12 Don’t Do’s

(All photos are from last week’s visit to Le Petit Palais in Paris, where the boys wanted to go to mark our wedding anniversary.)

This is the twenty-second post I’ve tried to write since my last posting. I’ve thrashed around in thought, and thrown every last draft away.
All insufficient. All too much.


All these lurching starts:

In a study on grief conducted at Yale University. . .
In a study on major loss conducted at Columbia University. . .
In a Stanford University survey on bereavement. . .
In a Mayo Clinic study on the physical repercussions of traumatic loss. . .
In The Other Side of Sadness from George Bonnano. . .
In Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s The Truth About Grief. . .

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In church meetings on Sunday after the Sandy Hook shooting rampage, I sat dizzy with sleeplessness and sorrow, holding my arms crossed stiffly on my lap, a posture I felt would help contain the emotions boiling behind my sternum. Six and seven-year-olds surrounded me. I tried not to stare at them too intensely, tried not to feel too much, focused on not letting tears come again, since I imagined tears would confuse and frighten those around me, especially the children.

That’s when Tina, one of my Primary children, appeared from nowhere. She draped her small fresh body dressed in white and lavender frills across my lap.

“It’s my birthday today,” she whispered as she looked up with her missing front teeth and haphazard ponytail. Then she wriggled onto my lap. I dropped my head onto hers, closed my eyes and smelled her hair. I felt how her small hand – it weighed as much as a passing memory – stroked my sleeve.

“You know, today I’m turning this much!” she lisped, her eyes lively, alive. She held up seven fingers. And though I’m sure that in that moment I maintained outward composure (it helped that the pressure of Tina’s shoulder blades pushed against that heaving sorrow behind my sternum), I began crying inside the safety of my mind, sobbing and running and falling through the sloped fields of my mind.



Delving into this topic with anything more than clinical analysis – in other words, with passion, transparency and candor – has paralyzed me. It occurs to me that I’ve never wrestled so fiercely with anything I’ve ever written. My master’s thesis (written a lifetime ago) was a total, flitting breeze in comparison. A pleasure. A joy.

Now, I have to admit to being locked in place with self-consciousness, which has turned into self-incrimination, which has in turn become a deepening swamp of thick sorrow. Everywhere my mind turns, I know there are vital things that need to be said about this topic, the topic I find compelling beyond all others not because it is my story, but because it is the story at the absolute center of all human stories.


Yet everywhere I turn I also feel the pointlessness of trying to say these things.


Because who, really, wants to hear about grief?

And who, really, can stick with it and hear the full and heavy load?


And who, once hearing, wants to bear it?

Who can bear it?


Author Joan Didion, in the first paragraphs of her grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking pins down at least part of the problem as I see it. She writes, “The question of self-pity.”

But when I first read her, it struck me that there was not a single teardrop in the entire volume. Its pages are dry as a bone. Dry as Didion.

Still, critics have called her work a “ploy for pity.”

Know what? You just can’t win.

For me, that question of self-pity arose before I ever read Didion, already in the first two weeks after losing Parker, as a matter of fact, when a few observers of our loss softly warned that we parents should not “dwell on it”, should “move on”, should “be strong” and should “beware of self-pity.”


So before we had really even entered the marathon of grief, we were offered from some on the sidelines instructions about how our grief should be run. Though I’ve long since forgiven the well-meaning onlookers for their unsolicited advice, I haven’t forgotten those words, nor have I let go of Didion. Her voice echos: the question of self-pity. That question follows and hobbles my every move, my every written move.

There are other questions, too. They are the questions that turn my writerly self into an immobile chunk of illiterate limestone:

The question of relevancy.
The question of self-indulgence.
The question of comparison.
Of humility
Of propriety.
Of stoicism.
Of honesty.
Of faith.
Of pain.
Of life.
Of death.


In two days it will be 2013. Another New Year. And I am already bracing myself against the probability that the horror at Sandy Hook (and Aurora, and Norcross, and Jackson, Chardon, Pittsburgh, Miami, Oakland, Tulsa, Seattle, Wilmington, Milwaukeee, Texas A&M, Minneapolis and Brookefield) will end up being no more than part of our nation’s Year In Summary.

Can we do something more than summarize? With regards to grief, can it even be summarized? Can it be encased in words? Is this why writing about it is so hard for me? So intimidating?

So intimate?


Major loss and its attendant grief have been and continue to be the most intimate experiences of my mortality, more intimate than birthing into life or anything associated with producing or giving life. By “intimate” I mean warmly entwined with the Divine while setting me in a place apart from those around me, so many I wish to commune with.

And it is precisely that great difficulty in sharing grief that typifies grief. Grief isolates. That isolation can, if not recognized and met with an empathetic community, engender a kind of chronic loneliness that can lead to crippling alienation.

In other words, grief – misunderstood, misjudged or rushed – can carve a chasm between the bereaved and her community. Grief, in short, can drive her out.

Does it need to be this way? What can we do so it is not?


Recognizing that grief is impossible to summarize, and saying right off that I’m not much of a fan of addressing big questions with little lists, I’m going to begin with a list anyway.

Here are 12 D’s, or 12 Don’t Do’s to consider when faced with great grief, yours or another’s.

(Take heart, they’ll be followed by 12 C’s, or 12 Can Do’s.)


The first point, Deadlines, is where I’ll begin in the next post, since it seems the most common yet damaging of responses to grief. It has to do with the tendency to impose arbitrary time limits on grief and its sister sensation, yearning. The Deadline mentality seems to quip, “Time heals all wounds”, then sets the clock, watching anxiously for living proof of a false premise. The Deadline mentality has been fueled by the globally popularized yet long-since-debunked “Stages of Grief” theory, to which I will return in detail.

Hope to find you here then.

9 thoughts on “12 Don’t Do’s

  1. This is your best post yet. Can’t wait to see what follows! Hurrah for putting your heart and thoughts into articulate words that will lift, encourage and educate us all. Love to you!

  2. Just look around you, dearest. The faces are all around you. You write to us all. But seeing the faces won’t make it easier. I don’t think anything will make it easier. I love you.

  3. sharlee and blue, I’m hearing and heading your advice. Nothing will make talking about this easier, you are right, because humans are complex, loss is complex, we grapple and claw to understand the smallest bit of one another’s experiences. Ah, but in the sincere and inspired attempt, we find something greater than our loss. I’m closing my eyes ad you suggested, Blue, and searching for ears and hearts. You are proof they’re out there. Love above all. . .

  4. Grief can be a lonely road. Then when you feel that all is falling in on you a friend can whisper in your ear…and for that brief moment they help carry it with you. It is an invisible relief that comes and for me causes a smile, because someone else knows. Thank you for knowing and addressing this and being a whisperer (no advice just that you know and you are thinking of me and him) Love you

    • S—I have had this same experience. Thanks for expressing it so elegantly. Some of the most soothing moments in my recent history have come from those who in subtle, intimate ways simply acknowledge the loss. That alone is enormous, given that since his death, we have never had a present (on site) community who has known Parker. we are constantly moving among strangers who, if we desire, must be “introduced” to our son. I know it’s asking much of a stranger to imagine his presence so they can appreciate the dimensions of his absence. But some are able. And so many have been simply magnificent in this regard. Humans *are* capable of divinity! A woman sent me a short SMS or email every month on the date of Parker’s passing, and with that single message, the sky lightened. Another very close friend has fasted every month “in memoriam”.Can you imagine? Another nodded at me from across the chapel at church if ever Parker’s signature hymn was played. She knew. She remembered. She cared and she carried it with me. This sort of shared awareness, I’m learning, is the heart of “mourning with.” Love to you, S.

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