Grief Studies

Closed Borders

Prick us
and we bleed
like all animals.|
And prick each other
we do
with guns and bombs and
fear most of all
until we see an enemy
who does not look like us
as though our own tribe
were not capable
of the same atrocities.
Like the snailwe pull ourselves inside
our imaginary walls
and close the doors—
or think we can.
But the guns and bombs
are just tools,
the real enemy not other people.

When we look at each other
only through borders
we can’t see
what a wide and splendid world it is.

–For Beirut and Baghdad and Gaza and Paris, Nov. 14, 2015

Remembering Nick Bucci on World AIDS Day


That spring, a cold one, not enough
years later,
the trees bloomed on St. Mark's
like reborn, slumming angels,
petals blowing in drifts
like the snow we never had that winter,
like the year before
         and the year before
and the year you died
when I could not see them
for what they were.

Your ashes, long scattered,
carried by soles and skin and air
through the five boroughs, Times Square,
the summer fire updrafts of L.A.,
ride the high atmospheric winds
across the world on new wings
or form the core of raindrops, ice crystals, cloud.

Outside: a warm October drizzle,
the leaves
just tinged with color, impossible
to think that it would ever snow
that you would ever become
just a memory,
a film of dust, rain-streaked.

© Lee Kottner 2010

Jean Courtney 1960-2010

 JeanJeannieMy friend Jean Courtney took her life yesterday and I hardly know what to say. This is the first friend I've lost to suicide, and though Jean and I had talked about it, and I knew it was an idea that she seriously entertained on her darkest days, I did not know she'd reached that point again. At left is Jean in May at my house, right before she was going to meet some old friends from high school in Parkchester. She seemed chipper then, if a little apprehensive, and determined to get the most out of her "up" mood, as if she knew it was going to disintegrate soon, as it did.

Very shortly afterwards, she moved into a new apartment, which she found very stressful but was pleased about, I think. There were some other stressful events and she let us all know that she wouldn't be visiting her Facebook account for a while. Then today, on her last post, her ex-husband (or wasband, as Jean called him) informed us that Jean had "passed peacefully from this life" at her apartment yesterday. Apparently, she left a beautiful note behind, though I have not read it.

Jean and I knew each other from our days at AKRF, when we were in what later became the Publications Department. We were somewhat less than editors, something more than mere word processors for the company's quite technical environmental impact statements. It was often high-pressure, deadline-driven work held to exacting grammatical and stylistic standards for which we were responsible, and Jean bore the pressure with more grace that the rest of us who worked there. She had a fantastic sense of humor, loved comedy and jokes, movies and celebrities, and could almost always find the humor in just about any situation. "Did you see [name of movie]?" she would say. "This is just like that scene where . . ." and it was! And the similarity would leave you chortling. Here's some of the movies she listed on her Facebook page: "Young Frankenstein," "A Clockwork Orange," "Religulous," "The Room," "My Suicide," "The Aristocrats," "Rear Window," "Borat," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Pulp Fiction," "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "North by Northwest," "All About Eve," "Bourne," "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Memento," "American Beauty," and "High Anxiety." You can see she had a taste not only for clever comedy, for for the darker dramas and psychological thrillers, as well as political satire. If the movies you like are some indication of what kind of person you are, Jean was clearly pretty complex.

In those days, Jean was a seeker. She was enthused about, by turns, just about every brand of New Age spirituality that came along, and some not so New Age, serially monogamous to all of them. She studied Sufism, reiki, and about a million other brands of faith and woo that I could not keep track of, all in the quest for happiness, or at least some explanation about why she was in so much pain. I tried to respect her search, but they always seem to fall short of her expectations or needs, some more than others, when the practitioners turned out to either have clay feet or be outright charlatans. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to be the type of person that the unscrupulous and predatory repeatedly take advantage of, emotionally and in other ways, something that contributed to her depression. It's not that Jean was an unthinking sucker; like all my friends, she had a quirky analytical intelligence, but I think her emotional need made her a little desperate. Once she'd seen through whatever flavor of the month religion/spiritual shenanigans she'd been involved in, she could be brutally analytical about their shortcomings.

We lost contact for a while when we both left the company but had gotten back in touch again about two years ago. Since then, I saw or spoke to Jean a couple dozen times, in various states of happiness. We ran into one another again at a Patti Smith/Television concert where we ogled David Byrne and Brian Eno hanging out in the back of the crowd with us. At some point prior to this, she had been hospitalized for deep depression and suicidal thoughts, gotten a psychiatric diagnosis and gone on disability, which actually seemed to be a relief to her. I think she felt she knew what was wrong now, and could stop searching for answers and just concentrate on being healthy and happy. She was seeing a couple of therapists and getting some good drugs, and confronting and dealing with traumas in her past, especially some of the harm done her by predators and the woo practitioners, about whom she was intending to write a memoir. From the stories she told me, it would have been a hell of an exposé.I wonder now if that might have been part of what broke her. I know she endured a lot of awful slander on some of the discussion boards she'd been on and some of the things people said about her were unconscionable, especially in people who are supposed to be following some kind of spiritual path.

There was a time when I would have been judgemental about Jean's suicide, but I've come to understand how, for some people, that can seem like the only sensible solution. That that is true is the real tragedy. For all the fantastic chemicals we now have for treating various kinds of mental illness, they're not by any means a cure-all. They work for some people and not for others; they work for a time and then not at all. They only alleviate some symptoms and not others. And sometimes the side effects are so horrific that it's better to be off them than on them. And our society does not treat the "mentally interesting" as Jean called herself, very well. When they can get disability, they live on the edge of poverty, if not right down in it. Housing is scarce, often substandard, and may take forever to get into. Funds to support you while you wait are laughably (cryingly, sobbingly) inadequate, for the most part, especially in an expensive city like New York. If your family wants nothing to do with you, or is the source of your problem, that makes it even more difficult. Who do you rely on then?

One of my friends told me "it's all right to be angry with her," when I posted about Jean's death, but I don't feel angry with Jean. I feel angry with the people who contributed to her pain because they were too fucking self-absorbed or selfish or greedy to not hurt someone so vulnerable. I feel angry with a social system that does so little to support its weakest members. I feel angry at all the people who took advantage of her. And I feel deeply grateful to all the people who did help her—friends, relatives, social workers, psychiatrists, other medical and mental health professionals—even if it wasn't enough.

I understand Jean's choice, though I wish she had not made it. I wish she had called me. I wish I had called her. I'd been intending to this weekend, to see if she wanted to go to a a concert with me. Over the summer, we'd gone to see a couple of movies together—"Iron Man 2" and "The A Team, which we'd both enjoyed tremendously. We both loved Robert Downey, Jr., in t he former and Liam Neeson in the latter, and were laughing at exactly the same inside jokes in "The A-Team." We're probably the only two people on the planet who really liked it. Jean was a lot of fun to go to the movies with because she gave herself over to them whole-heartedly, in the spirit in which they're meant to be watched, the way kids do. We laughed! We cried! We had a great time! I was looking forward to seeing many more movies with her in the future, and getting to know her better. I always expect to get a lot of wear and tear out of my friends, and at 50, they're too young to be dying, especially of despair.

When I saw Jean last summer after I came back from China, she was quite depressed, but struggling valiantly to claw her way up out of that black pit. We met for coffee and I gave her a little jade pendant of Quan Yin, the Chinese Buddha of Compassion, the one that always spoke most to me, because I thought she needed it more than I did. The world is hard on gentle people like Jean, and I hope that pendant gave her a little comfort, insubstantial as it is. One of her last posts on Facebook was a link to raise money for the Muslim cabbie who'd been stabbed by a drunken, bigoted student. She had plenty of compassion of her own, for other people, but there didn't seem to be enough around for her.

I'll miss you, my friend. Whatever comes next, if anything, I hope it brings you peace and happiness. And if there's nothing, at least the pain is done. I really hope you're laughing your ass off somewhere with George Carlin.

poem a day: #6

BNFMoi I'm sort of cheating on this one because I actually wrote it last week just after Natasha Richardson's funeral. I was thinking then about how hard it is to come back to the empty house. I remember how awful it was after Dad died and Mom was already gone, and I was alone in a house that used to hold three people and snotty cat. At least Liam has his boys, which is both worse and better. Anyway, the prompt today was to write about what's missing, and this was far better than what I actually wrote. I found it in my teaching notebook when I was rewriting what I started this morning and I decided to swap them out, because this is actually a good poem, and still pretty new.

    After They’re Buried

The worst is when it’s over
and everyone else
goes home,
leaving you
with what’s
an absence, a lack:
one less
place at the table,
the vast space
in your bed.

Worse still, the superfluities—
the extra chair,
clothing you can’t wear,
books you would never read,
the hole filled in
with dirt, mounded up,
the urn heavy with ash.
And the undiminishing echo
of blood rushing
or spilled or, finally,

© Lee Kottner, 2009

Natasha Richardson, RIP

Cry in your beer Moi  

The Accident

He crouches beside her,
the space too small for his tall frame
even were he the one tucked in blankets, like she is.
He folds himself onto the narrow seat
and holds her hand through the flight,
through the long, uncomfortable drive
to yet another hospital,
this one closer to home,
as she held his
when it was he laid out here.
When he lay there, he could feel his bones
grinding, already cracked,
and now it’s his heart, because
she feels nothing.
He caresses her face with outsized hands
(an ex-boxer’s hands, blunt, thick, rinsed
of brutality now)
as he has done
for fifteen years
and two children—boys, a year apart
—prays they won’t be motherless
so young,
and he a widower.

There is little hope.

Or so I imagine
from the news reports.
But it needs little imagining, and
the actors need no names.
Not long ago, it was my mother
and a stroke,
and my bantam dad
held her hand too,
and like Natasha,
she never knew that last caress.

© Lee Kottner 2009

The Bereavement Club

Cry_in_your_beer_moiThe mother of a friend of mine died last week, while the friend was home visiting. The death was sudden—and quick—with her mom doing much the same as my dad did: dying in someone arms, in this case, her eldest daughter's, my friend's. She's the only one to have moved away from the hometown and seems to be having the roughest time of it, which doesn't surprise me; it's always hardest when you're not there all the time. No matter what, there's a sense of guilt wrapped up in that. But because she's an observant person and analytical, she's been watching and reporting on the reactions of her siblings and father, and comparing them with her own.

It's a natural reaction, I suppose; I remember buying books to see if what I was feeling and what I was doing in reaction to my parents' deaths was "normal." It took me a long time to realize that there is no normal. As I wrote her a few days ago, it's one of the most universal of experiences and also one of the most personal. It's different for every person and different for every loss. So much affects it: circumstance, cause, age, length of illness, our own emotional make-up and baggage, the culture we grew up in, and the culture we live in now, our religious beliefs, our own spirituality—and how other people around us act.

My friend was unlucky enough to run up against the same rigidity of religious custom that I was when I was arranging my mother's memorial service. It came out nothing like I wanted and said nothing about her. My friend had a little more luck than that, but why it should be an issue at all is beyond me. The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over what's "proper" or "traditional." The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over anything, frankly, to do with showing respect for the dead.

Burial customs seem far more fraught and freighted than marriage or birth customs, I suppose because there is so much guilt wound up in death, even if we haven't aided or abetted it, or even neglected the person while they were alive. An awful lot of people seem to be very invested in "doing it right," whatever that happens to constitute in your particular culture, regardless of what the dead person might have wanted. My friend Helen has made it clear that she'd like Van Morrison blasting at her memorial service and an open bar. When one of her cousins heard this, her response was "Not if I have anything to say about it!"

But why should she? It's Helen's choice. That's like planning someone else's wedding for them (which is certainly done, and far too often I might add). When my dad died, there was no memorial service, no funeral, no nothing, because that's what he wanted. I sent him off with a toast to the Old Soldier from Mike and Brian, and scattered his ashes in the woods by myself. I'm sure that was viewed as extremely cold by the rest of his family, but that was what he wanted, and he'd made that clear for years. And when Mom died and he didn't want to go to the memorial service I had for her (such as it was) I didn't insist that he go. I knew it wasn't because he didn't love her; it was because social situations of any kind make him extremely nervous and because he was really broken up and didn't want to cry in public. What purpose would it serve to torture him about it? He was already miserable enough.

The idea that funerals are for the living seems just an excuse to make them another occasion for reinforcing social norms. No ceremony is going to make that person any less "gone" in your life or make the pain of losing them go away. What it often does instead is provide a lot of hard feelings and rancor among the living. Death seems to bring out the worst in us, probably because we're all so damn scared of it. I think what they really do, especially Western funeral customs, is tidy the dead away so we don't have to deal with them. They remove us from the process and the reality and turn it into a sanitized monetary transaction that can just about bankrupt the survivors at the hands of the unscrupulous.

But this is the kind of conclusion you come to only after you've gone through the actual mourning process itself, during which even the best and most level-headed of us will generally lose at least parts of our mind. It's a release for some, a relief for many, the most painful thing they'll ever experience in their lives for most of us. It makes us stupid, impulsive, angry, depressed, and somewhat crazy. You can't really hold people responsible for much of what they say and do when they're grieving, you can only support and love them and hope they come back to themselves eventually.

I'd originally written "get over it" but that's nuts: you never get over it, no matter how reconciled you are to the idea. There's a point at which people's patience with you tends to run thin, so I think many people "act as if" but really, you're never over it. It crops up in the middle of the night, or at odd moments and the next thing you know you're weeping. That's a lesson I learned the hard way, too. My family has obviously always been pretty pragmatic about death and I was pretty much ready for both my folks to go when they did. By that I mean I could see it coming, knew it was inevitable, but didn't realize what a shock it would still be. It's been nearly four years since Mom died, and my friend's mother's death brought it all back to me in a kind of sickening rush, blind-siding me. Losing one or both of your parents is an initiation into a club that nobody wants to belong to.

This is really why we send flowers and cards, I think: to welcome the living into the Bereavement Club. The dues are harsh, but the company is good.