Progress report

Four months ago, I wrote on this blog that grief takes time. Now, just over a year after my dad’s death, I can reaffirm that statement: grief takes time. It’s worth repeating, because our society promotes the myth that you’re done with grief in a few weeks, or, if it’s really bad, maybe a few months. Which brings up an interesting anecdote about the mathematician Paul Erdos, told by another mathematician and reported in the book The Man Who Only Loved Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman (New York: Hyperion, 1998), pp. 143-144:

“‘I was walking across a courtyard to breakfast at a [mathematics] conference,’ recalled Herb Wilf, a combinatorialist at the University of Pennsylvania, ‘and Erdos, who had just had breakfast, was walking in the opposite direction. When our paths crossed, I offered my customary greeting, “Good morning, Paul. How are you today?” He stopped dead in his tracks. Out of respect and deference, I stopped too. We just stood there silently. He was taking my question very seriously, giving it the same consideration he would if I had asked him about the asymptotics of partition theory. … Finally, after much reflection, he said: “Herbert, today I am very sad.” And I said, “I am sorry to hear that. Why are you sad, Paul?” He said, “I am sad because I miss my mother. She is dead, you know.” I said, I know that, Paul. I know her death was very sad for you and for many of us, too. But wasn’t that about five years ago?” He said, “Yes, it was. But I miss her very much.” We stood there silently for a few awkward moments and then went our separate ways.'”

In this anecdote, Wilf represents the typical attitude of our culture: get over your grief quickly, and five years is certainly too long a time to feel sad over a parent’s death. But consider that Paul Erdos was born a Jew in Hungary in 1913: while he was able to leave Hungary, he lived through two world wars and a Communist dictatorship; many in his family were killed by the Nazis, and his father was imprisoned in a Siberian gulag; he was blacklisted from entering the United States during the McCarthy era because he was from what was then a Communist country. I think there’s something in American culture — particularly upper middle class (i.e., college educated) white American culture — that wants us to believe that life is perfect, and wants us to reject anything that challenges that belief. Erdos had a more realistic understanding of life, an understanding that was not predicated on denying real problems, and so he felt free to feel very sad about his mother’s death five years after she had died — to the awkward bewilderment of Herb Wilf.

Progress report

Seven months after my dad’s death, I can tell you (as if you didn’t already know) is that grief takes time. At the rational, conscious level, I often feel as though I’m moving at the same pace that I always do. But then I look around, and see all the housework that isn’t getting done, and all the little things at work that aren’t getting done, and I have to acknowledge that I’m not getting as much done.

I think, though, that when it comes to hands-on work, like housework and growing things and making things, I’ve lost very little efficiency; whereas the less embodied tasks, things like checking email and project management and the like, are taking lots more time. I said I think this is so, but I already know that while I’m grieving my rational self isn’t good at thinking about and judging myself.

I am now bored by grieving. Last week, I was so bored I climbed up on a stepladder and cleaned the cobwebs in the high peaks of the kitchen ceiling, something that I haven’t done for two years. Yesterday, I was so bored I cleaned out all of my tool boxes, made a tool roll for chisels and one for files, and a toolbox for handsaws; in the process I found things I thought I has lost: a chuck key for an old drill, a whet stone, a pop-rivet gun.

But I find I have less tolerance for sitting at a computer. Screens narrow your field of view, and disconnect you from the real world of manipulable things. And, as we are now learning by watching the mental health of teenagers, computers induce and increase anxiety, often to pathological levels; grief is enough; I don’t need to add anxiety.

In short, I’m about where I’d expect to be: grief, so they say, bottoms out in half a year, and I do feel as though I’m on the upward trend.

Winnemucca, Nev., to San Mateo, Calif.

On a whim, we decided to stop at the Thunder Mountain Monument near Imlay, Nevada. Frank Van Zant, who determined that he was partly descended from Creek Indians, decided to build a monument to the American Indian. The monument consists of buildings, fences, figures sculpted in concrete, junk sculptures. The monument tells a non-linear story about the destruction of Native American peoples by peoples from Europe. Van Zant changed his name to Chief Rolling Thunder.

But there’s a back story. Before he started work on the monument, Rolling Thunder’s wife died, and one of his children committed suicide, according to a 2010 article on Smithsonian.com; and the first figure that Rolling Thunder made was a sculpture of the son who had died. In this monument, personal grief is mingled with grief arising from genocide and racism.

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Rolling Thunder’s grief proved overwhelming, and luck was not with him. His followers began to drift away. An arsonist set a fire that destroyed many of the buildings that were once part of the monument. His new wife left him, taking their children. He committed suicide in 1989.

The monument is slowly decaying: vandals and the weather are both taking their toll. It has been declared a state historical site, and looks like there is now someone living on the site to watch over the monument. It would be possible to descend further into grief, and declare it a tragedy that the masterpiece of an outsider artist is not being maintained. I prefer to view it from another vantage point: this is a work of art that exists in four dimensions, where the fourth dimension is time. Some things are fading away, but some of the sculptures seem to me to be improving with time: they are becoming more pointed in their message, more urgent, more real.

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Grief happens over time. If you try to freeze it so that it cannot change and evolve, that can get you into trouble. You need to move forward with it, towards the light.

We stopped at the Donner Pass trailhead for the Pacific Crest Tail, parked the car in some shade, and started out on a hike through the Sierra Nevadas. It was a perfect day for hiking: cool mountain air, a pleasant breeze, a clear blue sky overhead. We hiked for an hour and a half, talking idly about this and that, then turned around and hiked back. I stopped to look at a Williamson’s Sapsucker; Carol stopped to photograph glacial erratics.

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After three hours of hiking, we got back to the car refreshed and happy. We sat under the trees at the edge of the parking lot and ate our picnic dinner. And we arrived back at home at about 10:30, tired, content, and different from when we set out.

Murdo, S.D., to Big Springs, Neb.

This morning, before we did anything else, I had to sign a legal document relating to my father’s estate in front of a notary. We stopped at an insurance agent’s office, and the woman who greeted us said the person who was a notary was out, but her father-in-law up at the Ford dealership was a notary, so she called him and he said to come right up. We drove the three blocks up the hill to the Ford dealership across from the Jones County Courthouse. As soon as we got out of the car, a smiling man who had been talking with some people on the sidewalk greeted us and said he was Terry, the man we were looking for.

He took us into his office, made a couple of photocopies for me, and put his seal on the documents I signed. When I asked him how much I owed, he smiled and said, “Not a thing.” I was beginning to get the idea that everyone in Murdo, South Dakota, was friendly and courteous. I walked across the street to the Post Office to mail the documents, and everyone there was friendly and courteous. We stopped at the grocery store in town to get some vegetables, and everyone there was friendly and courteous, too. Murdo seemed like it might be a pleasant place to live.

We drove south on U.S. 83 over rolling prairie, down into valleys where small swift rivers shaded by a few stands of trees, then back up onto the almost treeless prairie. We were really in the Great Plains now. At Valentine, Nebraska, we turned east and drove four miles to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Here we got our first introduction to the Sand Hills of Nebraska: we went for a hike in what we knew was the prairie, but the soil was almost pure sand in places and we sometimes felt like we were hiking up a grass-covered sand dune at the beach on Cape Cod. Yet we were more than a thousand miles from the ocean.

While we were hiking, someone from the refuge rode by on an ATV. He stopped, and asked where we were going, and he said we should be fine but if we saw a buffalo we should keep away from it. Indeed, as we walked along we saw buffalo tracks in the sand, made probably early that morning: big cloven-hoofed tracks that went a couple of inches deep into the sand. But we didn’t see any buffalo, so when we finished our hike we drove east a mile along a gravel road to the summer bison range. And there they were, grazing, and running around in the grass, and rolling in the dirt of the road.

Bison, Fort Niobrara NWR, Neb

I am fascinated by the Nebraska Sand Hills, and I persuaded Carol that we should stop at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, just a few miles south of Fort Niobrara, to see more of them. We walked the half mile trail up to an observation tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and looked out at the strange landscape: huge areas of dull-green grass-covered sand hills, the hills a few hundred feet higher than the low-lying flat lands; the flat lands were either large shallow lakes, or bright green marshlands. The sand hills made weird shapes on the horizon, and they were steep enough in places that you could feel it in your legs when you climbed up them.

Valentine NWR, Neb

We arrived in Big Springs, Nebraska, at about half past six. As we drove into the motel parking lot, Carol saw a man with a bicycle. She said, it looks like he’s riding across the country. And sure enough he was riding across the country. His name was Tayo, he had started in Seattle, and he was headed east to his home in Maryland. Carol asked if she could photograph him, and I asked if I could put the photograph on my blog, and he gave his permission.

Tayo, Big Springs, Neb

We asked him about his route, and how it was riding all that way, and then Carol asked him if he was riding for any particular reason. He said he was riding in memory of his son, who had lost his battle with depression last summer. I asked how old his son had been, and he said sixteen. I have his ashes right here, Tayo said, pointing to the rack on the back of his bicycle. He said he had been fine most of the day today, but it hit him about twenty minutes ago. I said that my father had died three months ago, which was not nearly as bad as losing a child, but that it came in waves. He nodded; it came in waves.

Tayo’s bike had gotten damaged earlier today, and while we were talking he was waiting for the rural shuttle to arrive and take him to North Platte where he could get it fixed. The shuttle pulled up, we helped him load his bike into the van, then we exchanged email addresses, and away he went.

After we brought our luggage into our room, I realized that a wave of grief had just washed over me, so while Carol talked with her friend Kirsten on the phone, I took a walk across the Platte River and back. I was fine when I got back; getting outdoors is the way I deal with those waves of grief. During our trip this summer, the best I’ve felt has been when I’m outdoors: fishing off the end of a dock at Lake Winnebago, spending a couple of hours looking for birds in Great Meadows in Concord, camping out in Maine. I can understand why Tayo wanted to spend several weeks riding his bike through hundred-degree heat and rainstorms, and cool cloudy days like today.

Short practical guide to grief

You can find tones of books about grief, but (speaking as a minister) I haven’t seen a short practical guide to grief — the practical things I find myself saying to lots of people right after someone close to them (spouse, parent, child, sibling, etc.) has died.

Everyone is different and experiences grief differently, but many peole experience the following:

— The first seven to ten days after the death, the grief is pretty raw. You may find yourself bursting into tears at the slightest provocation; and if you find yourself laughing at some memory the next instant, that’s normal too. It often helps to be with family, or if you don’t get along with family, then to be with good friends. You know how Jews sit shiva for a week after someone dies? That makes total sense. If you only get two or three bereavement days off from work, still you can cancel all your other commitments.

— After the initial shock and raw grief, numbness sets in for most of us (thankfully) for about three months. The grief is still there, but you can pick up with your ordinary life — although from the outside you may look a little out of it at times.

— When that initial numbness wears off, often about three months after the death, that can be the toughest time. Co-workers, friends, and family often expect you to have moved on with your life, and no one is bringing you dinners at home, or treating you extra gently. But here’s the grief, coming in waves, back again as strong as ever. Because grief tends to come in waves, so you might be fine one minute, than overtaken by a wave of grief the next. Be careful when driving!

— For most people, grief lasts about 18 to 24 months. The first year is often the hardest, and the first anniversary of the death can be very tough indeed. In fact, do yourself a favor, and don’t plan anything big on the first anniversary of the death — or do something like plan to have the gravestone installed, or some other commemorative thing like that.

OK, that’s the basic timeline. Remember, grief comes in waves, so you can be fine one minute, and not very functional the next — one minute you might have energy to start working on a project, or start cleaning the house, or whatever, and the next minute about all you can do is sit and cry.

Remember to eat regular meals, you need the energy. Exercise is a good idea, too. Don’t forget to sleep. Breathing is also a good idea; nice slow relaxing breaths can help a lot.

And of course, the reason I’m finally writing this post is that my dad is about to die. So this is a good way of reminding myself of what I need to pay attention to.