Dear Pinky and Spike:
Since you are both experiencing the Depression part of the grief process, it’s a good time to talk about the second of the four Existential Tasks that Irvin Yalom thinks you must come to terms with before you can be a full and mentally sound adult. As I’ve said before, the thing that appeals to me is that there are only four things to do. Yes, they may be very difficult, but four is a manageable number.
How old is a child before he realizes that he and everything he loves or will ever love is going to die? Yalom describes the research, and a lot of children figure it out during their third year — and almost all of them get it by the time they are 6.
How can a little kid deal with such a downer? Apparently, they can simply accept it as a condition of the world. I’m pretty sure that’s what I did. Accepting the abstract idea of death is different from coming to terms with death when it happens. What do they experience when they actually face the death of a grandparent or a dog they’ve grown up with?
I read Ulysses 15 years ago and rarely think about it; we read The Catcher in the Rye 50 years ago, and I think about it all the time. That makes me a literary flyweight, but you can’t be pretentious when talking about Catcher.
As time passes, I understand Catcher in different ways, yet the appreciation for the death motif has remained constant. Holden’s brother Allie dies and Holden wants an adequate explanation for why. Until he can understand death, what’s the significance to him of anything else? No one has been able to explain Death to him, so it seems to him that no one understands death any better than he does. Yet they live their lives as though it’s a settled question, and they enthuse over their trivial pursuits. How can they be so callus? How can they be so stupid?
I think now that Holden was experiencing a state of “hopelessness,” which may be part of the depressive experience you are having now. Everything looks bad both on the outside and on the inside. It will be followed by the experience I’ll call “hope.” I don’t mean an expectation of something better in the future. I’m using the word to mean an appreciation of the exterior and interior worlds of both bad and good; it is as it is and it’s OK because it is what it is.
Holden gets it while watching Phoebe on the carousel in Central Park. Phoebe is part of a world where people are able to ignore the pervasive effect of death, and he can’t deny that Phoebe is good: “It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.” Then he says, “All I know about it is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” He misses the people he has reason to dislike because he’s experiencing an acceptance of a world in which they and Phoebe and Holden can coexist.
I think that’s what it might look like for an adolescent to come to terms with death. For most people, it comes much later in life. I feel as though I’m more or less ready for my own death, even though I still have a lot to get done. But Holden’s experience is more like the death of your child. I’m not ready for that and, like Holden, I would need to suffer; I would want to suffer.
So it is with divorce. It’s like a death. It’s the death of so many expectations that will never be realized, and it is the death of your construction of the past that pre-supposed a partner for life.
Hospice is, of course, dedicated to the care of those in the process of dying and the care of their survivors. Suzanne Retzinger has given me what started out as an excerpt from a book called How to Go On living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese Rando. The original excerpt has been re-excerpted and paraphrased. It now consists of two lists. The first list consists of 23 feelings and experiences you are likely to have while grieving. The second is a list of 28 things you can do to help yourself.
When space permits, I’m going to randomly select one or more of the 23 negative experiences and the same number of suggested ways of taking care of yourself. The treatments don’t match the symptom — i.e., negative experience No. 12 has to do with loss of identity; action No. 12 has to do with nutrition.
Randomnumber.com could be used to resolve nearly every issue in a divorce. Here, however, I’m going to input a range of 1 to 23 for the negative list and ask for two random numbers. I’ll do the same for the positive list with a range of 1 to 28. Here are the results:
» No. 2. “Your grief will involve many changes and will be continually developing.”
» No. 19. “You may find yourself acting socially in ways that are different than before.”
» No. 3. “Accept help and support when offered.”
» No. 28. “Simply stated, put balance in your life: Pray, rest, work, read, recreate.”
In the next letter I describe how Yalom deals with the need for a sense of purpose. What is it, and how do you get one?