Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and dealing with it. Big grief, little grief, middle-sized grief. I started thinking about it as I felt an impending case of little grief.
Back when I was studying math in grad school, we had a graduate student lounge with windows on three sides facing east, south and west. The east window looked out over the arts quad and onto the grad student ping-pong table. North were bookshelves and bulletin boards for various interdepartmental communication, with one example being a three-ring binder called “The Math Department Problem Book.”
“The Problem Book” was created by a professor named George Cooke, an extremely popular teacher. And while the book began as a three-ring binder filled with blank lined paper, the idea was that faculty and grad students could write challenge problems in the book and that solutions could be added. I contributed to it a lot, and George kept it going by adding a lot of questions.
But even in spite of his popularity with students, George didn’t get tenure. He left and ended up at another Ivy League university. But then, not much later, we were all horrified to learn he had committed suicide. “The Problem Book” fell into disuse. And when it was time for me to leave, everyone said I should take it because it meant the most to me.
So I did, keeping it as a reminder of George. Recently though, I thought I had lost it. But it turned up. So I dodged that little grief, which would have extended the big grief of having heard of the loss of George.
A middle-sized grief was the loss of a two-week girlfriend. No, she didn’t die. It was like this: My mother and I took a Merchant Marine troop ship from San Francisco to Taipei, Taiwan, so we could meet up with my father, who was already stationed in Taiwan. The trip took two weeks. I met a girl my age, 8, on the first day, and we were a thing by the time we stopped in Okinawa. But then I learned that she was getting off at Okinawa — not Taiwan — and my world collapsed.
Actually, being an army dependent meant things like that happened continually. The grief that time was magnified by its association with all the other times, because it symbolized all the other times and encapsulated all of them.
The biggest grief of my life came in a long-distance call from my ex, telling me our daughter had died in a fire. It was 2007, and she was 26. It wasn’t until three days later, when I poured the dirt over her coffin at the cemetery, that I finally grasped the finality of the situation.
My Real Change supervisor had a lot to do with enabling me to fly to the funeral and back. She was almost exactly three years younger than my daughter, so naturally, when I returned to Seattle I asked her to be a substitute for my daughter. She said, “OK,” provided her parents didn’t object. Fortunately they were due to come to Seattle so I’d have a chance to ask them. To prepare, I bought a six-pack of Henry’s Reserve and offered it as compensation. But they were fine with it without the beer, just so long as the deal only applied when they weren’t around.
At the other end of this grief spectrum, the littlest grief of my life was about a sliding whistle. On my last day in Hawaii, at age 3 and a half, I was gifted a sliding whistle with a carved, wooden, red bird attached on top. I was encouraged to meditate with it every day. It would help me find my way growing up. While I was receiving this gift, my father was losing his mind waiting in the family car in our driveway because we had already missed our flight back to the mainland. But it turned out we had another chance. So we started the drive to the airport, and while cruising down the highway overlooking the Pacific Ocean, my father learned that getting the whistle had caused our delay. He then snatched the whistle out of my hand and threw it as far as he could.
I was fine, though. I was asked to meditate on it, but I could remember it. The remaining memory was enough to attach the meditation.
Read more of the Oct. 25-31, 2023 issue.