Death Benefits

These conversations with the skeleton of my father snuck up on me the first few times.   At first the skeleton simply interrupted, popping up to give me a detail from his point of view.   I indulged him when he had something to say and, also, when he had little to say.  

I came to look forward to our discussions, even as I was aware they were taking place in my imagination.  His answers had the ring of truth to them, he could be disarmingly honest and diabolically dishonest at the same time.  

He sometimes surprised me, like when his tone turned mid-sentence, the familiar merciless prosecutor yielding to the humble, remorseful man he became as he was dying.   The skeleton is once in a while the carping bully but more often he speaks in the voice of the man with the too-late perspective of suddenly having less than a day to live. That second voice is the one he would have preferred to have had all along.  The skeleton character speaks for both sides of my father,  what he was and what he could have been. 

By the time I got the call that he’d been rushed to the Emergency Room, yellow and unable to move his legs, I had begun to heal.   Our confrontations had made little sense to me as a child, all I knew was that the war was constant and unavoidable, except for the unpredictable ceasefires with a few hysterical laughs thrown in.    

I would come to know this hideous dance by the supremely ironic name my grandmother Chava used to describe the violence between my father and his brother: “seenas cheenam”  senseless hatred born of jealousy, pettiness, inexplicable malice.  

Seeing my father suddenly dying jarred me fully awake.  The experience in the dying man’s room is about person who is dying, not about anyone else.  He had things he needed to say.  I made it possible for him to say them.  Luckily for both of us I had attained at least that much empathy and common sense by then. 

I’d begun to see by that time, thankfully, and I was almost fifty already myself, that he had been unable to do better, would have done better if he’d been capable of it.   My father tried to explain, during that last conversation, that “on one level it was really nothing personal”.  I didn’t really get it at the time. This is a hard idea to truly grasp, but I think I’ve come to understand it.

Treating people badly is often the first reflex of people who’ve been treated badly themselves.  They will lavish the bad treatment on anyone they can safely do it to, a child is ideal.  Making the victim feel like it’s his/her own fault for the mistreatment is a satisfying two-fer my father was a master of.   He never recovered from being a two year-old, whipped in the face by his enraged mother.   How does one go about recovering from something like that?

Add to it the unutterable rages and sorrows that bubbled up from the lost souls of our murdered family in those doomed little Eastern European towns, rising like poisoned gas from the mass graves of our indecently slaughtered ancestors.  These unspeakable things can only be raged about.  The dead themselves, if they could speak, would bitterly complain it was so unfair and terrible, what they did to the powerless people who gave us life, people who only wanted to live, like everyone else.


When my mother died, five years  and 22 days after my father died, I learned my sister and I were entitled to free grief counseling anywhere in the United States because our mother had been a patient at Hospice by the Sea at the end of her life.    My sister saw somebody in Florida, she went a few times.  I went every week for several months to 32nd and Broadway to sit with an Episcopalian priest named Paul who was an excellent listener and a kind man.  He recommended a book he’d found helpful — Death Benefits, by Jeanne Safer.  It was a book I marked up extensively when I read it.

The big idea of the book is that once a loved one dies their life can be seen, for the first time, as an organic whole.   There are gifts and lessons left behind when a loved one dies, from even the most miserable and ungenerous of them.  Seen in the context of one’s life and values, these gifts can be cherished and put to good use.  

Jeanne Safer had begun to see this after her own larger-than-life mother died.  Being a therapist, she had a wealth of patient stories as illustrations of death benefits large and small.  There was an overweight woman whose critical father’s death freed her to live a healthier, more satisfying life.  A frustrated accountant quit a job he hated to do what he’d always wanted to do, become a chef.  Old jury-rigged terrible things replaced by better, more refined and useful things by processing difficult lessons and seeing the gifts inside them.   

As I said, I took a pencil and bracketed sections of text that seemed particularly important or profound to me.  This is my practice when I want to mark text to find later, instead of underlining.  Underlining ruins a book, sometimes even crosses out some of the words it wants to remember.  I curse the underliners of library books, a tribe of unthinking, selfish morons.  A penciled bracket next to the text makes the section easy to find, in conjunction with a bookmark with a note and page number.  A bracket in the margin does nothing to make reading the prized section any more difficult.

I found the book very helpful.  I realized I’d learned many excellent and useful values from my parents, had inherited valuable traits.  I loaned my marked-up copy of the book to an old friend whose mother had died within weeks of my own mother’s death.  She never read it, and it was with a bit of drama, not without some ugliness, that I got it back a year or two later.  

I loaned it to another old friend who had lost her mother.  I never heard a peep about it and, in spite of her later promise to send it back to me, it vanished like the muddy little hamlets in the marsh where my grandmother’s family went into the night and fog.



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