And Now, Some Unsolicited Advice For the Recently Widowed

Hush little baby, my poor little thing
You’ve been shuffled about like a pawned wedding ring
It must seem strange, love was here then gone
And the Oklahoma sunrise becomes the Amarillo dawn
What’s important in this life
Ask the man who’s lost his wife

–Chrissie Hynde, “Thumbelina”

 

Hey! Grieving folks! Lost your husband or your wife or your significant something-or-other in the not-too-distant past? Me too. My condolences. The one-year anniversary of my sudden widowing (don’t call it Angel Day or any of that crap around here) is fast approaching. I’d like to offer up some unsolicited advice from what I’ve learned over the past year, so those of you more recently widdered can be forewarned:

  1. Your loved one will stubbornly and selfishly persist in not coming back. So sorry. The sooner you realize and accept this, the better. I know; it sucks. It will continue to for quite some time. Unless you’re secretly happy about it (which I am definitely not).
  2. Don’t make any major changes for at least a year or so. Don’t move house, don’t quit or change your job. Unless you really, really hate your job, or can’t keep it because you’re now the sole caretaker of minor children. Everyone’s mileage will vary, some by a lot.
  3. Expect to be an object of pity for a good while. People will look at you differently. Expect them to think of you as “that poor soul.” They’ll also be keeping a surreptitious eye on you to see how you’re really doing. This can be very disconcerting if you’ve been accustomed to thinking of yourself as a strong, independent man or woman about town, or at least a hipster worth admiring. Instead of “Joe, the cool dude,” you’ll be “So sorry about Joe, poor bastard; he must be really miserable. Maybe I should put him on suicide watch or start not-so-surreptitiously spying on him and see how he’s coping/caring for the kids, so he can be even more miserable. In any event, I’ll start avoiding him except for the semi-obvious surveillance.”
  4. You need to say “The hell with this widow/widower thing” every once in a while. Get out and enjoy yourself. Caveat: If you consider something specific and say “It’s too soon,” it’s probably too soon.
  5. Contrary to the old trope, in my experience time doesn’t stop, but it does warp. Sometimes it will seem like forever since The Death, sometimes it will seem like days, or even hours. Clocks and calendars will become mere suggestions.
  6. Similarly, it’s normal to lose interest in politics, the quotidian doings of your Facebook friends, and what’s happening around the office. If you can take some time away from what now seems inconsequential, avail yourself of the opportunity. Time can be both your enemy (why was I left behind?) and your friend (take all the time you need, and don’t pay attention to people who suggest to you that dreaded phrase It’s Time To Move On. Only you can judge that for yourself, as there is no Grief Czar around your house but you).
  7. Other widders and widderers are valuable folks to connect with. Yes, their circumstances will be different from yours, sometimes vastly. Grief knows no distinction of age, race, class, or intelligence. With good fortune — yes, you may still be the beneficiary of that — you will find your way through the maze. But it will take some time. I hope to let you know when I see daylight. I hope you live to see yours.

Tourists in the Country of the Grieving

So this makes eighteen blog posts by which to measure my grief, since initiated on the nineteenth day of this most widely despised year in a horse’s age. Last year my tally was three, so if you insist on people having things to be thankful for this year, I can at least count not having writer’s block (as well as, OK, not having to deal with Microsoft Excel on a regular basis).

Four of the posts really had nothing to do with the grief thing, so then: Fourteen.

Four days to go, still, so count this an encore. (I don’t know if the organist at a funeral home expects an encore for his dirge, but I wouldn’t be offended.)

Is that enough?

Will anything ever be enough?

Anyway, Facebook bugs me. I should probably avoid it on the days that some beloved musician or actor dies, so I don’t become more enraged than usual at the grief tourism on display. The way things have been going of late, that would mean more time off of The Social Media than on. Probably not such a bad thing.

By grief tourism, to define the term, I mean people complaining, even affecting a guise of sackcloth and ashes (surely this should be an Instagram filter, Pseudogrief Pro II), about things that don’t affect them personally. Deaths of musicians and actors both celebrated and obscure, whether they kicked off at 27 or 97, none of whom they ever, probably, met personally, much less had any kind of relationship with; politics and elections, always tawdry at best, horrifying at worst; real issues of social justice and the environment, which do matter, but it’s hard to tell whether the concern for any of these causes go more than Twitter-deep.

I like my friends (the real ones), I do. I can’t expect all of them to understand what I’m going through, when I barely understand it myself. It’s still a new country, but it’s mine. The other inhabitants of grief land all have their own reasons for being there, their own particular horror stories, and I don’t understand all of them perfectly, just as they don’t understand me. But we’ve all been handed a similar parcel that we never wanted and been told: Deal with this.

As for social media grief tourism, it’s been going on for much longer than a year, but, with the admittedly awful election just past, everything has gotten stuck in a feedback loop. Alan Rickman dies, or Prince, or Harper Lee, or Gene Wilder, or Patty Duke or Garry Shandling or Ali or Elie Wiesel or George Michael or Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds, and the tributes pour in, and I’m sorry about all of them but, you know, I started out the year watching my wife and life partner die in a hospital room, and then was left to figure out the rest of my life, so you might excuse me that it angers me when people complain about 2016 being so awful when they themselves are, by any measure, doing great, and I have no patience for the tributes and reminiscences by those who, by any measure, didn’t know them beyond their public face. To scan a Facebook feed (mine, anyway) is to consume a constant stream of this person died, that person died, happy birthday to someone who died years ago, death, cancer, riots, misery, death, political horrors, and more death. It’s hip to be a grief tourist.

clueless_tourists

Yup. Dead, dead, dead.

But why lay claim to misery you didn’t earn?

Not like misery is such a great thing to be in. It’s miserable. But at least I came by it honestly.

To the grietouristcartoonf tourists, I say: Sorry, but you can’t spend the whole year on Facebook bragging about your family and friends and your extensive travels (Venice! Colorado! Hawaii! France! Alaska!) and how great everything is, and then throw in something about how 2016 sucked, and you can’t wait for it to be over (because obviously, come January nobody will die anymore).

You’re clueless tourists in the land of the grieving, I might say. You wear shorts and bathing suits in churches, you take photos of the bereaved relatives and post them to your page, you set out a picnic in the cathedral built of skulls.

I am open to the possibility that maybe after you die, you realize that dying was the best thing that ever happened to you. But you’re not supposed to know this yet.

We’re not supposed to know this yet.

Because it’s beyond the parameters of the game.

And so we keep playing.

It’s My Birthday, So Worship Me For The Day, Part 2

donna_wes_2009_birthday

Mrs. Pogoer and me with birthday cake, around the time of the fateful dinner.

So to continue with the birthday theme from where I left off over five years ago, this tale begins a couple of years prior to that. It’s a prequel, as it were. As has been previously established, my late wife Mrs. Pogoer, a/k/a Donna, and I shared a birthdate — same day, same year, me being all of eight minutes older, yadda yadda yadda. And this year was one of those joint birthdays that ended in a zero, so I felt considerable self-administered pressure to Do It Up Right.

We — or, rather, I — decided to spend our birthday dinner at a celebrated restaurant outside of town. This eatery — let’s call it Thames on the Creek — specialized in gourmet preparations of wild game, and although this wasn’t Mrs. Pogoer’s favorite cuisine by a long shot, she very graciously decided to humor me and accompany me there for “my” portion of the birthday festivities. In my defense, it was a place I’d wanted to visit for a very long time.

Not too long before these events, I had contracted with a major travel publisher to review hotels and restaurants in Austin and environs. When we arrived at Thames on the Creek, Mrs. Pogoer mentioned to the server that I was a restaurant reviewer, perhaps hoping to score an extra complimentary dessert in addition to the double-birthday cake that most half-decent restaurants provide for the occasion (writers know how to work the angles).

While the wife ordered wine and a salad, I busily set about ordering the likes of venison tartare, salamander mousse, bison bites with Béarnaise sauce, and rattlesnake cakes with chipotle remoulade (not the exact things I actually ordered, but you get the idea). I tackled the offerings greedily. After all, hey, it’s my birthday! Our birthday! One that ends in a zero!

And so we celebrated the amazing accomplishment of not dying for 12 months. And at some point, Donna noticed that I was turning green around the gills. My gorge was rising as a result of scarfing down one or four unfamiliar foodstuffs, and I bolted towards the restroom, where I threw back a toilet stall door and vomited up assorted wild game and wine into the bowl.

Donna was sufficiently alarmed to phone 911 and call for the EMTs, and within ten minutes or so an ambulance pulled up and, once in the entranceway, I groggily submitted to various checks for life signs.

Management informed Donna that the meal was comped for both of us. I don’t know whether this was because of the upchucking or the fact that I was an off-the-clock “restaurant critic,” but I’ve never been so embarrassed to get a free meal.

And the moral of the story is…All things considered, we should’ve just gone to the Melting Pot. She always liked that place.

We didn’t stay for desserts; I’d already received mine, and it was just.

 

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Widower Sitcoms, Celebrity Grief-O-Rama, Standing Rock, and Similar Diversions For the Discerning Media Consumer

Until his wife died last April, I had only the slightest bit more knowledge of the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s existence than he has of mine, which is to say nil.

Let’s be clear: I am truly sorry for Oswalt’s devastating and untimely loss, and that he now has to raise their seven-year-old daughter by himself.

Nevertheless, as a card-carrying member of Reluctant Widower Nation, Parents of Minor Children Subdivision, I believe I’m entitled to say this: Compared to some of us, including me, he has it relatively easy.

Mr. Oswalt is responsible for raising one neurotypical, probably bright and delightful seven-year-old girl. I am raising two 11-year-old boys, one of whom is nonverbal, with developmental and learning delays (although they fall under the big autism umbrella, my late wife and I were and are highly dubious about applying the A-word to what’s going on with the boy).

On top of that, Oswalt has a huge fan base and presumably extended support system, including over three million Twitter followers and over half a million Facebook likes. I don’t begrudge him any of this — he earned it by dint of the original, amusing and sometimes poignant stuff that comes out of his brain. I know he didn’t ask for the role of Celebrity Widower, just as I didn’t ask for the role of Occasionally Humorous Grief Blogger, but here we both are.

I don’t know what kind of grief counseling Oswalt is getting, but for most widowers, it doesn’t include appearing on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, where he compared his new life to “every bad ’80s sitcom” in which “there’s no punchlines, there’s a lot of insomnia, there’s a lot of me eating Cheetos for dinner…”

Except for the part about Cheetos (I can manage to put together semi-decent meals for myself and the boys), this is familiar ground. There are nights when I stay up far too late watching Donna’s old cabaret videos on YouTube, or just mindlessly surfing through Internet detritus, or playing Clash of Clans on my son’s iPad, or just watching whatever’s recorded on TV. Anything to avoid facing the lack of being part of a duo.

So what would my sitcom resemble? Perhaps something like “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” if you’d give Eddie a nonverbal special-needs twin and lose the housekeeper. Or crossbreed “My Three Sons” with “Speechless,” “King of the Hill” and  “Married With Children” or throw in a spinoff to “Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon and Amy are the parents of two very different fraternal twins, one nonverbal, one too smart for his own good.

More recently, Oswalt wrote this honest, engaging piece for GQ magazine. Among other things, he said, “It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen.” I can, also, relate to this; I feel much the same about my late wife as he does about his, an extraordinary person gone from the world for no discernible reason.

Add the awful political year we’ve just gone through and the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our nation, and it’s no wonder I’m feeling burned out on pretty much everything on top of the first year of widowerhood. Lately, too, I’ve found reading my Facebook feed to be intolerable, due, I suppose, to the constant barrage of posts about Trump and Clinton and the Electoral College (the latter of which I’ve railed about in the wilderness for years; evidently, it takes the horse escaping to get anyone interested in closing the damn barn door). Then there’s the business with the pipeline and the Native Americans and the standoff at Standing Rock, ending in an apparent victory for the protesters, which I suppose is a good thing, but the truth is I can’t bring myself to care the least bit about it. In fact, the primary reason I’m relieved the standoff is over is that I won’t have to read about it every fucking day on Facebook.

I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about this. People without immediate pressing personal problems have the luxury of caring about social justice issues. Right now, I don’t have that. This is an important thing to remember.

I won’t be signing petitions for anything any time soon, and I don’t feel bad about it. If anyone objects to this, that’s their problem, not mine. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel compassion; I just need it all for myself, and my immediate family, right now. We have lives to run.

Today I Am A Man

Many years ago, I remember seeing a cartoon depicting a pubescent bar mitzvah boy at the bimah (altar of a synagogue), addressing the crowd: “Today I am a man.” Down in the congregation, two middle-aged men snicker knowingly at each other: Yeah, sure, kid.

Since becoming widowed early in the year, I’ve wondered what the typical reaction is among my fellow widderfolk to this particular and very unwelcome life lesson. Of course, although certain general patterns can be observed, when you get down close enough, every reaction is unique.

And I wonder: Is this the final lesson that life has to teach us? For me, that lesson, at the moment, seems like this: You will be loved, if you’re lucky, but just know that all those who loved you will die and leave you bereaved — or else you will die and leave them bereaved. Drink a wedding toast to that.

Is the acceptance of death — your own death — the true marker of maturity? More than marriage, parenthood, self-sufficiency, all those positive things? Does the negative really end up overwhelming all the positive things in life?

Or is it not a negative at all? What dreams may come, as that guy once said?

for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

Or to put it another way, maybe we’re not supposed to know what happens after; it’s not part of the parameters of the game we’re inside of.

One thing’s for sure: Childhood ended a long time ago. And even my 11-year-old sons, who must soldier on without their loving mother, are living a real-life version of one of those cruel ol’ Disney cartoons, like Bambi or Dumbo. Except that their father is still around, and hopes that will be enough, hopes that it will be enough in the end to forestall catastrophe.

And he hopes he will not succumb to bitterness and anger for the rest of his days, having seen very clearly, with personal intent, what life has revealed itself to be.

“Today I am a man…”

Here’s what not to say to grieving people over the holidays

You can find tons of articles online with titles like “Why It’s Great To Be Single For The Holidays.”

Widowed for the holidays? Not so much. Especially the first go-round.

“The holidays must be hell for you,” one friend messaged me on Facebook.

“I know the holidays must be difficult. Thinking of you,” said another.

Actually, I want to reply, I was doing rather well until you messaged me and told me how crappy I must be feeling. I know you meant well, but seriously: Next time, just say “Happy Thanksgiving” and leave it at that. Or just leave me alone.

Because you are just making things much, much worse by telling me I’m supposed to be depressed.

 

I know my wife died. I am trying to make things as normal as possible for myself and my two sons.

Stop rubbing salt in the fucking wound, OK?

Kirk out.

Saying You’re Grieving Because Your Candidate Lost is Insulting to Actual Bereaved People

i-began-2016-wonka-memeLast week the inescapable Lena Dunham posted the following quote on her Instagram account, now making the rounds as a quasi-meme in certain liberal corners of Facebook. Dunham attributes the quote to Rabbi Joel Simonds of University Synagogue, a Reform Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, “incorporating the words” of the renowned early 20th century Torah scholar Rav Abraham Isaac Kook:

Today marks the seventh day of grieving and sitting Shivah for the loss of our country and the woman who inspired us, reads the post.

As Judaism teaches us, after seven days of Shivah we stand up, we emerge from the dark, we do not have to accept, we do not have to move on, but we stand up! So today we emerge from the darkness. We are taught that the righteous do not complain of the darkness but rather create light. Today we begin to create light and we do so as the resistance and we fight and fight and fight for good, for love and for justice.

I’m all for the part about resistance and fighting, which is all well and good in the standard activist tradition. This is a high-class text-only meme with a liberal arts degree, with neither an accompanying photo of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka nor any sarcasm at all, but — leaving aside the questionable assumption that Hillary Clinton is the moral equivalent of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama— I’m deeply offended by the grieving and Shivah bits.

I don’t want to make this post about me or my particular problems, but I suppose it can’t be avoided because since my wife died 10 months ago I have become an unwilling member of a special interest group: call it Widower Americans, or Recently Bereaved Americans (RBA for short; let’s define “recent” as up to two years, at which point it’s generally deemed socially acceptable for your family and friends to start telling you to suck it up and start dating again, because it’s time to move on). How can I get non-members of this group to understand how I feel when others say they’re “grieving” or “in mourning” or, gag me with a spoon, “sitting Shivah” as a result of the 2016 election (which gets double bonus points for offending me both as a bereaved person AND a Jew)?

Please, people, let’s clarify our terms: saying you’re “in mourning” because your candidate lost an election is an insult to the genuinely grieving.

Even if approximately half of the US population now knows something of what it’s like to be a widower (because Hillary’s candidacy died, along with their vicarious hopes and dreams that went with it), that still doesn’t make it OK to say you’re grieving.

You go into mourning when your spouse dies, or your parent or sister or best friend. Not when your favored candidate blows an election. Period.

I’m not denying that people are lately feeling upset, devastated, horrified. So am I. I don’t lack empathy for what they’re feeling. I don’t deny that a lot of people are in shock. When they talk of sleeping an excessive amount (guilty of same since Donna died), or gaining weight (I’ve packed on some 20 pounds this year), I can relate.

Still, when liberals say they’re “grieving” it hits me like cultural appropriation. That’s what I’d call it whether it comes across as insensitive mocking or grief tourism, hanging with the cool kids— the way I imagine Native Americans feel when they see Cleveland Indians fans donning headdresses and war paint at the ballpark — or a more complicated case of a misguided but apparently sincere desire to “pass” as an oppressed minority (see Rachel Dolezal). You want identity politics? You’ve got it. If you’re not an RBA, don’t try to come off as one.

As this Boston Globe article makes clear, grief counseling for despairing liberals is a real thing — as is the predictable response from Trump supporters in the comments section, as they crow about the need for boot camps for the “snowflakes” and “wimps” who have been cosseted their entire lives with participation medals and talk of being “special” and are totally unprepared to deal with defeat of any kind, and need to, as many Star Trek fans have been told for years, “get a life.”

Although I don’t think people who say they’re “in mourning” should be mocked in this fashion (that’s Trumpstyle bullying, plain and simple), I do see them as seriously misguided. In general, I’d say to anyone: if you haven’t lost anyone close to you, STFU. If you have, you should know better than to equate personal loss with political defeat. Death is permanent: your person is gone from the world, forever. Politics is transient and temporary; today’s victor may be defeated in a couple of years, forced to resign, even sent to prison. If your candidate lost the election, you might want to organize, recruit, and work for a better candidate next time. That’s not to say I’m not deeply depressed about this election and the coming horror show that seems as inevitable as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: at this point we can all see that the ocean has withdrawn, and we’re waiting for the deluge to flood the village. But to me, talk of “grieving” and “mourning” is still insulting.

When McCain lost in 2008 and when Romney lost in 2012, to my knowledge no Republicans went around saying they were “grieving” or “in mourning.” This is one reason why they ridicule liberals. Yes, I know: Donald Trump is different. He’s appalling, ignorant and dangerous, the people around him are appalling and dangerous in similar degree and a real threat to democracy as we’ve known it for our entire lives. I’m still offended by talk of “grief” over an election. Grief is when your spouse or parent or child dies. Politics is temporary stuff, it is. The pendulum swings back and forth.

People have picked fights with me on Facebook recently when I expressed these feelings. You’re not respecting or honoring my feelings, they say.

Since when are your feelings sacrosanct or beyond discussion, I’d reply. You seem not to respect mine at all.

As I wrote in a previous post, we need a new word or term for the feeling this election has engendered. Not mourning or grieving. Perhaps ‘electoral shrouding’ would be OK, or ‘election-loss hangover.’

And if we can all be a bit more sensitive toward each other’s perspective, that would be a good place to start to plan our next moves.