Calm Collected Comical Chaos – Grief

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Grief . . . It’s a funny thing. No, not funny – ha-ha; it’s an odd thing that it is so very common – we all do it sooner or later – but we do it in such extremely different ways. Now, you may be thinking, “Oh no, here we go again.” And, you’re right. Here I go again, but with a twist. Some things we simply have to laugh about, because if we don’t, we get all depressed, bitter and twisted. So, today I’m going to laugh.

Like most Westerners, my concept of grief included things such as plenty of nice deep depression, an acute sense of loss, gobs and gobs of denial, much sniffling and dabbing of eyes and the occasional crying jag. More pronounced but harmful symptoms such as suicidal thoughts and intense anger are common but are usually unseen by those surrounding the griever. That was my idea of grief until I witnessed the aftermath of a death in a Papua New Guinean village.

Wow, you’ve probably never witnessed such scenes – well, maybe in movies. Believe me, movies can’t convey that kind of emotional chaos. You have to see it first-hand. You have to hear it, the wailing which goes on interminably, the drums beating all night. You have to smell it, the stench of animal fat and plant juices smeared on sweaty bodies. I felt embarrassed. The staggering around, the rolling in the dirt, the screaming and shouting, the moans and tears, the trembling, the falling into camp-fires. I kept wanting to shout, “Hey, hold on there. You’re going to hurt yourself!” It was horrible. I didn’t get the point of it. That’s it all right. It seemed pointless to me. And it went on for a couple of days with brief periods of exhaustion.

One might well ask, “What’s funny about that?” Well, nothing, I admit. Until it happens to you. It’s taken me a few days to calm down enough to look back on it to see the irony of my experience. Before Tuesday morning it all seemed a tiny bit fake to me – like a public demonstration of sadness and loss which is Politically Correct. If one doesn’t participate it is considered callous and uncaring. Proper respect must be paid.

I kept a pretty stiff upper lip through the two memorial services, grieving in the Western way, hunched, sobbing occasionally, gratefully accepting the ministrations of lady friends on each side holding a hand or draping a comforting arm around my shoulders. It was very proper and convincing. I was certainly convinced at the time. However, in the end it was strangely uncompelling, unfulfilling, unmoving and a whole lot of other un-somethings which I can’t seem to get from my brain to the keyboard. I will not take a thing from those experiences. I won’t spoil them by lessening their importance. Those ceremonies were not for me. They were for Eunie. However they did not come anywhere near satisfying my need to grieve for her. There’s another un – unsatisfied.

Many people warned me. “It hasn’t hit you yet.” Now I get it. I learned all about it in one morning. I don’t know how to rank it alongside other powerful experiences in my life. It was absolutely unique. It wasn’t much fun, but I am so glad that it happened.

Because I’m feeling calmer now and I want to run with that, here is a nice peaceful reef scene with my favourite starfish, the highly improbable Linckia laevigata:

The morning did not start well. I called in sick. At some point I sat down at the computer to compose the words for Eunie’s tombstone. Yes, I know that’s been a long time coming, but it’s a logistical problem. You cannot get anything like that made in PNG, at least not what I wanted. I had a mild sense of foreboding, but I told myself sternly (doing that a lot these days), “Hey, you’re a writer. So sit down and write something. It’s not War and Peace.”

So, I sat down to write. Here’s another L. laevigata:

Nothing that I wanted so much came to mind. I desperately needed  to get the job done. Nothing but frustration . . . What a fine time for writer’s block. Suddenly something wild pounced upon me like a wolf ravaging a carcass. It blew me away. I was Pooh Bear on The Blustery Day.

Okay, what I’m going to describe is not pretty. Keep in mind that I’m in a very calm and bemused state of mind right now and I’m standing outside myself looking in. It was a good thing. It was needed. Still, you may not want to read about it. That’s okay. I’m putting these words here because I need to. If nobody  reads them . . . well, that’s okay too.

It went on and on. I couldn’t stop it. Crying isn’t the word for it. It was more like wailing – yeah, wailing and moaning and . . . screaming. I can’t ever remember screaming before in my whole crazy life. How can that happen? How can you get through life without screaming once in a while? Now I get that too. I get screaming. Oh, yeah, baby. I get screaming. We all need to do it more often. It’s very refreshing.

And then there was the staggering around and bumping into things. And yes, the falling down. And the pounding of the fists against anything handy, like a head or the floor or the wall or whatever. And the head banging, now I finally dig that one too – the head banging. I couldn’t stop. I started getting scared.

And then something really silly happened. I started yawning. I have seldom yawned in the last few months. What’s with that? So, between racking sobs I experienced a seemingly endless series of yawns that went way down to my soul, long earnest yawns which sent chills of wacky pleasure flowing from my scalp to my toes. You know the kind of yawns I’m talking about. Where did those come from? They seemed so incongruous, so unseemly, so . . . so stupid!

I managed to get my voice back enough to call the office to say that I wasn’t coming in. I think that I scared my friend on the phone. He offered to come over. Let me catch my breath a moment. Here’s yet another calm blue starfish. Really this blue toy looks as if it’s just plain tired:

If I show enough of these I will put you to sleep. Don’t spill your coffee.

I declined the offer of help because I knew exactly the kind of help I needed. I needed some tough love. some very tough love. I called Trevor. I’m not going to tell you everything that happened while I sat in the living room waiting for Trev to arrive. Some of it is too revealing. Some of it is embarrassing.  I will admit that I did two things which are supposed to be a part of the grieving process, but I had decided to skip, because they seemed so pointless. I asked “Why? Oh, WHY?” and I got extremely angry with God. And yeah, in retrospect, both were pointless. Imagine that – getting all angry at God. It is to laugh. And asking why?  WHY?? What a silly question. Everybody dies. It’s part of the deal. What makes me so special that my wife shouldn’t die? It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t require an explanation.  Because. Just because.  That’s why.

The anger seems very comical. I’m too steeped in Christianity to curse God properly.  The words wouldn’t come. The sentences were too awful to complete. I’m now picturing Homer Simpson with his hand’s around Bart’s neck and Bart’s tongue is sticking out and wiggling frantically and Homer is screaming, “Why, you . . . (sputter, sputter)”. You get the picture. That’s me – angry with God. A dear friend told me that she was very angry with God for a very long time after her husband died. I didn’t get it. Now I do. I got over my anger pretty quickly. I ran out of energy. All of that grinding of the teeth and clenching of the fists wears a fellow down. It takes a lot of effort to stay angry with God.

You don’t need any more details. That is not what this is about. This is about relief.

Here is another of my favourite starfish, a Choriaster granulatus:

I don’t know how they get into these positions. They must practice Yoga. More about that later. You’re going to have a good laugh. (Hee-hee)

Well, by the time Trev arrived I was in a sorry state. I wish he had taken a picture. I’d love to have it. My head was lumpy and my hands hurt. We sat there for a while and he calmed me down. It was some of the finest tough love I have ever received. I was still breaking out in fresh fits for a while. I distinctly remember hitting myself in the face very hard. Funny, I did not realise that it was possible for one to hit oneself in the face so hard. My jaw is still sore. Now I am getting a giggle from that as I think of it. It was like the classic movie scene in which some poor soul is plainly hysterical and gets a good hard slap from a friend who says, “Get control of yourself!” and the slapped person replies, “Thanks, I needed that.”

Well, this story is growing too long, so I’d better wrap it up. I scared the neighbours something awful. When I came back to the house in the evening, after going for some Yoga (yes, I said Yoga), Sisilia and her niece were waiting for me with some food and serious looks on their faces. They are lovely people, my next door neighbours. I invited them into the house and we sat for a while. Though they were shaken and worried about me their attitude changed dramatically when I told them what it was all about. They were very approving and happy for me. It’s the Papua New Guinian way. I was now acting like good person and properly showing my grief for my dead wife. See?  A happy ending.

Now for the real fun.

I have detected a tiny hint of jocular scepticism among certain friends whenever the word Yoga escapes my lips in connection with myself. I’m here to dispel that scoffing attitude. I went for some Yoga to help calm me down. I asked Michaela to take a couple of pictures of me in the less frightening positions.

I have never ascribed to the spiritual accoutrements of Yoga. I don’t get it. However, I have practiced the physical exercises and contortions since I was a child. I’m Pretzel Man. I don’t want to shock you with the more bizarre configurations of my body. You may be having your breakfast doughnut. I just want to demonstrate that I actually do Yoga. I don’t pretend to do Yoga:

Yes, that is me. You might now be saying, “Yeah, well, anybody  can do that.”

Yeah, well, can you do this?

This is also me – doing a head stand or, as I prefer to call it, a Tiger Stand.

If you don’t find that funny then you need an attitude check.

UPDATE: I got this Facebook comment from Justin Friend. It’s so appropriate to this post that I’m including it here.

Reading your blog post today reminded me of several PNG Haus Krais and similar I have been to. One of my first experiences with such things was when I first arrived in the highlands and was in Kerowagi. We had been in the garden for several hours digging up Kaukau and getting other foods for a feast the next day. We were all taking a break and sitting in the shade beside a typical single file village track winding through the gardens. There was maybe 8 of us sitting there telling stories. As we sat it was common every few minutes for someone to pass by on the track only metres away, apart from a general greeting the passing people were essentially politely ignored.

And then all hell broke loose amongst the people I was with, seemingly without a cue or a reason. The women started wailing and almost convulsing, going from sitting on the ground to rolling on the ground flailing their arms, tears flowing immediately. The men were not much better. The noise was intense, the emotion was intense.

I sat dumbfounded. One minute, no 1 second ago we were all laughing and joking, and now all of a sudden the entire party was crying, screaming, rolling around the ground.

And then it stopped. Almost as sudden as it started it stopped. There was the briefest point of composure and then things went straight back the way it was, telling stories, laughing, joking, sitting in the shade after the gardening work.

What the hell had happened. I looked to my soon to be wife for an explanation.

“Did you see those two people who just passed on the track?” she asked. Well no, I didn’t because as soon as the first Aunty started screaming I was focussed on our group.

It turned out that just a day or so before I arrived there a man had died. The “official” mourning period was still in place. The people who had walked past our merry group laughing in the shade were owed the appropriate sign of grief and mourning so they got it.

IT was certainly genuine. The tears were real. The grief was real. But it was so controlled. They turned it on and off like it was the tap supplying fresh water.

It was very powerful and I see and hear it still in my mind as if it was yesterday I experienced that.

Not exactly where you were coming from in your blog, but still an interesting handle on grief

Hang in there ol’ fella.

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20 Responses to “Calm Collected Comical Chaos – Grief”

  1. Jill Says:

    Wow Jan.

    Wow for your honesty.

    Wow for your realization of what is happening to you.

    Wow for your honesty and openness to write about your journey.

    Wow for your doing Yoga something I’ve just been starting to do – and the first pose has made an amazing affect on me already – it is just this – breathe! Who knew it could be something so simple that could help ‘center’ you when the world spins out of control? I don’t think I’ll get to the Tiger pose…but who knows eh?

    Now I’m going to go and make a new cup of coffee and hmmm a donut sounds like a good idea too!

  2. Norm Weatherhead Says:

    Hey Jan. Some of us do read your posts. So keep writing. And what you have written here tells us this: you loved much, and so you grieve much. You’re fully human. And that’s a good thing.
    Glad to know you had Trevor there and such good neighbors. And yes, I like your yoga poses. Now if I ever did that, that would be a miracle. LOL

  3. kristy Says:

    Gah, you made me yawn with your descriptions of the yawns!! I really do think that there is something to the physical release of grief. The practice of wailing and thrashing etc, all helps to ease that physical pain. Hopefully, you might find you sleep better as well!
    As I said before, perhaps taking Faded Glory out to a place where you can scream for awhile, might not frighten the neighbors!! But they seem to realize what grief needs!

  4. Nancy McDonald Says:

    I believe we all ask why and get mad when someone so close to us leaves us. And God know we hurt. Thank him for helping us through such a horrific ordeal. I Thank God for your wonderful friends.
    You are only human Uncle Arnie and getting through this the only ways you can find. Love and Hugs to you. Nancy

  5. Steven Says:

    Ah, dear friend, I can *totally* relate to all of this, and the real, intense grieving I have done in my life over the loss family members and closest friends. I can’t even imagine, though, losing a partner of a as many years as you and Eunie.

    Like you, I didn’t initially grieve in this deep way, and then, some time later, I’d see a photo or an object related to the person, and I did all that you describe, and much that you didn’t describe but did, I’d bet. There’s just no getting around it, I think, and I bow to your courage and honesty in sharing it here.

    Myself, I always believed you did real yoga—it just rang true to me, in what I’ve learned about you since we became friends—so it was fun to see you in some poses! And in fact, you’ve inspired me to get back into it again; I was serious for some years, and then it just faded out. As I feel the aches and pains of age increase, I think it will be a good thing to revive this, even though I’m also pretty physically active. As you so well know, yoga does something that no other “exercise” seems to do; even tai chi and chi gong do something (good) but different.

    Anyway, amigo, thanks for this sharing. For whatever reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about death and my own mortality lately, and many of your posts, dealing so honestly with death and loss, have been a comfort. Thanks for that—and for the marvelous blue stars!

    Your blog and FB bud,

  6. ZydecoDoug Says:

    Dude, you are so cool. Love this post. Now, if you could sip and actually swallow coffee while doing your Tiger Stand, THAT would be even cooler. It would also impress a few physicists I know.

    Now, go have a donut!

  7. Ali Says:

    I’m so happy that you finally found the trigger for your grief. Your “tin of pudding” Jan.

    Such an outpouring is SO exhausting and so necessary for recovery.
    You deserved those calming yawns that cut in like little control switches to mark the winding down of hysteria, the beginning of the healing, the peace signs at the end of the war against your own emotions.
    You cannot scream and yawn at the same time. Actually, I dont think you can do much of anything at the same time as having a good yawn…can you?
    Here’s to good friends and caring neighbours and heres to a good SCREAM every now and then hey! ha ha
    BTW ..that white star fish looks like a gloved hand reaching up and grabbing hold of that coral….
    Love your words and photos.

  8. MadDog Says:

    Jill, that’s a lot of wows. It’s the honesty of a man with nothing to lose by being honest. Though I’ve done Yoga for most of my life, I got started again recently as a way to get out of the house. Now, I’m getting back an amazing amount of flexibility and I have absolutely no lower back pain. The Tiger Stand should be approached with extreme caution. It can cause neck injuries, especially if you are not used to doing it.

  9. MadDog Says:

    I know, Norm, a surprising number do read. I just like to give an obvious out when it starts to get rough. There are very relaxing, easy Yoga poses. It doesn’t have to be gruelling.

  10. MadDog Says:

    That’s funny, Kristy. I didn’t expect for others to begin yawning, but now that I think of it, I should have. As soon as someone says the word, others will start yawning. Soon everybody is yawning. It’s a cool party trick. I have been sleeping better. I think that my screaming is over for a while. I’ll wait for it to come again spontaneously. I can’t picture going out somewhere to scream. Interesting idea, though.

  11. MadDog Says:

    Thanks, Nancy. The logical part of me decided not to get mad or ask why. It took real grief to overcome that. I’m grateful for the experience. I won’t be sad for it to happen again, though a little less intense would be nice. I don’t have any control over it and that’s probably for the best. I think that ultimately, we have to walk these roads alone. Friends certainly help, but it’s a very lonely journey.

  12. MadDog Says:

    Steve, concerning the sharing, I’ve been helped considerably by some friends who have been in similar situations. We all deal with it differently, but there are similarities. It’s good to know that something so powerful and scary is perfectly normal. So, some have shared with me and I am just passing it along. It also helps me to write it as an open diary. I have to organise my thoughts well enough so that they are intelligible to others.

    I only started doing Yoga routines regularly again since I returned from Australia, at first just to be with some female company. Nearly all of the physical symptoms I was experiencing have disappeared. All of my lower back pain is gone. I’m astonished at the amount of flexibility I still have. Our instructors say I’m the all-round most flexible in our group. I’d say you should give it a go.

    One of the reasons which I am being so forthcoming and open is that I’ve received so many comments for people who say that something I have offered has helped them. That’s a good thing. – Jan

  13. MadDog Says:

    Doug, I got that same remark twice from a young lady out on Faded Glory yesterday. I don’t get it. And, it seems nobody can explain it. These days when I hear someone say that I’m cool I mentally translate that into, “You’re so strange!” I’m much more comfortable with that. It’s much closer to the truth.

    I only wish I could get a donut. It seems that we do not have them here. I don’t touch caffeine. It makes me even crazier.

  14. MadDog Says:

    Ali, I wasn’t looking for it. It just jumped me. I knew that it would be necessary and it’s probably not over. People keep telling me that and I think that they are right. Truthfully, I don’t think it will ever be over.

    The thing about the yawns is that they were such an interruption! I think that you could hurt yourself badly if you tried to scream and yawn at the same time. A deep yawn sort of paralyses you, doesn’t it?

    Good friends have saved my life.

    You are right about the starfish “glove”. I hadn’t seen it that way.

  15. Justin Says:

    I have been pondering that yawning thing, one would think there has to be a physiological reason for it, the best I have found is something along the lines of

    “In 2007, researchers proposed that yawning is used to cool the brain….”

    Maybe your head had just got to hot!

    Uncontrollable repeated yawning is a one potential sign of a stroke

    Another quite serious study put forward the following hypothesis

    “….open mouth is more a sign of some impending change of state rather than a statement of say, tiredness. It may even be a general preparation for some new mental experience. Certainly, people expecting something novel to happen indulge in yawning quite frequently….”

    I think there’s your answer! You had come to a novel conclusion, even if at the time of yawning you were only just starting to realise the whole concept! It was your subconscious making preparations for a new mental experience!!

  16. Steven Says:

    Thanks, MadDog. You know what I mean when this Buddhist says the Hindu “namaste!”

    With affection,

    (and yes, I am going to go after the yoga)

  17. ZydecoDoug Says:

    I often drink decaf coffee, and teas. Not bad, either. Don’t need anything to make me shake more than I do naturally.

  18. pvaldes Says:

    mmmh … a tired blue starfish in the bottom of the sea
    how cute!
    another… mmmh… relaxing…
    starfishes are soo nice…
    look at this beatiful white starfish
    my brain is exploding in cuteness…

    what’s that?
    This is NOT a starfish!!

  19. MadDog Says:

    Well, Justin, my brain was definitely overheated. My ears felt as if they were on fire and my toes were freezing. I know from recent experience that those sensations are from an adrenaline OD.

    I don’t think that I had a stroke, but at the time a fatal stroke would have been welcomed.

    The third hypothesis is the most interesting. I’m thinking of the expressions which fit. “open mouthed”, “jaws agape”, “my jaw hit the floor”, etc. Yeah, I can dig it.

    At the time my reaction was a mixture of pleasure and annoyance. Those yawns felt good in a terrible way. They didn’t fit with that was going on.

    Thanks for a very interesting comment, mate.

  20. MadDog Says:

    Yeah, Doug. Caffeine gives me the jitters too.