‘Every one can master a grief but he that has it’

by Joel Helfrich

On March 14, my father was given 45 minutes by his employer to clear his desk and vacate his office. He was fired by the board of trustees of his company. The three trustees who orchestrated the action told him they wanted someone who could take the company “in new directions.”

My father was the president of a labor relations firm, and he had worked for his employer for 16 years. He just turned 60 and planned to work for five more years before retiring. There was no indication my father was doing a lousy job. In fact, the board recently bought him a new car. He was replaced by a 29-year-old guy with no labor relations experience.

To make matters worse, my oldest brother is the vice president of the same company. Obviously my brother was not selected for the job, despite his superior qualifications and ten years of on-the-job experience in labor relations. As I understand it, he will stay on for a time and look for a new job elsewhere.

Elsewhere on the home front, my father-in-law was “forced” into retirement by Kodak. Meanwhile, my other brother is having marital difficulties. And, I learned that my first cat died in October, but that my mom didn’t have the courage to tell me until March. Around the same time, my wife and I learned that one of our cats here in Minneapolis broke his femur.

The worst news came on March 20, also during spring break, when I lost my best friend, a 69-year-old man whom I imagined was in such good health that he would live to be 120 years old. He died of acute bacterial endocarditis, a heart attack followed a few days later by a massive stroke that showered his brain with bacteria. The part of his brain that regulates breathing and temperature control was so severely damaged he would remain hooked to tubes for the rest of his life. He spent his remaining weeks in an intensive care unit.

That same day a friend’s dog died. This was no ordinary dog, however. She would often pull our friend right up to the door of my apartment building when on walks just to see my wife, with whom it obviously held a strong bond.

All of these life experiences happened during my spring break. When my friends asked me to go out and protest against the war, I did not have the mental energy to go. In addition to all these stresses, my wife and I recently bought a house. We had to move all our belongings out of our apartment before noon on March 31. March 31 happens to be the death anniversary of a good friend of mine who died from a fatal dose of the anesthetic lidocane in a hospital experiment that received national attention in 1996.

All of the events that occurred during my spring break reminded me of my first year of college. My dog, about which I had written my personal college statement, died; my girlfriend dumped me; I was earning a “D” in calculus and I quit the soccer team halfway through the season. I had never quit anything before in my life.

I fight the urge to turn this chaos into a successful country song. But it is humor that might actually help me most at this time to deal with my sadness. While my critics will chastise me for my self-indulgence and self-reflection, I hope to draw some larger conclusions about my March Madness.

My wife and I seem to have experienced some of the major life stresses in the past few weeks. The well known 1967 study on “Life Change Events” (Holmes and Rahe) ranks stressful events on a point basis. Within less than one week, we saw the “death of a close friend,” we took out a “mortgage over $10,000,” and we witnessed a “change in our living conditions,” as well as a “change in residence.” According to the study, the more of these events a person experienced in a given time, the more likely they were to become ill. Not surprisingly, both my wife and I became ill and spent a week in bed after April 1.

My experiences exemplify life’s hard lessons. Many people with whom I have spoken since the end of March have experienced similar weeks of astounding disarray. One friend confided, “My time was in late December when my father died.” But my experiences also made me aware of our lack of options, as people in this society, to grieve. Certainly most people in this society have a fear of death, but what potentially drives that fear is that we lack the mechanisms with which to grieve. Employers, teachers, family members and friends often lack the wherewithal to allow you time and space to grieve. You are expected to keep up with your e-mail account. You are expected to continue working. You are expected to carry on, often as if nothing happened. In fact, both my wife and I were urged, by different people, to do just that.

Most discouraging is when people would ask how old our friend was, as if to say, “Oh, he would have died soon anyway.” Perhaps more annoying is when people find it unlikely that we could have had such a close relationship with someone a great deal older than both of us.

The concealment and denial of grief is, indeed, a problem. With high rates of depression in the United States, we would be wise, as a society, to create and cultivate more spaces in which people can grieve. This might enable us to be more reflective and healthier. It might also allow us to strengthen the social fabric of the United States.

Joel T. Helfrich’s columns usually appear alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]