By the time you read this, most of you probably will be firmly settled in the anger stage of grief over what happened on September 11. I feel fairly confident presuming this because, much to my distress, I’ve become something of a lay expert on grief during this past year. Aside from the fact that my wife and I were visiting New York the day that terrorists laid waste to the World Trade Center, earlier in the summer I lost my father to a disease that, in its way, killed just as suddenly and wantonly as the Arab assassins did.
Indeed, I had just begun to get a grip on my sadness over my father’s death when I was presented with an entirely new emotion: grief over a loss of innocence. As I watched the horrifying images from lower Manhattan on TV in my hotel room, I felt that at least I knew what to expect from my psyche. I would first curl my emotions into a tight fetal position of denial until the oddly consoling heat of anger arrived. In this case, given the 24-hour news coverage—not to mention the fact that the smoke and carnage were just sixty blocks away—it arrived even before we left the city, five days later. Since this was more or less where my emotions still ran about my father’s passing, I briefly wondered if this was healthy, then realized that that question, like most others about this most common of human emotional conditions, is probably unanswerable.
In fact, as long as I’ve been at this grief business (really, you could date it even further back, to last fall, when my father-in-law passed away from Alzheimer’s disease), the only thing I’ve learned for certain is that no one knows all that much. I mean, we’ve all heard Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of the condition: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And there seems to be general agreement among health care professionals that though different people express grief differently, all such expressions are healthy. But beyond that, all the Web sites and very earnest books I’ve perused on the subject have had little but platitudes to offer. The only insightful observation I’ve heard came from the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center’s venerated hospital chaplain, Sister Alice Potts, who said of grief, “You can’t fight it. You have to give in to it. It’s not something you’re just going to ‘get over’ in the way you get over other things.”
My experience with grief hasn’t given me any pat answers to the condition, but I do have three observations about it that may prove helpful as we process this unprecedented collective bereavement.
Some of it actually is your fault. When my father called to tell me of his diagnosis with colorectal cancer this past June, I was actually cocky in my response. I had been researching a story on M. D. Anderson Cancer Center over the preceding month or so, I told him. “They’ve got all kinds of treatments to run through before it can really be called terminal.” But within days, the diagnosis had worsened. It wasn’t just cancer of the rectum, but stage 4 metastatic cancer that had spread to his liver. This was not so clearly within the reach of even the newest magic bullets; in fact, Dad was terminal. I remember thinking this was an oddly archaic term here in the age of stem cell research. Maybe that was the fate of the Ali MacGraw character in Love Story, but that sort of cruel finality just didn’t happen anymore, did it?
Dad insisted on at least one round of chemo, but on my return from a short vacation to Mexico, I had a message from my sister: The chemo had only weakened him more; he was back in Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio. My wife and I visited him later that week and were shocked at how quickly cachexia (wasting) had set in; he was a specter of his former self and unable to speak clearly or swallow. Three days after our visit, my father quietly died. Three days after that, we quietly buried him. For all the good modern bioscience had done him, I thought, he may as well have developed the disease back in the fifties or sixties—or the nineteenth century, for that matter.
But it wasn’t really modern bioscience’s problem, was it? It was mine for having so zealously imagined curative powers far beyond doctors’ actual capability. When I asked M. D. Anderson’s vice president for research administration, Leonard A. Zwelling, if we were winning the war on cancer, he said, “We’re doing a lot better, but cancer is still smarter than we are. It’s very close to us. It arises from our own being. It’s not like an infection. In Darwinian terms, it should have been eliminated. Why is it still here?”
It was worth remembering, I realized, that the disease that killed Dad had started with an almost innocent handful of genetic errors in the DNA that told the cells there how to reproduce themselves—the kind of incipient mutiny that really doesn’t show up on the radar. And even as this biochemical insurrection gained momentum and bulk, Dad felt no pain or experienced any other warning that something was afoot. Who could be arrogant enough to think that we could ever conquer such an insidious foe?
In the same way, I think, we all had come to overestimate our imperviousness to terrorist attack, or to underestimate the terrorists’ sociopathic guile. America is, among many other things, the land of magic bullets, whether they are for molecular or human pathogens. Learning the hard way that you really didn’t have a cure after all makes the grieving all the more painful.
There really is nothing you can say. When tragedy strikes, it is in the American character to try to talk our way around, through, or over it. I know when I stood at my father’s bedside, watching the cancer quite literally suck the