Keep Yourself Busy & Other Secrets about Grief

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Grieving makes others uncomfortable.
That’s the truth of it. That’s why we hide it, we crack jokes, we eat extra mashed potatoes instead of sharing our pain with others. The constant refrain from those who mean to help is always, “keep yourself busy.”
I’ve been keeping myself busy. The first month after my brother’s death, I found tasks to occupy myself for five minutes. Then another five minutes. I never let my mind rest. When I started to think of my grief, I started another project. I put together a short story collection and published it. I crocheted gigantic shawls to give away (seven of them, I think). I tried to finish my current manuscript. I read book after book. Anything to keep my heart and mind too busy to think about this catastrophic loss.
I made myself smile for others. I heard myself cracking jokes and getting others to laugh.
I struggled to stand beneath the crushing weight of the things I couldn’t say. The things I couldn’t let myself think or feel.
I hoped if I kept pushing myself, I would get back to “normal” faster. I berated myself for bad days, for being slow, for hurting, for not being able to keep up with everything I needed and wanted to do.
While I’ve never been the type of person to care overmuch what people think of me, for some reason I worry they will think I’m not getting over grief fast enough. As if it’s some kind of marathon and I’m the one two miles behind everyone else, sweating and gasping for air. But don’t bring me my inhaler guys, I’m fine, I can do it, don’t worry about me. It’s just a little asthma.
Just a little death.
Just a little grief.
I don’t want to burden anyone else. I don’t want them to have to feel this constant heaviness, the lethargy, the foggy mind. So I try to keep up the appearance of healing while inside my soul feels like it’s been scraped raw and God is dumping salt on me.
It’s like covering a half-baked cake with frosting and sprinkles.
Speaking of sprinkles. Here’s a story.
My therapist had me make a sand art mandala in memory of my brother. I made a big, colorful flower. At the end of my session, we dumped the sand into a clear plastic dish. She told me to hold on to it until the spring, then let the sand go in a nearby body of water. I brought it home, set it on the table in the kitchen, halfway forgot about it. Until my 15-year-old son mentioned he had gotten up in the middle of the night to fix himself a snack and by the way, Mom, those sprinkles you left in the dish on the table tasted terrible.
People ask me how I’m doing. I say I’m fine.
After all, it’s been over two months since he died. Two years since my mother-in-law died. Four and a half years since I lost my sister. Nearly nine years since I lost my dad.
Of course I’m fine.
I’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps, like we are supposed to do. I carry on. I keep myself busy.
I don’t cry in front of others. My burden isn’t theirs to bear. They’ve got their own.
I’m not certain what they are, because they’re keeping frosting and sprinkles all over their own half-baked cakes, too.
We don’t discuss grief because people get uncomfortable. To examine grief out loud is to accept a loved one is actually gone. It means we accept others we love will one day leave us.
It means one day we will leave those we love.
Instead, we talk about anything else. The weather, the roads, the holidays, the kids, what we’re putting in our Insta Pots tonight.
I’ll tell you about my dog’s recent surgery and her recovery in minute detail. (cruciate repair, she’s doing great) I’ll tell you about the puppy we got our daughter for Christmas. (a Jack Russell and Havanese mix, he’s ridiculously cute, he apparently has a bra fetish, he’s white with one brown ear). I’ll tell you about the next book I’ve got coming out, what I’ve recently read, what my personality type is according to the test I took (INFP, which totally makes sense).
What I won’t say is that every day my body hurts as if I have the flu. I can’t concentrate on anything. I am unable to follow the plot of anything on television. Nor can I follow a book plot – I’ve been reading mostly non-fiction books about dogs lately. I won’t say that my sleep patterns are so jacked up that I fall asleep, wake up at two in the morning, my mind races until five, I fall back asleep just before the alarm goes off. I push myself through the day by promising myself I can take a nap later. I think about sleep constantly. I won’t say anything about the nightmares I have, that I dream of finding dead bodies in my closet, or piled on my basement floor, or in the backseat of my car. I dream about my family members dying, one by one. Or that my dogs are all diagnosed with a terminal disease. I won’t say I eat ice cream to stop myself from thinking about being sad, or that I’ve gained ten pounds this month, or that my attention span is so short, I type for five minutes, crochet five minutes, pick up a book for three minutes, then rotate them all again. I won’t say how many days it’s been since I washed my hair, or that when I do wash it, I often forget to rinse the conditioner out before I turn the water off. I won’t say how many days the shirt I’m wearing has been laying on the bedroom floor. I won’t say how often I have anxiety attacks when I’m around people – but I haven’t gone to my writer’s group in months. I dread the thought of picking up milk at the grocery store. And I would do nearly anything else in life if I never had to enter a Walmart store again.
I won’t say how long it’s been since I’ve been able to write anything of substance. I’m 5k from finishing my next book, and am afraid I never will.
I won’t say how hard it is to fathom life without so many of my family members around.
But that’s okay.
I won’t tell you I’m grieving. You won’t tell me you’re grieving.
Grief makes people uncomfortable, and we wouldn’t want to do that.
How’s the weather over there, anyway? Read any good books lately? Many potholes in your neck of the woods this winter? And hey, what flavor of sprinkles did you put on this cake?

 

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Four Weeks, Nine Days

Time is weird when you’re grieving. Untitled design

It seems at once too slow and too fast, and feels like it’s moving through water.

Churning.

It’s been two days shy of three  months since my brother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

It’s been four weeks and nine days since he died.

I count time like this now. Each minute, each day, each week, I remind myself I’ve made it through another one, and am strong enough to get through the next.

“Stay busy,” everyone tells me. “Keep your mind occupied.” So I do. I haven’t missed a day of work since I went back after the funeral. I’ve put out a new book, a collection of horror shorts. I’ve made five gigantic shawls and one miniature one. Most I’ve given away. It helps my anxiety to have something to do with my hands, so I haul my bag o’ yarn with me everywhere. I make dinner. I shuttle my kids around. I text friends. I try to read, but the truth is, I’m having trouble focusing. My mind drifts, and sitting still is such an uncomfortable sensation, I can barely tolerate it. I hosted Thanksgiving at my house this year. It was different and sort of quiet but we made it through. I miss watching the TV shows I used to enjoy, but I can’t seem to follow the plots enough to grasp what is happening, so I stopped watching.

My therapist says I need to give myself permission to rest. I struggle to understand how to put that into practice. I have forgotten how to let my mind be quiet. If I don’t keep it constantly filled with projects and sounds and plans, grief hits me so hard and so fast I can’t catch my breath.

At first, I feared I’d lost my words. I tried to write, but nothing came. But about  a week ago, I worked on When Knowing Comes, and I thought if I could just write one good paragraph, that would be great. It took me a while. First I typed a few words, and then a few more. Rearranged them. Deleted. Rewrote. Then all at once I had two paragraphs worth keeping. Then a solid thousand words.

I released Consumption with zero fanfare in November. I didn’t have the strength at the time to contact reviewers & bloggers. Last weekend I spent a Saturday working backwards, contacting bloggers to see if they’d be willing to review the book I surprise-released a month ago. Some were really nice about it. Most remained silent. I don’t blame them. It’s not their fault I dropped the ball. They don’t know what’s going on in my life. As far as they’re aware, I’m just another author with no regard for their time. I’m really grateful to the ones who responded, though. It means a lot.

For the most part, I’m learning to cope with the anxiety attacks. If it comes on slow, I can use the breathing exercises I’ve been taught to stave off the worst of it. Sometimes, though, they hit when I’m in the middle of a store, or driving to work. I’ll have a cart full of groceries and out of nowhere I think, “There are too many people in this store. There’s not enough air for everyone.” Even though I realize it’s illogical, the thought won’t leave. And before I know it, I’ve broken out in a sweat, my heart is hammering, my hands are shaking, and I’m stuck there in the produce aisle, hoping my ice cream doesn’t melt before I can pay and get out of the store. The week before last, my son texted me at work “lol my school is on fire.” I was so instantly panicked! I was able to reach him by phone and the kids were out in the parking lot, the fire was just in a bathroom (some kid dropped a cigarette in a trash can full of paper), and everything was under control in minutes. But I couldn’t calm back down all day. It’s days like those I realize how  much more amplified the anxiety has become. When I realize it’s in control of me instead of the other way around.

Sleep is a crapshoot. I fall asleep most nights but wake back up at two a.m. for no apparent reason at all and remain that way. Grief is a kind of exhaustion all its own, but sleeping less than three hours a night just makes it worse. I stare at nothing in the darkness and try counting backward from one hundred in an effort to trick my mind back into sleep. It never works, but I keep counting.

Counting backward. Counting days. Counting through anxiety attacks.

Marking time.

I’m still here. I keep getting up. Keep showing up. Keep working. Keep writing.

It’s been four weeks and nine days.

I’m still counting.

CONSUMPTION

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I know, I know. I disappeared again. Apologies.

I would explain it if I could, but the truth is, for a while I just had nothing to say. And there’s no point in posting a blank page.

Many of you recall that four years ago, I lost my sister after a short and brutal battle with lung cancer. It was a long struggle for me to climb back from the desperation that followed that loss. In September of this year, my brother, my only remaining sibling, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Small cell. Very aggressive. The day he was diagnosed, he made me promise to take him and his son on the trip they had been planning for my nephew’s 22nd birthday. They had wanted to go to Nashville and see the Grand Ole Opry. In very short order, we had thrown together a benefit dinner, raised the money for the trip, took days off work, and we left October 13th, headed for Nashville. It was a beautiful trip but difficult, and I’m not going to get too much into that right now (maybe later, in another post, after I’ve done some processing), but suffice to say, I’m so thankful we were able to go on that trip. My brother passed October 31st.

My brain has been a hot mess. Grief is a hard thing, and it feels like we’ve lost so much of our family in just a few years. To have something to focus my mind on, I’ve been working on putting together a collection of short horror stories. My lovely editor and cover artist made time in her busy schedule for me, and CONSUMPTION released last night. I haven’t done any pre-release promo. I haven’t contacted any bloggers. This is quieter than a soft release. It’s little more than a whisper.

But it’s been a good project for me, and it’s got some of my favorite (and disgusting) short horror  stories in it.

If you happen to read CONSUMPTION, stop back by and let me know what you thought. I’d love to hear from you. http://tinyurl.com/y8hywela

The First Step is Worth It

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I started this blog, I think, four years ago. It began as a way to practice writing, as a way to organize my thoughts. There are times I’m blogging weekly and times I go months without a post, and that’s fine. This is my own space to do with what I wish, but the joy I found in writing regularly is part of what led to me think I could publish a book in the first place.

Now, at the time, I had written a book that I was doing nothing with, other than occasional tweaks. But after my sister’s death in 2013, I had this overwhelming desire to see my work in print. Because death is a hard thing, and it often forces us to look at our own lives and what we are doing (or not doing) with them. In my case, it struck me hard that, Oh my God, I really could die without doing this thing I had wanted to do since junior high.

Write and publish a book.

And this desire gave me courage, and I put the things in motion that would help me get my book out there. My first book will never hit a bestsellers list. It is not The Greatest Book in the World. But it is a book, and people buy it and read it and like it, and if I had never taken that first plunge, I wouldn’t be on the brink of releasing my fourth book.

As far as publishing goes, there are a lot of things I have done wrong. I still have no website or newsletter. I don’t publish books on a regular schedule and I don’t write within one genre. My books are weird and not everyone likes that.

But that’s okay. They don’t have to, because I like them. I’m satisfied with the stories I write, and I know I don’t cave to expectation or do what’s considered the current trendy thing. Every book I write is true to the vision in my mind, and that is what is important to me.

And I have this little band of followers who buy my books and read and review them, and one who sends me fan art (which is awesome). There are people who send me messages to tell me they enjoyed what I’ve written.

The point here is, none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t taken the first step. If I had never started this blog, I don’t think I would have gained enough confidence to publish my words in a book. If I had never published my imperfect first book, I wouldn’t be getting ready to publish my fourth.

These dreams are inside us for a reason. We’re meant to take those first steps. Sure, we’ll stumble and sometimes fall along the way. We’ll end up with bruises and scrapes.  The first attempt won’t be easy or probably very pretty. But we need those first steps. We learn from them.

They give us the courage to keep walking.

My fourth book, In the Presence of Knowing, will be available this spring.

New Year, New Reads, New Plans

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This is my first read of the new year, We All Fall Down by my friend Karen Cimms. It’s the second in her Of Love and Madness series, and I was lucky enough to beta read this one (and the first one) for her. I was thrilled when it arrived in the mail just in time for the turn of the year. (Which reminds me, I need to start a “read in 2017” shelf on Goodreads. I’ll do that when I’m finished with this post.)

I’m setting a goal for myself to read at least 100 books this year, and I’d like at least half of those reads to be indie books, so I’m off to a good start with this one.

I’ve got another goal, and that is to finish writing at least one book this year. I’m currently working on two of them, plus writing for Scotland Now as their Outlander correspondent, which is pretty fabulous, to be honest, but it leaves me less time for book writing. At the moment, I’ve got one manuscript (the one about turnips and aliens) sitting at 40k, marinating like a pork chop in a nice vinaigrette, and another at 15k, which is shaping up to be some kind of paranormal something set at a Renaissance festival.

Last year at this time, I decided to try some new things on the writing front, and put out a lot more in terms of freelance work. I also did a few things I was really afraid to do, such as giving a speech about writing at my former high school, and reading an excerpt of  my book Slither on the Horror Addicts podcast, which, if you missed it, you can listen to here https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/horroraddicts-net-131-valerie-kinney/

In 2016, I had twenty articles or short stories accepted for publication at various outlets, not including the pieces published for Scotland Now. I also had two longish short stories accepted into anthologies – A Mother’s Heart in the Gems of Strength Anthology by The Sisterhood, and Misadventures of Mercy, which will be out sometime this year in the Super Market Anthology by Draconian Publishing.

Heckled released nearly one year ago, January 9, 2016. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long! And my super heroine short stories in the KAPOW anthologies by 7DS Books came out right around that same time as well.

So even though I feel a little frustrated that I haven’t finished another book just yet, I can look back and see I have accomplished quite a lot over the last year.

Going forward, I’m going to attempt to reign in my scattered focus and get at least one (if not two!) books completed this year. I’d like to see if I could sell a couple more short stories, and keep putting out freelance work. I’ve got to stop crocheting chickens (maybe next week) and finish the big blankets that are sitting here, sadly getting shoved around from place to place while I ignore their loose ends to make more chickens. I’ve gotten myself a set of knitting needles and am going to learn to knit. I’m going to attempt for the ninety bajillionth time to quit caffeine, and I’m going to seek out and attend more events where my husband can wear the new kilt I just bought him. I’m planning to do more with this little blog, and hopefully get a website made… though that’s something I feel like I say every year.

Before you ask, yes, I did dye my hair a new color  for the new year (burgundy), but no, those aren’t highlights streaking the front. It’s olive green paint, because we just painted my daughter’s bedroom and I didn’t think of covering my hair before I did it.

Luckily for me, burgundy and olive green tend to be complimentary colors, because it isn’t washing out, not even a little.

Now, I’m heading back to the writing cave for a while… right after I hit up Pinterest for directions on how to build a princess dog bed out of an old end table and ten yards of tulle.

 

 

 

 

The Vacation that Wasn’t.

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Let me tell you a story about how I’ve been living in a hotel for two weeks.

I’m not currently homeless, so don’t worry about that. I have a home, I just can’t go there.

A few weeks ago in the process of moving a file cabinet in our bedroom, we found mold. We called our insurance, who sent out a guy, who sent out a different guy, and then we heard nothing at all for several days. And then one Friday about three in the afternoon, they called and said we had to go, they had People coming out to Do Mold Removal Things.

While it’s probably typically not a hard thing to find a hotel room to stay in, our adjuster had a bit of a problem because our family is larger than what is allowed by law to stay in one room because of fire code hazards, so they had to find a place with two adjoining rooms.

And we needed a place that allowed dogs, because I’ve got two of them.

After much back and forth, the insurance found us a couple rooms at a Holiday Inn Express about a half an hour away from our home. It’s a nice enough place, don’t get me wrong, but the glamour of living in a hotel rubs off pretty quick when you’ve got six people and two dogs in an enclosed space for a long length of time. It’s not that my kids don’t love each other.

It’s that having to share beds and breathe air in the same room together for so many days in a row is turning them into zombies who crave the brains of their siblings.

The additional drive time whenever someone needs to go to school or work is draining our gas money in an insanely fast manner, and while at first it was kind of fun to eat dinner out every night, after two weeks I think we are all craving some of my own spectacular home cooked Burnt Food, or maybe just some cheap spaghetti that I make way too much of and cook way too long.

As a writer and human being who spends probably an unhealthy amount of time in my house and alone, it’s painful to be trapped in a hotel with strangers who want to start random conversations with me. I take my dogs to go out for a pee, someone strikes up some small talk. I sit in a dark corner alone in the morning for breakfast, people bring their conversations over to me and try to pull me in. It’s really a ridiculous amount of talking, to be honest. Like, in the hallways at 7:30 a.m. people smile at me and yell GOOD MORNING like they are some particularly horrible kind of monsters. One early morning as I was sitting alone, eating a biscuit and reading a Stephen King novel, some strange man in Very Ironed Clothes suddenly stuck his face in mine and yelled HAVE A NICE DAY! for no good reason at all. How am I supposed to respond to that kind of nonsense?

It’s a very clean hotel and housekeeping must come in every couple of days to make sure we haven’t trashed the place like the drunken rock stars we are, so every time I get things settled into some semblance of comfortable chaos, they come and straighten and fiddle and scrub until everything is back in order again. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty awful. I cannot create while trapped in this stark, overly organized space. And can we talk about how horrifying it is when housekeeping actually comes in to clean? The night before, my husband and I take out the trash and pick up and try to make like we are halfway decent human beings. Then when the lady does come in to clean, I sit or stand here awkwardly because it feels bizarre to have someone else cleaning up my mess but if I offer to help or give her, I don’t know, a pudding cup or a muffin or something she looks at me weird.  Today when I answered the door, the housekeeper lady asked me if I was going to let my dogs bite her.

Yesterday, the toilet backed up. I waited nearly an hour before I amped up the courage to call the front desk (because hello, it’s more talking to strangers) and then the maintenance guy came and I had to talk more to someone else I don’t know and apologize for making him do this Terrible Thing.

Not one to dwell on doom and gloom, I will admit there are perks:

There is a swimming pool.

The complimentary breakfast is delightful. I’m not certain the eggs are really eggs, but the biscuits taste like they were stolen from the kitchen at KFC, which is not an entirely impossible notion, as there’s a KFC across the parking lot here.

I haven’t had to wash dishes in two weeks.

But I find the idea that I don’t know when I can go home makes me feel really stressed. People keep telling me to treat this like a vacation, but I think those people have likely never been abruptly stuffed into a hotel room with six people and two dogs for an extended period of time.

Last week, my son got really sick and had to spend some time in the ER. He’s doing better now, but I felt I had to ask the universe what bad thing was coming next, because I think we all know that Bad Things come in threes and I like to be prepared.

That was right about when we found out my daughter’s cosmetology school closed, three weeks into her first semester, with no warning. Just a post on the school’s Facebook page stating they were very sorry, don’t come to class tomorrow, they were closing down all 79 campuses. Of course, she’s distraught and we are left trying to find her a new school and deal with her loans and in general, it’s an entirely unpleasant experience.

BUT THEN

It got worse.

When my husband went to pick up dinner last night, we found out that Little Caesar’s is discontinuing their cream cheese dip.

I know. I KNOW. It’s okay, I cried a little bit, too.

I have been working, though. In addition to my regular freelance writing, I’ve gotten a few thousand more words on my current novel, and the other day fiddled around a little bit with a New Shiny Idea, which seasoned writers advise we shouldn’t do when we are writing a novel already, but I don’t understand how to get the voices out of my head if I don’t get them out on the page.

We had a meeting with the contractor a couple of days ago, who cheerfully announced it would likely be another two weeks before we can go home, and that’s barring any problems.

I’m beginning to feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins. This little adventure has been nice and all, but I really just want to go home where I have all my books and my yarn and mountains of dirty dishes in the sink.

By the way, does anybody have a pair of ruby slippers I could borrow?

There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s…

See what this nightmare has done to me? I’m already mixing up fictional characters. I’ll be utterly daft by the time I get to go home.

Probably not the worst things that could happen. I hear all the best writers have lost their minds.

 

When Green Day’s on the Radio

A piece I had published today on the OCH Literary Society.
I was emotional when I wrote it, I’m surprised it turned out coherent at all.
BTW, I am okay. I go back in a year for a re check.

ORGANIC COFFEE, HAPHAZARDLY

by Valarie Kinney

Often, people celebrate anniversaries with dinner out, champagne, maybe a dozen roses.

Today I am trudging through a different sort of anniversary, and it’s hard.

Early in the spring three years ago, my sister complained of shoulder pain. It was in her shoulder blade, she said. Kept her up at night. She went to our doctor, who thought it likely my sister had been a waitress too long. “You’re pushing fifty, Charlotte,” she said, “you’ve been doing this over thirty years. You might need to consider a job change.” But the pain continued and the anti-inflammatories didn’t help, so my sister went back a week or so later. The doctor ordered an x-ray. The radiologist noted something, some sort of mass, in her left lung. Suddenly, there was a flurry of appointments, and in a very short time, we knew there was a tumor in her lung…

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