The Black Dog

I’d like to talk about death, grief and loss. We don’t usually do that, do we? Too uncomfortable, awkward, messy…scary.

Last Sunday, NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge featured an interview with Meghan O’Rourke, author of the essay Good Grief for the Critic-at-Large column in the New Yorker Magazine. ( O’Rourke explained that when Elizabeth Kübler Ross began her most well-known work, On Death and Dyin,
[D]octors believed that people didn’t want or need to know how ill they were.

They couched the truth in euphemisms, or told the bad news only to the family.

Kübler-Ross saw this…as a form of cowardice…counter to the basic
humanity a doctor owed his patients…Death, she felt, had been exiled…

My friend Sue’s dad is dying. Elmer is 94, so it’s not a huge shock. This is a man who has been…well…let’s say “difficult,” his entire life, but at the end, Sue has taken him into her home and cared for him. They have talked openly about his death. Kübler-Ross says: “[He] is in the process of losing everything and everybody he loves. If he is allowed to express his sorrow he will find a final acceptance much easier.” Sue has allowed Elmer the space, the time and the audience to lose everything, to express everything and they have found acceptance together.

O’Rourke explains that although it turns out not to fit, Kübler-Ross’s stage theory—originally created to describe the phases a dying person goes through—has been adapted to our ideas of how grief ought to go. She says “Perhaps [it] caught on so quickly because it made loss sound controllable.” It is not. Controllable.

Seven years ago, I lost my only child. Convinced he would never find his place in the world, he got on a bus, traveled to mountains near San Diego, put a gun in his mouth and died. In the time since then, I’ve learned that you might as well go through grief, because it will wait for you. You cannot control it or avoid it. Like a growling black dog lurking in your nightmares, it will never diminish until you face it. It sits beside you, and when it raises its black-dog head, you might as well meet it full on. The pain of it nearly kills you…for about twenty minutes at a time. Then you can move on. Until the next time it raises its head.

My sister-in-law, Lisa, a former counselor, says grief is like a statue in the middle of the park. At first you sit on the park bench staring at the statue. It is the center of your universe. But slowly, over time, your attention moves. To the band playing on the left, and the kids laughing on the right. The statue still sits there, but it is no longer the only thing you see.

Faced with someone’s death, people worry about what to say, or what to do. I’d like to tell you what has meant the most to me. When death enters, have courage. Sit with your friend. Accept their loss. Listen to them talk about what they’ve lost. Do not judge them or expect them to go through tidy stages. Accept their tears or anger or rage or craziness. Don’t tell them they will “find resolution.” Don’t expect them to. Know that there is nothing as meaningful as the gift you give when you sit gently with them and let them face the black dog in their own way.

About Christa King

Christa King has a BA in Creative Writing and an MA in Information Resources & Library Sciences, both from the University of Arizona. In her public life, she is executive assistant to a department chair with the University of Colorado. In her private life, she is a poet, writer and editor, gardener and adventurous cook.

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