Eight Things that Nobody Tells You About the Death of a Spouse

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1. Grief is physically painful. We always talk about grief as an emotional pain, but it actually has a physical manifestation. I experienced it as a dull ache which seemed to begin inside my bones and radiated outwards my muscles and joints. Really profound emotional traumas like this often have physical manifestations which no one ever talks about.

2. People are going to be weird to you. In a lot of cultures in widows and widowers are considered pariahs and while we do not officially have that status in the US sometimes it feels like it. You are basically a walking, talking Rorhschach test for people’s feeling about death and relationships. Long time friends may avoid you and perfectly well intentioned people will be extremely uncomfortable around you and this discomfort can lead people to say and do really inappropriate things.

3. Sad music helps. After my wife died I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of really sad and some very angry music. During the first few weeks I would cycle back and forth between Adele’s 21 and Slayer’s God Hates Us All with a little NWA thrown in for good measure. I know it is counterintuitive but listening to this type of music has a purgative effect and makes you feel less alone. My pick for the best song about grief Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” which she adapted from a Prince song after her mother died.

4. Kubler-Ross’ “Stages of Grief” are misapplied. I recently saw an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer believes he is going to die because he has eaten some poisonous sushi which features the requisite discussion of Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. Kubler-Ross wrote developed these stages during her research at the University of Chicago Hospital on people who were coming to terms with a terminal illness, not about widows and widowers. Later, her theories were applied to everything from people whose pet had run away to idiots who cry when their favorite sports star retires. As far as I can tell there is nothing wrong with her ideas but they simply do not apply to someone whose spouse has died.

5. Everyone grieves differently. Just as no two marriages are the same the process of grieving also varies from individual to individual despite attempts to turn it into a standardized “process”. I think that this trend is a very dangerous one. There is an entire branch of the self-help industry devoted to grief and I will not even discuss the funeral-industrial complex since I will just begin ranting and nobody wants to hear that. Following Kubler-Ross’ example these people want to break grief down into a nice, clean multi-step process and it is never that simple. In fact I think that this attempt to “normalize” grief and turn it into a series of steps or stages is really damaging to the bereaved since it makes them feel like they are not grieving in the right way and it gives more fodder to the inappropriate people in Item #2 since they will start comparing your grief to the grief they have read about in books or seen on talk shows. Probably the best book that I read on grief was Dimensions of Grief, a sociology book written in the 1980s which was drawn from case studies of hundreds of people. It shows the full spectrum of the experience of grieving and how different it is for each individual. Despite its grim subject matter, It paints a pretty hopeful picture of people working through their grief and successfully coming out the other side

6. No one who has not lost a spouse can really understand what you are going through. They just can’t. This is probably a good thing since no one wants to experience this sort of trauma .

7. You cannot really prepare for the death of a spouse. I was probably better prepared for my wife’s death than most widowers. When we got married in 1985 she had had Type1 diabetes since her early teens and her health gradually deteriorated over the course of our 26 year marriage; so I should not have been surprised when she died at the age of 49 since I knew that her life would probably be shorter than most people’s lives. However, her death and my reaction to it came as a real shock to me.

8. Being active and focusing on others helps. This may seem counterintuitive at first since the initial reaction most people have after their spouse dies is to shut themselves off from the world sit at home. I was tempted to do this myself but I found that taking care of my grandson and teaching my classes gave me a reason to keep going.

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How to Survive a Tokyo Snowstorm

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hachiman shrine

I took this picture at a shrine located a few blocks from my home in the Kitano neighborhood of Hachioji, Tokyo. I was going grocery shopping in the middle of a snowstorm but I was really struck by the beauty of the shrine in the snow which reminded me of something out of a Kurosawa movie so I had to stop and take a picture of it. How I ended up there is another story.

When I came to Japan one thing that really excited me was the fact that I was finally leaving the Chicago winter behind. I spent the first twenty one years of my life in California and this experience formed my template for “normal weather.” Even after spending the next 28 years in Chicago, I could never get used to the frigid Midwestern winters. For about three weeks after arriving in Tokyo everything was going fine, the temperature was between 40 and 50 degrees and when people complained about the cold “Kyo wa samui desu ne.” I would nod in agreement even though I had just escaped from the first pass of Chiberia’s polar vortex and I really felt like I had landed in a country where it was always spring. Boy was I wrong.

While northern Japan is famous for its snow festivals, Tokyo rarely gets snow. So I was quite surprised to look out the window on February 8th and see a Chicago-style blizzard. When it was all over nearly eight inches of snow had fallen and Tokyo had survived its worst snowstorm in 45 years. (That’s right, the last time it snowed this much the Beatles were still together.) In many ways a snowstorm in Tokyo is just like a snowstorm anywhere else. It begins with breathless news coverage about the approaching storm followed by the inevitable warnings of “Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to” followed by footage of people falling on sidewalks and cars skidding out of control on slippery bridges and of course the footage of the local television station’s least senior reporter standing out in a snow bank someplace looking really uncomfortable or interviewing people who were stuck at the airport. However there were a few things that were really different about this blizzard

Since Tokyo has very little snow the city was not really prepared for this storm so there are few snowplows, no salt or sand to put down and only the biggest roads were plowed. I assumed that since this was a Saturday everyone would just stay inside, just like the recent shutdown of several southern states after a dusting of snow that was lighter than the powered sugar on a Krispy Kreme donut. But this was not the case.  Japan is a country that is only about the size of California but they have an earthquake nearly every day and several typhoons hit the country each year during typhoon season, so 20 centimeters. of snow is not going to stop people from their daily routine.  I went grocery shopping in the middle of the blizzard and saw plenty of other people out shopping too. Since many people in Tokyo do not have cars and there is usually a grocery store within walking distance of people’s homes, a lot of people simply went grocery shopping or took their kids out to play in the snow. Since it snows here so rarely many children who were five or six years old were experiencing snow for the first time. Also public transportation is reliable and easily available so while it was more difficult to get around it was not impossible.

The other thing that I noticed was the way that people relied much more on human power to dig out after the storm.  The entire parking lot in front of my building was cleared out by a group of five people with shovels and a big basket mounted on top of a dolly. I saw several other people shoveling paths through side streets and clearing out the entrance to the local train station by hand as well.  One thing that I think accounts for this attitude is a Japanese phrase “Shikata ga nai”  which translates as “It can’t be helped.” While this phrase is often seen as fatalistic or passive, it also has the meaning of squarely facing and pushing through difficult situations. You need to get groceries but there’s half a foot of snow on the ground instead of sitting around complaining while you eat the last bowl of ramen in the house, just go out and get your groceries. It might be fun and you might see something really beautiful like a shrine covered in snow or a child experiencing her first snow.

Back to the Future in Japan part 1

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Even though Japan is famous for embracing the latest high tech gadgets, there are some things which still exist in Japan that have almost entirely disappeared in the US. This is the first installment in a series of posts about things that have survived in Japan long after they disappeared from the US.

Pay phones and phone booths– This is a picture that I took of a payphone on the train platform at Meidiamae station in Tokyo.  Superman would have to search long and hard for a dressing room, since there are not a lot of pay phones in Tokyo but I have seen about seven or eight since I arrived. I even saw someone using one despite the fact that almost everyone appears to have a cell phone. The pay phones are bright green, very sturdy and appear to be designed primarily for emergencies, which is probably a good thing since between the earthquakes and typhoons emergencies are pretty common.

Gas station attendants.  While nearly all US gas stations went self-serve during the last century, stopping in a gas station a few weeks ago took me back to my childhood in the 1970s. When we pulled into the local gas station three attendants in snappy (yes, that IS the only word for it) red uniforms descended on our car and began cleaning it, filling it with gas and even passed out hot towels so we could clean the car’s interior. One of the senior attendants even stood at the exit to the gas station to let us know when it was safe to pull out into traffic.

Record stores-Although Tower Records, one of my favorite youthful hangouts, disappeared from the US a long time ago, there is still a Tower Records in the Hachioji section of Tokyo where I live. In fact Japan still has a lot of record stores. I have yet to find anything rivaling Chicago’s Virgin Megastore which graced the Magnificent Mile in the early 2000s but Japan still has a number of small to mid-sized record stores.  Amazon and its Japanese competitor, Rakuten, have made some inroads into the CD and DVD markets but Japan does not have a lot of streaming services like Pandora or Spotify. Also Japanese CDs have really extensive liner notes which makes Itunes downloads less popular.

Fax Machines-Yes, they still exist in Japan and they still suck as much as you remember them(if you are old enough to remember them.)

Video Rental Stores-Imagine a world in which Netflix never existed. Tokyo is full of cheap DVD rental stores (by cheap I mean 100 yen or about $1.00 per rental) which also offer Blue Ray and CD rentals so you can check out the latest AKB48 release along with your rental of The Wolverine. The big difference between these stores and places like Blockbuster is their incredibly efficient use of space which allows them to cram thousands of DVDs and CDs into a space which is about the size of someone’s living room.  However, I think they may be on their way out since I recently saw that our local store,Tsutaya, was going to offer a rent-by-mail service which is almost identical to Netflix.