wrote our own obituary, maybe updated it every year. How would that (could that?) change who we are?  I’m not ready to write my own obituary, though I hope one day in the quite distant future it will read that I was as well loved as Jane Lotter, and that somewhere someone (maybe more than a few) found my words, my work inspirational, helpful….

So often obituaries focus on the The Big Accomplishments. What I love about Jane Lotter’s is how she focuses on the smaller things.  Yes, she mentions her professional career, but it’s her family, the things she loved that are most important to her.

It makes me wish I’d written my grandfather’s obituary differently.

Here’s what I wrote in 2004:

Rear Admiral Maurice E. Simpson, USN (Retired) passed away on February 16, 2004 near his home in Del Mar, Calif. Born in Minnesota in 1909, he completed his dental studies at the University of Minnesota in 1936, followed by a year’s internship with the U.S. Public Health Service in the Marine Hospital at Norfolk, Virginia. In 1937, Simpson was appointed lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy.

His first duty assignment was to the Naval Training Center in San Diego, Calif. where he moved with his new wife, Ruby Wellons of Sedley, Virginia.

Simpson was aboard the stores-issue ship USS Antares when the ship entered Pearl Harbor at 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941 and was strafed by Japanese pilots.

Simpson also served aboard the USS Washington, where he saw combat in the Pacific during World War II, aboard the USS Repose, stationed in Tsingtao China prior to the Communists take over, and aboard the USS El Dorado. Other notable duties included chief of dental service in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Quanitco Virginia, and serving in Japan during the hostilities in Korea where he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his skill and leadership in the treatment of the wounded at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka.

Simpson was promoted to rear admiral on July 1, 1964 and served as fleet dental officer and assistant chief of staff of dentistry for the commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia from 1967 until his retirement in 1971.

After retirement, Simpson returned to San Diego where he enjoyed golf with friends, and even made two holes-in-one. He also enjoyed travel with his wife Ruby, who died in 1994.

What I wish I’d written:


Me in the middle, Grandma on the left, Dreamboat on the right

As a dental intern at the Marine Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, Maurice Simpson was known as “Dreamboat” for his sparkly blue eyes–but he only had eyes for his beloved Ruby, a widowed young nurse at the hospital who would become his wife of nearly 60 years, preceding him in death by 10 years.  He always said that the secret to his long life was “strong booze and wild women.”  People that knew him understood the joke. Only on occasion did he drink a gin martini, and in later years a glass of Sutter Home White Zinfandel wine, “the only one that tastes good,” he’d say.  And Ruby was a sweet and gentle woman.

In addition to being a dentist and a decorated retired Navy Admiral,  Maury, as he was known to his friends, was a tough but loving father.  Age and time softened him into a super fun and loving grandfather.  He did magic tricks, making coins disappear, he played a mean game of Acey Deucey, and he liked to fly down the hill from Torrey Pines into Del Mar in his 1971 VW Super Beetle, in neutral.  He played golf well into his 90s, and in fact made a Hole-In-One when he was 90. Not known for being prideful, he would want me to mention that it was at the at the Lomas Santa Fe Executive Golf Course.

He paid his bills the day they came in the mail, paid cash whenever he could, and the first time he ever took out credit, was a loan to cover the $35  fee to adopt George, Ruby’s five-year-old son from her first marriage.

Maury was most loved for telling stories– some of which his grandchildren (at least the one writing this) didn’t realize were NOT  true until years after first hearing them. Like how they used condoms to waterproof their flashlights on ship during WWII. Granddad had to go to the store and buy a case then return the next day to complain that there was one missing.  The store clerk said, “I hope it didn’t ruin your night.”

* * *

What do you hope people will say about you after you’re gone?  What would you say about yourself?

Posted in creative writing, grief

What goes with grief?


This is what hitting a deer looks like

Grief goes with…

A Dairy Queen in North Platte, Nebraska.

A dead deer.

A wrecked 1971 Super Beetle VW.


A semi truck full of frozen turkeys.

A calico cat named Alex.

A best friend named Karin.

I took a writing class in Santa Fe last month with Emily Rapp. If you’re not familiar with Emily’s work, she is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, which chronicles her experience parenting a child who is dying of Tay-Sachs disease and not expected to live past the age of three. Grief, pre-grief, anticipatory grief, whatever you want to call it–it  can’t help but permeate the pages. If you’ve not read the book, you should check it out.  Undeniably sad,  it’s beautifully written.

I should mention that it was a great class–Emily is smart and funny and though some of what we discussed in class were things I already knew about writing, I always enjoy hearing how someone else talks about craft.  In addition she provided great writing exercises and my fellow students were fantastic. I also always enjoy writing in community with others.

One of the writing exercises sparked what has become the start of what I hope is a pretty good in-progress essay pairing my grandmother’s death:

The downstairs den had become a makeshift hospital room for Grandma and the hospice nurse had explained to my sister, my granddad and I that our grandma was “actively dying” and we might see her slip in and out of consciousness, she may experience loud breathing, what is called a “death rattle” and she may begin to fidget and maybe even seem to look at something beyond what we could see. 

In the waiting time everything slowed down.  The air felt thick, heavy to walk through, hard to breath in and it was quiet, except for the sound of grandma’s breath, the rustling of her sheets as she pulled at them, the sound of granddad quietly crying.  I held her hand, a hand that had once been like mine with its short thick fingers but had become thin and soft.  My sister held her other hand and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of granddad.” 

with me hitting a deer in Nebraska:

The sky had turned light gray when out of nowhere a brown mass I could not identify came towards me in slow motion and I screamed and slammed on the brake as the mass hit the windshield spider webbing and bending the glass to within inches of my face.  My friend Karin, who had seen the 18 wheeler behind us but didn’t understand why I was braking, grabbed the steering wheel to pull us off to the shoulder.

The driver side window not open, but gone, shattered into a thousand pieces of gravel that I would later find in my socks and my underwear.  Karin found the emergency kit and lit the flares as I stood chain-smoking on the side of the highway shaking, my teeth chattering, blood dripping down the side of my face.

Although the two events happened within weeks of each other, I’d never made a connection between them.  In fact, I’d not written much about my grandmother’s death–maybe because I’ve been so focused on writing my memoir and focusing on my mother’s death. And “Hitting a Deer in Nebraska” had become one of those stories I tell at cocktail parties.

When I asked in class “Are these two events related?” my fellow classmates answered with a resounding, “Yes!”  and so I’ve been working on it ever since.

I’d never thought about how the experience of hitting a deer paired with grieving my grandmother’s death–though the more I write the more I see the connections. I’m making meaning of the story.


Grandma and Granddad

Maybe I’m forcing the two together, but it seems that there is something in being so close to death: my grandmother’s, my own, and being in that foggy place of not knowing what is next, not knowing where I was….  of being fully in moments of grief.

I hope for my essay what Emily says she hopes for her book, that “…readers ….rethink their notions of tragedy and normalcy. I want them to find beauty in our human fragility, in the precariousness of all our lives, and I want this to act as a catalyst for them to live and love more boldly in their own lives. To make their lives big and rich and full and meaningful, however that might look for them.” (1)

A tall order for sure, but one worth aspiring to…


Back on the road with replacement parts from a junkyard in Denver

(1) Quoted from Amazon.com’s Author One-on-One: Cheryl Strayed Interviews Emily Rapp

Posted in creative writing, grief

Father’s Day Shouldn’t Be About Grief

Father’s Day isn’t as hard for me as Mother’s Day–perhaps because  my father died in 2006 and I was an adult.  And though I had not  started to think of my 73-year-old father as “elderly” his health was failing.  It had been failing for a very long time.

I often say that we don’t get over loss, but rather we learn to live with it, and it gets better, feels different over time.  My mother dying when I was 13 was the hardest for me.  First of all being 13 is hard for obvious reasons.  And, in my family we didn’t know how to grieve and the word “therapy” was not in the family lexicon.  Dad buried himself in work and he didn’t know what to do.

Debby, Me, and Dad (Chicago 1980 something)

None of us knew what to do, how to relate to each other in this family that no longer had a center, a family whose linchpin had been removed and was spinning out of control.  The centrifugal force ultimately launched us each in different directions, away from each other.  We each tried to re-adjust ourselves to new roles in the family but we didn’t know who we were anymore.


Grandma, Me, and Granddad (Del Mar, 1985ish)

When my grandma died, she was in her 80s and I was in my 30s.  I had always felt so lucky to have grandparents at all since so many of my contemporaries did not.  And when Granddad died (at age 94) it was hard for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that it was in the midst of my sister battling breast cancer. But grandparents dying in their 80s and 90s is the natural order of things.  I still felt the loss, still miss them, but there is no anger or feeling that it is unfair… After all life expectancy in the U.S. is 76 for men, 81 for women. Both Grandma and Granddad did better than that.

And when my Dad died, in some ways it was a relief. His health, as I mentioned, was bad.  And it was bad because he didn’t take care of himself.  He smoked, he drank too much, his diet was filled with fried foods and few fresh vegetables, and he didn’t exercise.  I harbored a secret fear that like my friend Karin, who had been caring for her mother after a debilitating stroke, my sister and I would end up taking care of him.  My father also left a mess: a hoard in his condo worthy of a television show, years of unpaid taxes, years of unopened mail.

Regardless of his faults, his shortcomings, his personal struggles with–well, so many things, I loved my dad.  


Dad eating a hot dog in D.C.

So this Father’s Day I’ll remember the good things. He could be silly, had a sharp wit, he was smart. And he was a great cook and lover of hot dogs.

And I miss him.

Posted in grief

Before and After

thehood copyI’m the president of my neighborhood association–which most days doesn’t mean much.  Neighborhood associations, though sanctioned by the City (of Albuquerque), don’t wield much power though the City does like to get input from us in regards to requests for waivers or zoning changes, respecting our knowledge of and concern for our particular neighborhood.

One benefit of being involved in the neighborhood association is that I get invited to participate in a variety of meetings and workshops (many many many of which I decline).  This past week, however, I attended a workshop hosted by the folks from County of Bernalillo Neighborhood Coordination office.  It was an opportunity to learn about resources that the County offers to support neighborhoods.  One of the resources we’ve been trying to tap into is the Neighborhood Enhancement Grant.

By now you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with Writing and Grief.  Be patient, it’s coming.

joining_hands_color_1_webOne of the neighborhoods that received a grant from the County used funds to support Joining Hands–a community art project that took photographers (neighbors) door-to-door to photograph people’s hands holding something important to them.  They held a variety of objects, but  common themes emerged:  water, musical instruments, rosaries, vegetables from the garden.  The project was also very healing for the neighborhood. An issue had set neighbor against neighbor and tempers were running high.  This project was interactive, and got people remembering how much they had in common.

That got me thinking about what I could do in my neighborhood, and while I like the idea of photographs, I am more interested in getting people’s stories.  Everybody has a story.  I also have an interest in oral history and documentary.  I thought what if I asked every neighbor one question…. and recorded them….

I got lots of suggestions from friends (hello Facebook!):  Can I watch? Where do you park? So how many people sleep in there? Do you have a potato? (from my smart alec friends) and Why are you here? If you could change one thing about your life what would it be? What experience has impacted your life more than anything else? Do you like your life? Are you happy? What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? What scares you? What hurts? (from my more philosophical friends)

Then a friend posted this:

Exactly what I was looking for! You can read more about Candy Chang’s  Before I die I want to…. project, and other innovative community art projects she’s spearheaded. I know I’m inspired!

Most everyone I know has suffered loss–the death of someone close, someone loved.  Maybe it wasn’t the gut-wrenching kind of loss that I experienced when my mother died (when I was just 13) but even the loss of a friend, a colleague, or even a neighbor gives you pause.  It’s  reminder that life is short.  That there are no guarantees and if you want to DO something, you need to DO it, and not put it off.

Grief is always with us and the work of grieving is to find a way to incorporate grief into our lives without letting it bog us down.  Art making, whether it’s the Before I die project or writing a memoir (or poem, essay, short story, novel) is great way to do just that.

What have have you done with your grief lately?

Posted in community art, grief