Monday, 25 June 2012

Five Weeks, Four Days: Grief Counselling; Really?

My daughter's first (and last) apartment stands empty now. We brought the last of the furniture home yesterday in a rented van.  Pretty sad really: I sent Courtenay a beautiful, energetic and caring 20 year old girl and Courtenay sends me back a brass urn of ashes and some used furntiture.  Poor bloody trade if you ask me. That pretty well wraps up everything I have to do for Calista. Now what to do with the rest of my life? That seems to be a very empty question right now. I am not sure I feel obliged to do much at all for very much longer. Sometimes eating, drinking and breathing seem to be too much effort.

We have an appointment with the grief counsellor tomorrow. She seems very optimistic that she can help us. She has just bundles of literature on how we should feel and how we should respond to those feelings.  I am sure she has just tons of experience helping people deal with the loss of their loved ones; she works in a paliative care hospice. Of course there are books and pamphlets and circulars, all written by very knowledgable and experienced people. Perhaps some of those people have lost a grand-parent, an elderly parent or maybe even an in-law, so they can "share" our loss. In  the paliative care ward the counselors no doubt were present when any number of victims of chronic disease died. This experience will aid them immensly when they deal with our issues.

Does any of this just sound like the biggest pile of manure ever?  Has anyone ever asked the bereaved if they feel like sitting down with a good book about other people that have lost loved ones?  I can think of all sorts of things I would rather do, some of them quite painful and vaguelly disgusting. Then there is our special situation: our daughter was not old, she did not suffer from any chronic diseases, she was not a drug addict and she was not depressed.  My girl did not die slowly of cancer, she did not commit suicide after months of severe depression, she did not even die of a drunk driver whom I could blame and hate. She died suddenly at the dawn of the best part of her life for no apparent reason. How in hell's name can any book-smart person even begin to counsel us in our moment of need when they could have absolutely no idea how we feel?  This sounds like just another way for somebody to feel validated and needed while we feel like packing up our kit-bags and parking our bodies under about 6 feet of dirt (or getting our bodies roasted in a kiln for about 20 hours).

I spoke with Rob, the supervisor of Calista's apartment building yesterday when I passed him the key to her empty apartment. He lost his wife to cancer a few years back.  He comiserated with me but he also recognized the very clear difference between his loss and Calista's death. Rob, at least, got to see his wife's departure coming.  On the other hand, her death did mean that he will never get to have children or grand-children. Rob never plans to marry again and, truthfully, he is getting a bit long of tooth to be thinking about starting all over again.  Just like Roni and I, Rob is a evolutionary dead-end; without children or grand-children, his particular set of genes are gone from this planet forever. No hope of immortality for any of us.

Funny how you never think of this sort of thing until it bites you on the ass.

Rob was preassured to take grief counselling by all his friends and his in-laws. He decided to forgo the infinite pleasure of talking about his deepest personal feelings with a complete stranger (versus pulishing your deepest feelings on the world-wide-web, which is a completely different matter altogether).  He just could not see how some university trained doctor who has never walked a mile in the boots of the bereaved could advise him on how he should be feeling.  I am not really sure how the counselor can help us either, but this counselling business is kind of like politics and voting: if you never vote, you can't bitch when you don't get the government you like.  If we don't go to counselling and hear the counselor out, it's pretty hard to call counselling a failure.

One thing I will lay money on though: counselling will take many visits and likely last a year. By the end of the year, the pain will have abated, Roni and I will be better at faking happiness, and the counselor will be able to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Everyone will ignore completely the fact that every person that shares membership in the Club of the Damned (people who have lost thier children) has told us that regardless of whether you get help or not, things will improve in about a year. What counselors call therapy, the rest of us call time.

I am sorry about the vast well of negativity coming from me, but I have been through the counselling shell game before. Back in the fall of 2009 I realised that I was unhappy with my life and how it was turning out, so I sought counselling.  The counselor was a great guy and I really liked him, but to tell you the truth, he could have fixed my problem the first day. He just needed to tell me to suck it up and get on with living (aka "the Calista Solution" to everything).  Back then my problem was that I was passively observing of my own life; I had a job rather than a carreer, I had hobbies rather than passions, I was the head of a family rather than part of a family. I was basically wasting my life. If that counselor had told me the absolute truth that I needed to take control of my own life, I would have been cured in about 30 minutes. Of course, then he would have not made any money off me and he would have been unhappy himself.

In this case, I am really not sure what anyone can say to us to make things better. Unless someone out there has a surefire way of resurrection (with ashes in an urn, that would be quite a feat) or perhaps some inside knowledge of the afterlife (maybe they could convince my Calista to phone home and tell her mother that everything is alright and that she is waiting for her on the other side) I am pretty sure anything anybody could say is just so much hot air. Well meant and in good faith, but still just so much hot air.

How about a Calista story? 

Calista's first year at university was a little rough.  I am a big proponent of education, but I am not sure that formal education is all that it is cracked up to be. Some of the dumbest people I have ever met have an alphabet soup after their name while many of my great heroes have only limited post-secondary education. I guess my view on the subject is that it's not so much how much you know, but how much you are willing to learn. So many people with advanced degrees seem to be all filled up and intent on just showing us all how clever they are. I guess my attitude rubbed off on Calista, because she did not thrive in the rarified ivory tower.

Art history was the bain of her existence. It did not help that the university had a revolving door for the instructors, but the overwhelming emphasis on names and dates just killed that course. I personally enjoy art history, but my enjoyment comes from the study of the interaction between culture, civilization and art rather than the quoting of dates, people and artificial style names.  I like to believe that science, engineering and government build civilizations but art defines civility. Calista was much the same way; she just could not stand the requirement that the student parrot some name and date on a stupid fill-in-the-blanks examination. Unfortunately, her marks reflected her attitude.

The climax came at her art history final. She arrived home in tears cursing the professor in truly unlady-like language. The crux of the waterfall of foul language was something about a baptistry somewhere in Italy. When I finally got the gyst of the problem, it seems that her professor had the audacity to ask her to identify a classic example of Romanesque architecture in the form of the baptistry that accompanies the Florence Duomo Cathedral.  I knew the baptistry in question because it was famous for the intricate illustrated metal panels covering its main doors. I had mixed feelings about how much sympathy I should have for Calista: on one hand she was being asked to recognize a prime example of a famous architectural form, on the other hand the professor gave bonus points for giving the nick-name of the baptistry in question (as if names are really ever important to memorize; that's what text-books are for). I was even more mixed on the topic when I examined her text-book and recognised that the professor had just lifted the question and photograph directly out of the text.  On one hand I had a daughter that had spent so little time with the subject text that she did not remember a picture that consumed a quarter of the title page of a chapter, while on the other hand I had a professor with so little creativity that she felt obliged to lift questions directly from the text-book. It was a dead heat as far as I was concerned, so I did what every passive-aggressive has done throughout history. I found something else to do and kept my mouth shut.

Calista passed art history, but needless to say her expertise never ran to Romanesque architecture or Renaissance art.

I related this story as an explanation of why she thrived in the professional photograpy program at North Island College.  Calista was never one to believe in "learning for learning's sake".  She had no value for high-school trigonometry, algebra, or calculus. She instincitively knew that she would never use that stuff again (something we adults learn but never admit to our teen-agers). Calista needed to see immediate utility to everything she learned; once she was aware of the falacy that there is any use for traditional wrote learning, she just stopped trying. In the professional photography program at North Island College everything she was learning (with perhaps exception of the photographic history course) had immediate utility.  She could see the point of doing it, so she thrived.

I think, perhaps, that might be part of the problem here with the grief counselling: Roni and I can see through the smoke and mirrors of the process. We understand that the counselling process is basically put in place to convince the bereaved to hang in there long enough for that immediate razors edge of pain to dull a bit.  If the counselor can string you along just long enough with reams of useless literature and pointless exercises, by the time you figure out that they are trying to fool you, you have found your legs again and have decided to live.  The point the counselors are missing is that we will live through this, but it is just going to be one long tedious chore which will  only end well; any ending to this life will be a relief to both Roni and I.

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