I prefer not to believe in ghosts. I don’t want to know about them. I don’t want to hear about them. I don’t want to think about them. The very idea of ghosts creeps me out. They defy the natural order of things — even if they turn out to be the very stuff of that natural order. Despite my best efforts, I’ve heard too many anecdotes about sightings and sensings that disrupt my precise notions about the do’s and don’ts of living on this planet.
Many years ago, when she was a young woman, my wife asked her father what he thought happened after we died? Was there a place we would go? Did he think there was something more for us? Her dad was an economist and an engineer. He said, “Deb, energy neither can be created nor destroyed.” And that was that.
Not so long ago, Debbi passed away. I have trouble saying “died..” It sounds so final — probably because it is.
As her illness had progressed, I wanted more and more to believe in an afterlife — even if it meant consorting with ghosts. I wanted more and more to believe that such a precious consciousness could not really evaporate simply because the physical container stopped functioning. The sad truth is that what I wanted didn’t really matter. I was just one more person who lost someone dear. It happens to every single person on this planet. But each of us experiences it in an exquisitely personal way.
There is a community of the bereaved. We are not defined by the usual tribal paraphernalia — where we live, who we are, what we had for breakfast, our assets, our liabilities, our personalities, or anything as tangible as possessions or as ephemeral as ideas. Perhaps you can say we are united by a commonality of emotion and the shock that comes from a certain inability to pin it down and express it fully.
It is as if we were culled from humanity and each placed in a separate, empty, isolated room. It is as if we were plucked from our steady, familiar lives, pulled from the everyday routines and dropped into another country. It is as if we were dropped into another country where no one could speak our language and no one could truly know what we wanted or needed.
We are in isolation. Is it self-imposed? Is it enforced by others who have some place to go, somewhere to be, something to do, someone to be with? I don’t know. I suspect it’s a team effort. The inescapable reality of this new, solitary me is that Debbi is gone. Therefore, part of me is gone. It is as if I were an intricate jigsaw puzzle (and who is to say I’m not?) suddenly disassembled, the pieces scattered on the carpet. Really, all I have to do is pull myself together. That's all.
Perverse rainbows made of dark matter
What does grief feel like?
From what I’ve seen, the emotions don’t seem to follow an orderly, consistent, predictable pattern. They are like perverse rainbows made of dark matter.
I think oddly, perhaps pathetically, of the movie “Ghost.” The hero, played by Patrick Swayze, is a deceased but handsome ghost who meets another ghost. The latter spirit (played by Vincent Schiavelli ) haunts the subway platform from which he was pushed to his death.
The subway ghost cries out in mingled anguish, lamentation, and bitterness, “it wasn’t my time. I wasn’t supposed to go. I’m not supposed to be here.” Finally, he shouts, “Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
That’s part of how grief feels to me. No, it wasn’t her time; and it wasn’t my time either. The other components are the usual suspects – sorrow, anger, sadness, guilt, regret, confusion. They do not have the decency to show up one at a time. They snake around each other and form a loose bundle that keeps crashing into my mind. And then there are the memories. The fonder they are, the more bitter they feel. The more rueful they are, the more I need to hold onto them.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” people say.
It sounds a bit on the rote side; but I think it’s the truest, most accurate thing someone could say.
I have sustained a loss.
Is it necessary to catalog the thousand natural shocks she cushioned, the million moments of delight we shared, the memories that I fear will fade, the memories I fear will never go away, all the doings and beings that we won’t have together,
People say, “if you want to talk, I’m here.”
I reply, “thank you; that’s good to know.”
But I think, “She’s gone. Really, what is there to say?”
Something else occurs to me just now, and I am ashamed that it took so long.
The people who wonder if I need someone to talk to, or if they can buy me some groceries, or if I need anything, anything, and even the more casually connected realize, on some level, her passing is a loss for them. Something has been cut out of their lives — even if it were just a dependably friendly wave from a neighbor.
We need to get all the friendly waves we can get. We need to give all the friendly waves we can give.
Nevertheless, I don’t know what to say to them, and it doesn’t matter what they say to me. I’m grieving. For Pete’s sake, if I can’t be selfish when I’m in mourning, when else will I get the chance?
Unfortunately, there’s an answer to the question. The answer is “whenever I want” (else, what is human nature for?); or perhaps the answer is “never” (due to a more evolved spirit or a reflex to submit to the needs of others); or the answer is “sometimes” when I least or most expect it. A word, a name, a movie moment can do it. A make-believe character is killed off and I break into nearly silent, spasmodic sobs that end quickly. This gives me the chance to question my own sincerity. That’ll do until a real hobby comes along.
How are you holding up?
Perhaps labeling a reflexive action as “selfish” is a bit of a vanity, and the games go on.
During her illness, people asked me how I was holding up, I’d reply, “it’s really not about me. It’s about her. She’s doing the heavy lifting.”
Now, when they ask, I reply, "I’m a bit numb; but I’m holding up.”
That’s code for, “it’s about me; but I can’t admit it.”
And that’s code for, “it wasn’t her time. She wasn’t supposed to go. I’m not supposed to be abandoned. Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
I suppose I could say, “The invisible membrane through which our beings nourished each other is hopelessly ripped.” Or I could say, “ There’s a me standing before you who’s trying to figure out just how to be a me, all by himself.”
Until I solve that puzzle, all I have to do to see a ghost is look in the mirror, and acknowledge what is staring back at me.
The “community of the bereaved” is a fanciful notion but it actually exists. There are bereavement counselors and groups, circles, workshops, meetings, etc. across the country. I participate in one that meets regularly under the aegis of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. We talk gently, candidly. We talk about our lives. Details — the stories, the challenges, the fears, and assorted particulars — differ. An unmistakable atmosphere prevails. If nothing else, the oppressive isolation is diluted. In this room, we are safe. We are understood. We can state our feelings without having to explain or justify them to others or to ourselves. We can respect the contradictions imposed by fight or flight. We even can find a little bit of light. Maybe not a white light with all those other production values; but a light that allows us to see who we are and where we are and if we are.
The reassembling of my jigsaw puzzle is a work in progress. As it proceeds, some completed sections will be familiar and, no doubt, some will be missing. If my navel contemplation mode is switched on and working, I might be surprised to see what is gone and what remains. It will be a kind of healing, and I have absolutely no idea what its characteristics will be.
I can’t wait to see the expression on my mirror’s face.