Name: Nancy Goldstein
Tell me about the person who died:
Her name was Millie K. Markison and she was my mother. She was very smart, kind, compassionate and remarkably generous. She was "an intellectual,” reading all the time—usually non-fiction (history, biography) and always the daily paper. She loved classical music and musical theater and had a lovely singing voice. She was an engaging conversationalist.
A daughter of immigrant parents, she grew up in poverty and never forgot those who still lived there. She told me that when she was a child, she had one dress and had to wash it every night to wear it to school the next day. Sometimes she’d come home to an empty house, with everyone and everything gone, one step ahead of the landlord, whose rent the family couldn’t pay. She knew the drill: sit on the front step and wait for one of her older siblings (she was the fifth of seven) to come and get her to take her to their new home.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this precarious life, she had a wonderful sense of humor and the ability to make people laugh. She appreciated comedy that was sophisticated and quick-witted; she wasn’t a fan of slapstick or sarcasm. So many comedians and TV shows made her laugh: Jonathan Winters, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, Peter Sellers, F Troop, All in the Family, MASH. Because she was an insomniac and enjoyed the company of her children, she made sure we stayed up late to watch the comedy shows with her. I think I was about 5 when I started joining her. Mom often babysat for our son, and one night my husband and I came home at about 11:30 pm to find Mom and our son, age 4, watching The Benny Hill Show.
Along with all these wonderful qualities came frequent bouts of major depression and constant anxiety, untreated in the 1950's, especially in women, who were simply given Valium and told to sleep it off. She was often incapacitated by these ailments, making family life challenging, to say the least. I never knew, as I walked in from school, if I’d have to make dinner because she was still in bed. I’ve been broiling chicken since I was ten.
I’m sure her ability to laugh helped alleviate her depression. As clichéd as it is to talk about laughter as an antidote to sadness, it’s also true. It’s really hard to feel sad when you’re laughing very hard. I think she took refuge from her depression in the laughter all those comedians brought her. Who knows how much worse it would have been if not for them?
She died of metastatic breast cancer in 1990 when she was 72. She'd been in the hospital for three months, at which point my father decided to move her to a nursing home. She died the night she was moved there. I'd been at the hospital during that day, had gone home that evening, and learned at 6:00 the next morning that she'd died.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
Although I'd anticipated her death, seeing her body that morning in the nursing home was shocking. It was just that—a dead body. She—who she was and had been—was gone, no longer physically in my world, and I wept. I couldn't imagine life without her.
The acute pain of her death is long gone but she’s never far from my thoughts. When she was alive, we spoke almost every day and I still go to the phone to call her when something happens I'd like to share with her. There’s so much she’s missed.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
She wore her simple, white, terry cloth robe whenever she was at the beach, and did she ever love beaches! The robe reached to the middle of her calves, had long sleeves, and a terry cloth tie—like those robes you occasionally find in hotel rooms when you get upgraded. I have the robe, and it's in my closet. I'm never going to wear it, but I absolutely can't give it away.
Since she also suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, her depression would worsen as the days shortened. But for the last ten years or so of her life, she was able to spend winters in sunny places, and she relaxed and her mood brightened. I like to think that finally, she was happy. Imagine! This woman, who’d grown up impoverished, could now spend time enjoying the warm sun and beaches in the winter. She never took her great good fortune for granted.
If you had to describe your grief as a landscape, what would it look like at different points in your journey?
At first I'm slowly climbing a mountain of grief. Then I come to a high plain and I stay there for years, and perhaps am still there. But amid the fields of corn and wheat are occasional bursts of color: sunflowers, maybe lavender, and I talk to her spirit about the miracles occurring here--the hilarious things my grandchildren say, the new additions to our family, the things I hope she somehow sees too.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
I was surprised at grief's ability to ambush me, even after years of coping with it. I still get tears in my eyes when I see a young woman pushing a child in a stroller and an older woman is walking beside them, just as Mom used to walk beside me as I pushed her grandchild’s stroller. Even as recently as a few years ago, I teared up while reading an article in the food section of the newspaper. The writer described a restaurant where she and her mother had enjoyed a lovely lunch the week before; it was a restaurant my mother and I had enjoyed too.
I also began to understand that a death can have unintended consequences. My mother's family is large and some months after her death, I realized I no longer knew what was happening in the rest of the extended family. No one was telling me the news. My mother had been the family switchboard operator for me and the switchboard was no longer operating.
Were there any mourning rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
The Jewish rituals of shiva (a week of mourning) and Kaddish (a prayer recited at synagogue services for 11 months) observed after a death were immensely helpful. Our family sat shiva for Mom for the full seven days, during which time friends and relatives brought food for us, said prayers with us and talked about Mom with us. I felt tremendously supported and cared for.
After shiva ended, my husband and I went to our synagogue every Friday night after dinner so I could say Kaddish. We'd been members for a while but had not attended services there so often. That regular attendance led to many new friendships and a real feeling of belonging. I could share my grief and feel supported in doing so. I still think of Mom whenever I hear others reciting Kaddish at services.
Were there any personal or public rituals or structures that helped you in your grief?
Often, my personal rituals continue to remind me of her. She was very shy and hated the idea of speaking in public. Whenever I speak to a group, I wear a bracelet she wore and as I approach the front of the room, I touch the bracelet, take a deep breath and say, “Mom, this one’s for you.” When I try a new ethnic cuisine I know she would have loved, I take a forkful for her. I think of her when I cook a brisket. When I attend a family event, her handkerchief is in my pocket, and I’m wearing her earrings. It makes me feel she’s there with us, as she would have wanted to be. When people compliment me on her jewelry that I’m wearing, I can talk about her, which is something I love to do.
And I made sure to stay up late to watch Johnny Carson’s final night as the host of The Tonight Show in her honor.
Nancy Goldstein is a retired clinical social worker who continues to use her clinical skills as a hospice volunteer. She loves to travel and unless they have to cross an ocean, she and her husband Mel prefer to drive, if possible, as in: to Alaska...from their home in Maryland. She loves to cook, to laugh, and more than anything, she loves the company of her absolutely delightful grandchildren.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.