…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

Fragility and Resiliency

Every time I take a ridiculous Buzzfeed quiz (Who would play your best friend in the movie version of your life?  Which Ryan Gosling character is your soulmate? Are you actually a hipster?*) and it asks, “Which word from the following list best describes you?” my immediate reaction is always “This is stupid. No one can be described in one word.” And then, invariably, I scroll down the list and select “Independent.”

It’s a personality trait that I inherited from my mother, but also one that I actively cultivate, and that I value in others. I take great pride in being very capable, competent, and self-sufficient.

So when I was in my therapists’ office** and she observed “You are extraordinarily sensitive and fragile” my immediate reaction was “TAKE THAT BACK I AM NOT FRAGILE I AM INDEPENDENT HEAR ME ROAR.” I was actually taken aback that she described me as fragile.

Me!? Fragile!??!??? But I drove myself to college by myself and insisted I move in on my own, with no help from my parents! And I am super organized and smart! And I moved to a foreign country by myself to work there for 4 months! And I’ve gotten through super hard breakups with grace and dignity! And I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations! And I’ve done solo road trips and camped all by myself! And I’m a super reliable and strong friend! And I can change a flat tire, and fix things around the house, and and and…oh right, one can do all these things and still be fragile.

The first step was admitting that I was fragile. “Who am I kidding?” I finally sobbed one day “I’m practically a hothouse lily!” *** The next was realizing that fragility is not a weakness or character deficiency.

And yet I still felt confused about admitting my fragility, because I’m a person who weathers chaos, emergencies****, and extreme upheaval quite well. “Wow, you’re handling this like a champ” and “You are so strong” are things I hear often. So how does that square with being fragile?

What I ultimately realized is that personalities, like everything else, are extremely complex. And that seemingly contradictory traits can exist within one person. And that the trait that allows me to weather all the things that life throws my way is my resiliency.

“Resilient” has replaced “Independent” as the adjective that I most identify with, and am most proud of. I am able to be fragile, sensitive, vulnerable, emotional, and yet stable and reliable because of it. It is a trait that, again, I think I’ve always had, but one that I now put thought and energy into cultivating and strengthening.

Part of it is just my brain chemistry that gravitates towards joy and happiness, but one of the most important emotional skills I’ve developed as an adult is asking myself “What can I do right now to make myself feel better in this moment?” during times of distress. Sometimes it’s going to bed at 7pm. Sometimes it’s initiating a difficult conversation that I’ve been putting off. Sometimes it’s binge-watching The Great British Bake Off.***** Or getting a hug from my husband. Or making hot chocolate. Or ordering pizza or snuggling the dogs, or getting my taxes done. The practice of asking that question and then listening to and honoring the answer over and over has created a deep sense of trust within myself that I will always take care of myself.

So at this point, I know that I am sensitive, emotional, and yes, fragile. And yet I am not afraid of loss, pain, and difficulty, because I know that I will take good care of myself, land on my feet, and be better and stronger for it.******

Until next time, with fragility and resiliency,

The Cry Babe




*Lupita Nyong’o, Lars from Lars and the Real Girl, No.

**Every human being should be required to be in therapy for at least 6 months of their life.

***I could be mistaken, but I believe this particular meltdown was brought on by the fact that I had multiple rashes due to my incredibly sensitive skin, but my skin just felt like a metaphor for my entire personhood in that moment.

****Like the time a lady collapsed in front of me in the produce section at the Berkeley Bowl. Time slowed down, and I moved her shopping cart out of the way, knelt by here side, and immediately began checking her vitals. When I looked up there was another woman on the other side doing these exact same things. “Are you a doctor?” she asked. “No, I’m an actor.” To which she responded, confusedly “Well…you could have fooled me. You’re doing all the right things.” I backed off and let the doctor take over, then ended up driving the woman who had collapsed to the emergency room. (But not before paying for my groceries and buying her a magazine, because there is usually a long wait at the emergency room.)

*****There is nothing that binge-watching The Great British Bake Off doesn’t make more bearable.

******After crying for hours, obviously.