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This past week, my friend Nicole lost her father, Paul, after an exceedingly drawn out and painful illness. She’s an only child and became his primary caregiver and advocate — a demanding role but one that she took on with fortitude. Fortunately, she has a large and loving extended network of family and friends to lean on, people who have helped her through this painful process.
Losing anyone is tough, as I know from experience. By the time I was six, my two grandfathers, a grandmother, and my father had all passed away. My mother remarried and for a short time, I had a new, loving grandmother, but alas, a few years later she also died. As a child, the true impact of loss is bewildering at best and comprehending that loss can take years.
My first chosen hometown was San Francisco and I moved there directly after college. I was a 21-year old gay man ready to start my adult life. It also happened to be 1985, the year that AIDS became a word. Needless to say, over my 13-year stay in the Bay Area, I lost several friends, acquaintances, and colleagues to this scourge — a relentless march that never got easier to handle.
Despite all of this, I was not prepared for the death of my mother, Joan, who passed away unexpectedly on September 5, 2001. I wrote about the story of her death coinciding with the 9/11 tragedy in This Too Shall Pass published on July 13th, 2017, so I won’t recount the details here, but I would like to focus on my grief and how I coped with it.
As you can imagine, the double blow of the death of my mother and the senseless murder of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers and all the others was devastating to me. Over the following months, my mind could find no sanctuary, no place to rest. When I was able to banish thoughts of my mother’s death, inevitably, thoughts of the attack on my hometown and the entire tragedy of that day would take their place. I vacillated between numbness and hypersensitivity.
I truly could not envision a day that I would be able to move beyond the pain, shock, and the grief. The day did come, but not as expected.
There have been numerous articles written on dealing with loss — actions you can take, physical and mental exercises you can do, people you can talk with, etc. — specific ways to make the sting of grief, less painful. In Buzzfeed, in fact, there’s an article listing 27 things that can really help you while you’re grieving, ranging from setting aside grieving time in a beautiful place and wearing possessions of the loved one to finding a fulfilling hobby and starting a new diet — hmmmm?
Now, I do love my lists of actions to achieve certain goals and this list may or may not be useful, but in this post, I’d like to offer a look through a slightly different lens. One that I came across while reading the HuffPost blog that resonated with me in a very compelling way.
In 5 Things Grief Taught Me by Monique Minahan, she writes about — obviously — five things she learned from her experience with grief, in her case, the death of someone close who she never reveals. After reading it, I thought her ideas were thoughtful, succinct (never my strong suit), and for me, at least, certainly on-point. Lessons that I instinctively used in my grieving process that she articulated in a coherent yet poetic manner.
Here is her article:
5 Things Grief Taught Me
by Monique Minahan
“Six years inside ‘complicated grief’ taught me many things. Five of them I can put into words and onto paper. I have a feeling I will be learning from ‘her’ the rest of my life.
Grief Taught Me That Sometimes I Don’t Have To Let It Go. I Just Have To Let It Out
Through writing, through words, through movement, through tears, through screaming at the top of my lungs, or whispering to the wind. The way into grief was very narrow, but the way through was up to me.
Grief Taught Me That Releasing Is Not the Same as Relinquishing
My grief is mine forever. When I release her into the world through words or conversation or tears, she is free to leave for a while or return right away — the same or changed — but always welcome in this heart.
Grief Taught Me What It Means To Be Vulnerable
Not in the ways we choose to be vulnerable. The ways life tears down every wall we’ve built, every label we’ve claimed, every role we’ve identified with and reveals a broken, beating heart that is not sure if it wants to live or die.
With practice I realized that beyond the flood of tears there is the dock of another human heart waiting to hear what I have to say. And if I can brave the flood that makes me feel so exposed and vulnerable, I will receive the gift of being seen and being heard.
Grief Taught Me I Am Not Alone
I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, I understand that even when no human could comfort me, Mother Nature was soothing me with her bright moons, wild oceans, and dancing flowers. She was teaching me something about human nature, about darkness and light, about the cycle of life.
She was taking my words and echoing them back to me, blurring their edges on the journey so they sat a little softer in my soul upon returning.
Grief Taught Me Loss Expands Before It Shrinks
The list of what I’ve lost is not just one line but pages long sometimes. Because I didn’t just lose a human being I loved. I lost the sound of their feet in the hallway, the water running as they brush their teeth, the sight of their face down the hall, the sound of their voice on the phone, the ability to reach out and touch them.
Everyone’s list is unique and endless. I try to honor the living by not turning away from their list of loss, by not telling them what it should contain, by not comparing my list to theirs.
This grief, she’s like a mother to me. She birthed me into an experience I never asked for and many times was not sure I would survive. But together we make it through this life, stumbling and learning, mourning and celebrating, each step teaching us all we need to know about what it means to live, to love, and to lose.”
We all must find our way through our own grief — it’s personal, it’s powerful, it’s ours. I especially love her quote, “She was taking my words and echoing them back to me, blurring their edges on the journey so they sat a little softer in my soul upon returning.” And that’s a blessing that I wish for Nicole and her family during this time of grieving. Blessings to all.
Cooking for Joan
Since I was writing about grief and some ways of getting to the other side of it, I decided I wanted to highlight a recipe by someone who had an incredible zest for life (and butter, for that matter) — Julia Child! This is one of my favorite recipes of hers and although it’s a perfect winter dish, it can be enjoyed in any season.
My Christmas gift to my niece-in-law, Kim, is a lunch at this charming French bistro, La Bonne Soupe. Their specialty is a prix fixe lunch with French Onion Soup, salad, a glass of wine, and dessert (not being a big dessert-eater, I always swap my dessert for a second glass of wine). Although it’s probably not Julia’s exact recipe (or maybe it is — I’m sure they won’t let me in their kitchen!), but it is truly “soup for the soul” — rich, savory, with creamy, gooey cheese melted on top of the crisp croutes, with a nice kick of cognac to tie it all together — magnifique! But the dap of butter (or oil) on the top, is just that — over the top in the best way possible!
French Onion Soup, Courtesy of Julia Child
Prep Time: 30 min | Cook Time: 1 hr 30 min | Makes: 6-8 | Difficulty: Medium
- 5 -6 cups yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 to 2 lbs)
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 6 cups beef stock
- 1 cup wine (dry red or white)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon ground sage
- salt and pepper
- 12 ounces Swiss cheese, grated
- 4 ounces parmesan cheese, grated
- 1/2 raw yellow onion
- 2 -3 tablespoons cognac
- 8 slices French bread (about 1 inch thick)
- 4 tablespoons butter or olive oil for drizzling
Place heavy bottom stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat
Add 1 Tbs cooking oil, 2 Tbs butter to pot
Add sliced onions and stir until they are evenly coated with the oil
Cover and cook for about 20 minutes until they are very tender and translucent
Brown or caramelize the onions; turn heat under pot to medium or medium high heat
Add 1/2 tsp sugar and 1 tsp salt and continue to cook uncovered, stirring frequently until the onions have browned and reduced significantly. 30 minutes
Once caramelized, reduce heat to medium-low and add 3 Tbs flour to the onions
Brown the flour for about 2-3 minutes trying not to scorch it. (If the flour does not form a thick paste, you can add a bit more butter here)
Stir in about 1 cup of warm stock, scraping the bottom of the pan to get up all of the cooked-on bits
Add the rest of the stock, wine, sage, and bay leaf to the soup
Simmer for 30 minutes
To make the "croutes" (toasted bread):
Pre-heat oven to 325 F
Drizzle each side of the bread slices with a bit of olive oil and place on baking sheet
Cook the croutes for 15 minutes in oven on each side (30 minutes total)
Check the soup for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed
Remove the bay leaf (if you can find it)
Pre-heat oven 350 F
Transfer to individual bowls or a casserole dish
Add the 2-3 Tbs cognac and grate the 1/2 raw onion into the soup
Add a few ounces of the Swiss cheese directly into the soup and stir
Place the toasted bread in a single layer on top of the soup
Sprinkle the rest of the cheese in a thick layer on top of the bread making sure to cover the edges of the toast to prevent burning
Drizzle with a little oil or melted butter
Place in oven for about 30 minutes
Turn on broiler and brown cheese well or use a torch
**Grief: image courtesy of by i_strad (2009)