Let’s talk openly about grief


Barbara Ballinger and Margaret Crane, Special To The Jewish Light

Grief seems to be the topic de jour. It’s everywhere. Anderson Cooper’s new podcast, “All There Is” touches on his grief from the deaths of his father when he was 10, his brother who committed suicide and his famous mother Gloria Vanderbilt who died not that along ago. Her passing inspired the podcast as he sorted through her belongings and had to decide what to keep and what to let go.

Stephen Colbert, comedian, writer, producer, political commentator and television host, counseled Cooper, who said he is still trying to understand his grief. Colbert, whose own father died when he was young, has learned to accept his losses but describes his grief as akin to “living with a beloved tiger. It can surprise you; it can pounce on you. And it can really hurt you, but it’s my tiger, and it’s going to live as long as I do.”

Instead of thinking of grief as a trap of depression, Colbert said he tries to look at it as a doorway, “because you’re going to be a different person on the other side of it.”

In Betty Rollin’s op-ed in the New York Times, “How to Talk to a Widow” (Nov. 27, 2022), she addresses the fact that many who haven’t lost a loved one seem to think grief has a timeline. It does not and can last a lifetime.

Rob Delaney, comedian, actor, writer, and activist, writes about grief after the death from brain cancer of his 2-year-old son, Henry in, “A Heart That Works.” He said recently on the Today Show that he started writing with anger but that turned to love. 

And Shannon Abloh said in a recent New York Times interview, “Moving On and Taking the Reins,” (Dec. 1, 2022)—her first public discussion about her late husband Virgil’s death–that she wanted their two children to know that she could move forward, “through all the grief.”

Why is talking about grief so out in the open right now?

Maybe, it’s the aftermath of dealing with the pandemic and so many deaths of people we never knew but who touched us through the stories we read and heard about them and their family members saying goodbye through windows and partitions and as some of the dying were on ventilators.

Maybe, it’s also because of our older age and losing more family members and friends and trying to accept our own eventual mortality.

Or maybe it’s because celebrities are talking about their grief out loud. It’s cathartic. We take the attitude, if they can talk about it, so can we.

We’ve each learned to face our grief head on, which has surfaced in so many different ways. Barbara has lost both her parents. Her father’s death in 1992 hit her hard because she had to deal with his Alzheimer’s disease from afar since they lived in different states. She visited as often as she could with young children.

It was different with her mother. Once she moved back East to live closer to her mother and daughters, she watched her mother slowly wear out over her mom’s last 12 years, which they spent together. Much of that decline is chronicled in our latest book, Not Dead Yet.

Today, two years after her mom’s death and 31 years after her dad’s, time has allowed Barbara to experience their deaths differently. It has softened any resentments she held on to and now her grief comes in waves, not the initial tsunami. In other words, the pain has lessened in its intensity.

Barbara found it wasn’t easy for her to move forward after her mother died. She left behind so much tangible evidence of her life, such things as scarves, pins and books, including dozens of dairies in which she had written about her travels, people she encountered and opinions about friends and family members. Barbara decided not to read any diary entries until five years after her death so she would be less upset about all her mother’s thoughts. She knew some would be brutally honest. But she did have wonderful memories of so many trips with her and her daughters that had become an annual tradition.

In the interim, Barbara also decided to continue certain traditions handed down from her parents such as sending a big box of candy to one of her mom’s favorite couple friends. She and her daughters and other family also toasted her mom on her birthday with their favorite ice-cream concoctions, which would have pleased her ice-cream loving mother, and on her father’s birthday she always wears a pair of earrings that she made from his favorite cufflinks. She gave each of her daughters’ other keepsakes that they could wear regularly including watches..

As time passes, Barbara has been able to focus more on the gifts they each gave her that she cherishes, from their wisdom about life’s ups and downs to stories about family members, mementoes such as graduation certificates, love of travel, storytelling and the most important–their generosity of time and caring for her and her daughters and grandsons. She also has let go annoyances as she has come to know as a parent that all make mistakes.

To keep both parents alive in her heart she regularly visits their gravesites, talks to them about what’s happening and leaves a stone to mark that she has been there.

Margaret lost the love of her life, her spouse of 42 years and in that same year lost her father and their Wheaten Terrier (she cried and cried for her dog who was another is member of her family). The severity and depth of those losses and the grieving she experienced are described in our book, Suddenly Single after 50. At first, the grief was like an ice chard through the heart. It took her two years to come out of a grief fog, but she did and has moved on successfully.

The grief, guilt (did I do enough to keep him alive and why did I fight with him about stupid things) and anger she felt initially (how could he leave me?) losing her spouse, has settled down. Now she is grateful for the fact that marrying him was one of the best decisions of her life. And she has three wonderful children as a result.

Her grief still exists, imperceptive and hidden only to come out and sit down next to her at unexpected times, often triggered by a song, a smell, a certain food, an experience or when she hears herself using a phrase or word her spouse, her father or her mother, who died three years after her father, used. Margaret knows she is the lucky recipient of their values, their smarts, their creativity and their view of the world. In this way, these three people are still with her in her heart every day.

So, what are our lessons about how to cope with grief? Here are 5 we find helpful.

Keep the person “alive.” We can do this by surrounding ourselves with a favorite piece of their furniture, hanging an artwork, wearing a pin or touching base with friends or family members who knew our loved ones. Barbara regularly calls her mom’s two close friends who are alive at 98 and 99. They talk more about the present than the past but sometimes a shared memory will surface to share. And she and her daughters regularly make her mom’s favorite recipes for potato pancakes, ruggelach, brownies and roast chicken, the latter filling Barbara’s house with the smell of “Gammy,” their name for her.

You might also start a tradition that you observe yearly on their birthday or anniversary of their death. Barbara and her daughters now try to have a zoom to remember both parents/grandparents. Margaret’s mother loved jewelry (her father was a jeweler). She passed down some of it to Margaret, including a ring her grandfather made for her mother when Margaret was born. When Margaret turned 65, her mother gifted it to her. Today, when Margaret does a talk or attends a special event, she almost always wears the ring which is a little piece of her mother’s legacy. And she recently gifted her younger son’s girlfriend a necklace her mother had gifted to her. The cycle continues.

Forgive yourself. If it involves not doing enough for that person when they got ill or not being there enough for them even from afar, it may be time to accept what you did. Maybe, you think you didn’t do enough to find the best doctors, more caregivers or in Barbara’s case not giving her Mom as much ice cream and cookies as she wanted or being too impatient with her at times when she repeated herself or berated caregivers because of her mental decline. Barbara has accepted—most times—that she did as much as she could given her own busy life.

Forgive them. None of us is perfect. Barbara knows that her mother’s lack of compliments for her was mostly due to her generation’s belief that kids shouldn’t be spoiled in certain ways. Margaret, who fought constantly with her mother, now realizes that her mother was extremely unhappy. She was a bright and highly creative woman who felt unfulfilled, limited by the times and the birth of four children. She never felt she had achieved much except for the 14 years much later in life when she sold real estate.

We also each accept the loss or change in friendships that occurs over time for a variety of circumstances, from being ghosted to having a disagreement or change in outlook or values. Sometimes, a friendship can’t be saved, perhaps, due to the other person’s part. In either case, we grieve for these losses, too.

Feel gratitude. As Stephen Colbert says in the Anderson Cooper podcast, we might try to take a positive spin on our grief by feeling fortunate that we got to know this or that person for however long we did. In other words, it’s better to have a hole in our heart than feel nothing, which a friend suggested to Barbara when her dad died, and she was upset.

Empathize with others’ grief. You may not be able to walk in everyone’s shoes but try. Be kind, ask them about the person they lost, do kind deeds such as send dinner over or take them out, and so on. And never say, “I know how you feel.” You may sympathize also, but you can never know exactly so best to avoid that almost empty expression. And accept that there is no timeline for grieving. Don’t think, “It’s been 15 years since her husband died. She should get over it already.” Grief isn’t a broken bone that’s going to heal. It’s a state of mind that is unbearably painful at first but lessens as the years pass.

Accept the inevitable. Life brings with it disappointments if we engage fully in it. But usually these are balanced by wonderful achievements and experiences, too. Know that grief comes and goes, cycles in and out. As trite as that sounds, it’s very true and helps soften the losses.