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Family+Relationships: Before grief goes, grief grows

  • Article by: Gail Rosenblum
  • Star Tribune
  • September 10, 2007 - 10:32 AM

I've seen the trick a hundred times. But there was still something charming about a magician -- especially an enthusiastic, underpaid, overdressed county fair magician -- stuffing a brightly colored toy into one mystery box, only to have it re-appear (poof!) in another box across the stage.

It was no doubt a strange time to be suddenly thinking about grief, but I couldn't help myself. Grief has permeated our community for many weeks now. Before we could issue a deep, collective exhale following recovery of the final bridge-collapse victim, we were introduced to the shortened lives of seven others, washed away in torrential flooding in southeastern Minnesota.

"So many lives turned upside down," read one of my newspaper's headlines. At first I stared at it, disoriented. Was it referring to the bridge? The floods? The miners? Students returning to Virginia Tech for the fall? Remember Virginia Tech? Is anyone else stunned to realize that that madness, with 32 gunned down, occurred less than five months ago?

So it goes with tragedy. Off our news pages, out of mind. This is not an accusation; simply an acknowledgment that to do otherwise would leave us incapable of getting out of bed in the morning. Until The Worst walks up to our door and knocks, it's our job to keep plugging along, buying groceries, attending PTA meetings, checking in on our elderly parents.

The problem is that grief, for those consumed by it, isn't so easy to cast off. It's like that magician's box. Stuff it over here and it reappears over there -- poof!

I know a little bit about grief, having lost my father in my 20s. I know even more, though, about what it takes to heal. And I worry that the words we often choose in writing obituaries ("closure" and "healing" being popular choices), while hopeful and well-intended, are simply not true. Closure and healing can take a long, long time.

Remember always

Beginning Wednesday night at sundown, Jews will begin a 10-day celebration of our New Year. We'll eat apples dipped in honey in hopes that this year will be sweet. We'll toss bread into water as a way to cast away sins. And some of us, on the 10th day, will once again tackle grief.

The service is called Yizkor. It's one piece of an intricate structure of mourning practices designed by rabbinic sages. There is shiva, the first week after a loved one dies; shloshim, the first month; a year of reciting a mourning prayer called the Kaddish, then the unveiling of a tombstone at approximately one year. I always thought that last piece was designed as a keen recognition that we must endure every life-cycle event once without him or her -- birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, a wedding anniversary -- before we can even begin to heal.

Yizkor, though, doesn't end. We say it four times a year, for as long as we live. It's a time we set aside to allow memories to rush back, explains my rabbi, Robert Kahn. "It is our admission that our mourning process never is complete."

When I was a little girl, adults in hushed tones ushered me out of the sanctuary along with other children and non-mourners before Yizkor began, so as to not tempt the Evil Eye. I don't do the same with my own kids. In fact, I love it when they stand with me to remember the grandfather they know only through photographs and stories. I think it's important for them to see their mother still missing him terribly. It's been 19 years.

I don't think about him every day. I don't pity myself. I know that there are tragedies far worse, grief far darker. I know this every time I pick up my own newspaper.

Once in a while, though, I'll stop in my tracks, yanked into the past, momentarily disoriented. Poof! I'm ordering an iced coffee, his favorite. Poof! A man wearing a certain cologne rushes past me. Poof! A song. A movie. A laugh.

Poof.

We need to keep buying groceries and working our day jobs. But it might be sweet if we remember every so often to look down our row of cubicles, or church pews, or houses, and think about those who still might be missing someone terribly, even after many years. And it might be sweet to simply say, "Tell me your favorite story about him," or "Do you have a photograph of her?"

It's true that we can't stuff grief back into the box. But we can let those who mourn know that, when grief reappears, and it will, we are ready to listen. For as long as it takes.

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350

Gail Rosenblum • grosenblum@startribune.com

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