Monday, August 22, 2016

Choosing Grief

It has been a challenging few weeks around here and I feel like I'm learning a lot about grief and emotional overwhelm. The first thing I've noticed is that they both feel very different to me as an adult than they did when I was a kid, but maybe that's because I have a much stronger bedrock beneath my feet these days. Maybe knowing that the bills will get paid and there is someone to share the load of parenting and managing everyday things leaves me more space to just feel what I'm feeling. Or maybe being an adult means that I don't have anyone telling me that my strong emotions make them uncomfortable or that I'm over-reacting, or if they do say that, I don't give a shit.

My brother-in-law died quite suddenly at the beginning of July and even though I hadn't seen him in several months, I was acutely aware of the loss. Like me, he married into Bubba's family - a close-knit, fairly traditional clan - as someone who came from a very different background and family dynamic. We bonded over our "black-sheep-ness" and became allies early on. He was someone who always, always had my back, someone who was as sensitive and stubborn as I am, someone who always went to bat for the underdog. He was fiercely protective of me and my kids and Bubba's sister and we had great fun together - often in the kitchen during family gatherings. Even in my grief, I marvel at the fact that our paths ever crossed, given the difference in our ages and the fact that he was Croatian, and I am grateful for the two decades I got to share with him on the planet.

A week or so later, I lost my beloved CB, my "mostly companion," my shadow, my furry boyfriend. For more than a decade, he followed me through the house, prompted me to go for walks to clear my head, slept next to my side of the bed, scared strangers at the door, and cracked me up with his ridiculous dog antics. He was loyal and loving and when it came time to let him go, he sat with his head in my lap and trusted me implicitly. I still hear phantom toenail clicking along the hardwood floors and expect to see his smiling face at the door when I come home from the grocery store. Taking walks in the neighborhood without him is strange and disconcerting and I can't bring myself to move his bed from its spot in the family room quite yet. I feel his presence in every room of my house and my grief is tempered by the absolute joy he brought to my life each and every day, by the years he was there to wake me up with positive energy.

Two days ago, my grandfather had a stroke and reminded everyone when he got to the hospital that he doesn't want any lifesaving measures. He has lived a good, long life, outlived one of his children (my dad), two wives, and has struggled for a while to really feel as though he was thriving. He is my last remaining grandparent and my childhood memories of him are strong and clear. He is a gentle, funny man who was always ready to teach us something, whether it was a magic trick or how to use a belt sander. In my father's last months, he was such a comfort and source of love for my dad and watching the two of them interact was incredibly healing for me.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine lost her husband in a freak car accident. He leaves behind two teenage children and my lovely friend who has been a rock for me more than once. I am overwhelmed. And I am thankful that I have learned a thing or two about grieving - at least my process for grieving.

I have learned that while it is often incredibly helpful to have friends and family around, ultimately I have to grieve in my own time in my own way. I have learned that grief - like life - is not a linear process, but one that requires me to circle back around to what feels like the same spot over and over again, but that each time I come back around, I have a slightly different perspective, an ever-so-advanced understanding of what I'm feeling and how it fits into the larger picture.

When CB died, I was home alone for a few days. Someone advised me to "go do something - don't stay in the quiet house - distraction is good," and while I know they meant well, I know from experience that distraction only leads to protracted grief. I came up with a sort of formula that consisted of deep, unapologetic dives into sadness followed by a period of mindless activity like laundry or cleaning out the fridge followed by social interaction. By allowing myself to really feel what I was feeling without descending into it so far that I couldn't get out, I was able to feel the edges of my sadness and honor them without letting them define me. I follow this pattern over and over again without placing any sort of expectation on how long it will take me to "finish," and the simple act of accepting my own feelings, whatever they might be, is an exercise in trusting myself.

I have also learned that it is important to surround myself with people who understand that grief is not a quick and dirty, check off the boxes kind of process. I need to surround myself with people who don't find my strong emotions uncomfortable or unpleasant because that means I either have to stifle my true feelings or I end up emotionally taking care of them. I actively seek those who are willing to sit with me during those deep dives without trying to fix or abbreviate or deny my feelings. These are often people who have really grieved themselves, and they 'get it.'

While there is a tendency to throw my hands up in the air and ask Why? as the tragedies pile on, I have learned that that is simply a distraction tactic that doesn't serve me in the end. It doesn't matter why. I am in the midst of sadness and overwhelm and the only way out is through. There was a time in my life when I would have wished for a magic wand or a time machine to transport me through these days quickly and efficiently, but these days I am content to take the feelings as they come and do my best to find the revelations that often accompany them. It can be painful and often overwhelming, but it is all part of this glorious, messy, beautiful, painful, honest life I choose to live.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Elephant in the Room

When the girls were little, I signed them up for a program at the local park where they could learn to ride ponies. They sat in a barn and learned about safety, donned bike helmets and boots, and climbed atop plastic step-stools to hoist themselves up into the saddle. Over a period of weeks, they learned to groom, feed, saddle, and ride these gentle creatures while I stood and snapped pictures on the other side of the fence. After each lesson, they were excited to tell me about the ponies' names and temperaments and the things they had learned about how to interact with them. When brushing the ponies, they knew to pat their way around the hind end so that the animals always knew where they were, and if they were walking near the ponies but in a blindspot, they were taught to do an "elephant circle" so as to be out of reach of a well-placed kick should the pony get spooked.

One thing you should know about me is that I prefer patting my way around to making elephant circles. If there is an elephant in the vicinity, I am the person who will point it out. I will tell you about it, indicate exactly where it is, tug on your sleeve to alert you, and describe it in great detail. Even if you indicate that you are not interested in anything having to do with this great beast in your midst, it is unlikely that I will stop trying to talk about it. In fact, if I am particularly affected by the sight of this elephant and you actively try to turn my attention elsewhere, I am likely to take you by the hand and lead you to it, make you stroke its leathery flesh, lean in for a sniff and ask you to look it in the eye.

It is not a characteristic of mine that all people appreciate.
I understand.

The other thing you should know about me is that this characteristic is necessary for my survival.

Most of my childhood was spent hearing that crying was an unnecessary activity. That sadness and fear were altogether useless. That the preferred emotions were happiness or anger and anything else was "wallowing" or "self-pity." From time to time there were entire herds of elephants living in my house that went unacknowledged. The adults perfected elephant circles as they went through their days, picking their way carefully through and around and underneath so as not to discuss any subject that might be uncomfortable. Living like this makes a person feel a little crazy. As a kid, I tried in vain to point out the elephants and was either ignored or reprimanded. I began to believe that I was the only one who saw them, that there was something wrong with me. Or that my ability to see them - my "sensitivity" (spoken with a sneer of derision) - was a fatal character flaw. I alternated between jumping up and down and pointing and cowering in my room wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with me. Eventually, I learned to avoid the rooms where they lived altogether and take cues from other people regarding which things were ok to speak of and which ones were not.

My tactics as an adult are quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, for me, ignoring the elephants is an exercise in self-destruction. To deny my feelings about any particular situation is to pretend that they don't matter. So while I won't ask you to see the elephant in the room the same way I do, or to experience the same emotions in response to it, don't be surprised if I lead you to it and describe it in great detail so that you are forced to acknowledge that it exists. So that you might begin to understand why it is something that is important to me. So that at least we can agree on one thing - that I am not crazy. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable, but I've learned that leaning into discomfort is the best way to define its edges and begin to loosen its hold on me.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Bittersweet Moments

I will admit to being altogether unsure of how to begin. My faithful companion of over a decade is failing and, while he may live for another several weeks, things are getting rough.

We were away for three weeks at the beginning of the summer and I knew at that point that he had a small tumor on his liver and a few more "bumps" on his skin in various places, but none of them were causing him any distress. Indeed, he was eating and drinking normally and he still raced for the front door with a shoe in his mouth when the doorbell rang. The house-sitter said that had I not told her about the tumors, she never would have known.

By the time we returned, two of the bumps on his neck and shoulder had grown significantly and within another day one of them burst open. The vet said that it was cancerous, but given his age and medical status, surgery was not likely to be helpful. Still, he does not show any signs of being in pain, so I dutifully change the bandage a couple of times a day and make sure it doesn't get infected.

Over the past three weeks, he has both surprised me with his continued health and given me a scare or two. The tumor on his liver is now the size of a lemon, the one on his shoulder about the size of a lime. He has at least six more that I can feel along his back and head that grow larger every day. He is down to eating once a day and has less energy than before, but his eyes still sparkle when I come in the room and his tail wags. He makes it up the stairs to lie next to my side of the bed every night and perks up when I offer a walk. Last Thursday we had 15 people over for a backyard bbq and he made the rounds, poking everyone in the thigh with his nose and demanding to be petted with his tail thumping wildly. He slept for the rest of the night after making sure each and every guest acknowledged him.

Our walks are very different than they ever were. He also has some dementia, so it isn't strange to have him stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk or street and look at me in utter confusion. Other times, he refuses to walk unless we go on his chosen route, but that route has increasingly become a simple straight line away from home and when I determine that we must turn back or I'll be stuck carrying him, he plants his feet stubbornly and won't move. The tumor on his neck means that I can't tug on the leash to make him move, and today I was considering picking his 70# frame up and shoving him forward to get him moving. When I wrapped my arms around him, he sat down and licked my face. I waited a few minutes, coaxed sweetly, cursed the fact that I hadn't thought to bring treats to entice him, and finally did the parent-of-a-toddler-at-Target move. I left. I dropped the leash, turned my back on him, and walked away (don't worry - it was a quiet residential street and there were no cars around). After about 20 paces, I snuck a look over my shoulder and saw him slowly following me.

I don't know how much longer we will go on like this. I have spoken with the vet who assures me that  I'll "know" when it's time, and I hope he's right. At this point, he seems happy, he isn't indicating that he is in any pain, and he is still interested in eating and drinking. I am learning to pay really close attention to his cues and slow down. If he wants to take 40 minutes to go around the block, sniffing and lying down in the cool grass for a bit, I'm game. If he would rather snack on peanut butter and bison treats than his kibble, I'm fine with that. And if I need to lie down on the floor with him and scratch his ears several times a day, it's the least I can do for this magical creature who has loved me unquestioningly and wholeheartedly for eleven years or so. The fact that he continues to just be who he is and look to me for comfort when he needs it is all the encouragement I need to drop what I'm doing and just hang out.
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