How do I stop feeling dead

Two widows tell what helps mourners - and what they should be spared

The following text was published in February 2004 in the journal CHRISMON.

We thank the editors for their kind permission to publish the text.

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Chrismon, the Protestant magazine, appears monthly as a supplement to "Die Zeit", "Frankfurter Rundschau", "Sächsische Zeitung", "Süddeutsche Zeitung", "Der Tagesspiegel" and "Potsdamer Latest News" with a circulation of 1.5 million copies .

Doris Dörrie, 48, became internationally known with the comedy film "Men" (1985). The film director and professor at the University of Television and Film in Munich also directs operas and writes books, most recently “The Blue Dress” (Diogenes now also as a paperback). In this - explicitly not autobiographical - novel Dörrie tells in a cheerful and poetic way how the main character Babette wanders through her grief and slowly becomes open again to new experiences. Doris Dörrie lost her husband eight years ago. She lives with her daughter in Munich.

Angelika von Hatzfeld , 59, first studied painting, then Spanish, became a journalist. Most recently she was editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. Today she works as a book author - because she has more “time to ponder” and wants to deal more intensively with a topic. She lost her husband three years ago. She wrote a provocative and at the same time self-deprecating experience report about her experiences afterwards: “And suddenly you are alone. A widow's confessions ”(Europa Verlag). She is currently writing a novel in rural solitude. Otherwise she lives in Munich.

Chrismon: Is there an ideal societal image of a widow? How should a widow behave?

ANGELIKA VON HATZFELD: The widow as a social figure who has a recognized status in society no longer exists. Today there is only the woman who has lost her husband. And that should, if you please, quickly return to everyday life. Because from the point of view of the other, the mourner is a dark lump. Grief is simply a nuisance for many, it disturbs their well-groomed life. “You have to look ahead,” I was asked. And three weeks after my husband's death someone said, "Have you ever thought about getting married again?" One should show an appealingly scented version of grief. If any.

DORIS DÖRRIE: But you can't really blame anyone for the fact that we can't deal with grief in this country. That is just a phenomenon of our time. In other cultures, such as Mexico, which has a very high infant and child mortality rate, there is no one who has not learned what it is like to lose at a very young age. Anyone who says they are mourning there will encounter completely different reactions - because everyone knows what that feels like. But with us there is no longer any general wealth of experience when it comes to grief.

HATZFELD: And it is also downright prevented that experiences with death are made! Because as soon as people die, they are sent to hospital.

DÖRRIE: Out of fear. And this fear has its origin in our great protection: that we can live a very long time without death and sadness happening to us.

Chrismon: Because we are medically well cared for, you can be 50 years old today before you see someone die - usually your parents or your first friends.

DÖRRIE: And the fact that we are not confronted with death for a very long time has led to an over-dimensional fear of the living of the dying and the mourning.

HATZFELD: What I also think is a shame: The church is now almost competing with the adult education center with its cultural offerings, but it does very, very little to take away people's fear of death. I go to church every now and then, but death doesn't appear there either, zero. In the Christian religion, death is also considered a part of life.

Chrismon: What are you specifically missing?

HATZFELD: An example: My husband dies and a funeral mass is supposed to be read before the funeral - he was Catholic, I am Protestant. So I go to the responsible parish because this mass has to be discussed. There is a very, very friendly Father sitting there. I cry, sob, tell. Hm, he says, hm. Ten minutes and that's it. Did he deal with death? Has he said anything to me about death, any word of comfort, anything that will help me get over the greatest loss in my life? Anything!

DÖRRIE: I was also with a very kind Father. He just asked me what to say at the funeral, and then I told him what to say and that was it. After seven and a half minutes.

HATZFELD: The churches have become deaf and blind.

DÖRRIE: This black hole within the Christian church brought me to Buddhism. First noble truth of Buddha: life is suffering, it ends with old age and death. Wow, finally someone says what it's about! Buddhism is a tough, practical instruction on how to deal with old age, death and impermanence. I found that incredibly relieving.

HATZFELD: We have everything in the Bible that you find comforting and helpful in Buddhism. But who is telling us? The application is missing, an aid on how to get through this difficult life.

Chrismon: What about the mourners is particularly difficult for the others?

DÖRRIE: It drives people crazy that you can't fix anything. You can't say, "Do this and that, and you'll feel better." No! Nothing works anymore. There is only one thing left: to just endure it. And we don't really like that because we've got used to the fact that there is a solution for everything and a psychotherapeutic instruction. But enduring the fact that one cannot help the mourner in his grief, but can only accompany it, that is difficult for many.

HATZFELD: Hold still and be there at the same time.

DÖRRIE: Exactly. That is the worst, also for the mourner: that he has to keep still. You can only endure the grief, you cannot make it go away. You have to keep still. But our whole culture is geared towards running.

“Everyone in mourning just wants to disappear, but they shouldn't be allowed to do that; one should stay close ”

chrismon: There is probably no consolation, but you can help those who mourn. How could such assistance look like - for a night in the apartment so that it is not so empty?

HATZFELD: Just sit around! And do nothing.

chrismon: But calling would be nice?

HATZFELD: It would be even nicer: just drop by and ring the doorbell, at the risk of nobody being there.

DÖRRIE: And at the risk of the mourner saying: I can't now! And ring again later.

HATZFELD: But that takes time. A lot of the lives around me are structured in such a way that if I make an appointment with someone today, I will make an appointment with them in three weeks, because all the other evenings are already booked out. This means that the presence that the mourner needs may be provided by the companion once or twice.

Chrismon: Did you only feel understood by people who had also lost someone?

DÖRRIE: In the end, it was friends who had already lost someone. And family. Some friends couldn't cope with it and completely cut off contact - which I think is terrible.

chrismon: Have you made new friends?

DÖRRIE: I don't know exactly.

HATZFELD: For me it is. And people I have never seen before. For example, a physiotherapist who looked after my husband. A very, very quiet woman. In my life before that I would never have noticed it. She had lost her husband to another woman. It was like a death experience for her. A few days after my husband's death we drove to Lake Starnberg, walked side by side in silence, then I started crying, then she briefly touched my shoulder, then she cried. Then we drank cocoa somewhere, drove home, said goodbye, that was it. That was just right. I am very friends with her. And I've met a few people like that that I would never have paid attention to before.

DÖRRIE: My experience is that the people who are constantly confronted with death and grief are ultimately the happier ones. I read about a global happiness survey. The question was: who feels happy now, today? And the Nigerians were in first place. Nigeria, of all places - this country has lived in horror and horror for a long time!

HATZFELD: You could do such statistics here with us too. Time and again I experience that people who have difficult social jobs - such as a woman in my house who works with abused children - that such people are the most cheerful. I consciously make a distinction between happy and cheerful. In any case, these people have such a cheerful serenity. The gravity of life itself and the daily encounter with unhappiness obviously make people grateful and cheerful.

DÖRRIE: Of course, one shouldn't seek misfortune now in order to be happy. But whoever avoids preoccupation with death, the terminally ill and the mourners will ultimately trip themselves up. Because dealing with it is a key to your own happiness. After the Second World War, there was a need to drive away the shadow of death that had become overpowering. I understand that very well. But now we have completely dissolved the connection between transience and happiness that there is no longer any feeling of happiness at the moment, only a lukewarm feeling.

chrismon: So your advice would be: run the mourners into the booth, this is your chance!

DÖRRIE: Yes, but also the hospitals, the old people's homes, all areas of life that we have separated. The most terrible thing that is happening to us at the moment is care for the elderly.

HATZFELD: Terrible. I have girlfriends, career women, who tremble with fear that they will one day have to go to a nursing home. They start to set up circles for old people's residential communities, just for fun. But that's no fun, there are only truths wrapped in fun. Because they are aware that society will deport them to old people's homes, they can rot there. And when the relatives come, the old woman is already in the coffin. A person has been, nobody mourns him.

“Just go by. And bring something to eat too. Mourners always want nothing. But when the soup is in front of you ... "

chrismon: And if someone does mourn, he is called to order with this sentence: "Life goes on!"

DÖRRIE: That's a terrible truth, but one that you don't want to hear when you're grieving.

chrismon: Why is that a terrible truth?

DÖRRIE: Because you don't want life to go on as it is at the moment, without the other. That's why you can't hear the sentence at all.

HATZFELD: One of the most widespread sentences you get to hear.

DÖRRIE: It's true, too, unfortunately.

HATZFELD: But not in the first six months. Life stopped there. I thought about killing myself every five days. I would have preferred to have been dead many times.

DÖRRIE: In a figurative sense, one also has to die as a mourner. Because life as it has been lived doesn't go on like this. You have to accept that so that you can start a new life again, a life without the other. It is a long and very arduous process. At the same time, these extremely painful phases can also be very lively phases - after all, living does not automatically mean happy and jumping. But grief, because it is so overly sharp and monitored, can be very much alive.

HATZFELD: I didn't feel that way. I felt more like in a trance. But it's true: grief is also the process of creating another person. The germ of new life is already in this unspeakable pain. It's horrible to say that, but it is. The moment the other dies and you die with them, you begin to become someone else.

DÖRRIE: And to watch it patiently yourself, that is one of the most difficult exercises. There are also people who settle into a middle phase of grief. Who only want to live in memory and refuse the future. But letting things become possible again is also a phase in the grief process - to which you have to overcome yourself.

Chrismon: Ms. von Hatzfeld, at the end of your book you write: "My soul had become muscular and sinewy." One would rather assume that someone is becoming more sensitive.

HATZFELD: I had to struggle with so many adversities - with bankers and with debtors, then my unsuccessful attempt to be socially active in the hospital, where they didn't seem to need me, as well as all these remarks and requests that hurt me so badly to have. Sometimes I thought I would stop living immediately, I couldn't take it. And then I survived. I used to be very shy without anyone noticing. I looked tough and confident, but I was soft and insecure. Today I don't look tough on the outside, but I've built tendons and muscles on the inside so that I can cushion unreasonable demands much better and don't let them get so close to me.

DÖRRIE: For me it went exactly the other way around. I've always had a lot of muscle. But through the time of mourning I have become much more permeable. And I think that is also what everyone could get for themselves by dealing with death and grief - to become more permeable and thus also more connected with the world and with others. Since our society is so completely capitalistic, you always have to say what you get out of it. So, anyone who deals with grievers can get this more connected feeling.

Chrismon: In the end, would you have - please forgive this word - top tips for mourners? Is there anything you can do to prevent the pain from going insane?

DÖRRIE: Yes, walking meditation, walking meditation. It's as simple as anything: inhale - one step, exhale - one step. Breathing brings you back into your body because you are suddenly back in one place at a time. The terrible thing about grief is that you least enjoy being in the here and now because you are there without the other; but everything that happened in the past also hurts terribly; and the future is full of pain because you always have to imagine the future without the other. Conscious breathing prevents such thoughts, you can switch off your head for a moment. In the beginning it is a pure fight against pain.

HATZFELD: I also did breathing meditation. Because at the moment of stress, grief and pain, people first stop breathing. "He caught his breath," they say. You then breathe very shallowly, you don't get enough oxygen. But if you breathe consciously, you can breathe through the pain. It is not supposed to be pushed away, by no means, but to become livable in some way.

DÖRRIE: And when you walk it automatically becomes a deep breath.

HATZFELD: Above all, I would advise those who mourn not to be put off. But to mourn the way she thinks she has to mourn. How many times have I thought I had to grieve in a different way just because people expect it! No, you have to say very confidently: My grief is my grief, and I live it the way I have to live it.

chrismon: And what advice do you give friends and acquaintances in dealing with those in mourning?

DÖRRIE: Any twisted word with which the person who says it is not satisfied because it does not seem ideal to him is better than none at all. And any simple presence is better than no presence. Of course, mourners are hard to bear because they suddenly laugh and then howl again, and no one knows what's next. Enduring that stoically and staying close helps.

chrismon: Even if you feel intrusive? Many prefer to say: "Call me if you need something."

DÖRRIE: That is wrong. The mourner cannot call when he needs something. No, you have to keep calling yourself, accepting that the mourner says: “I can't make a phone call now”, and then calling again anyway. Grief is not a straight line. And no grief like the other.

HATZFELD: And because you often say “No, no” on the phone, my advice: just drop by, once, twice, three times.The third time it's good. And bring something to eat too. Mourners always want nothing. But when the warm soup is in the pot in front of you ...

DÖRRIE: Yes, it is often very simple, little things that help. Just walk around the block or take a swim. Every mourner instinctively wants to disappear, but he shouldn't be allowed to. But keep checking what's wrong with it. It is of course the easiest for the others to keep this discreet distance: "She needs her rest now." No, you should stay close.