The New Grief

Long, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

July/August 2011

I was 16 when my maternal grandfather died. It was 5:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve when the phone rang, awakening my whole family. Through my closed bedroom door, I heard my father walk down the hall, answer the phone in a muffled voice and then call out to my mother. My stomach knotted: I knew no one called with good news at this hour.

As I shuffled into the kitchen, I saw my mother sitting at the kitchen table, a handkerchief held to her eyes. My father cast me a stony look. “Your grandfather died in his sleep last night,” he said.

My uncle Bruno, who’d spent the night in my grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment—a snowstorm had prevented him from commuting back to Long Island—had been awoken by my grandmother, who’d been jarred awake by the shocking chill emanating from her husband’s body. Bruno then called our house.

Grandpa, who was 52, died because his lungs filled with fluid while he slept. I knew that he’d worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines from age 14 through his mid-20s to help support his family. I also knew from times I’d slept at my grandparents’ apartment that each morning he spent what seemed like an eternity coughing and spitting behind the closed bathroom door. That worried me, but I never thought it would kill him.

Grief: The Way It Was

In her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, first published in 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified a process that she believed individuals pass through when confronted with death. It begins with denial of the loss, moves through anger, bargaining, and depression, and ends in acceptance.

My initial reaction to my grandfather’s death certainly was denial. I’d heard what my father told me, I’d seen my mother’s tears, but on some level, it didn’t register. The last time I’d seen my grandfather, on Thanksgiving, I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. Not a big talker, he tended to stay on the edges of other people’s conversations. But you could tell he was listening, because every once in a while, he’d chip in with a comment that was right on target. That was exactly how he was that day. Also, as was his custom, he dispensed a silver dollar to each of my brothers and me as we departed.

If the kind of grief that Kübler-Ross wrote about represents what we could call “traditional” grief, it stands in stark contrast to what could now be called “contemporary”grief.

I insisted on accompanying my father from our Long Island home to Brooklyn later that morning, ostensibly to help Bruno and my grandmother in whatever way we could. But looking back, I realize I also needed to see Grandpa with my own two eyes. It wasn’t until I stood in the doorway of my grandparents’ bedroom and saw him, lying on his side motionless under a blue blanket, his face ghostly pale, that my loss started to become real.

I remember my anger. I moved through the entire wake and funeral in a quiet, clenched fury. My grandfather had been snatched away from me, and I was outraged by the theft. During the calling hours at the funeral home, a friend of my father’s approached me with hand extended, smiling. I returned the gesture, but I also distinctly remember that I didn’t—couldn’t—smile back at him.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011 9:58:07 PM | posted by Leah Forster
This article is long overdue! I have a unique (and exhauting) perspective as a pediatric oncology social worker and the caregiver to two parents at end of life. As I help parents make excruciating decisions about their children's health care by day, I am also currently on the other side making those excruciating decisions for my parents who never wanted to talk about what kinds of care or interventions they wanted or didn't want. So it's a guessing game, but informed by what I know from working in health care social work for 20+ years: many times, death isn't the worst thing.

It takes unflinching bravery to say no to interventions that I know have no value. And with nursing home regulations as they are (not patient- or family-centered), I must keep saying no. And it breaks my heart every time.

Thursday, March 22, 2012 3:26:59 AM | posted by Joan Landry Haltigan
I was a Caregiver for 28 years to the love of my life who suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at age 38. The emotions expressed in this article, I felt.

At the same time, as an only child, my mom, also in a wheelchair, depended on me for love, assistance and nursing care, and then there were 4 young children to raise.

I wouldn't have done anything different for those I love, but because of those experiences, I wouldn't want to put my family through what I went through and have decided that letting nature take its course isn't all that bad.

I believe we continue therapy over and over because of circumstances and/or fear of dying.

I know also, that had I been diagnosed with a terminal illness when my children were still young, my mom, still alive and my husband in need of my help, I would have moved heaven and earth to be available to care for all of them.

Great article, long overdue.

Sunday, March 25, 2012 10:27:24 PM | posted by Diann Onsted
I appreciated this new paradigm on death and dying. Sometimes too sudden, and other times so protracted, this process is something I have shared with too many friends and loved ones already. Thank You.

Monday, May 21, 2012 5:47:49 AM | posted by Alice Sklar
I have found no sense of renewal since my husband's death (8 months ago). I think that hoping for some life improvement or "renewal" is a ridiculous idea.
I attend a women's support group of 10 for recently bereaved wives. The group is professionally facilitated by counselors who specialize in grief counseling. Every woman in the group feels her life has been diminished by the loss of her life partner and to date, no one has expressed any hope that at some time in the future she will have a meaningful or satisfying life. Most of us feel unremitting grief and a fear that we have to live a long time in this pointless state. Perhaps society needs to come up with new socially relevant and meaningful roles for seniors who are widowed. Alice