Mourning, Grief, and Community

My beloved father, Gerald Rasmussen, died on Monday 30 September 2013, of cancer, after two months in hospice care. I will post the “official” obituary on Friday, and I plan to post all the chapters and photos from his memoir Remembering Japan between now and the end of the year.

I have often said he is the best dad and let me briefly describe why. Yes, he was an educator, and a good one, as well as a man who worked within the community college system to make education accessible to people who had otherwise been shut out of college. He knew US history well; it was difficult to “surprise” him because he had studied and thought about most of the many vectors and layers that have created the tapestry of this country’s history. In his own small way he took part in the civil rights movement. He was better than the paid pundits in analyzing current events. He was genuinely interested in people, and listened when they spoke. After he retired he took up bread baking and won ribbons at the county fair.

As a daughter, I received a precious gift from my dad: He accepted me for who I was. From early on I was infamous for being stubborn and difficult, but I don’t think he particularly found me so. I did not fit into the gender roles of my time, but he didn’t press me to change. He supported me, and let me be myself.

Oddly enough, these sparse comments aren’t really why I’m writing this post. When I tweeted that my father had died, both on Twitter and on Facebook I received so many kind comments. I first ventured onto the internets in 1990. I have never found it a soulless shallow place but rather a place of community, where I have connected and listened and learned.

As far as I know there is no “right” way to do grief and mourning, rather various ways, each particular to the circumstance and hour and person. We are all, always, in the process of transition from the state we are in into what we are becoming.

For reasons that I’m not going to go into here and now, I can only imperfectly sit shiva for my father. Because of that, and because of the nature of community, I thought I would ask people to “visit” me here, on my blog, if they feel so inclined.

I would love to hear stories about educators who were important to you.

Or mentions of people, now gone, who have been a blessing in your life.

Or a discussion of what community means to you. And if you think there is community online and, if so–or if not–what that means.



35 thoughts on “Mourning, Grief, and Community

  1. Well the most important teacher in my life was my mother, who worked in special education for most of her professional life. She wound up as the head of the education department at a local centre for children with various developmental disabilities; when she started there it was still called The Mental Retardation Centre, to give you a sense of how long ago it was!

    As for community, my online support system is as real as any in-person friendships I’ve ever had. When I got the call in March 2011 that my then-88-year-old mother had suffered a stroke, she was not expected to survive the afternoon. I put out a call to my Facebook friends for their thoughts and prayers and healing energy and by the time I got to my mom’s bedside (she lives 3 hours away) she was sitting up and talking! I will always believe that my online community saved my mother’s life.

    Grief is different for everybody, as you said. My dad’s been gone since ’83 and some days I am triggered by a TV show or something and cry over him like crazy.

    You don’t mention if your mom is still living so I don’t know what obligations you have to care for other family members but please don’t forget to take time to look after yourself.


    Your Facebook friend,


  2. One of my clearest memories of your father was visiting your place, I think at Christmas-time for Christmas Eve supper, and it must have been our first meeting. He asked me about my dad’s Danish ancestry, and what I knew of Dad’s grandfather’s immigration. But then, sorta out of the blue, he asked why I was studying Alexander, which was a leap of subject. Yet he listened with great interest to my explanation, even if it wasn’t his era, genuinely intrigued by what had interested me in that particular person and period.

    That, to me, is what makes a fabulous teacher–sincere interest in a student, if not necessarily his student.

    Even if I didn’t get to meet him that often, I will miss your dad. There’s a reason I sent your parents a Christmas card every year, which I don’t do for the parents of most of my friends. Both your parents were/are very special people, who raised 3 very special daughters with extraordinary gifts. And perhaps that’s the best legacy a dad can hope for.

  3. My condolences on your loss. Your father sounds like a wonderful man. History and bread baking! Someone after my own heart. 🙂

    My father-in-law was also an educator: a professor of geology. His specialty was micromollusks. He was a very warm, kind man who welcomed me into the family. He loved to read pseudoscience books for entertainment value, but also loved to answer questions about science honestly and forthrightly, while also telling funny stories about his experiences. I always felt I was learning in the most enjoyable way when I was around him.

    I met him in 1994 and he died in 1997, not too many months after my husband and I married. But I’m very glad to have had time to know him. I wish he could have met his grandchildren; I think he would have delighted in them (and they in him).

  4. I am remembering your dad on that rainy day, so many years ago, when we were all supposed to go to the Giants game. We did make it to Candlestick and sat for a while in the sloppy weather until we all faced reality — the game was not going to be played. 🙂 But we went back to my house for coffee, I think it was, and your dad coursed from bookshelf to bookshelf to see what I had. I was so pleased that someone appreciated our library. I remember too discussing with him whether or not Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish were separate languages or dialects. We agreed that one should never say “only dialects” in a bar in any of those countries.

  5. When my father died earlier this year I experienced, for some significant number of weeks afterward, a curious sensation of shifting. It was as though he had moved from the outer world down into my bones. I can feel him there still. These last few days, in idle moments driving or walking, I have thought of you in relation to this. Wondering if anything of the same sort might be happening. More than that, wondering how you are, in the midst of everything. I have followed the intense dignity and collectedness of your posts, admiring your strength and poise.

    I wish I could write something that would feel healing to you. I am thinking of a poem that my sister gave to me; I will send it by e-mail.

    Please please please be gentle with you. Grief is, obviously, exhausting. It’s exhausting in not-obvious ways, too. I have found there are blessings as well, and I hope that you find these too on your journey. Please drop me a line any time if it would help to talk. Much love to you.

  6. Thank you, Darlene. I am as certain as certain can be that online community has saved many lives, in many ways.

    My mother is still alive — she nursed my father through his final illness.

  7. <3

    One of the last stories he told me was about a Lane Community College student doing a paper on the history and development of the black studies and ethnic studies and women studies departments at LCC in the late 60s and early 70s who came out to interview him. This was maybe in May or June.

    What he told her about that history and his part in it I never heard. Instead I heard about all he had learned about her, and why she was taking the class, and how she (she was Native American and I believe either Hopi or Navajo but I can't recall that now) had come to be at LCC, and so on.

  8. Micro mollusks. That is lovely in and of itself. Thank you for sharing a little piece of him.

  9. Hahaha. Yes, I remember that — that was the year he came down to see the Giants play the Mets, right — the year the Mets won it all (and he was already sure they would). We did see two games — one a brilliant pitchers’ duel and one a rather boring slugfest.

  10. So the oddest thing is that soon after — and ever since — I got the 3 phone calls (one from each sibling) that my father had died, I have felt a strong sense of peace and surety in my heart.

    Condolences on your father. One way or another they are in our bones.

    I have no idea how this will proceed for me, nor can any of us predict its course, only that it will unfold and that eventually we will face the same transition ourselves.

  11. I’m sorry for the loss you and your family has suffered. I do think that online communities have an important place in many of our lives. I know many women through infertility blogging that I’ve never met but I’ve shared in their joys and disappointments as if they were friends I know in person. Sending you healing thoughts.

  12. My daughter died two years and two weeks ago, after fighting cervical cancer for three years.. The chemo was working, but her immune system had been severely weakened. An infection overwhelmed her in a matter of hours.

    All–most–mothers believe their children are a blessing. The lucky ones get to see those blessings spread into the larger world.

    Stephanie had married a man older than I am. He had three young children, two boys 9, 10, and a 7 year old girl, so she became a mother and a wife on the same day. Those kids needed a mother and structure and organization, and love.. Their biological mother had abandoned them when the youngest was a baby. Their dad did his best, but he was in over his head.

    From the very first day, Steph was their mother. They were her kids, her boys and her daughter, not her stepchildren. She did everything she could to make their lives better, to instill confidence and a sense of discipline, give them new experiences, and to make them feel loved and secure.

    She only had six years with them, but Stephanie transformed their lives. Three troubled, rebellious children became productive, happy teens on the verge of adulthood. That was the biggest blessing she left behind.

    We are all on this planet for a reason, we all have things we are meant to do. I really believe that. I think about the difference Stephanie made, the lives she touched, and take what comfort I can.

  13. Dear Kate, I wish you and your family long life. And if I were able to come visit you where you are sitting shiva, I would bring you a honey cake and hang out in your kitchen, make cups of tea for other people and schmooz with those doing dishes and sorting the food in the background.

    Personally, I find the rituals around mourning so rich and comforting, especially for the sense of community that they bring. Some of my most memorable conversations are talking with women in the kitchen in a house of shiva – for some reason it seems to be a time and place of confession. And I’ve learned the most interesting and emotional things about people.

    I wish I could sit and drink a cup of tea with you. But I think you are so lucky to have been loved and accepted by your dad for exactly who you are. That is the best gift he could ever have given you.

    I’m thinking of you at this time and wish you good health.


  14. I’m sorry for your loss, but am glad that your father was such an awesome part of your life. My “pap” was special too 🙂 You never get over losing them, but it does get more bearable. My only advice is to continue working through it in the way that is best for you.

  15. there are no words. i feel your pain. community is here for you.

    with my own imperfect words, my father’s yahrzeit is in a few days… every day i am thankful for what he taught me and for the gifts that needed years to fully appreciate. he was an elementary school teacher years before i was born, but found greater joy in fixing and building for others. he is why i am in the (computer) sciences, of course math and science is something i could do. i passed on his lessons when i taught my husband how to use power tools beyond the drill. for 24 years now, i’ve discovered times when the hole of loss isn’t as vivid and some times when out of the blue something triggers a surprising and strong memory.

    may you find comfort …

  16. Yes, we are able to find the people who speak to the things that matter most to us — especially in circumstances when it can be difficult to find them right around us. I value the community I have found through the online world so much.

  17. Oh Jaime, thank you for sharing that. It’s both heartbreaking and so beautiful. Condolences. Her memory is a blessing.

  18. <3

    Like you I find ritual to be comforting and, in all honesty, so important -- it creates order both physically/mentally and psychologically/emotionally through these profound transitions.

    I will think of you visiting, and in the kitchen. Now to see if there is anywhere to find honeycake in Eugene! ;)

  19. Thank you. Yes, I think one of the hard lessons to learn is that every person has to move through these things in their own way.

  20. Thank you so much. What a gift are fathers who give their children the strength and skills to move forward into the world.

    My father’s yahrzeit will now be associated with Beresheit for me, which I find lovely and fitting.

  21. You have my deepest sympathies. I am who I am in large part due to my grandmother, Phyllis Neese, who had a huge role in raising me. She was a science fiction and fantasy fan who had a part in the letter writing campaign that saved Star Trek, TOS. She loved that I grew up to write in the field, and she was always a champion of my work. Like you, I was a stubborn child—I suspect most of us who make our living writing books were—but she never tried to break me of the habit. Quite the contrary, she felt it was an important survival skill.

    She was born in 1925 and she was the first woman to go to the tech school where she learned to repair radio equipment. She was a single mother in an era when that was even harder than it is now. She went from a rural beginning in an era before the advent of the transistor to a computer test equipment technician. She lived through a lot of hard times, both personally and with this country but she was never bitter. She embraced change her whole life and she worked hard to stay current.

    She died in March of 2008, but I still find myself worrying that she hasn’t called recently, and the first thing I do whenever I get into any hotel after a flight or long drive is think to myself that I’ve got to call Phyllis and let her know I’m all right.

    By the way, Phyllis, wherever you are, I am all right, but I miss you.

  22. Thank you so much for sharing Phyllis. That is a lovely tribute.

    My dad, by the way, was as a child raised in large part (emotionally, anyway) by his mother’s mother. They had a strong and caring relationship, one that (I think) gave him the stable emotional foundation he drew on for the rest of his life.

    I too suspect stubborn children make good writers (if they are interested in writing).

  23. Mr. Kruse, teacher I met halfways through 6th grade, looked at me my second day I was there. I’d not done the assignment, and I was ready to be shamed again — what he said was life-changing. “Judee, I am surprised. From everything I read and saw, I know you are the smartest kid in class.” Then he went on with the lesson.
    I was stunned.. Everyone before had told me they were disappointed in me, that I was not performing, that I didn’t speak well. I wore hand-me-downs, and spoke in a whisper by then. I never fit and I thought I was stupid — it’s what I’d been told.
    This was the fifth school I’d attended since Kindergarten, and somehow the teachers were *always* “disappointed in me and the way I couldn’t measure up. My second school was a one-room school, and I was reading Kipling and other 19th century authors in the books there. The third school (second grade) they gave me a slim book which I read during the time the class was reading the first (5 page story of maybe 5 paragraphs total!). The teacher called me front of the class and told me to apologize to the class for saying I read the story and the whole book before they’d read that story. Other schools .. much the same. Math seemed beyond me and most of what they talked about seemed beyond me.
    So there was Mr. Kruse, telling me not only that I was smart, but the smartest?!? Everyone knew Doug was smartest! I seldom had problems understanding the work after that. After all, I am *smartest* — Mr. Kruse said so!
    He knew when we were confused and cleared confusion before it could grow. He encouraged the best in each of us — that in a classroom that usually held 2 grades in it (it was a parochial school). He told us the best thing we could learn was not memorizing facts and figures, but how to research and draw our own conclusions. That the purpose of school was to teach us how to think, reason, and learn. When I whispered, he smiled and said I should learn to speak loudly, because Gabriel wasn’t going to come blow a horn so all could hear me. LOL. He asked me once in class who I thought was the right side in a war (I was the only one who didn’t raise my hand to answer). When I replied that the winner would be thought right, he calmed the eruption the class made, and asked why. “Because they write the books we learn from.” He then took the whole class on a real discussion about how we perceive winning, losing, and the perspectives of history. He mostly asked questions, prompting us to think and respond. And we ALL responded. He encouraged us to challenge (POLITELY) but to be ready to show why we challenged — and he challenged us without our realizing it.We learned events, we learned the difference between numerals and numbers .. and all but 2 of us made honor rolls regularly in High School. He found talent in each of us, and commended each of us publicly. When I interned in a Sixth LD grade class years later (where I learned I could not be a conventional teacher!), Mr. Kruse was the model I used. I was able to help them know that LD means Learns Differently.
    I wish, wish, wish I would have found and told him later that he is the reason I became whole, instead of a compliant,tearful, fearful, stupid girl. Because of that teacher (and my grandma) I learned I had a wonderful mind, a different way of reasoning, and it was not only ok, but a treasure.
    Thank you, dear woman, for letting me tell the smallest portion of what he did for me.

  24. Judee, that is such a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it. Every day I am thankful for the many educators who work so hard to bring out the best in their students.

  25. My sympathies to you, Kate.

    I’ll sit shiva with you, though the family I grew up with would say a rosary. I’ll tell you about my religious studies teacher in college, Professor David Hadas, who described himself as a non-practicing Orthodox Jew. I’m sure you’ll get his joke. I dedicated my first book to him. He taught me that all of my questions weren’t me being difficult, but the virtue of an active mind. He also taught me the power of critical thinking – an enormously powerful gift. When he was diagnosed with cancer and decided to forgo chemo and radiation, to better spend the remainder of his time in the classroom, no one was surprised.

    He was a lovely man.

    So was my father, who died when I was three and my stepfather who died when I was forty. I can’t imagine facing my mother’s death, which will assuredly someday arrive.

    My sympathies indeed.

  26. I lost my father at the tail end of a sabbatical year I took with my family in France. About 12 hours before my flight back to the US, he had a stroke from which he never woke. Upon landing I went straight to his hospital room (in a small town 4 hours’ drive from the airport), and was in his room for his last 24 hours. My father worked in several different careers in his life, but never as a teacher; nevertheless I have realized in the 3 years since his passing how much he taught me.

    Perhaps my greatest surprise, and one of few bright moments in the days following his passing, came when, as I was going through his papers for my mom, I came upon a small box containing a stack of typewritten sheets at least fifty years old (but still pristine white, not having seen the light of day in my lifetime). The top sheet began with a short title, no author listed, and launched right into a short story about space exploration. Although it will be obvious from my account, it was only when I recognized my father’s wicked sense of humor (the story ended abruptly when the astronauts, having stood about bickering and posturing over the teeming planet they had discovered, were suddenly picked up and swallowed as a snack by a passing native) that I realized he had written the story.

    Now he is with me in my writing.

  27. I, too, would happily sit shiva with you. And make sure that tea and cookies were available.
    When I was in high school, I’d avoided taking history classes — the teachers were a joke. So I convinced my parents, much to the pain of my counselor, to take US History at DeAnza for summer school (back in those days it was most unusual for a high school junior to take a college class). DeAnza was trying new ways for humanity classes that year, so I was able to take a year of US history over 6 weeks (each quarter’s worth of class was 4 hours/day for 10 days). The Prof, Ken Bruce, was incredible. He was interactive 15 years before the interwebs. He made history come alive. After I’d completed those classes, I ended up being a student assistant for him for 2 years. It let me sit in the classes all over again.

    My favorite story. So back then, he taught in one of the large auditorium lecture halls — probably held 200 students easy. He would tell the story of Pearl Harbor. He would talk about the events that led up to the day — from both the US and Japanese side. What mistakes were made, where the ships were stationed, etc. All while pacing dramatically across the front of the room — right in front of the front row of students. And he would get to the point in the story where the sailor who was the planes gets onto the phone to make the call that was disbelieved (we could have saved more lives if the officer on the other end had believed the sailor), and he would walk to the side of the room, pick up a handset of the school phone that hung on the wall dramatically, as if he was the sailor. He finished speaking and slammed the phone back onto the hook — just as if he were that sailor.

    And up on every monitor in the room (because his picking up the handset was actually the queue to the AV tech in the back room) came the strafing sequence from Tora, Tora, Tora. Scared the living daylights out of the students every time.

    Another story. Earlier in the same class, he’d be teaching about the 1906 earthquake and he’d make the class sit perfectly still and quiet for 107 seconds — the duration of the main quake. And you realized just how long that quake went on….. and on…… and on…..

    And here it is mumble, mumble years later and I can still see him in my minds eye telling those stories quarter after quarter. He love it. he lived it.

    May this memory lighten grief.

  28. THank you for that lovely story. The valuing of questions is so important to learning! That is an amazing story about his dedication to teaching.

    Condolences on your father and step-father.

  29. I remember when you were in France. I’m so sorry he passed away right at the end of that year (or indeed any year, but you know what I mean).

    What a wonderful gift you found in that story.

    I think most of all what I feel is that I know my father is with me in my heart and bones because his influence on me as a person, his constant support, had such impact on making me who I am today.

  30. Gosh, I remember hearing about Ken Bruce. I don’t know if Jay took a class from him or someone else, but he was well known for being a great history teacher. Thanks for sharing those anecdotes.

  31. My condolences–his memory for a blessing.

    My mother trained as a teacher in Korea, where she was born. She’s always been careful not to teach me directly in ways my prickly younger self would’ve resisted, but I grew up with plentiful family stories that turned out to cover historical events and perspectives that no one writes about in a language I can read. She knew how to educate me instead, in other words, and to suit her teaching to different contexts. (Extra valuable, once I’d figured it out, against my father’s anti-educational stance.)

  32. “Danish Heaven” what a wonderful book that be! Sci-fi for some and “Mareridt”[1] for others. I love our parents and their parents generation. Being Danish here and in Denmark. Our dads in “Fællesmøde”[2]. Our generation clashing of imaginations, liken to a feast at Noma in Copenhagen, these days. Syng dig glade, “cousin”.

    [1] Nightmare
    [2] Joint Meeting

    Education: 1979-1980 Living abroad in Danish Folk High Schools… where American individualism and standing out was out of step. Blending in communally was the norm. Education at 2, 12 and 22 in Denmark was quite a contrast from my Danish American Heritage education… here at home. I truly appreciate what our dads and families “taught me”. Part fiction, mythology, scientific, conservation, horror and plain fun. Paa gensyn…

  33. I really cherish my Danish-American upbringing. It has had such a profound effect on me and — I think — on others (like you) who have grown up in a similar fashion.

  34. Dani,

    I may have been in your class. I recall taking professor bruce’s class … the 2 weeks, 5 credit hours … and I did the entire year’s worth 17a-b-c in one summer of my sophomore or junior year of high school. I graduated high school in 94, so it might have been either the summer of 92 or 93.

    Good times.


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