Finding bereavement support

By Mary Reinholz

It would have been nice to hold an an old-fashioned Irish wake for my older sister, Sue, a retired high school science teacher and head librarian in the Los Angeles school district. The divorced mother of two adult children, she died June 2 of cardiac arrest after a long illness.

Sue used to like a snort of spirits now and then while she listened to her favorite Irish folk songs by the Clancy Brothers in her cute West Hollywood condo, her last stop after years of living in large houses with her former husband, a man appropriately named Dick whom she helped send through medical school. Dick wouldn’t be at her memorial.

So to hell with him. We two Reinholz sisters were half-Irish on our late mother’s side and I wouldn’t have minded getting roaringly drunk in the condo and singing along with the few California family members I was still speaking to.

But my niece Jennifer, Sue’s second adult child who lives in Manhattan as I do, had become a Muslim like her husband and she didn’t drink. She wanted to have people over to the condo to snack on finger foods, look at scrapbooks, listen to music and remember her mom, who once played cello, in the manner of Jewish friends sitting shiva.

Jennifer, who teaches history at Stuyvesant High School, had called me on her cell the morning Sue died at Cedars-Sinai, and she flew out to LAX that day. As it turned out, I stayed behind in my Downtown apartment, preparing to deliver a tribute for Sue’s memorial by long-distance, amplified telephone call to the condo, broke and too proud to accept my cousin Patrick’s offer to fly me out to the coast.

So I spent a day going through cards and letters Sue had sent me going back 10 years — when she first contracted the debilitating neurological disorder that kept her bedridden since at least 2005 and eventually killed her. There was her thank-you note for the “wonderful raspberry jam” I bought at the Union Square Greenmarket and shipped to her one Christmas. Another card from 2009, now written in a wavering hand, congratulated me on an “excellent article about the chief” and signed “Sioux,” our little joke on her name and my occasional reporting on two American Indian reservations on Eastern Long Island. It also contained the signature of her firstborn son, David.

Finding the right poem for a tribute to my only sibling was a problem. I would have liked something by Auden marking the death of Yeats. But Yeats had “disappeared in the dead of winter,” while Sue expired in sunny Southern California at the start of summer. Finally, I decided on two poems: Alfred Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” which our late father used to recite at the old homestead, and Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” which my ex-husband had introduced me to from another lifetime. I’ll say this for the ex: He at least had excellent taste in poetry.

And so at my Roman Catholic sister’s shiva, I read a poem by a drunken Welshman in a voice so loud that it seemed to come from the bottom of the ocean.

“Dead men naked they shall be one / with the man in the wind and the west moon,” I bellowed. There was at least 30 seconds of dead silence after I finished and then Jennifer came on the line, saying it was now time to celebrate her mother’s life.

The next day, a California friend who visited Sue in various hospitals and nursing homes and was present at the memorial, said people were “held rapt” by the poetry of the spoken words. But here in New York, there was no such feedback. Mentioning Sue’s death in conversation was greeted like an unwelcome intrusion, an inconvenient truth that people die.

“Oh?” said one woman, a West Village resident and former television assignment editor, in a brisk, fact-finding voice. “What did she die from?”

Another occasional crony, a poet, wrote me a one-line e-mail: “Sorry to learn of yr sister’s passing.” She couldn’t even spell out “your.” My electronic reply was even briefer. “Thx.”

Told of this exchange, a grief counselor I went to see a month later, the Reverend Paul A. Metzler at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York’s Hospice Care, smiled and said, “Touché.” Metzler, an Episcopalian priest and psychotherapist, heads VNSNY’s Community Programs and Services at a skyscraper on Broadway and 32nd St. It was helpful for me to learn that my friends’ failure to offer much support was a common problem grieving people in New York encountered after the death of a loved one.

“It’s not like being in a small town where everyone knew [the departed],” he observed in his book-lined, seventh-floor office amid a warren of cubicles. I reached Metzler by a circuitous route after calling the bankrupt and nearly shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital in July, and learned from a priest there that its Pax Christi hospice, which had offered bereavement groups, had been acquired by VNSNY, one of the largest nonprofit healthcare providers in the country. The organization traces it roots to Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement House in 1893 when it was a beacon for Lower East Side immigrants.

Metzler considers his ministry to be a kind of “underground church” helping people who feel isolated and “disenfranchised” in their grief.

“They feel their grief here is not validated or appreciated,” he said in a recent telephone conversation. “A common complaint is: ‘This grief is more profound and long than I could ever have imagined.’ This is the impact of isolation. The griever feels alone and disenfranchised because no one knew the person who died.”

Most of VNSNY’s support groups are held at Metzler’s building, at 1250 Broadway. But there are other groups in the five boroughs with counselors who generally have advanced degrees. He helps put out a bereavement newsletter listing various events. Visit www.vnsny.org or call 212-609-1900 for more information.