On Olympic Medals and Sharing Grief

I’ve never been much of an Olympics fan but it strikes me there’s an obvious reason why so many people have been wrapped up in the Joannie Rochette story. If you are an indifferent a follower of the games like I am usually, she won a bronze medal last week in figure skating four days after her mother died suddenly in Vancouver of a heart attack. Most of us will never know what it is like to do anything athletic as brilliantly as she skates. But all of us know – or will know – what grief is.

We’re hardwired for bereavement; it’s the cost of our emotional sensitivity. And what could be sadder than a daughter unexpectedly losing her mother at one of the pinnacle moments of her life? So we all became lump-in-the-throat cheerleaders for the poised and poignant figure-skating star.

We wanted her to skate brilliantly partly because we know what’s coming next for her: The hard-slogging, seemingly endless, work of grief.

Grief has found its way into the news lately in unexpected ways. There was British designer Alexander McQueen, who hanged himself, reportedly distraught over his mother’s death. There was the shocking death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the start of the Olympics. And there was a study published this week that confirmed our longevity has increased. Nothing sad about that but it does change the future of grieving.

As more of us live longer, one of the stranger effects will be a raft of newly created “orphans” in their 60s and 70s as their parents don’t die until 99. At a recent gathering, everyone laughed darkly when someone quoted a friend saying, “My mother dying practically ruined my 70s!”

The interest in grief as a passage, an art, an inevitability, has intensified as we boomers see off not only our parents but also our contemporaries.

Grief in the 21st century may have some distinctly modern elements – memorial services with shamelessly cool production values; e-mailed condolences; death announcements by Twitter – but what everyone discovers is that grieving takes up an inordinate amount of personal time, no matter how fast-paced a society we’ve become.

It’s also far messier than psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross led us to believe with her famous five stages of death and dying: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It became the paradigm for grieving.

In a recent essay in The New Yorker on finding a better way to grieve, writer Meghan O’Rourke argued that this staging “turns out largely to be a fiction” and that “grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process – sometimes one that never fully ends.”

Correctly, from my experience, O’Rourke doesn’t think our modern society does a bang-up job of acknowledging grief. We may bring in grief counselors by the truckload but we’ve adopted “a sort of ‘ask, don’t tell’ policy,” she writes. “The question ‘How are you?’ is an expression of concern, but mourners quickly figure out that it shouldn’t be mistaken for an actual inquiry.”

And yet grief is so infinitely interesting. It’s practically the last way to be sad in our society that isn’t turned instantly into a pathology.

One of the discoveries I made when my sister Janice died is how hugely important it was to spend time with her body. So, I made my way to her suburban Minneapolis home and there she was, in her bed, wearing an old favourite, a green wooly bathrobe from Target and, except for her pallor and gaunt body from the ravages of cancer, looked cozy.

People talk about their hearts breaking but I felt, instead, that my head was bursting with one phrase, as if the words, in different fonts and sizes were swelling my head beyond bearing. The words that came from my throbbing brain, but not my lips, over and over, were “Thank you. Thank you.” Thank you to a sister who shaped my life with her encouragement and admiration.

In a recent anthology, The Heart Does Break, various Canadian writers tell the story of their own grief, from Marni Jackson’s funny and moving account of her father’s cremation, to Jill Frayne who wrote that “the state of emergency that came with her death has passed, and I have a sense of her again, not in the world, of course, but in myself, in memory and in dreams, but strongest in my body, in breath and bone, as if by physical feat I have incorporated her.”

This past January, I felt the familiar stone in my chest as I approached the 12th anniversary of my mother’s death. It was like living the moment over and over again. But this year, I surprised myself by sitting down and writing Joyce a letter, catching her up on all that has happened since she died, most of which would absolutely delight her: Barack Obama is president; much of the art she acquired over the years turned out to be – despite Phil’s pooh-poohing it when she brought it home in the Sixties and Seventies – major museum pieces; Belle, Joyce’s beloved dog who lived with her until she died, lived with me until she was 17 and I now have another Retriever; and possibly the news that I am finally seeing a dentist regularly.

charley-james.jpgI felt a little foolish, but the more I wrote the lighter my heart became, until the stone disappeared and my day seemed full of possibility again.

Grief changes us, deepens us, surprises us. Joannie Rochette made all of us who grieve ache a little more profoundly on her behalf. She has a whole country of people mourning her loss – not to mention their own.

Charley James
The Progressive Curmudgeon

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