Tag Archives: lists

A Genealogy of Loss

1. My grandmother’s first child was born in August 1942. He died in January 1943. The word baby appears at the top his tombstone. The age 4 ½ months appears on the bottom.

2. He died in the same hospital where he was born. He died in the hospital where my mother was born eleven years later.

3. He died in the hospital where my sister gave birth to her first child. A boy, born in August.

4. All of my grandmother’s granddaughters have given birth except for me. Their first children have been boys.

5. Eleven months after she lost her son, my grandmother gave birth to a girl. She named her daughter for her lost son. Beverly. Bernard.

6. Beverly and Bernard had blonde hair, blue-green eyes. Seven letters in each of their names.

7. Family systems psychologists believe patterns repeat in families. Behaviors duplicate. Addictions multiply. We choose our partners based on our parents, our siblings, our grandparents. We echo their patterns, or repeat them, or break them. Lately, I have been wondering about those patterns. I have been wondering if we inherit misfortune, the way we inherit eye color, hair color, left handedness.

8. How else to explain the patterns of misfortune that cycle through families, a genealogy of loss? Or specifically, how else to explain the patterns of misfortune that cycle through my family, all the sad coincidences?

9. Some researchers believe anxiety travels in our genes. Others says it doesn’t. Who can really know?

10. In college, when I was overwhelmed, my mother told me to make lists.

11. She said, “Once it’s down on paper, you can make sense of anything.”

12. So here’s what I know:

13. When Bernard started to cry, my grandmother called the doctor. She told him her son kept pulling on his ear. She did not believe the doctor’s over-the-phone diagnosis of an ear infection. The doctor did not listen to her persistent pleas. I am afraid the doctor perceived her as a complainer. I am afraid he was a man who did not perceive a woman as credible.

14. When I was pregnant, I started writing about Bernard.

15. I do not know why. Maybe I was afraid I was going to miscarry. Maybe I already knew I would. (Intuition runs in the family.) Maybe I wanted to understand my grandmother in a new way –– mother-to-mother.

16. When I was pregnant, I requested Bernard’s death certificate.

17. A few days later, I started to bleed.

18. My husband tells me correlation does not necessitate causation. He is an ENTJ on the Myers Briggs. I am an INFJ, the most intuitive personality type.

19. A midwife examined me on a Friday afternoon. She told me I’d have to wait until Monday to receive my lab test results. She would not tell me I was having a miscarriage because she did not want to “be wrong and look stupid.”

20. Her doubt fed mine.

21. Even after I peed on a pregnancy test stick and received a negative result, I doubted the intuition that ripped through me.

22. When Monday came, I called to complain about the midwife. I asked for a written apology. My family tragedy was not about her self-perception or lack of confidence or whatever she had going on in her head that day.

23. I am still waiting. I have, however, received a bill for the trans vaginal ultrasound she performed, a procedure that women identify as traumatic. I had two trans vaginal ultrasounds in one week.

24. Bernard died on January 4, 1943. A Monday.

25. Beverly’s first and only son was born in January 1966. He was 46 when he died. His mother was 69.

26. I was out of town when Bernard’s death certificate arrived, but my husband e-mailed me a photo.

27. The cause of death is adrenal hemorrhage caused by bacterial meningitis. No ear infection recorded.

28. The family buried Bernard on June 5, 1943. They had to wait because the ground was frozen solid that winter. Jewish custom is to bury the dead within 24 to 48 hours.

29. All winter and spring, Bernard’s body lay in a freezer, in a morgue.

30. By his funeral, my grandmother was already pregnant with Beverly. I imagine her standing at the grave, full-bellied and overfull of grief. How did she stand there? How did she not slide into the same darkness that held her son?

31. Five years later, she delivered a second son on June 6. Her son lived past infancy. He has survived two sisters and one brother, a mother, a father, a nephew.

32. In Hebrew School, our teachers said ancient rabbis did not consider a child to be a child until it cried. They said a child was not a child until the eighth day, when circumcision was performed, or a name was given. At 13, I thought this sounded like a clever rule. Now, not so much.

33. Jewish mystics believe the number 36 is a symbol for life multiplied. Double chai, it’s called. I conceived at 36. I miscarried at 36.

34. My grandmother lost a child in 1943.

35. I lost someone who has no name in 2017. I lost hope, possibility, my last shreds of faith.

36. But I am making a list. I am trying to make sense of it all.

Bubbie with Bernard

 

 

How to Comfort the Bereaved

1. Do not say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just don’t. Okay? No matter how many times someone has said this sentence to you, recognize its words as vacuous substitutes for real words that actually have something meaningful to say. What reason are children taken too soon from their mothers, or mothers from their children? What reason does your child get to live and another has to die? Luck? Chance? Probability? Suffering is random, indiscriminate. Not personal. When you personalize suffering, you are not offering comfort. You are saying, “You deserved this.”

2. Do not say, “It was meant to be.” See above.

3. Do not say, “This was God’s plan.” I don’t know what kind of god or God or G-d you believe in, but these words make your god/God/G-d sound like a calculating psychopath. Do you really mean that? A glimmer of my own god, which I call goodness, tells me such putrid malevolence can’t possibly exist. Or if it does, it’s called evil.

4. Do not ask, “What can I do?” You might be short on ideas. This is normal. Grief is overwhelming for everyone involved. But now is not the time to give a grieving person one more thing to do –– i.e. authoring your “To-Do” list. Figure out what you can do, and then do it. For example, you do not need to ask permission to leave a meal on a porch. Not a good cook? Leave a bag of potato chips. Anonymous potato chips can be a great comfort. Better yet, start a meal train and/or order takeout.

5. Do not ask “What happened?” You know the answer already, i.e. something horrific. So why are you really asking? Are you afraid this horrible something might happen to you? That’s not surprising. Another person’s loss can force us to confront our own deepest fears, ones we’ve buried so far down we can barely see them. Do not turn away. Call each of your fears by name until they rise up from the deepest part of you. Understand their power. Understand projection.

6. Do not ask, “How are you?” When a rabbi asked me this question at my mother’s shiva, my heart shriveled into a piece of coal, and I said something sarcastic that he well deserved: How do you think I’m doing?

Let me rephrase that now: How do you think a grieving person is doing?

Not so good. Right? So instead of asking this question, offer a hug, a hand, a potato chip. Offer yourself as a person others do not need to perform happiness around.

7. Do not ask, “How can I help?” See number 4.

8. Do not say “Time heals all wounds.” I wish this expression were true. But, in my own experience, time has not been a great healer because, in this world, we have something called “triggers.” Maybe you’ve heard this word. Maybe you’ve even joked “trigger warning!” before you’ve said something that freaked out a lot of people? Or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. So let me explain. Triggers are like giant arrows that rip through time and take us right back to our worst traumas. Sometimes you know what will trigger you, and sometimes you don’t.

For example, the morning I began to miscarry my first pregnancy, I fell to the floor and wept the same way I did when I lost my mother fifteen years before. In that moment, two losses swam inside of me. Mother. Baby. Both gone, forever. And there was nothing I could do. In that moment I was me, the 36-year-old, with a cute house & beyond amazing husband & a horribly behaved dog. And I was the 21-year-old who could not even stand up, because the ground – or what she thought of as ground –– had disappeared.

At best, time can offer perspective. But it’s not a magic suture.

It is okay to be broken open by our losses, to be cracked into a thousand unknowable pieces by them. As Leonard Cohen once sung, “That’s how the light gets in.”

9. Do not say “It’s time to move on.This, by far, is the absolute worst thing to say. A loss can live inside a person forever, and a person can live inside a loss, around it, through it, and on into a life s/he never possibly imagined, a life fundamentally shaped by what has been lost.

Respect the awesome, holy, transfiguring power of loss. Honor it. Build an altar in your heart for it. There is no other way to proceed.