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.

The Year of the Unthinkable: Reaping the Whirlwind and All That

Think of this as one of those Facebook posts that get out of hand and you start writing one thing after another, and your Facebook friends have to click “more” and then scroll down, and scroll some more, until turning back there is none. So indulge me.

Really, I blame the Chicago Cubs. Their World Series victory fractured the delicate equilibrium of the universe and let loose the genie from the bowinteriscomingttle, ushering in the apocalypse. Yeah, that makes as much sense to me as anything. Let’s go with that. Fuck the Cubs. This is on them.

What does 11/9 feel like (that’s the American 11/9, November 9, month first, for my European readers)? 11/9, the new 9/11 (“9/11 we’ll never forget, 11/9 we’ll always regret,” as some Twitterers have it). 1938: Kristallnacht in Germany. 1989: The Berlin Wall falls. 2016: Trump upsets Clinton. Four days of massive disruption, one of them good, three really, really bad.

What does this 11/9 feel like? The day after 9/11. Lennon’s murder. Maybe Princess Diana’s death. Or Jackie Kennedy marrying Ari Onassis. Or Kirsty MacColl killed by a millionaire’s speedboat. The dream is not only dead, it’s been stomped, shredded, and passed through the digestive system of a mule.

We have gone down the rabbit hole. There is no escape.

In the end, nothing could save us. Investigative journalism didn’t help. Sketches on SNL didn’t help. The Access Hollywood tape didn’t help. Bruce Springsteen, Gaga and Beyoncé didn’t help. Joe Biden didn’t help. Even Barack and Michelle, bless ’em and we’ll miss ’em, didn’t help.

For some of you, 2016 has been a year filled with death, loss, and major disruption, either long-distance (Bowie, Prince et al.) or too close for comfort. Some of you have spoken of waking up from a nightmare and then realizing it was real, of curling up in a fetal position, of finding solace in getting very drunk or stoned (silly me, the only remotely comforting thing I had on hand that night besides my kids was ice cream), and that last night was the worst night of your life.

Since my wife Donna died just last January, which still seems like only a few weeks ago, this isn’t even close to being the worst night, or day, of my life (or second, or third, or fourth, and way on down the line). One of the advantages of getting older is that you have reference points, things to compare bad experiences to when they happen, to be guideposts. Still, the election of 2016 is…something new. At one point late last night, I realized that about half of the country suddenly had some insight, if limited, in what it was like to be a widower. Hillary, rest in peace. Yes, she was a flawed candidate and not the most exciting politician in the world, but capable of reasonable governing and moving the country forward. First woman president dreams, rest in peace (at least for the time being). Snide memes about smashing the patriarchy, rest in peace. Lesson: Don’t count your chickens. Be humble. Lose the entitlement aura. Work for what you want. Don’t just care about yourself. Work for the common good, if such a thing still exists.

I might also add that saying you’re “in mourning” or “grieving” because your candidate lost an election is an insult to the genuinely grieving. This is something I unfortunately have firsthand knowledge of. You go into mourning when your spouse dies, or your parent or sister or best friend. Not when Hillary Clinton blows an election she should have by all rights have won (and by the way, it’s all right to be angry with her about that; I know I am. To appropriate a Massachusetts reference from a few years back, she’s become Hillary Rodham Coakley, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the best pre-2004 Red Sox fashion).

We need a new word for the feeling this election has engendered. Not mourning or grieving. Perhaps ‘electoral shrouding’ would be OK.

Donna would have been appalled at this seemingly endless election campaign, and certainly at its unbelievable actual end. She had strong opinions; she didn’t march in lockstep with anyone but was in general a progressive Democrat with a heart and an activist bent. She marched, wrote, posted online, stuck bumper stickers on her car and placards on our lawn, block-walked with local candidates and even hosted an event for one. She could argue with the best of them and hold her position against the most skilled enemy volleys. Yet she maintained friendships with women holding diametrically opposed political views and was able to separate the person from their politics, a vanishing skill. She saw commonalities, sympathized with struggles. I hope I can live up to her example.

Many of you have spent the last year warning ever more shrilly of the danger Trump poses to the republic, our shared values, or what’s left of them. Now, on November 9, we can’t just say “Forget it, it doesn’t matter.” Because it does.

Unlike some of you, I’m not looking for a silver lining or making jokes (at least not any more than I can help). I don’t see any silver lining, don’t think this is funny at all. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, even antisemitism have won the day. Don’t let fascism take over. Protest when you must, when you feel you can make a difference. Write. Sing. Paint. Code. Tend your garden. Donna wouldn’t think of expatting, if that’s even a verb.

And a special note for those friends of mine who live and die with politics and elections: I admire your fortitude, but if you tie your personal happiness to which candidate wins, which policies become law, and which pols do and don’t let you down, you will, without a doubt, condemn yourself to a life of misery which will only deepen with the years. If you don’t have one, find yourself a meaningful life outside of politics, or sports, or TV show.

Frankly, I’m way too exhausted at this point to even think of tackling a “to-do list” or “get back to work,” as some of you suggest, to further try to usher in the socialist workers’ utopia that never actually arrives. I’m getting older every day and though I’m fighting the urge to say “I’m done,” I’ll just say I’m done for now.

What did I tell my kids the next morning? I told them that I’m sorry Trump won, and that I didn’t vote for him. Then I sent them off to school.

Live from the rabbit hole, I’m T. Coraghessan Eichenwald. Back to you, Chet and Nat.

Suzanne Vega and me: not quite Lincoln and Kennedy, but weird enough

I’ve known for some time that I share a birthdate (born on the same day, July 11, and the same year [look it up if you want] with three professional musicians: my late wife Donna Young Eichenwald (double bassist and recorder soloist, performer in symphony orchestras and smaller ensembles along with Manhattan cabaret rooms and piano bars), the singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega (fine writer and singer, many hits and albums to her credit), and Richie Sambora (former lead guitarist, singer and songwriter for Bon Jovi). I’m not a professional musician, but music has played a central part in my life and I’ve written about music and the people who make it for various publications and still do. So make of that what you will; I don’t know what to make of it myself, but here we are.
A while ago I started following Suzanne Vega on Twitter, and from this have noted another very odd coincidence: she has two cats, named Cinnamon (who resembles our late cat Lightning) and Caramel. I know this from her posting photos of them. I have a dog named Cinnamon, and once had a hamster named Caramel.

And oh, yes, I have a son named Luka (not named after that Vega song, though; that would have been too weird). My Luka was, by the way, the one who named our pets.

Also, although Suzanne Vega was born in California, we both spent our early childhoods in New York City, her in Manhattan and me in Queens.
And so this year I decided to dress up like her for Halloween. Why? It was just time for it, I guess. I wouldn’t really call it a feat of dressing in drag (drag lite?) because Vega has kind of an androgynous, quirky look anyway. Don a top hat, auburn bangs, dark jacket and slacks, maybe slather on some red lipstick and tote around an acoustic guitar and a large green apple (this from the cover of her 1996 album “Nine Objects of Desire”), and you’re pretty much there. (So to recap, this year I cosplayed as Suzanne Vega, Suzanne Vega dressed up as Carrie Brownstein, Carrie Brownstein dressed up as Lena Dunham, and Lena Dunham dressed up as Amy Schumer. Just kidding…)
Trick-or-treating with Luka — who, on his own initiative, dressed as the character Dippy Fresh from the carton “Gravity Falls” — I got people guessing Tiny Tim and Slash, and many quizzical looks from candy-dispensing householders as I was the oldest trick-or-treater they’d seen that evening or perhaps ever. After I told one man on the street who I was, he responded, with some deliberation, in a Texas accent, “Suzanne Vega. I would not have guessed that.”
I posted photos to Facebook and also got William Tell, Arlo Guthrie, the subject of a Magritte painting, Fiona Apple, even Leonard Cohen. One person, another music hound, got it correct.
In my other life as an arts-and-features freelance writer, I occasionally interview singers and/or songwriters. I tried to interview Ms. Vega once, but her people never got back to me. It seems to be a lost opportunity. Maybe someday I’ll get that interview, or at least a selfie.
I don’t have everything in common with Ms. Vega, it must be said. I’m not a recording artist. I was never married to Mitchell Froom. Nor am I a Buddhist. And I think she can carry off a top hat much better than I can.
No offense, Suzanne. I’d rather be associated with you than Richie Sambora, in any case.

The day my wife died

I’ve been writing about a lot of different subjects for a long time, much of it for publication, plenty that nobody’s ever seen besides me.

So I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of writing. But I’ve dreaded putting these following paragraphs on paper; it was a task that called to me to be done, but I procrastinated from one day to the next. And finally here I am sitting in Donna’s old office, at her desk, typing these words on her computer screen (get it over with; you’ll feel better).

I never intended to write confessionals, but getting personal is what I’ve been doing over the past several years, even — sort of — against my will. I’ve struggled with deciding when something gets too personal — when a writer’s instinct to lay it all out there conflicts with my own need for privacy, and for respecting the privacy of family members and friends.

I don’t know whether reading this will help anyone, whether it’s any good, whether it will even speak to anyone else’s experience. This is something no writer really knows, no matter how much success they’ve had or failed to have.

Write what you know, they say. This is a story I was intimately involved with. I was a witness to my wife’s death. This is what I experienced that day.

At the start of the day my wife Donna died, January 19, 2016, I was as hopeful as I’d been for the past two weeks she’d been in intensive care that she would live.

It started out as just another Tuesday — well, not really, because Donna had been in an ICU in a specialty hospital in San Antonio, nearly 100 miles from our home, for the past two weeks, fighting for her life.

I began the day in the most prosaic way possible, dropping off our dog at a local groomer. Right after doing this, my cell phone rang; it was one of Donna’s doctors. I don’t even remember the words he said to me, as I stood there in the parking lot outside the groomer’s, but it was something about Donna’s situation having worsened, that it was gravely serious, and that I needed to come to the hospital.

I think I must have shut off the part of my brain that was trying to tell me, “She’s dying; you have to be by her side.” I’m not even sure, but I think I went directly to the office where I was working at the time. I must have stayed there for one or two hours, my brain in turmoil; I then called Donna’s sister Kathy (not her real name), who had flown down from New Jersey and had been staying with us since shortly after Donna was admitted. We took turns driving down to San Antonio and visiting her in shifts; my 10-year-old twins had remained at home with one of us. I had last stayed with Donna for several days, through ups and downs, mostly downs. Donna had initially been intubated and unable to speak; the tube was later removed, but she had drifted in and out of consciousness, the transfusions, draining of abdominal ascites, and sedation characteristic of end-stage cirrhosis taking an awful toll on her.

I drove home and spoke to Kathy, who was standing in the living room, clearly distressed. “Donna has had a cardiac event,” she said. Those exact words. For the past two weeks Donna had struggled with a stubborn bacterial infection that made it impossible for her to be placed on the list for a liver transplant. Now, her heart had become so weakened that it put even a remote chance of a transplant out of reach.

Donna was in pain and had no chance of recovery.

We had to let her go.

“I’m so sorry,” Kathy said, and we hugged, and I said “I’m sorry, too.”

We quickly gathered our things and departed for San Antonio; the twins were in school, and Kathy had arranged for a family friend to come and care for them until we came home.

Kathy and I pulled into the hospital parking lot at around 4 p.m. and threaded our way down a series of corridors leading to the other end of the hospital, through a large set of double doors, into the room where Donna lay unconscious. We were met by a local social worker I’d been in contact with for the past two weeks, a religious Christian woman — I’ll call her Judith — who was, somewhat incongruously, working for a Jewish agency.

“This is it? There’s no hope?” I blurted out to a young female nurse, who, with a stricken face, nodded agreement.

One staffer explained that Donna would be removed from all life-support equipment and placed on a morphine drip to ease her pain.

It is an indescribably sad thing to watch someone you love get sick and die, and not be able to do anything about it. And there was nothing to do but wait, and wait.

As I sat by my wife, helpless and dying, her body exhausted and spent from an awful ordeal, I thought: How had it come to this, that a strong, vibrant woman — who had once pedaled hundreds of miles a week on a racing bicycle, who thought nothing of lifting an upright bass over her head to carry it through the audience after performing at a piano bar, who had thought nothing of staying up all night club-hopping and going down to the beach with friends after work, then going right back to work in the morning — would end up in an anonymous hospital room, eyes closed, waiting for the end?

Kathy, Judith and I kept watch over Donna for nearly six hours.

At one point I asked Kathy and Judith to leave the room for a few minutes so I could be alone with Donna; they did, and I then told Donna some things which are none of your business.

I had brought a laptop — Donna’s old laptop — and we played song after song on YouTube, a very eclectic mix of her favorites. Mel Torme, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Kirsty MacColl (the musician whose death brought us together to begin with), “They Don’t Know.” Slam Stewart and Major “Mule” Holley (Donna had known Holley in her Village days in the ’80s and credited him with teaching her a great deal, and not just about playing the upright bass). The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which I played, obsessively, over and over for several weeks after Donna’s death.

And on, and on, as the sun set. Donna was sleeping, peaceful, quiet, unconscious.

At one point I filled out a form with information that would be used on Donna’s death certificate.

After 9:30 p.m., the end drew near. The nurses gathered in the ICU, one of them, a male nurse with a stethoscope, ready to make an official pronouncement. He put the stethoscope in place and listened.

“She still has a heartbeat.”

And then, some minutes later, the stethoscope again, and in a quiet voice he said:

“She passed.”

Alive (in an earthly body)

______________________________________________________________

Dead (or “crossed over”)

Kathy, Judith, and I hugged.

I got to say goodbye.

And just felt empty inside.

I had been wearing an old flannel shirt for the purpose of tearing off the pocket at the time of Donna’s death — an old Jewish tradition — which I did, and promptly removed the shirt and tossed it in the trash.

What good did it do, to witness Donna’s death? I don’t know. I know I had to be there, that it was unthinkable that I wouldn’t be, but I found no comfort in it.

In the end, what of value was accomplished by my being there? To die inside, along with Donna?

I couldn’t and still can’t comprehend what the world had lost. What my family had lost. What I had lost.

The music. The writing. The wit and the laughter. The caring. The art of living. The way of being. The love.

The great, great knowledge of so many things. Cooking such wonderful, carefully crafted meals. Expert parenting. Rare insight into people and their problems. Taking photographs of a high professional standard. The memories. So many things, never forgotten, now impossible to retrieve outside of texts previously set down.

Donna! 

The water is wide, I can’t cross over.

At least not yet.

And now, what?

Suffering through a long illness — whether it’s cancer, AIDS, liver disease, or whatever — is inevitably referred to as “fighting a brave battle” against death. Versus what — welcoming it with open arms?  I think we aren’t really supposed to know what happens after we die. If we knew how great it was, there would be mass suicides everywhere. Perhaps.

Perhaps Donna was put on earth (among many other things) to teach my soul how to be more human — more compassionate, more loving, more fully integrated into our deeply flawed, always challenging, but also vibrant world.

But then, why did she have to die so that I could fully amalgamate this knowledge into my own soul?

In other words, she saved my life, but I couldn’t save hers.

Time is now both my worst enemy and best friend.

Because, and this I believe: time is taking me simultaneously ever farther away from Donna, and ever closer to our ultimate reunion.

I know how Donna died.

But as long as I live, I will never know why.

Reunion, Reunion!

Hi, everyone I know on Facebook. Hi, it’s me. So I’m going to be in the area through Wednesday, and if anyone wants to get together, please be at this specific restaurant on the Upper West Side between 1:30 and 2:30 before I have to take a cab to the airport. This could include but not be limited to:

Classmates from nursery school

Classmates from elementary school

Classmates from middle school (or if you prefer, “junior high”)

Classmates from college

Former coworkers from 1981-82

People I met at the hotel for Jazz Fest in New Orleans in ’89

People I struck up a conversation with while in line for a movie

Oh, hell, total strangers, who am I kidding

See you there! Remember, we may never get this opportunity again.

Why a Pet Is Not Like a Spouse

Why am I publishing (or “publishing”) this? Because I’ve had it. Stay silent any longer, I cannot. Also, as regular readers of this blog may have intuited, I am completely out of fucks to give.

This is for those people out there who really, really love their pets. You know who you are. After a certain age, they become that person — the one who’s basically given up any hope of attracting a lover of the same species, and thus transfers his or her affection to a “fur baby” (ugh, ugh, ugh), the relationship equivalent of wearing a pair of velour sweat pants everywhere, even to the office.

Look, I have a dog I’m very fond of. During my married life, I took care of cats as well, not to mention a couple of hamsters (RIP, all). I don’t believe in hunting animals for sport. I approve of the doctrine of Reverence for Life (look up good old Dr. Schweitzer if you’re unfamiliar with the term). But, you know what? People are people and pets are pets, and being a person, I admit to bias and no, I won’t apologize for it.

Here are some reasons pets aren’t the same as people:

  1. If your wife dies, you can’t replace it by going to the Abandoned Spouse Shelter and getting a new rescue wife, no matter how much hipper it might be than buying one from one of those spouse-mill outlets in the mall.
  2. When you decide to move, you don’t have to get your pet’s permission or even talk it over with them. And no matter how much you love your pet, it’s not going to make you move hundreds of miles away against your will or buy it all kinds of expensive shit. (If you think otherwise, you have bigger problems.)
  3. You don’t have sex with your pet. (Seriously. You shouldn’t ever. If you do, I don’t want to know you.)
  4. Fetishizing your pet (calling it your “fur baby,” having it be the object of your closest personal relationship, etc.) is kind of pathetic. Fetishizing your spouse just shows how much you’re in love with them.
  5. Buying something for your pet on Valentine’s Day: see #4.
  6. Trolling for sympathy on Facebook when your cat or dog dies is just going to make the widows and widowers in your feed, not to mention parents who have lost a child, really, really angry at you.
  7. Being single and having a pet is to being married without kids as being married without kids is to being married with kids.
  8. One of the great satisfactions of being married/having been married is being able to use, with great relish and no apology, the phrase “false equivalency” to your single, pet-owning, pet-fetishizing friends.
man_kisses_dog

Doesn’t quite work for me

man_marries_dog_one