Thursday, March 27, 2008

When the wedding comes at the wrong time

Or better, when death comes at the wrong time. The famous true story is about a terrorist attack at a coffee shop and the deaths, among others, of a young bride and her father, a physician, before her wedding. A country mourned and its adversaries celebrated, danced in the streets.

The fiction is me reading Being Mrs. Alcott, by Nancy Geary. Here the bride returns from her honeymoon to find that her mother has one week to live. Ill before the wedding, mother doesn't want to upset her daughter with the bad news, a late diagnosis, breast cancer, irreversible for the times.

So it's a novel, and I may or may not finish it, but it stopped me in my tracks, that scene, Grace at twenty-one, sitting in the library in her mother's favorite damask wing chair, opposite the perfect Chippendale sofa, the silver candlesticks on the mantel and an oil seascape framed in gold, her brother drinking too much, her father taking it in. Lost.

Grace is newly married and now in mourning, the mourning of the stoic, which means, it's not necessary to feel too bad for too long, and it must be private. I'm not at all sure how it will all turn out, but this does happen quite a bit, untimely death. There's no good time for dying. The issue, of course, is whether or not Grace's mother should have told her sooner, before the wedding, before the honeymoon.

No issue, really. She should have been told right away, especially with what is thought to be a terminal diagnosis. But no, the family chose otherwise, not giving her the credit that she might be good knowing she'll spend the rest of the novel with Bain, that missing that first year as definitively happy, could be okay.

A person can hope, going into marriage, to live and enjoy (or not) a new life for years to come, and might expect that a few weeks and months of sadness in the beginning won't change that. Functional marriage, and that's truly the operant phrase here, is made to last a lifetime.

And now she sits in her mother's chair resenting that she's missed the last month of her mother's life. All to have fun on a honeymoon, as if this is so necessary, having fun with someone you're intending to have fun with forever, or for however long forever will be.

How terrible, how wrong to have missed those precious few weeks with her mentor! Just thinking about it makes me want to throw the book at the wall, but it's not mine so I can't (thanks for sharing, Cham!).

This business of stoicism is something we haven't discussed, not nearly enough. Being tough in the face of loss is functional, it gets you through the funeral, but it doesn't always accomplish much, and we believe (we being the therapeutic community) that stoicism may even contribute to something we call unresolved grieving.

You have to grieve, people.

This comes up in therapy quite a bit.

If you don't grieve, if you don't celebrate a person's life with talk of memories and tears of sadness, then those pent up tears and thoughts and emotional voids clog the brain like cholesterol in the arteries. No, this isn't yet a scientific finding. It's a therapydoc finding. You don't have to believe it.

And don't take it from me. Froma Walsh wrote the book on the subject, Living Beyond Loss: Death in the Family. Quite an accomplishment, this book, about family grieving, although I read the first edition, and this is probably the fourth. Of course, Froma's a family therapist and recommends family grieving. Call your family members on the anniversaries of death, keep memories alive.

Unresolved grieving implies not having attended enough to the subject of loss. The idea is that failing to allow your psychology to integrate, file, or sort through thoughts, ideas, memories, and feelings, will interfere with the process of living. We have to integrate the experience of loss into our psyche. If we don't, we respond abnormally, inexplicably, to events that shouldn't have to be so hard.

For example, if I haven't grieved someone close to me, upon hearing about the death of someone only peripherally related to me whom I hardly know, I might decompensate, burst into tears. Or maybe if FD said he wanted to go fishing with his brother for a couple of days, the thought of such a benign abandonment would make me ill. I'd irrationally argue with him. A younger person who hasn't resolved loss might become very emotionally vulnerable when a child leaves home for summer camp. Or even kindergarten.

It pops up, grief, in unexpected places.

What we're also talking about here, besides grieving after a death, which is so important, is taking the time to be with people who are very ill, who may be dying, even when planning something that's supposed to be happy, like a wedding. It can happen fast, you know. We may not be afforded the time. It's not always clear when people are going to leave us. It's often a shock, often an accident or a random event.

Still, you try to take a year to cry about it, if it's after the fact. And if you're given a heads up, you attend to a terminally ill person before physical loss happens, given the chance, if it's someone you love. You take the time to feel terrible. You have to expect that you will, too, and not be surprised.

And of course, when illness has lingered on for years, having grieved during that era, you may not grieve upon death.

But not every culture agrees with this, the idea of openly expressing, talking about grief, and it's true that you have to do this judiciously. You can't just dump your feelings on others. They have feelings, too.

Assume, however, that you're lucky enough to have people who care about you, who want you to share your feelings. If you've grown up in a family that frowns upon the direct expression of sadness, especially a public display of sadness or any emotion but happy, you may not be able to do it. If you are of this cloth and try to repress grief for either your sake or the sake of everyone else (we don't want to bum anyone out), then you think, indeed, I don't have to feel this. You're likely to get away with it, too. You might very well not cry. If you're this kind of person, maybe you can't cry.

Like I said, it might bite you later. But some people are raised not to cry, not ever. Don't express feelings, it's weakness. Babies cry. Don't be a cry-baby.

We call this stoicism, being tough in the face of adversity, and for some of us it has nothing to do with death at all, death is merely one area in which we're stoic. And there are surely various degrees in various situations.

For example, I'm not a complainer, don't express strong dissatisfaction if I can avoid it, but I'm working on it, trying to complain more. Maybe being a therapist is responsible for this, always being on the listening end, always on the hunt for the hope, the uplift, or maybe it's the tough Eastern European roots. I'm told the personality suffers in this way, when this happens, when we're restricted. People like to hear us kvetch, and they want to cross-kvetch. They want to hear from us and moan back at us.

So stoicism is multi-dimensional, not an all or none for most of us. I'm grateful to have been taught that tears are a good thing (this is best taught in early childhood, but adolescents get tough, forget). Complaining, by the way, is not that hard to do once you get the knack of it. Yiddish is all about complaining and cursing, so you can always learn that if you're having trouble in either area.

See, there's stoicism, and there's stoicism. With tears and without. Perhaps a meta-message, cry privately, is quintessential stoicism. Many of us can't ever bury feelings entirely, especially not those of us with a wide-range. We find the very idea impossible. But people do. They try to do this, bury their feelings.

Personalities that are deliberately restricted won't express much sadness, anger or anxiety at all. They probably won't go postal, will never lose their temper either, which is a good thing. But they do tend to feel "crazy" when normal emotions bubble over, as if they're self-imploding when they feel anything too strongly. Stoics are at risk for drinking too much and gastro-intestinal disorders. They're probably hyper-secretors. We know stress is a factor in heart-disease, too, and know that expressing emotion reduces stress.

There are amazing stories about stuffing it, however. To stay on topic, when people are successful at not grieving they sometimes expect others to be that way, too. So, for example, individuals who can't empathize with people who have strong feelings, might expect that everyone can really enjoy that wedding that was planned months before, despite the recent death of a first degree relative.

This happens, people who have not yet buried a terminally ill parent, or worse, a recently lost parent, are expected, by an uncle or an aunt, to attend a dinner or a shower for a cousin who is getting married. Indeed, enjoying such an event should be virtually impossible, and inappropriate. Disrespectful, I feel, too, in some ways.

I don't think most of us are wired to be able to do this, enjoy anything soon after, or just before, the loss of a loved one.

There's no point even trying, really. I think if your mother just died and you plan to be married that you should not cancel, not even postpone the wedding if that's possible, but should go into the celebration seriously, thoughtful, less likely to tear the house down dancing. You can try to enjoy the idea that you will become united with your new spouse, and that your union will be a blessing, or a memory, or something good for the deceased.

In my religion we always invite our relatives who have passed away to the wedding. They would be insulted if we didn't and we're quite sure that they attend.

But dance, sing, let go? I should think one would have to be quite intoxicated to do that or in great denial, more likely the case. I don't know what the religious rules are (feel free to tell me), but I do know that death has an effect upon natural intoxication, too, substance-free intoxication, and it's not pretty. Grief puts a damper on our levity, as it should.

Of course the wedding goes on. Life is for the living. But I should think there's a respectful way, a way for us to avoid jumbling the emotions, one that separates happiness from loss, a way that says, I'm crying for her, and I'm crying for my beloved, too, that we must always remember our day this way. And it's not the end of the world.

Lots of people cry at weddings, you know.

copyright 2008, therapydoc


Leora said...

Thanks for the book recommendations.

My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer when I got back from my honeymoon. She actually lived for 5 more years; it was a very painful five years for our family. Still hard to connect with my brother on this loss; we grieve differently.

Anonymous said...

So what if you are still in a way grieving the loss of a friend's marriage even though it has many years (at least 4) since then...One moved away and the other got remarried...

Anonymous said...

Losses and simchas - My mother died 10 years ago the Fast of Esther. I went to a good friend's new baby's bris that morning - child #5, first boy. The day before, another very good friend lost her father. The ann. of the day we buried my mom was actually the worst day of all. My family is very "closed" and stoic - I am the one who calls them to keep in touch - and it really hurt that no one called to remember Mom with me. I had to tell myself, that's their shtick. Why should I expect that to change now? (Because it's been 10 years??) Well, people deal how they deal. I'm not the center of the universe. (My 8 year old daughter is, or, she acts like it, LOL) I'm 39 and was my mom's only child, and Mom was 49 when she died. So now I'm halfway there. Tick tock!

Then to add insult to injury, I'm on therapy hiatus because we are too strapped to afford it right now - not the best timing.

I grew up believing I had no right to complain about anything - someone else always has it worse, or what I had to say wasn't interesting enough to be listened to. Stoicism sucks.

therapydoc said...

Sure can. And in a post-modernist paradigm, where your reality is true, it's not necessarily so that some one else's lot is worse.

It's a, Says who?

Unknown said...

In my community there was a young mother who died of breast cancer. She and her husband kept it from *her parents* until the very, very end. It's hard enough to get over the loss of a child, presumably you never do. But like this?

therapydoc said...

People mean well. But you would think they have hospital social workers, no, who coach people about how to handle their relationships. As I write this I'm starting to think that it's mostly unconscious, the decision to not tell. You think you know why you're not telling, you're sparing people grief, but maybe you're not able to handle their grief and it's all way too much.

That's why I try not to generalize even while I'm generalizing. There's so much going on, so many variables at play in so many moves we make, that whatever we think, we're likely to be wrong.

mother in israel said...

I can't figure out why I'm suddenly "mom" when Blogger says I'm posting as mother in israel. That was me.

therapydoc said...


Anonymous said...

TD, you wrote "whatever we think, we're likely to be wrong." OWWW! No wonder we all need therapy! It's a lose-lose situation.

Seriously, it's an interesting post, but it seems to imply that there is a "right" way to do things. Stoicism stinks -- unless you're a stoic and that's how you deal, in which case someone nagging you to "talk about it" would stink worse. Isn't it possible that people work through their issues in different ways? some silently, others not-so-silently? Coping with trauma and tragedy just stinks all around -- and most of us muddle through the best we can and hope that eventually the pain eases. There are no guarantees -- even WITH therapy.

therapydoc said...

Estee, you said it better than I ever could, getting caught like I do in the infinite possibilities.

Leora said...

I just want to say I'm with Chana in not enjoying stoics. I'm also in a family of stoics.

But I do have to say people do sometimes change a bit, I'm thinking of my own father, and I don't think it's because of any therapy he's had in the past. I think it's just that he has suffered a lot of loss in his life, but he realizes the relationships he has now are what is most important to him. So maybe it's a little self-awareness combined with lots of life experience.

therapydoc said...

The best stoics can fall hard, however. I don't remember my father crying, and never really see him sad to this day. But when my brother passed away, he cried.

I feel it's better to cry, which sure, is a bias, and yes, people have their ways of handling things, as Estee points out, and that's fine. Unless it's not fine, which is the point of this post.

It's really not always fine, stoicism, and the emotion can, indeed, come out in strange ways and inexplicable places if a person doesn't grieve.

The Rebbetzin's Husband said...

I'm with you on your comment about people thinking they know why they're not telling.

In my experience, the essence is rarely about sparing someone else pain, and much more frequently about sparing ourselves the pain (or even just nuisance) of having to share our grief and/or help with the grief of others.

therapydoc said...

Right, RH, it's emotional work, and even if we know we should, it's like a physical rehab exercise you know you should do, but ugh, it's work to do it.

Anonymous said...

Must be that this topic touches close to home, because I have to take issue with that *should* (as in "you know you should do it"). Do you really believe that there are RIGHT answers? Or could it be that what's right for you (and your clientele) is just that -- right for YOU?

Just because someone appears stoic does NOT mean they are not grieving. SHEESH! Perhaps they are crying privately because they just can't deal with other people as part of the process. maybe they grieve without crying. maybe they are not crying in front of YOU. And what about those people who can't STOP crying or talking about it...(i'm reminded of a mother who lost her 20 year-old daughter unexpectedly. she cried for years -- understandably, but very difficult for those around her.) Grieving is SUCH a deeply personal process. Can't we just let folks do whatever it takes to integrate the grief into their person -- because it's always gonna be there in some small (or big) way. It's life-changing.. and it never goes away, right?

As for telling, there are many reasons NOT to tell (or to tell selectively), the biggest one is the *should* factor. If one is facing a death sentence, I believe their #1 priority is themselves. Preparing, fighting, giving up... whatever they choose to do in what they expect are their final moments. No one is under any obligation to share that with others -- especially with people who will expect something from them. Let's show some respect for the dying...

Just my oh-so-humble(NOT!) opinion.

therapydoc said...

Which I value.

And sure, people should grieve in their own fashion. (There's that word again. I counted, I used it 7 times, rare for me, which means perhaps I have some interface on this subject, too). My problem is when they don't, because they're doing like they've been told, being good soldiers, not when they do.

I have seen this SO many times. Especially little kids, good little soldiers who couldn't cry then, and can't cry now, as adults.

And despite what you say, I still think Grace's daddy, if not her mommy, could have told her. It feels like a disrespect to Grace that can't be undone. Of course, I haven't finished the book.

Thanks, Estee.

therapydoc said...

Which I value.

And sure, people should grieve in their own fashion. (There's that word again. I counted, I used it 7 times, rare for me, which means perhaps I have some interface on this subject, too). My problem is when they don't, because they're doing like they've been told, being good soldiers, not when they do.

I have seen this SO many times. Especially little kids, good little soldiers who couldn't cry then, and can't cry now, as adults.

And despite what you say, I still think Grace's daddy, if not her mommy, could have told her. It feels like a disrespect to Grace that can't be undone. Of course, I haven't finished the book.

Thanks, Estee.

therapydoc said...

Which I value.

And sure, people should grieve in their own fashion. (There's that word again. I counted, I used it 7 times, rare for me, which means perhaps I have some interface on this subject, too). My problem is when they don't, because they're doing like they've been told, being good soldiers, not when they do.

I have seen this SO many times. Especially little kids, good little soldiers who couldn't cry then, and can't cry now, as adults.

And despite what you say, I still think Grace's daddy, if not her mommy, could have told her. It feels like a disrespect to Grace that can't be undone. Of course, I haven't finished the book.

Thanks, Estee.

Leora said...

I really have to read this book.

I mentioned this post to my therapist, and she nodded about the grief coming out in other ways.

It seems to me one might need to differentiate between the stoic that is not in touch with their feelings and the one that is (is that possible?). If someone is aware of their feelings but just doesn't cry, that's one thing. But if someone just goes about life and doesn't mourn, that's when it's problematic.

I'm also thinking showing feelings can be important as a parent. Kids need to learn that it's OK to feel a full range of feelings.

therapydoc said...

I can remember, after screaming about the leggos, (there are just so many times you can step on them before you get dressed), saying, calmly, gently, See? Now I'm a monster. Leggos on the floor turn me into a monster. There's an alternative.

Blank stares.

Anonymous said...

what is the alternative and what do you do if you turn into a monster?

therapydoc said...

The alternative is that they throw the leggos into a box. Me being a monster is raising the voice and looking stern.

Anonymous said...

Leggos on the floor turn me into a monster.

Heehee. BTDT.

Anonymous said...

Alternatively, a person can evolve to believe that everything perceived happens at exactly the right time.

Rowena said...

Catching up on past posts - so this comments is a tad late. But I had to post. I'm just going through a divorce caused, at root, by a husband who CANNOT deal with emotion. He has been taught to repress all hurt and anger ("boys don't cry/stiff up lip"). Unfortunately, there has been a fair amount of pain and stress in his life. He took refuge in drinking and as using me as an emotional punchbag. So he lost his wife, home, children and job because of it. Grieve, people, it's there for a purpose.

  Bring them home, the Homeland Concert There's not much to say. Wait, I take it back. There's SO much to say it is too much. There ...