…I’ve Been Here Before

grief map

I didn’t make this chart, and I don’t know who did, and I can’t find a higher-res version of it, but it’s very funny/accurate.

Before I experienced any kind of deep grief I’d read and heard things like “grief isn’t linear,” or “grief is cyclical” and thought “Yup, oh yeah, that definitely makes total sense.” But I had no idea what that actually meant or felt like until began to live it.

My previous journeys with emotional hardship tracked along a path that I thought was non-linear because sometimes there were set-backs, and at times I felt like a failure who’d made no progress. Problems which required years of self-examination, therapy, and patience. Moments when I found myself beating myself up because I’d gotten into the same emotional situation once again, goddamit. I read things like “grief isn’t linear” and thought “Yeah obviously, neither is anything hard, amiright?!”

However what I didn’t realize was that the “two steps forward, one step back” process that I’d experienced is still linear progression–even when you’ve taken that one step back, you can still see the path you’re on, still keep moving towards getting over that ex, making better job choices, or learning not to keep tasty snacks in the house.

But I am here to tell you that when people say “grief is not linear” that THEY ARE NOT FUCKING KIDDING AROUND. I entered into my grief thinking that would be a progression–that I’d move through something like the 5 stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and emerge on the other side back to a slightly older and wiser version of my old self. Turns out? HAHA, JOKE WAS IS ON ME!!

My first inkling that things were not going to go as I expected was a couple of months in when I’d moved through some denial, anger, bargaining, and depression and was thinking “Yes, I can get through this, I can overcome!” when all of a sudden WHAM I was back in denial. Or bargaining. Or any other incremental “step” on the way to “Acceptance” or “Loss Adjustment.” And I was confused as hell. “But I already went through this,” I thought, “why am I feeling this again when I’ve already processed it?” If you’ve been through something similar, then I know what you’re thinking: that it’s hilarious and adorable that I thought I’d already “processed” those feelings and was therefore beyond them.

In addition, my usual tool bag of emotional intelligence, self-awareness/self-analysis, and clear communication skills had exactly zero effect on my feelings of grief. I was flummoxed. This was the first time in many years that I was unable to distance myself from the feelings or to contextualize or compartmentalize them in a way that made them easier to manage. I actually said the words “I feel like I should be smarter than this” out loud to my husband. Meaning, I felt ashamed that I was not at all in control of my emotions, and that I was feeling very strong emotions that made no logical sense.

I have never been so intellectually humbled as I have been by my grief. Sure, I find the science of black holes so hard to grok that I mostly just don’t try, but I have faith that there is a system (invariably involving lots and lots of complex maths) that exists to explain them to any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to take the time needed to understand. But grief is different: I don’t think that it makes sense, or can be explained. The closest I can come to an explanation is that my puny brain is unable to actually understand the loss of life on a emotional level, resulting in a phenomenon which follows no logic (or complex maths) at all, and that seems to involve every emotion that has ever been felt in the history of mankind, and that no amount of therapy, or self-help book reading, or even blogging, is ever going to change that.

Do I “understand” that my mom died? Yes, of course I do. I understand that she is gone and never coming back, and that all life ends with death, and that she lives on in my memories of her and in the lives that she touched, and that death is indeed the most natural thing in the world. But does this “knowledge” prevent me from falling to my knees in tears while putting laundry away because I suddenly miss her with a longing so intense that I feel like I might vomit? Or sobbing while driving remembering a particularly awful moment of her suffering as she was dying in the hospital? Or feeling deep rage that her death was so senseless and tragic? Or wishing her death hadn’t happened? No. No, it does not. I both understand and do not understand what has happened. I have both accepted it and not accepted it. Statements which are both perfectly reasonable and yet make no sense at all. (But I tell you, from what I understand about Zen Buddists, those folks seem to have this sort of dual thinking pretty well figured, and seem to me to be pretty cool cats.)

The only things I can assuredly say that I have learned about grief are that 1. It is very complex and is a different process for every person who ever experiences it (and is different for different loses, even within the same person) and 2. That there is no way to understand it, control it, out-smart it, analyze it away, or bypass it, and that the only thing I can do is to accept my complete lack of control in the face of it.

Which is why when a person I know experiences a loss that will result in profound grief, after expressing my condolences and love, the next thing I tell them is “And even when things get real weird, remember that you are not crazy.” Because boy howdy, does that get hard to remember.

So why does grief keep resulting in emotions revisiting us like some fucked up mashup of Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol? It seems to be (in my limited experience) that it continues to bring things back around again and again in order to reach deeper levels of healing each time you revisit them. Perhaps rather than thinking of grief as a linear progression it’s more helpful to think of it as an ascending spiral, that goes through the same territory many times as it travels to resolution. Or as a scribble map like the one at the beginning of this post, which starts at one end and follows a path to the resolution that is so convoluted that it cannot be traced or understood.

Then again, I’m actually not convinced that there is any such thing as resolution when it comes to grief. A notion which seems both perfectly logical, and remarkably absurd. Ask me again in 50 years and see what I say.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

My body, her body.

I looked down at the back of my right hand, smooth but for a stipple of bumps from a rash across two knuckles. For a moment the image of my own hand was overlaid with that of hers–age spotted, papery, with large blooms of bruises caused by the liver damage. My hand like dough: soft and buttery. Her hand like a leaf: shaky and brittle.

I look at my left hand and the rings on my finger, and I remember the picture in her wedding album of her hand placed over my father’s on their wedding day. That hand, exactly like my own.. The skin glowing. I touch my hand wishing it was hers.

Then I am back in the hospital with her.

When she was in the hospital dying, I would take her through her physical therapy exercises. She wouldn’t do it for anyone but the therapist and me. “Now press your knee into my hand,” I’d softly encourage.

“That’s it, you’re doing so well.”

“Only 8 more to go.”

“You’ll be kicking field goals before you know it!”

My false bravado made her laugh, and a few times we got her shakily to her feet, but she never walked again. I think about the days she spent helping me to stand on wobbly feet, to walk, to run.

I brushed her teeth. Her mouth produced so little saliva that food would be lodged in her teeth like clay. At my urging she would tip her face up to me, open her mouth, and wait. I held her jaw with light fingertips, talked soothingly, helped her to rinse and spit into the small plastic basin I brought to her chin. My father brushed my teeth every night when I was young, and hummed “Sweet Georgia Brown” each time. I hummed this while I brushed her teeth, looking over at him with a small smile.

The stress and fear of watching her die made me begin to lose weight, and I felt like I was disappearing with her.

I looked down at her wasted, emaciated body. Those thighs once just like mine. Those same feet that I have. The collar bones: the same. After a few years of alienation and hurt and distance, the sense of identifying with her, of oneness, came crashing back in an instant. This body created me, I lived there, I was made from her. My body was her body; it is in so many ways her body borne again.

She hadn’t trimmed her toenails in months, some of them grown curved over and back into her skin. I bought a manicure kit and massaged, trimmed, and filed them. When I slipped and cut a piece of her skin next to the big toe nail, my heart leapt into my throat. How could I be so careless? But when I looked up at her she hadn’t felt it at all, and the wound drew almost no blood. It was then that I understood how close we were to the end.

Everything brittle, everything broken, all hard edges and bones, veins too exposed, bruises, needle pokes, skin torn from the softest pressure, shrunken, decayed, rough, frightening.

But her hair. My father combed it every morning for her, in a style more like his own than what she’d worn all her life. But on the rare days that it needed attention in the afternoons when I arrived, I’d skip the comb and use my fingers, and it was as soft as mine–softer still because there was less of it and it had become finer. I’d run my hands through that hair for the softness of it, the way it felt like her.

I sit here now and run my fingers over the back of my hand, see that young newlywed’s hand, and I am touching her.

 

Grief and Shame

“…There has been little attention paid to the[sic] inhibitory functions of shame in the literature on death and mourning.”

From the Article “Shame” by Jeffery Kauffman, published in Encyclopedia of Death And Dying edited by Glennys Howarth and Oliver Leaman

 

In February of 2016 my mother died. It was my first experience with profound loss, and thus my first experience with grief. Sure, I’d felt sadness and loss when relationships ended, or when a period of my life came to a close, but I’d never experienced anything like the grief I felt with my mom’s death.

I could (and will) write about many of my experiences with grief, but I’m going to focus on the link I experienced between grief and shame. I’m not going to talk about shame related to the cause of my mother’s death (although I could), or feelings of shame related to my inability to help or save her (yep, could talk a lot about that too, and if you’re particularly interested in reading pieces about these kinds of shame you can find them here and here). I’m going to talk about something that I wasn’t expecting about grief: that it brought me face-to-face with my own feelings of shortcomings and shame, some of which were buried deep.

After the first wave of grief (the days and weeks that felt strange and surreal, like I was caught in a reality distortion field) began to subside, I felt open, raw, and vulnerable in ways I never had before–which is saying something, because I’m a very emotional and vulnerable person to begin with.

Now I’m going to say something about those days which may seem strange–although they were incredibly painful and difficult, there was also a profound sweetness to them. Sounds weird, but go with me for a sec. A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:

broken-heart-smalls

This lovely piece is by Amber Ibarreche. You can find more of her stuff at her shop.

Now, my only quibble with this is that I think it would be more accurate to say “My heart is broken and that crack has created more space and so it also feels more open which is both painful and good.” But that is way less catchy. My grief made me more open to all the feelings, not just the sad ones. It also exposed some feelings I wasn’t aware I was harboring. This is where we get to the shame.

During that period I realized I was carrying around shame about my career, my sexuality, my finances, my gender, my ability to be a good partner, and (and here’s the real kicker) about my grief itself. How did I realize I was harboring shame about these things? Because I’d be having a conversation with my husband and all of a sudden I would find myself crying uncontrollably. Like, you’re having a hard time breathing and your voice jumps about 8 octaves you feel like you might vomit. So you shut your mouth and try to master your emotions and stop crying, but it’s just not happening.

“Hmmm,” I’d think when that happened, “there seems to be something here that I have strong feelings about.” I’d then try to dig a little deeper to figure out why I was weeping so profusely, and the answer was inevitably that I was feeling  deficient and ashamed about myself in relation to what we were talking about. It happened so often that I started laughing (but while also sobbing) about it. And I jokingly dubbed 2016 the Year of Shame.

But here’s the thing about talking about shame; In my experience, talking about shame is like exposing a vampire to sunlight. It weakens and eventually kills it. Even the act of simply identifying and naming the shame lessens it’s power, because shame can only control you if it is able to isolate and silence you.

The link I felt between grief and shame was so profound that I was surprised to find very little written about it when I searched the internets. The little I did find was more about the shame associated with survivor’s guilt than the effect of grief on uncovering one’s own feelings of shame related to their character and life choices. I did, however, find one article that mentioned the phenomenon I had experienced. It listed 7 “grief reactions” that prompt shame. I resonated with all of them, but especially reason number 6, which I’ve highlighted in bold.

“The following are examples of grief reaction that prompt shame. (1) The impact of loss triggers feelings of being out of control and vulnerable. Being out of control or anxious about loss of control prompts shame. (2) In grief one is particularly vulnerable to helplessness, separation, and abandonment anxieties, all of which are shame anxieties. (3) Persons may experience feelings of mortification and dread in grief over a death loss. These uncanny feelings are expressions of shame. (4) Feelings of self-blame may occur in reaction to death. Disturbance in self-regard, which are usually understood as guilt, tend to be, at a more fundamental level, shame… (5) A sense of utter aloneness may also prompt shame. Even though shame is called the social emotion (because it is an experience of oneself through the eyes of another, even when no other is involved), shame disconnects the self from both others and oneself… (6) A sense of violation of self, experienced as part of a grief reaction, is shame. Parts of the self that are exposed in grief leave the bereaved especially shame vulnerable. (7) The bereaved person is prone to further conceal the sense of exposure of the self that is present in each of these anxieties.”*

All of this–my own experience, the quotes and articles–is just to say that if you’re feeling your own shame in the midst of grief, that you are not alone.

More, invariably, to come on this topic.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

*Kauffman, Jeffery (2001) Shame. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying [Google Book Version]. Retrieved from here.