Saturday, March 12, 2011

When Grief Leads to Introspection

I hadn't expected to post two essays on grief back to back, if ever; however, events from the last two weeks overtook my planning. This post had to come out now.

Backstory: I've known Art Elias, one of my dearest friends,for 35 years. We met in business, travelled to Japan together on business, shared a wedding anniversary when we both remarried, made move than 23 anniversary trips together, bitched at each other because of his unique stroke-counts in golf. He's a survivor: Pacific Theater in the Navy in WWII, bladder cancer, COPD, emphysema, bad golf (me), Kentucky basketball (his wife Betty), Alabama football (him). And I survived his mentoring.

Two weeks ago, he wasn't feeling well: chest pains. A trip to the cardiologist led to three options: meds, heart catherization to see what was going on inside, and open heart surgery. The cardiologist said those were the "standard" options. My friend had one: meds. His body wouldn't have survived surgery.

Last Sunday he felt worse. Betty called 911 and off they went to the hospital. ER and ICU docs said he needed more oxygen and a chest x-ray. Bad news from the x-ray: pneumonia in one lung. No wonder he was having trouble breathing. Going into congestive heart failure, but that could be treated. What couldn't be treated was a fairly massive heart attack. It was as if he looked at his watch and said, "Time to go." He went.

The funeral was this week. His wife of 28 years attended to the business of dying without a plan. All Art had done was write his obit. Nothing else, because he was superstitious about death. He refused to talk about it. Plans made, friends coming in from all over the country, and no rabbi to say any prayers. Art didn't believe in organized religion, but he was very proud of his Jewish heritage.

Over the years of fighting and winning against bladder cancer, Art and Betty came to meet a group of cloistered Carmelite nuns. Picture this: a New York Jew married to a Southern Baptist lady asking the Carmelites to pray for his recovery. They did. He did. He sent checks after every check up with the box score: Carmelites 1, cancer zero. They didn't have time to pray for his heart, but one of the order showed her heart by attending both the visitation and the memorial and reading a poem she wrote about their friendship. Not a dry eye in the house, including hers. No rabbi could be bothered, since he hadn't paid to be a member of a temple. The Carmelites knew the need. 'Nuff said.

After the business of visitation and burial were over, and we were stuffed with food at the wake, we returned to the house. And that's where we bumped into little traps all over the place. His laundry in the bin. Friends washed it. Pill bottles everywhere. I took them home for proper disposal through the pharmacy. Bags of munchies. Given to neighbors. Smoked salmon. Eaten for breakfast. Little things that reminded all of us of the person who was no longer there physically.

I drove the 500 miles home yesterday. I had nine hours to put my brain on autopilot, but my brain wasn't interested in being on autopilot. It was interested in thinking about what is (and isn't) important in life.

What's important: Friends and family. Not much else. Showing them how you feel. Helping others. Being there when needed. Having your affairs in order so that your family doesn't have to make decisions when it should be grieving.

What's not important: Acquiring stuff. Chasing the once-mighty dollar. Being captive to a job, if you can afford not to be captive. Sweating the small stuff. Keeping grudges. Anger.

And my conclusion: time to make the changes in life I've wanted to make for a decade. More on the changes as I make them. Fear not, I will make them sooner rather than later.


Justin Ryan Schwan said...

I've been telling myself "I will die someday." It's not a morbid realization, but a koan, in that it forces me to look at life anew. I don't want to waste it slaving for possessions, but spend it on experiences. Some material sacrifice is nothing compared to sacrificing an entire life for objects I will lose the moment I breathe my last breath. It's a balance between what I want and what society thinks I need.

Death is the price I'll pay for life, and I don't want to pay more than I have to. Your post really touches on that, and I appreciate the reminder.

I'm sorry for your loss. I hope Art's passing can help you live peacefully.

Betsy Ashton said...

Justin, I did a lot of meditating in the past week to help get through the grief. It's still there, but comments like yours help more than you can imagine. I am grateful for every day I wake up on the right side of the grass. As one of my friends continually says, "We don't get out of life alive. And we are all biodegradable." She has a wonderful outlook for a 90-something. Peace.

Jane Cranmer said...

Betsy, this is the first chance I have had to read your post.
I absolutely love what you say about your friend, and I totally agree with you about what matters.
I believe we do go on, that is the main theme of my book. But that doesn't ever excuse us for living and loving everyday that we are here all the same.
Sending you love and hugs xxx

Betsy Ashton said...

Jane, I'm glad that something I wrote touched your heart. It's sometimes difficult to strike the right balance when writing about grief and loss. And as you say, we do go on. Life gets better for having known and treasured our friends. I only wish I had known that lesson when I was much younger. I would be richer now had I not lost track of people who were once dear to me. Be well. I look forward to your book. xxooxx

brendamarroyauthor said...

Thanks for sharing your process and your thoughts Betsy. I found this post to be very moving.

My brother and I finally got my mother (who's 89) to see the importance of going to the funeral home, picking out her casket and making her arrangements. It scared her so she didn't want to do it. Our reason for wanting her to do it, is what you wrote about. If we're still here when she leaves, we would like to be spared the "job" of having to make decisions when we're in a state of grief. I"m very thankful that she finally got it and took the steps to make her arrangements as she would like them. Good post.

Betsy Ashton said...

Brenda, I'm glad the post gave you something to think about. The greatest gift my mother-in-law gave her son was a pre-planned funeral. We made a single call and then were free to grieve. When the time comes, I don't want my family to have to make choices. My husband and I will be putting together our wishes and getting those affairs in shape.

Anonymous said...

Not a regular here but this was a brilliant post.

I lost an old friend to liver failure in January. He was 34 and had been drinking a liter of vodka a day for a decade. It was a choice that he made. He also chose to hide his illness from his friends.

I'm furious at him.

Hail to the old fighters.

Betsy Ashton said...

Anonymous, you don't have to be a regular here. I'm glad you found this post helpful. I have felt your anger. When people make a decision to destroy their health, it is theirs to make. They forget what that does to those of love them. We hurt, rage, suffer and feel helpless. Fighters never give up hope. So do survivors. A toast to both.