Grief Diary, 10/4/12


Self-conscious meta-emotion of the moment: Wondering how much all this public documentation of my grief is really helping. At the moment it seems to be — it’s helping me process the grief and make sense of it, and it’s helping it seem meaningful. But I’m also having the self-conscious “am I doing it right?” worry that this grief diary project will make me hang on to the grief for longer than I need to. I’m also wondering if it’s going to seem weird when I start wanting to do it less often. Well, I’m not going to stress about it too much. I’ll cross those bridges when I come to them.

Ingrid continues to be so patient, and so present, and so saying the right thing and knowing what tone to take pretty much every time. Yesterday at breakfast we were talking about the whole meta-emotion “worrying if I’m doing this right” thing, and she said, “You’re allowed two levels of meta. After that, I’m going to smack you with a newspaper.” It cracked me right up.

Had a hard time this morning: insomnia is a bitch, it’s been bugging me intermittently for a while as I’ve gotten older, and more so since Dad went into home hospice and my latest depression hit, and way more so since he died. My mind will not shut the fuck up about things I don’t want to think about, and will not let me switch over to happy fluffy restful thoughts that let me drift off. But much of the day today was okay. Am starting to feel more like my normal self for longer stretches of time. Rick and Ingrid and I took a long walk around the neighborhood: the neighborhood where I grew up, where Dad lived, where Rick lived until pretty recently. It was one of those ridiculously perfect Midwestern autumn days, and we walked and walked and walked, reminiscing, and talking about Chicago history, and admiring the beautiful neighborhood (Hyde Park really is sort of ridiculously gorgeous), and showing Ingrid the place behind Rockefeller Chapel where I used to get stoned in high school.

Tonight we had a small commemorative gathering: not any kind of public event or service, Dad wouldn’t have wanted it and none of us did either, so it was just a few family members and friends gathering to eat pizza and schmooze and remember Dad. We were hosting it at the bed-and-breakfast where Ingrid and I are staying, and I was flitting around anxiously beforehand making sure there were plates and glasses and chairs and clean flat surfaces and no junky crap lying around, and in particular getting very fretful about the exact right place to put one of the two soft comfortable chairs. Rick said, “You’re obsessing” — and I said, “Yes. I know. Every atheist on the Internet says it’s okay for me to deal with my grief however I want to. Right now, I’m dealing with it by displacing it into obsessing over where to put the furniture. Suck it up.” And we all started cracking up. I do love my family sometimes. My brother especially. We’ve had ups and downs, of course, it’s far from idyllic… but most of the time, we can tell each other the truth. I’m beginning to realize how rare that is in families, and how valuable.

Speaking of the truth: I keep waiting for the moment when I wish I wasn’t an atheist, when I wish I believed in God and an afterlife… and it keeps not happening. I’m beginning to think it’s not going to. This surprises me somewhat: Dad is the first person I’ve been close to who’s died since I abandoned any belief in any sort of religion or any sort of afterlife. (There was Jude, Rebecca’s son, who I loved; but he wasn’t around long enough for me to get really close to him. And there were cats, of course, but that’s not the same at all.) I’ve been assuming that this was going to be hard, that I’d be having a hugely hard time accepting the finality and the permanence of this death. So far, that’s not how it’s playing out. So far, facing this death without God feels totally normal. Beneficial, even. I’m not twisting myself into knots trying to make a nonsensical story make sense. Godless grief is hard, but it feels clean.

I get that this isn’t true for all atheists, that some grieving atheists do sometimes wish they believed. That’s totally fine, it makes sense… and, of course, for the zillionth time, we have the repetition of the grief mantra, “everyone does it differently.” But so far, I’m not having that reaction, at all. Some of that may be because Dad himself was a big old atheist, and facing his death without God feels like a way of honoring him and remembering him and keeping his memory alive. And some of it may be because my own atheism is now so deeply ingrained in me, such a central part of my philosophy. Falling back onto religion just seems alien. I’m way too familiar with all its weaknesses to see it as a useful or desirable crutch.

The commemorative gathering was good, by the way. Me and Rick and Ingrid; a friend of Rick’s; our aunt; some cousins I haven’t seen in ages. It was good. A little weird at times: more “schmoozing and catching up” than I’d been expecting, and not as much formal “telling stories and memories about Dad.” There were some poems that some relatives who couldn’t be there had suggested we might read, and we never found the right time to stop the conversation and do that, and that felt a bit awkward. It’s making me see the advantages to an organized service commemorating a death instead of an informal social gathering. But I think this was something that Dad would have enjoyed if he’d been here, probably more than a formal service. Just sitting around shooting the shit, telling funny stories about our childhoods and wild years, and comparing notes on New York pizza places, with pictures of him propped up on a nearby table.

I am wishing we could have read the poems, though. So here they are. The first is one that Dad loved, and recited often — especially the lines with the profanity. The second is from the Spoon River Anthology, which is strongly iconic in our family, and it’s the one Dad read at his own mother’s funeral: it speaks more to her life than it does to his, but the last few lines are very on-key. And the third is so perfect it almost scares me.


i sing of Olaf glad and big
by e. e. cummings

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but—though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments—
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds, without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightaway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but-though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skillfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat—
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you


Lucinda Matlock
by Edgar Lee Masters

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed —
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you —
It takes life to love Life.


Lines on Retirement, after Reading Lear
by David Wright

for Richard Pacholski

Avoid storms. And retirement parties.
You can’t trust the sweetnesses your friends will
offer, when they really want your office,
which they’ll redecorate. Beware the still
untested pension plan. Keep your keys. Ask
for more troops than you think you’ll need. Listen
more to fools and less to colleagues. Love your
youngest child the most, regardless. Back to
storms: dress warm, take a friend, don’t eat the grass,
don’t stand near tall trees, and keep the yelling
down—the winds won’t listen, and no one will
see you in the dark. It’s too hard to hear
you over all the thunder. But you’re not
Lear, except that we can’t stop you from what
you’ve planned to do. In the end, no one leaves
the stage in character—we never see
the feather, the mirror held to our lips.
So don’t wait for skies to crack with sun. Feel
the storm’s sweet sting invade you to the skin,
the strange, sore comforts of the wind. Embrace
your children’s ragged praise and that of friends.
Go ahead, take it off, take it all off.
Run naked into tempests. Weave flowers
into your hair. Bellow at cataracts.
If you dare, scream at the gods. Babble as
if you thought words could save. Drink rain like cold
beer. So much better than making theories.
We’d all come with you, laughing, if we could.

Grief Diary, 10/4/12
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

14 thoughts on “Grief Diary, 10/4/12

  1. 1

    Greta, I feel so much for you right now. I relate to so much of what you are saying. My aunt died of lung cancer at 48 earlier in the year, and I remember feeling so many of the things you have said. The worry over if I’m grieving ‘too much’ (because like you, it didn’t change my daily life, and also I wasn’t even particularly close to her. She was just kind of a fixture in my best memories of my childhood.), or ‘not enough’ (like feeling guilty that certain parts of the funeral didn’t have me crying), the hyper awareness of my surrounding and little details I’d never normally remember. All I can really say (even though you would know this already) is there will come a point when you feel like yourself again. Obviously things won’t go ‘back to normal’, it will never be the same again, but you will shake that feeling like this is your first day thinking with a brand new brain and operating a body with all new limbs. If that makes sense.

    I know you know all this already, and I hope I don’t sound patronising. I found while I was grieving that it did help to be reminded that this state of mind is temporary, and you will have that solid base to come back to like you’ve written about.

    Also, it didn’t occur to me to appeal to God at all when I was grieving, I found myself relying totally on the strength of my relationships.

  2. 2

    Greta, I’ve been a fan of your blog for quite a while, but haven’t commented at all (I did meet you and Ingrid briefly at TAM9 two summers ago). As a formerly anonymous online reader de-cloaking for a moment, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you publicly tackling highly personal and uncomfortable subjects like grief, death, mourning, depression, and mental illness here, especially while in this early raw stage of suffering a major loss. I’m an atheist, skeptic and queer man who has struggled with protracted depression and grief; both of my parents are long gone (one from suicide), and, more recently, I went through the awful experience of the illness and deaths of my two dogs. A big godless hug to you. I am confident that you will get to the other side of this painful period, and will be wiser and more compassionate for having gone through it, as well as becoming an even more capable and insightful activist and writer. 🙂

  3. 3

    I’ve had ‘noisy mind’ from time to time. Mindfulness meditation really helped with it. It’s like paying attention to your breathing with out taking control of it. Instead of focusing on your breathing (a good neutral place to start) you do the same with the thoughts that are in your head. You find one that’s making noise, notice it’s there but don’t fall into it. Repeat the process for as many distracting ideas that there are floating around.

  4. 4

    Greta, as I learned when my brother died, there is no such thing as doing it wrong. Other people may want you to go through certain stages and behaviours of grief, but that is because they are assessing how much energy they themselves are going to have to put into comforting you and want to check the timetable. Call me cynical (“Hey, you’re really cynical!”).

    When Nick died I felt sorrow, relief, guilt, rage (at him and at me). I wanted him back so I could have the pleasure of killing him myself. I wanted to ask him why. I wanted to kidnap him and get him into treatment. I wanted a time machine. I wanted a memory-eraser. I didn’t get any of those things and I learned to live with it.

    It fucking sucks but it WILL be alright.

  5. 5

    I also have a lot of trouble with insomnia, and something I’ve found to help a lot are audiobooks. I just put a couple of chapters (an hour or so worth) on the playlist, and not only is the voice extremely soothing, but listening to the story keeps me from entering a worry-loop, thinking about my problems and stressing myself out of sleep. I’m listening to the Wheel of Time saga, because the fantasy style allows me to start dreaming and is so completely off my everyday problems I can just turn my brain off and listen until I find myself sleeping. Some nights it works better than others, but it always works better than being alone with my thoughts.
    And if nothing else works, don’t be afraid to ask your therapist for some sleeping pills. Not getting enough rest is a sure way to aggravate one’s mental health even in the best of times.
    I’m rooting for you to feel better. The death of a loved one is always so very hard, but in time you’ll find your comfort and closure, in whatever form it appears. Internet hugs****

  6. 6

    “You’re allowed two levels of meta. After that, I’m going to smack you with a newspaper.”

    This really made me laugh, as did the “This is how I’m dealing with it – suck it up!” You’re fortunate to have such a wise and understandign family.

    Re insomnia – my wife struggles with it. Her solution is to keep books of color patterns, fashions, interior design, etc near the bed. She finds that losing herself in color & shapes for a few minutes helps turn off the internal dialogue. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  7. 7

    One of my best friends lost his mom a few years ago, when he was a senior in college. I was telling him about this series and how intense but inspiring I’m finding it to be. He asked: “What exactly does she write about?”

    I said: All the layers of meta. Wondering if you’re doing it right. Feeling bad for being happy. Feeling bad for being sad. Feeling weak for needing to grieve and also feeling stupid for thinking that because it’s completely normal to grieve.

    The look of recognition on his face was instantaneous and unmistakable.


    I’ve never experienced the death of someone very close to me. I’ve lost a handful of great-* relatives… great grandparents, aunts, uncles, but none of those people were a huge part of my life. The only big, deep grief I have endured was at the end of a long-term relationship, and while that was also very real it was very different than experiencing a death.

    I come at these posts from a very different place, from the perspective of someone who dealt with all the big crushing emotions of depression before I’d ever experienced a loss for which such feelings were appropriate. I was severely, suicidally depressed for the first time at 14 years old, and I’ve experienced similar episodes (of somewhat varying severity) for a few months at a time every year or two since then. I’ve avoided hospitalization thus far, but apparently my diagnoses are statistically scary enough that my insurance company gladly throws coverage for all the drugs and therapy I could possibly want at me in order to keep it that way.

    The strange side-effect of my experiences with depression is that I experience large losses with all the same pain anyone else would experience… but accompanied by a great deal of relief. Because when I feel emotional pain for an actual REASON, I have the reassurance that it is normal and purposeful and surmountable. I know that I have (eventually) escaped entirely purposeless fogs of pain, so trudging through to the other side of ‘normal’ human grief seems…doable.

    This sense of relief doesn’t change the horror of the every day experience of recovering from a major loss. And I know, for all I think I know about pain now, when I first lose a parent or a lover it will undoubtably be a new and terrifying experience. This is just one of my levels of “meta” grieving: “Well, it could be worse: you could be feeling all of this for no reason at all.” Meta-grieving can be it’s own kind of torture, but it also can give you the momentary distance from the emotion that you need to keep moving forward.


    I don’t know why I’m telling you this exactly, except that I feel that what you are doing here is important and powerful. Obviously, I only want you to do it as long as it is actually helpful to you and not any longer, but I do hope you know how grateful I am that you are putting it out in the world. The experience of living in a brain/body undergoing huge emotional turmoil is a terrifying one, and I think that is particularly true for those of us who like to think of ourselves as rational thinkers. There is nothing like tragedy to remind you how very bizarre and unpredictable the human mind can be. You showing that here matters. You expressing all the layers of the experience, good bad and confusing, in your amazingly honest and clear and insightful way… that helps.


  8. 8

    I’ve also grappled with the question of whether I would want to have some sort of a belief in a god when someone died.
    When my abusive mother died, being godless was a great thing. I felt quite relieved to not have a belief that she is still out there, existing and being her hateful self in another realm.

    When my mother-in-law died, I grappled with it yet again. I realized that I don’t need to believe that she still exists somewhere. I know that the memories of her still exist in my memory and in the memories of my husband and my children.
    That is how we honor her – we somehow always find ourselves telling her delightful stories when we get together.
    I told my new daughter-in-law all about her as I taught her some of Mom’s best recipes. I know that we will all keep her memories alive when we pass on those stories to our grandchildren, who haven’t been able to know her.

    I often find myself telling “Mom stories” to people that I meet. My favorite is this: Mom was a short little southern lady who raised four rambunctious boys. I once asked her how she survived with her sanity. She looked up at me, batted those gorgeous blue eyes, and drawled “Honey, who says I’m sane?” I’ve now raised her five rambunctious grandchildren and I’ve stolen that line.

    So, we can be godless, but keep the memories of our loved ones alive in our minds.

  9. 9

    I have had that meta-emotion thing since I was 7 years old. A couple of posts ago you called it a “straw-Vulcan” response. I think that really is a good way to describe it; literally, in my case.

    I spent a lot of time then trying to emulate Spock, convincing myself that this was what smart people did. Eventually, of course I found a lot of that repressed emotion leaking out in all sorts of bad places…

    Eventually I got into the habit of unpacking it in low-stress ways, and at times when it was easier to deal with. You have what psych patients colloquially refer to as Your Shit to take care of and to clean up, but that can’t mean you have to come unhinged about it.

    I like to compare the process to moving house; some people hire dozens of movers, and turn their lives upside down working 24/7 until the new place is all perfect and ready for visitors, and some people (like me, and I suspect, like you) pile everything except a few essentials in the garage and and just go through it a bit at a time when there’s nothing good on TV.

    At this point, in my case, it’s a little difficult to do any differently MY father died in April of last year, and I not only kept my cool, but I would have felt that any OTHER reaction would have been putting on a false face.

    So… I guess what I’m saying is that letting you be you MIGHT JUST MEAN being as many damn levels of meta as you find yourself using naturally. Who and what your father was to you means as much as it does, and complex dissociations collapse naturally once they’ve served their purpose. Poke at your feelings about What Happened, and let how you responded be its own thing.

    All that said, I wish you well.

  10. 10


    Good line about the ‘metas’ but I don’t think they are necessarily layered. I find they open into unanticipated lines that diverge or parallel each other.

    For me (avoiding the false organization of list form) they include: Grief for the woman who died. Grief for the love lost and the youth wasted. Grief for my old suffering. Grief for the sorrowful mess of (hetero)sexual culture. The wish to uproot my learned behaviors around being a man, and to wear my heart on my sleeve. My sense of aging like fine milk while re-suffering decades of loss. etc. etc.

    The hits keep coming without organizing themselves into anything so organized as layers.

    The occasional swat with a newspaper may be of its own benefit, especially when it is wielded by one with whom you share a loving trust.

  11. 11

    I’m just catching up here… I am so sorry about your dad, my condolences.

    When my father died I didn’t think I would make it for a while, the grief was so overwhelming. Fortunately I live on a farm, and it turns out that goats don’t really care if you suddenly burst into tears and start sobbing. They don’t tell you not to cry, or it will be all right, or try to distract you because your grief is making them uncomfortable or something. They simply accept you no matter what you do. Well, as long as you also feed them. They’re pretty practical.

    Sometimes I wish that we still had that tradition of wearing black clothes to show we’re in mourning. When my father died I felt pretty isolated and alone, but I quickly found out that it’s actually a pretty big club. It seems that if you could somehow signal that you are in mourning, people would know to cut you some slack. That you might do something like put the milk back in the cupboard, instead of the refrigerator, or suddenly forget how to run those credit card machines.

    I hope your grief diary helps you. I think it would be valuable to see where you are now, and where you are next week, or next month or next year. You don’t get over things like this of course, you just learn to cope with them, or they get so they’re not so overwhelming. It would be good to see your change by keeping track.

  12. 12

    […] Christina lost her father. She’s bravely keeping a public diary of her grieving process. Yesterday her thoughts on grieving without God came up:I do love my family sometimes. My brother especially. […]

  13. 13

    My father loved shaggy dog stories and knew hundreds of them. Every time I heard a new one I’d try to remember it so I could tell it to him the next time I saw him. Even though my father died several years ago, I still pay attention when someone tells a shaggy dog story and stick it in my memory even though I’ll never be able to tell him another one again. Grieving by remembering jokes may be unique but that’s how I deal with my father’s death.

Comments are closed.