Everything else, Grief

When the Wind Comes.

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There are days it just sneaks up on me. It doesn’t seem as if anything in particular sets it off. Sometimes it’s a cumulative effect; an anniversary date has passed, or I’ve read or seen something that reminds me of one of them and over the course of several days it all builds up. June is always a busy month for me, because weekends in June I work at the Ren Faire, but it’s also a difficult one, because there are so many of those painful anniversary dates to get through.

My dad had two birthdays. All his life, he celebrated on June 21st. The first day of summer. The day before my parents’ wedding anniversary. When my eldest daughter was about a year old, my parents decided to go on a cruise. When Dad went to see about his passport, he needed a copy of his birth certificate. After procuring such, he was startled to see his date of birth listed as June 12. He went to his mother’s house to question this discrepancy. My grandmother, a no nonsense farm wife who raised eight children (all born at home) while also maintaining a job at a restaurant, responded, (paraphrasing here) “Listen, Dale, you were one of eight kids. I was busy. I was tired. I don’t remember which day you were born.”

My sister’s birthday was June 15th. And then of course there was Father’s Day, which always kind of bites when you no longer have a father to visit. It was also my brother’s wife and son’s first Father’s Day without him.

While I got through these dates actually pretty well, doing my best to keep busy and generally filling my mind up with enough caffeine and yarn and extra tasks at work, and Ren Faire fun, etc., repeat, to keep me from over-focusing on my losses, there came a reckoning day. I was blindsided by the intensity of it. Like a powerful wind that’s been gaining speed for hours before plowing into a rickety barn, the grief struck me down in the middle of a work day. I was fine, working along, typing and filing and laughing with my coworker, and all at once I was NOT fine, not fine at all. Tears poured forth, furious and salty. The terrible weight that had suddenly taken up residence in my chest made it nearly impossible to breathe. I turned my head, grabbed my purse, mumbled something about taking my lunch early, and staggered out to my car. I dropped the driver’s side seat back as far as it would go, so nobody could see me sobbing, and called my husband. He talked soothingly to me for several minutes, and then reminded me to do some breathing exercises or try to meditate until I had a hold of myself. By the time we’d hung up, what had started as another wave of grief had morphed into a full-on anxiety attack. When it was time to go back in, I’d cried off all my make-up and my face was red and puffy. I’m fortunate to have kindhearted coworkers who are caring and understanding. But I was “off” for the rest of the day, and when I came home, I was so exhausted I curled up on the couch and stayed there until bedtime. My limbs all felt like lead.

I hate to use the word “trigger,” because I feel like it implies I want or need other people to censor their speech and that’s not the case. But I’ve found that one of the things that amp up the anxiety is when I see or hear about siblings coming together during a crisis. My family and I were always so close; the sort of family who would rush to be with one another during a hardship. The night my brother died, I remember walking into the hallway on the way to his room. My aunt Carol was standing there, crying and shaking her head at me. “He’s already gone,” she choked out. I’d missed his death by eight minutes.

As I stumbled into his hospital room, there was my Uncle Russ, mom’s brother, and his wife. None of them lived near the hospital, but they’d dropped what they were doing when they got the call from my mother and sped to the hospital to be with her. To help hold her up. They huddled around her, stroking her back, murmuring words of comfort, getting water, tissues, whatever they could. My mom’s other sister lived out of state, but by the next day had already booked a flight back to Michigan.

Now and again it hits me that I will never again have that. In times of trouble, I will never have my siblings to help hold me up. I will never be able to call them to talk through a struggle I’m having.  It’s a precious thing to have, and one that’s probably taken for granted by many. It’s one of those things you expect to have. Until all at once, you don’t.

I’ve heard it said that after something awful happens, you “get bitter or get better.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Maybe you “get bitter or get empathetic.” Or perhaps you “get bitter or become more compassionate.”

Am I “better?” In some respects. I’m certainly better than I was six months ago, in the sense that I can think straight most of the time. I have the energy to take showers, and I remember to wash the shampoo and conditioner out of my hair now. I remember the steps I need to take to wash the dishes or the laundry. I can go to Walmart most of the time without having a panic attack from the crowds of people.

But there are holes in me that will never again be filled. There is pain that will never lessen. I’ve just learned to carry them inside, next to love for my remaining family, and joy at my kids’ laughter, and snuggles with my puppies, and the memories of extraordinary sunsets. I try not to focus on the unfairness of it, because indeed this situation is unfair. No way around that. But if I only focus on that, I miss out on the pure delight of holding my sister’s grandchildren in my arms. I miss out on beautiful days with my family. I miss out on friendships and art and all the simple parts of life that are not really simple at all. The pain and the joy just have to exist together.

My losses have changed me irreparably and that’s a truth I’ve had to accept. I will never be the person I was before. Part of that change is this excess of empathy and compassion. I have known the pain that has knocked me down and nearly kept me there, so when I meet someone with a similar struggle, my soul recognizes that hurt and I’m compelled to reach out. I listen more. I’m slower to come to conclusions about others. Constantly in the forefront of my thoughts is the knowledge that I have no idea what anyone else has been through, just as they have no idea what I’ve been through. Kindness makes a difference. A smile, a thoughtful word – they make a difference. The gifts of time, of acceptance, of unconditional love – they make a difference. I try to just meet people where they are at in life and love them right there.

There are other changes that aren’t so positive. I feel deeper, in every respect. Sometimes that is difficult to handle. I still struggle with what feel like stupid changes: I still cannot watch television. I haven’t read a book in months. My attention span is a problem, much more so than before, I think. I spend a lot of time lost in my own head. Quite often, I feel like I’ve slowed way down, though that might just be my own interpretation. I catch on to new tasks slower, it seems like I move slowly and though my brain is as crowded as ever before, it feels like the gears are turning at an impossibly slow pace.

On one hand, it seems impossible that all of this has even happened, and on the other, it feels like it keeps happening, day after day, minute after minute.

My rule for myself back in November was that I just had to get up and put on clothes every day. I knew if I allowed myself to stay in bed for one day, it would all be over for me and I’d never get back out. Here were are in July, and I can honestly say my life is far fuller than just climbing out of bed and pulling on leggings. I’ve put out three books since November, I’ve made new friends, I’ve laughed, I’ve gotten a new job, I’ve learned new skills, I’ve been through therapy, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about resilience, about grief, depression, and anxiety.

I’ve changed a lot for both the good and the not so good. But the important thing is that I’m here. Every day, I wake up. I interact. I seek out art and joy and beauty. Life will never be what it once was. I will never be the person I was before.

But that doesn’t mean life isn’t worthwhile.

Maybe it isn’t always beautiful. But there will always be beauty in the pain. There will always be a spot of sun in the darkness.

And even when the harsh wind comes out of nowhere to knock me down, I will always, always get back up.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

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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