Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Grief of Achilles in The Iliad

I have recently read The Iliad by Homer and was struck by Achilles' reaction upon hearing the news of his best friend's death in battle.
...the black cloud of sorrow closed on Achilles.  In both hands he caught up the grimy dust, and poured it over his head and face, and fouled his handsome countenance, and the black ashes were scattered over his immortal tunic.  And he himself, mightily in his might, in the dust lay at length, and took and tore at his hair with his hands and defiled it......Antilochos mourned with him, letting the tears fall, and held the hands of Achilles as he grieved in his proud heart, fearing Achilles might cut his throat with the iron...(Book 18: 22-34).
Many journal writing books espouse an exercise called "free-write" whereby for a certain length of time, you write whatever comes to mind.  The pen does not lift from the paper and you do not stop.  Even if it means writing the same word over and over until another thought or image flows from mind to pen to paper.  I decided to devote a couple of 15 minute sessions to this quote.  In focusing on the first sentence, this is a portion of what I wrote in my journal:
When Achilles heard about Patroklos' death, his reaction was both emotional "black cloud of sorrow" and physical.  This black cloud - not grey, not cream, not white as clouds usually are, but black, dark, ebony, rich and deep - this cloud closed on Achilles.  Enveloped him.  He was in a fog of sorrow - for that is what fog is - a cloud resting on the earth's surface which can become so thick, one cannot see.  If driving, one must pull over.  If flying, the plane is grounded.  A fog will render you senseless - cannot see, hearing is muted.  All sense of direction lost; landmarks are invisible.  The world is alienating, distorted and frightening.  In a fog I feel insecure and vulnerable like someone or something can come out to grab me.   To be in a 'black cloud of sorrow' - nothing will look or feel the same.  Everything is felt, seen, tasted, heard through the fog.  Like lens on a glass - everything will look black.  Feel black.  There is a black veil or sheath covering everything.  Living, sleeping and breathing in the black cloud of sorrow so that it is internal - no longer out of the body but within.
The next day I wrote this:
When Achilles heard about Patroklos' death and was enveloped in the black fog of grief, sorrow, pain and woe, he had a physical reaction.  An outward sign of inward pain.  He bent down and grabbed dirt, dust, Earth and poured it over his head - a self baptism - rubbing it all over his face.  Priam, King of Troy did something similar when he heard of his son Hektor's death - he took dung and smeared it on his head and neck.   Both fouled themselves saying my beloved is dead; I do not care about outward things any longer.  Why dirt? Why dung?  What would be the equivalent today?  Maybe someone who is so depressed they do not shave or shower, put on make-up, deodorant or perfume.  They wear the same thing, day after day.  Who cares what you look like or wear in the 'black cloud of sorrow'?  Achilles then drops to the ground, this mighty warrior whom no man could stand against, lays prostrate on the dirt in agony and grief.  Then, in an effort to feel real, searing, physical pain, he takes tufts of hair in his hands and yanks them out.  
Writing all this made me think of our reactions on that dreaded day.  And specifically how one of our daughters, whom Tim could not contact as she was in class - oblivious and naive to the tragedy that would change her life, listening to the lecture, taking notes and answering questions posed by the professor - when she heard the news from two best friends who were waiting outside the door, she collapsed and become almost catatonic.   Her friends somehow got her back to her room where she just sat on the bed while they packed her bag.  UVA is a good two hours away and thankfully, these two friends (angels) drove our girls home.  There is no way they could've driven themselves.

Feeling faint, knees buckling, doubling over, collapsing, sobbing, gasping, screaming, throwing up, punching walls, breaking things, or just going numb and still - all are physical reactions to the sudden news of a beloved's death.  Instantaneous and uncontrollable - each body will react differently as the mind absorbs the unthinkable and unimaginable.

I will end with this quote from The Iliad, ancient literature written centuries before Christ, of another vow from the living to the dead.   Achilles says of Patroklos:
I will never forget him, never so long as I remain among the living and my knees have their spring beneath me.  And though the dead forget the dead in the house of Hades, even there I shall still remember my beloved companion (Book 22: 387 - 390). 
I could say the same of Josh.  RIP beloved son - you are still remembered and will be as long as I have breathe in my body and even afterwards.....

Monday, June 18, 2012

3 Years and 3 Months Later - June 18, 2012

On my usual Saturday visit to Josh's gravesite, I happened to notice the dates on nearby markers and realized that many others have died since March 18, 2009.  How had I not seen that before?

Curiously, upon seeing other 2009 dates, my first thought was that was before/after Josh and secondly, 2009 seems like so long ago.   And when I saw a 2012 date, I thought,  Wow, that was just recently. 

This is another indication of time's relentless movement forward.  It hit me that I should expect the empty spaces around Josh to fill up over time.  That he is not the only one who died or will die and I am not the only mother or family member who grieves.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, on these weekly visits, I write a letter to Josh in a blank book specifically for this purpose.  In Alexandra Johnson's book, Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal,  she talks about keeping a travel journal "as if writing a long letter to a close friend.  By writing for someone else's eyes, you have to supply context - place names, sights, interesting local information."

This made me think about my letters to Josh.  For the past three years, they have housed regurgitations of the same question (why, Josh, why?) and my feelings (sad, bad or mad), interspersed with the telling of family events/trips.   But as I explained to him in this week's letter, I am ready to go a different direction.

I feel a need to tell him of what is going on in our lives and in the world around.  For example, I told him about smartphones, apps and my iPad as these are new products and services that he would be interested in.   What other innovations, changes, ideas and experiences will I be writing in future letters?

So now I have a new job on my weekly visits.  I am the traveler who will document life for my son who can no longer see, hear, feel, touch or smell.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Death, Grief and Suicide in Hamlet - Part II

Hamlet's depression continues as he wrestles with fulfilling the duty of avenging his father's death.
I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air - look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire - why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors (II, II, 287 - 299).
And in one of the most famous lines of English literature, Hamlet ponders whether living, with all the "slings and arrows" that come our way is better than the eternal sleep of death, which puts an end to all "heartache and the thousand natural shocks."
To be, or not to be?  That is the question -
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?  To die, to sleep -
No more - and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to - 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! (III, I, 57 - 65).
Hamlet is a tragedy of epic proportions. By the end of the play, almost everyone is dead.  In this midst of all this mayhem, I am most interested in how grief is portrayed.

Ophelia is the prince's love interest who is utterly rejected by Hamlet in his misery and paranoia.  Her father, Polonius is the well-meaning Lord Chamberlain of Claudius' court but often misguided.  He jumps to erroneous conclusions about Hamlet which causes him to set in motion events that lead to devastating consequences, one being his own demise.  When Ophelia hears of her dear father's death, she literally goes mad. Claudius's description:
Oh, this is the poison of deep grief.  It springs all from her father's death, and now behold!....Poor Ophelia divided from herself and her fair judgement, without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts (IV,V,73-74 and 82-84).
She wanders to the riverbank, climbs a tree and falls into the water.  She does nothing to save herself and so drowns.  At the cemetery, the gravediggers discuss how she who "willfully seeks her own salvation" would not normally be given a Christian burial and so conclude that she was from a wealthy family.

The burial ceremony by the priest is very brief.  Laertes, Ophelia's brother asks the priest to perform additional rites. Their short dialogue says it all:
L:  Must there no more be done? 
Priest:  No more be done.  We should profane the service of the dead to sing a requiem and such rest to her as to peace-parted souls. 
L: Lay her i' th' earth, and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!  I tell thee, churlish priest, a ministering angel shall my sister be when thou liest howling (V, I, 217 - 225).
My margin notes:  Agreed!  Priest is a self-righteous b***!

Hamlet has been watching this and now joins Laertes in Ophelia's grave. This is their expression of grief:
L:  Hold off the earth awhile till I have caught her once more in my arms.  Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead, till of this flat a mountain you have made, t' o'ertop old Pelion or the skyish head of blue Olympus.  
H:  What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I, Hamlet the Dane (V, I, 233-242). 
(Modern translation - Who is the one whose grief is so loud and clear, whose words of sadness make the planets stand still in the heavens as if they've been hurt by what they've heard?)
It is difficult to express the depths of my grief which is why I have come to love Shakespeare's tragedies.  He writes what I feel.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Death, Grief and Suicide in Hamlet - Part I

There is so much in Hamlet that resonates with me.  I have read through it twice; once on my own (using the No Fear Shakespeare version, which has the original play on the left side of the page and a modern translation on the right) and another while watching Kenneth Branagh's 4 hour movie adaptation.  I have written out long sections in my journal and pondered the relevance.   If you have never read Hamlet, I would encourage you to do so.

Hamlet is prince of Denmark. His father has been dead two months and to his chagrin, his mother Queen Gertrude, has married his father's brother, Claudius.  Hamlet's grief and despair knows no bounds as he witnesses this wedding on the heels of his father's funeral.  As a result of his melancholic disposition, he suffers a rebuke from the new King.
But to persever in obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness.  'Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will more incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled (I, II, 92-97)
Basically Claudius is saying, "stop grieving and move on."  And that it is "unmanly" to be so despondent.  "How dare Claudius judge Hamlet's grief", my reading voice retorts.

When Hamlet is alone, we see the depths of his despair, wishing that suicide was not an act against God.  I don't like reading this but understand that for centuries, the church taught that suicide was an unpardonable sin.  We will see this again with the gravedigger's and priest's response to Ophelia's death.
Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!  O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (I, II, 129-134)
At the end of Act I, the ghost of Hamlet's father reveals to Hamlet that he has been murdered by Claudius.  He wants his son to exact revenge for the loss of his life, wife and crown.  In parting, he voices what all the dead would say:  "Adieu, adieu, adieu.  Remember me."  I love Hamlet's response - his commitment to remembering his father.
Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.  Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter (I, V, 95-104).
"Remembering Josh" is the title of this blog - for a reason.  "Running to Remember Josh" was printed on the backs of this year's marathon/half-marathon shirts purposefully.  Is it too exaggerated to say that one of my life's ambition and goal is to remember my beloved son?  No, I don't think so.  It feels like a solemn, honorable duty - one that I could never tire of.  It is why his pictures are still all over the house, why I have a tattoo of his name, in his handwriting on my arm, why I visit his gravesite every week and write a letter to him, why I sometimes wear his clothes.

As long as Josh is remembered, he stays alive.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A New Dimension of Grief- June 1, 2012

How can it be the beginning of June already?  It is because time moves on, like a conveyer belt, with no thought to tragedy, grief, sadness, emotion or feeling.

An un-negotiable aspect of living is that one must move along with it.  But there is a problem - the dead are not with us.  Through whatever mode, they have gotten off and so are frozen.  In Josh's case, it was the fateful day of March 18, 2009.

And with time's relentless march forward, it feels as though I am moving further and further away from my beloved boy.

Why?  I wonder.  Is it because there are numerous experiences now, over three years later, that he does not share?  He missed both Lauren and Gillian's college graduation weekends.  He has missed three, soon to be four summer's worth of activities.  He has not been a part of three Thanksgivings and Christmas'.  He does not know his new baby cousin.

And so new memories of the past three years are fresh in my mind - memories that do not include Josh.  Is this why I feel further away from him? 

This feels true and is very sad.  And so my grief has taken a new dimension - of all the family experiences that does not include him.  At the beginning of my grief journey, I knew his death would mean a loss of future events/experiences.  Now, this loss is truly felt.

I think this is why our work with the Josh Anderson Foundation (JAF) is so important to me.  Not only are we doing good and hopefully saving lives, but it is a way to keep his memory alive and more importantly, a way to make new memories of which he is front and center.