Friday, September 18, 2009

Dos and Don'ts to Help a Grieving Person

When someone (and by someone I mean me) is grieving there are certain things that can help – and other things that don’t help at all. This grief thing is a new experience for me (oh, and how it SUCKS!!!!), and knowing that many other people may too at some point suffer such a tragic loss -- like losing their 43-year-old husband without warning -- I thought a list of Dos and Don’ts When Helping a Grieving Person (GP) would be useful. This is based on real things people have said to me and/or done over the past four weeks -- some excellent, some worthy of a David Letterman list.

DON’T
1. Don’t say to the GP, “Well, you were getting a divorce anyway, so I don’t know why you’re so broken up.”
2. Don’t say, “The timing of his death was good. If it had been in October it would have interfered with our big party.”
3. Don’t say, “I lost my mother/husband/dog last year and, let me tell you, it’s only going to get harder.”
4. Don’t hesitate to call, even if you think the GP is overwhelmed. The GP will remember that you reached out, even if she couldn’t take the call at the time.
5. Don’t treat the GP as if they are on Suicide Watch. A GP needs to be alone for more than five minutes to go to the bathroom, have a good hard cry, or both.
6. Don’t force the GP to take sleeping pills. If the GP wants to stay awake all night hoping for a visit from her dead husband, let her!
7. Don’t say, “I don’t believe in an afterlife. When he’s dead, he’s dead.” That’s not helpful!

DO
1. Do get on a plane and fly to the funeral even if the GP says you don't need to come. Bonus points for arriving before the GP and meeting her at the gate.
2. Do make jokes – like Nan who, when we used Marcus’ credit card to pay for his funeral reception, told the restaurant manager who insisted Marcus sign the receipt, “Oh, he’ll be there, he just can’t sign.” It was very funny at the time.
3. Do drop off your adorable ten-week-old puppy and have the GP dog sit for a day. The smell of puppy breath alone will do wonders to ease the grief.
4. Do invite the GP (upon the GP’s return home from the funerals) over for dinner two nights in a row, and BAKE THEM A PIE! (Thank you, Mimi. Your Key Lime Pie was delicious.)
5. Do keep calling and emailing and sending cards to the GP, as point #3 above is indeed correct – it only gets harder.
6. Do stop by unannounced and suggest going for a walk at sunset. Even if the GP doesn’t change out of her pajamas, the walk is slow, and no one talks, it’s a baby step in a healthy direction.
7. Do remind the GP about some of the less positive points of the lost loved one so the GP doesn’t try to canonize them and turn them into a saint.
8. Do have supplies ready at hand: Kleenex, chicken soup, and water are key.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Poem for Marcus

PHOTO: Marcus (left) with my brother, Michael. Germany 2005

My brother, Michael (we call him Miguel), wrote a poem for Marcus. Michael read it at the funeral in Portand, and my friend Alayne read it in Germany. The translation is included below.

MY GERMAN BROTHER

You were an adventurous soul
DEINE SEELE WAR IMMER AUF ABENTEUTER AUS
Always looking for something new
IMMER AUF DER SUCHE NACH ETWAS NEUEM
A far away place to visit, a different site to see
FERNE ORTE, VERSCHIEDENE PLAETZE
Your motto seemed to be – whatever, whenever, wherever
DEIN MOTTO SCHIEN – WAS AUCH IMMER, WANN AUCH IMMER, WO AUCH IMMER
Sometimes serious but always gracious
MANCHMAL ERNST, ABER IMMER MIT STIL
Your welcoming smile and bear hug embrace
DEIN EINLADENDES LAECHELN UND DEINE BAERENSTARKE UMARMUNG
Had a way of erasing the amount of time
HATTE ETWAS AN SICH, WAS DIE ZEIT STILLSTEHEN LIES
Between our last visits
ZWISCHEN DEINEN BESUCHEN
I liked the words you used
ICH MOCHTE DIE WORTE, DIE DU BENUTZT HAST
To describe the things you liked – “That’s cute” and “Cool”
UM SACHEN ZU BESCHRIEBEN, DIE DU MOCHTEST – DAS IST SUESS UND COOL
With your unique accent it had a comforting ring
MT DEINEM EIGENEN AKZENT, ES HATTE ETWAS BERUEHIGENDES
I’ll miss hearing you call me “Miguel”
ICH WERDE VERMISSEN, WIE DU MICH “MIGUEL” NENNST
Your stubborn side seemed to melt away
DEINE STURE SEITE SCHIEN ZU SCHMELZEN
Once you had a cold beer in hand
WENN DU EIN KALTES BIER IN DER HAND HATTEST
And your impressive barbecue skills
UND DEINE BEEINDRUCKENDEN GRILL FERTIGKEITEN
Made it so everyone had a full belly
HABEN ES GESCHAFFT, DASS JEDER EINEN VOLLEN BAUCH HATTE
I admired your knowledge of the world
ICH BEWUNDERTE DEIN WISSEN UM DIE WELT
And your eagerness to share your experiences
UND DEINE BESTAENDIGKEIT DEIN WISSEN ZU TEILEN
In such great detail that often left me feeling
DURCH DIE DETAILS HATTE ICH OFT DAS GEFUEHL
Like I had made the journey myself
DIE REISE SELBST GEMACHT ZU HABEN
So its good bye for now, I’m wishing you well
AUF WIEDERSEHEN FUER HEUTE, ICH WUENSCH DIR GUTE REISE
Your memory will live on in all of us
DIE ERINNERUNG WIRD IN UNS ALLEN WEITERLEBEN
Enjoy your new adventure
GENIESSE DEIN NEUES ABENTEUER
I’ll miss you, my German brother.
ICH WERDE DICH VERMISSEN, MEIN DEUTSCHER BRUDER.

For Marcus Iken
Written by Michael Howard
8-23-09

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How – and Where – to Grieve, to Move Forward, to Start Anew

Can a place to grieve be too quiet? After three weeks of non-stop activity, travel, funerals, and hundreds of well-wishers imparting their condolences, I am back in Terlingua, Texas. Instead of being in the center of the funeral whirlwind, I am now surrounded only by nature, pure and silent -- the Chisos Mountains, prickly pear cactus, and huge blue sky dotted with puffy clouds and blazing sun. I loved this place before. Before Marcus died. I loved my wide open big Texas space here having come directly out of the madness and density of Venice Beach, California. I loved my time alone to write, to read, to walk the dirt roads through the empty desert with my dogs. I loved my outhouse, the thunderstorms, the power outages, the local radio station that plays 3 songs in a row, the yoga classes in the old church, the afternoon dips in Terlingua Creek. I loved baking pies for La Posada Milagro’s coffee shop. I loved all this before Marcus left so suddenly and unexpectedly. Now the silence and solitude threaten to consume me, the void of humanity providing me with too much time alone in my head, too much room for thoughts of “what if” to take over.

WHAT IF if I had let Marcus come here to visit me in August like he had wanted to, had planned to? When my dad was here visiting he said repeatedly, “Marcus would love it here.” Yes, he would have. What if we hadn’t been filing for divorce? What if we could have worked out our differences, stayed married, had our happily ever after that we dreamed of, strived for? What if he hadn’t had to spend his Portland vacation moving our furniture and boxes into the storage lockers? What if he hadn’t ridden his bike 30 miles two days before he died? What if he had known his bicuspid aortic valve put him at high risk for a ruptured aorta and resulting death? What if he had learned that the persistent cough he’d had for several months might have been a warning sign? What if he was still alive, would we have signed the divorce papers or would we have at the last minute, like we did before, look at each other and say “What are we doing? We love each other. Let’s make this work.” What if, what if, WHAT IF… (Marcus' last photo taken...after his 30 mile bike ride. Lake Oswego, OR)

Yes, I know these are not healthy, productive thoughts and that I cannot – should not -- blame myself for his death. One friend was particularly direct about this: “You have an over-inflated opinion of yourself if you think you have some control over who lives or dies in this world!” he said. Ouch. Another said “There was nothing you could have done to prevent his death.” And yet another friend – actually more like four friends – said, “The decisions you made about Marcus were the right decisions at that time.” I am trying to believe what these friends are telling me is true. All I know right now is that no matter how much sadness and regret I feel, I cannot bring Marcus back, I cannot fix things. Or so I am trying to convince myself. But who am I kidding. I still want to fix things. I still want him to be here.

I have, in a way, found a way to keep Marcus here.

“Talk to him as if he is in the room,” Victoria, a life coach/psychic in LA, has instructed me. “Most importantly, write him a letter telling him things that you appreciated about him and how he may have helped you in your life. Small things are just as important as the big things. They read all these letters. Every single one of them. And if there are things that you are still angry or upset about with him - put that in the letter too. It helps the ‘spirit guides’ decide what areas he's going to be working on first. Really. I'm not kidding.”

I never believed in an afterlife before Marcus died, but now I am hanging on to Victoria’s every word like a lifeline, to keep from drowning in my sorrow, and using her advice like great gulps of air. My letter to Marcus is at least 50 pages long already. Her suggestions provide hope and a way to keep from wanting to follow Marcus on his new journey. To this point she had some additional advice. “Your trip to Texas was the beginning of your new life alone. Keep following your gut, your heart and your path.”

My gut, my path, it appears, is telling me to leave the quiet and solitude of Terlingua and get to a place with more people around, more stimulus, a place with collective creative energy. My gut wants to take me on a path forward, not back. Not back to Portland, which is so full of Marcus’ memory and, let’s face it, too rainy and gray to meet my Vitamin D needs. Not back to LA, where in spite of the hiking trails and beaches to walk, its big city vibe is too aggressive for my current state. In order to go forward and not back and, also, to avoid standing still (which is my greatest fear of all!), I am planning a scouting trip to Austin, Texas, where I hope to find a little house with a yard for my dogs, a lake to swim in, a coffee house with good espresso, music and free WiFi, a writing class, new friends, new adventures, a new beginning. For my journey, I will try to leave my guilt, my sadness, and my “what ifs” behind. But I will bring along my writing paper to keep those letters going to Marcus. And, to brace myself for my return to city life, I will be sure to bring along my ear plugs. And, of course, my pie baking supplies.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Three Weddings and Three Funerals

Marcus and I got married exactly six years ago. We have three anniversaries for three different weddings on two different continents: August 22, September 6, and September 20. First was the “Standesamt,” where we got the German version of our marriage license at the Rathaus (city hall) in Tiefenbronn, Germany. It was a small ceremony with just his parents and his friend, Hannes, who served as my translator. Next, we had a ceremony on a farm near Seattle, Washington – a sort of elegant picnic – for my American friends and family. Two weeks after that we walked down the aisle of a famous thousand-year-old church in the tiny village of Alpirsbach in Germany’s Black Forest, where Marcus’ parents, grandmothers, cousins, coworkers and many others joined in our black tie celebration.

It seems fitting then – or so people commented – that we had three funerals on two continents. First, on August 23, we had a simple-but-elegant ceremony in Portland, Oregon – the city where Marcus and I had lived for a year and a half, and where he died of a ruptured aorta on August 19 during the last week of his 3-week vacation. Secondly, on September 1, we had a formal church service in the tiny, picturesque German village of Muelhausen, surrounded by roses and serenaded by a quartet of French horns as Marcus’ parents, cousins and coworkers and many others joined in the “Abschied” (Farewell) – minus the grandmothers who both passed away last year. The horns played Dvorak’s “The New World” as a tribute to Marcus’ bi-continental lifestyle. And lastly, on September 4, we had a burial of Marcus’ ashes at a quiet cemetery 3 kilometers from his parents’ home. Out of all the draining, devastating events of these past weeks, that moment, acknowledging that his fit, gorgeous, sexy body, a body I had made love to and always adored, was reduced to ashes that fit in an urn, and then lowered in the ground, his gravesite covered in roses and marked by a simple wooden cross bearing his name…that was by far the lowest of the low points.
That same day I was required to go back to the Rathaus in Tiefenbronn, where we signed our marriage certificate, the place where I first signed my name as Beth Iken. I continued to use my maiden name during our marriage, but on this particular day, I was required to sign my married name, for the last time, as Beth Iken – on Marcus’ death certificate.

What neither of us ever signed were the divorce papers. We almost did – twice -- once in spring of 2008 and then this August. With the papers prepared, peaceful agreements made, both times we shared our regrets about our marriage being so difficult to manage, due to his corporate career (me being disgruntled for his long hours at the office and for following him around for his international transfers) and my freelance wanderings (him frustrated with me for my incurable wanderlust and lack of concern about health insurance and retirement funds). We got all the way to where the dotted line awaited our ink on paper. But it seems we were meant to stay married. In 2008, our divorce discussions were so loving and caring we just looked at each other and said, “What are we doing? We love each other. Let’s make it work.” We tore up the papers and I followed him to his job posting in Saltillo, Mexico. However, as the long days alone in our Mexican house wore me down I took a job in LA and left. We knew how to maintain a long-distance relationship. We talked every day. We emailed. We visited each other every month. However, the distance became even greater when Marcus got transferred back to Germany, a place I said I couldn’t live again (I blamed the difficulty of learning German). He was so busy with work there wasn’t even a chance to visit him. My job in LA ended (due to the economic climate) and I soon found myself in Terlingua, Texas, a good place to write a book. The last time I saw him was May 1, for a perfect weekend together in Portland. Time marched on until it was the longest we had been apart and, thus, the question was raised again: What is our future? How can we sustain this? The answer, Marcus concluded, was that we are two people trying to fit into one marriage, and that although we love each other anger was created by trying to change each other to fit into this one institution, that steadily all the good connections between us were pushed out of the way.

I summarized my own conclusion in pie terms: “Our marriage is like overworked pie dough,” I wrote. “You can only knead it so much, too much and it gets too hard, so you have to throw out the dough and start over. We should have known that mixing a free-spirited California girl with a German automotive executive was an exercise in futility, like trying to whip meringue in a greasy bowl where, with even the slightest presence of oil, turning the beaters up to a higher speed still isn’t going to accomplish the necessary lightness of being. We need to throw out the dough, chuck the egg whites, and wash out our bowls so that we might fill them again.”

Marcus died before we signed the papers. I cannot make sense of why he died. The shock and sadness of losing him is something I fear will never fade. But as I search and search and SEARCH for reasons and answers, the only comforting thought is that it seems we were meant to stay married. I am grateful we are still married. I said I would only marry once in my life and I married Marcus. I will continue to honor him, to respect him, to love him and to remember him. And on September 20, the anniversary date we chose to celebrate, I will open a bottle of Champagne and make a toast to all the goodness, the passion, the adventures, the fun and even the struggles we shared. “Love of my Life,” I will say, raising my glass to the stars in the black Texas night sky. “This wasn’t the way I wanted to stay married to you, but I am trying to accept everything, every gift, every loss, every breath. Happy Anniversary.”

And that’s where our story ends. Three weddings, three funerals, no divorce, and eternal love.