Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grief, Madness, & Consolation

At my mother's funeral, a woman I knew from church walked right up to me and said, "It's the shits."

I didn't like this woman, and her crude comment sort of offended me, but it had memorable punch and clarity. It stood out among the kind but hesitant, uncomfortable-with-horror responses.
Besides, it was almost physically true:
after I'd seen the mattress my mother'd shot herself on, I was violently ill all night.

My culture isn't comfortable with suffering and grief. Our gods are the Efficiency Experts. We worship productivity and optimism. Our condolence cards say stuff like, "Remember the happy times" and equivalents of "You'll get over it."
We get three days off work for the death of a relative. An immediate relative.

Where does our grief go?
Does it wash away, like too much Vitamin C? Or does it get stored in our fatty tissue, like DDT?
I look around and I wonder, is it part of our madness?

Condolence--giving the proper weight to seeing and caring for grief--is key to the Iroquois story.
Hundreds of years ago, wars were eating the nations up. A prophet called Dekanawida, the Peacemaker, tried to bring unity. He found Hiawatha wandering in the wilderness, driven mad with grief over the death of his three daughters.

With a strand of sacred beads and words of condolence, the Peacemaker healed Hiawatha.
They teamed up, like Jesus and Woodrow Wilson or something.

The duo was blocked by a powerful sorceror named Tadodaho. He was responsible for the death of Hiawatha's daughters. Hate had twisted Tadodaho's body and threaded snakes through his hair. So they went to him and cured him.
Imagine the Dalai Lama and Jon Stewart curing ... I don't know. Sarah Palin?With the sacred beads and condolence, they untwisted Tadodaho's body and combed the snakes out of his hair. They asked him to be in charge of tending the council fire.
To this day, the chair of the Iroquois council is called Tadodaho and the condolence rite opens council meetings.

What grieves us?
What deforms us?
What consoles us?

A bit on the condolence ritual here.
Picture from Getty Images.


ArtSparker said...

It stops you in your tracks, this story.

Margaret said...

"combed the snakes out of his hair" - oh! unforgettable.

From the poem What I Learned from My Mother by Julia Kasdorf:

I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.

[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.

She mentions "usefulness", too.
I like the thought of just being useful and available.

My brother, whose down syndrome puts him eternally around 6, can be excellent at condoling, like most very young things.
Me and my brothers were in the back room crying once, and he came in wide-eyed and said he would call Spiderman.
That was excellent.

One memorable condolence someone offered me was
"you wanna die";
I still can't decide if this was the best thing to say or the worst;
if it did help it was because I was shocked into distraction, like Kirk slapping Spock on the face.

Margaret said...

two afterthoughts:

- that poem is maybe ill-titled here

- in Solaris: Kelvin's mother pouring water over his forearm and washing off the tar; that was useful and kind and good.

By the by,
watching that scene, I felt like they were re-creating some painting I'm unaware of (do you know of any Other Things That Look Like This Thing?); it was such an artistically stitched moment;

if it isn't a painting, it should be.

Fresca said...

ARTS: Yeah, I couldn't get it out of my heart and mind.

MRET: Para-verse. You chose the exact bit that caught me most: "combed the snakes out of his hair".

Thank you for that wonderful, fitting poem, which I've never read.

Ohgod, I am going to adopt "I'm going to call Spiderman" as my new words of condolence.

Hm.... I know Tarkovsky did refer to paintings in making Solaris, I wonder if that washing scene was one. I'll see if I can find out.

Clowncar said...

That combing the snakes of hate out of his hair is such a tender image. He killed H's daughter, and they console him.

When my sister died people talked about processing grief like it was some sort of cheese food. That's madness.

I read McCarthy's Border triology right afterward, and I like his advice better: "Faces fade, voices dim. Seize them back..... Speak with them. Call their names. Do this and do not let sorrow die for it is the sweetening of every gift." My Dad has that thumbtacked on the wall.

My daughter's words: "She still loves you in her bone-heart."

momo said...

(This is late)
My heart goes out to you, my dear. It is brave and good of you to share these memories. I feel ill-equipped to deal with grief and mourning and I learn something important from you when you write about your own, so I am grateful as well.
I thought of you when I found this response to a Japanese film called Departures, which Roger Ebert tweeted.

Fresca said...

CLOWN: Processed grief. Yes, like cheese food or getting your car out of the impound lot.
Thanks for the CM quote--I've never been able to bring myself to read him, fearing slicing pains.
Your daughter is wise.

MOMO: Thanks. I am learning about grief as I go along---there hasn't been a whole lot in the drive-through culture around me that's been very helpful, so I'm making it up as I go along, with help from friends--we're all feeling our way in the dark.
The collective stories of humanity help too. Lots of good stuff there.

Fresca said...

P.S. Momo: That movie "Departures" sounds like just my kind of thing!