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Archive for the ‘Grief’ Category

Today is the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death.

20 years feels like a long time. This also marks the point at which I’ve been alive longer without my mom than I was with her.

I’ve been thinking, as I am wont to do, about grief, and about our society’s difficulty accepting and supporting grief. I’ve been thinking of the ways in which I have not been well served in being taught about grief or shamed into pretending not to have it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the past.

On Tuesday night I was very sad about all of this. I was sitting finishing up some reading, and I found myself crying. I’m not afraid of grief anymore. It’s a flavor of discomfort I don’t mind sitting with, so I did. I sat, and I felt sad.

I did need to write a personal email to a friend of mine, and I knew it would also end up being sad. I considering not writing it, putting it off. After twenty years, it is wearying, dealing with people’s unhelpful reactions to grief, to sadness, to any emotion that isn’t happy or quiet or easy.

But I did write it. Not out of some desperate hope either. I included a boundary, just in case, but I knew it would be fine. I knew this person would show up for me, just as I was, sadness and all. And they did.

So I can think about the past. I can think of all the pain and disappointment. I can think of the times all those years ago when I was really struggling and people didn’t show up, or I gave a cry for help and was instead pushed further down. Those things will always have happened. They cannot be changed. They are irrevocable.

But then I return to the present, and the present is a very different story. It’s not that it erases the past, but it removes some of its sting. And it makes the progress I’ve made and my relationships with the people who show up for me now even more meaningful. I know what it is not to be here, and so I know exactly how precious the love and solicitude and presence I receive now are.

To be allowed the space for grief is a transformative thing.

My grief is difficult and uncomfortable and messy, and it always has been. My mom was a remarkable person, warm and loving and she gave the best hugs I’ve ever received. And she was also a parent who regularly went off the rails, with all the stress and confusion and trauma such a statement implies. The grief of losing such a person is never going to be simple. For so long I felt so much outside pressure for it to be clean, for it to be your standard tragedy narrative, but that’s not what it is, and it never was.

It broke my heart when she died. And that’s okay. My heart breaks all the time. Sometimes it heals quickly and cleanly, and other times it takes a really long time and leaves an ugly scar behind. Sometimes I don’t want anyone else to see those really ugly scars, and sometimes all I want in the world is for someone to see them and recognize the beauty in their ugliness. Those scars, they show vulnerability and the courage that goes with it, and the persistence to continue on with both of those things in spite of the fact it would be easier not to. And they are also evidence of naiveté and a certain slowness to learn, which are endearing in their own imperfect ways.

I told myself, all those years ago, whatever else you do, Amy, you need to fight to keep an open heart. Because I’d rather suffer and make lots of dumb mistakes and wonder how on earth to keep going with an open heart than shut down and go through the motions with a closed one.

Whatever else you do, Amy. It’s twenty years later. My heart is still open.

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Change hurts.

Sometimes change hurts a lot.

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I find that change hurts a lot when it cuts close to the bone, when it touches on something deep from the past, when it challenges some long-held belief or defense mechanism that you desperately do not want to let go of, because to hold onto it equates to survival in your own mind. Even if that is no longer the case. You might be reliving a reality that is long gone.

Change hurts.

You may be sitting there, and you notice that you’re breathing. You take a breath in, and then you take a breath out. And you’re surprised, not even surprised, shocked. Not because you were trying to hold your breath, but because it seems inconceivable that you are still breathing at all. It seems unbelievable that the entire world hasn’t frozen in place.

You may be afraid to move because there is a knife lodged somewhere deep inside of you, and any movement could shift it, and any shift could drive it deeper still, or cause it to cut some critical artery that means you bleed out. You are afraid to move physically, you are afraid to move emotionally. The pain is balanced so precariously, and your main focus is keeping it there instead of letting it slip.

Change hurts, and sometimes the pain makes it feel like the change might not be the right thing to do. Because if this change was so good, why would it hurt so much?

This is a lie. Sometimes positive change hurts a hell of a lot. It hurts for a reason. It hurts because it is hard for you to do something different. Or maybe it hurts because you are afraid. Or maybe it hurts because you just jammed a surgical instrument into an old wound and ripped it back open again so it could finally heal cleanly.

That is not to say it’s a good idea to seek pain simply for pain’s sake. It’s okay for things to be easy sometimes. It’s okay for things to be good. It’s okay to let yourself be happy.

The truth is, the pain is just the pain. It doesn’t tell you what to do. It simply tells you something is going on, and whatever it is, you might need to pay some attention to it. You might want to think about how you are going to respond to it. Maybe there is something active you want to do, or maybe you just want to sit there with the pain for a while. Maybe both.

Nowadays, when I have the time and space, I try not to hide from the pain. I don’t confront it either. I exist with it. I let it be with me. I bring my mind back from all of its distraction techniques and circular games. I want so badly to castigate myself, because this distracts me more effectively than almost anything else, but every time I start, I simply stop and redirect. No, I’m going to be kind. No, I’m going to be kind. Over and over, for however long it takes until it settles.

And then there is the pain I was trying so desperately to avoid. And it is terrible. It is the knife in my gut, it is the air in my lungs, it is naked and wretched and it is a part of me.

Change hurts.

And then it dissipates, and it is sad but also clean, and it is hard but also okay. Sometimes another wave of grief comes later, and another, and another, but once you’ve allowed one to wash through you, the worst of the terror is gone. It simply hurts. And then it hurts less. And then it hurts more. And then it hurts less again.

Change hurts. And then you come out on the other side.

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On Emotion

“Feel, feel, I say — feel for all you’re worth, and even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live.”  – Henry James

Last weekend I was at the Disney museum, and there was an exhibit of random stuff Walt Disney collected during his lifetime. In one of the cases was a few rooms of miniatures: small to-scale furniture and household items and dishes and all that kind of stuff.

And suddenly I was swept away by grief.

My mom collected miniatures. It was something the two of us did together during the hard years. It was something good, something to look forward to.

Anyway, my first reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me. Why? Why do I have to be feeling this grief right now? It’s been SEVENTEEN years.

Actually, that was also my second reaction, and possibly my third.

The next day I tearfully discussed it with a friend, and he gently pointed out how much stress I’ve been under lately. So that at least partially answers the why question. My toe hurts. I miss dancing. I’m stressed out by a few writing projects right now. I’m upset that Jimmy died, and I miss some of my friends. I am taking risks that make me uncomfortable. I am trying to do self care, but I’m having trouble keeping up.

And grief doesn’t play by normal schedules.

So, this is what I’ve got for you today, this Henry James quotation. I really admire Henry James. He was an incredibly skilled writer and astute observer of human nature. Washington Square is possibly on my list of favorite novels of all time.

I think this is a good reminder. Feel for all you’re worth. Even if it’s grief for someone lost long ago. Even if it’s discouragement over setbacks. Even if it’s fear of what the future might bring.

These feelings, they mean we’re fully engaged in our lives. And that, all by itself, means a hell of a lot.

Nala is adorable

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This is a hard post for me to write.

I often don’t have much difficulty with Mother’s Day. My normal strategy is to try as much as possible to ignore it, and to spend very little time on Facebook on the actual day.

I don’t usually talk about how it can be hard. I know Mother’s Day is supposed to be a happy day, a day of appreciation and celebration, and I don’t want to take away from that. I want my friends to celebrate their moms, and to have their own motherhood celebrated. That can be a beautiful thing.

And talking about death and grief, well, it can be awkward. People don’t know what to say. I find that when the topic comes up, I’m usually spending most of my energy trying to make it easier for my conversation partner. “It happened a long time ago,” I say. Or, “Yes, it was the anniversary of my mom’s death, but I wrote about it, so that made me feel better.” Or I change the subject as quickly as possible.

I don’t know how to stop doing this. Sometimes, with people I don’t know very well, I think it is the best strategy for me. When I called a friend for support after my friend Jay died last summer, he later told me he thought I should have called someone else, which is sometimes par for the course. Not everyone has the emotional maturity to engage with these issues. But I also know that it is important to talk about the experience of grief. It is by talking about it that we normalize it, and normalizing it cuts down on isolation and shame.

I was at a dinner party the other night, and my hostess had tried out one of her mother’s chicken recipes for the first time. She joked about how she’d called her mom four times asking for advice as she cooked. I commented that it was nice her mom hadn’t minded the constant phone calls. Another friend laughed and said moms never mind constant phone calls.

And oh, this innocent comment gutted me. Because I realized this was a completely foreign experience to me. It sounds so nice, having somebody who doesn’t mind if you call over and over. Having a mom. It sounds really nice. And I don’t have that. I haven’t had that, and I’ll probably never have that.

I don’t have a mom to turn to when I need advice. I don’t have a mom who will fly out to take care of me if I need surgery or get really sick. I don’t have a mom who has been there for all of my major life events. I don’t have automatic plans for holidays. I don’t have a mom’s unconditional love to lean on when times are hard, or, you know, even when they’re pretty good.

And so this week before Mother’s Day, I’m feeling really, really sad. I can’t figure out what I want to do this weekend. What I really want to do this weekend is spend time with my mom. And I can’t. She’s not here.

This is what Nala looks like when she is comforting me.

This is what Nala looks like when she is comforting me.

Grief is such a funny thing. So many Mother’s Days have gone by, during which I’ve barely batted an eyelash. And now suddenly, the grief is here, and I don’t really know what to do with it. I keep trying to shove it away; “It happened such a long time ago,” I tell myself. But grief doesn’t have a schedule. And I think maybe grief never goes away. Not entirely. It grows more manageable, but it doesn’t disappear.

So here it is. I really miss my mom. I miss her voice. I miss her hugs. I want to give her everything I’ve ever written and have her read it all. I want to sing for her. I want to take her to Disneyland, and I want to sit on a bench with her in New Orleans Square and watch the people go by. I want to introduce her to Nala, who I know she’d completely adore. I want to tell her that every year I hang up the Christmas stocking she made for me, and every year I read the note she left with it for me to find the first Christmas after she died.

I want her to know the Amy I’ve become.

I’m not going to get what I want. Instead I will wipe away my tears, and I will work on my novel that is about a girl traveling through the Underworld to bring her dead mom back home. Of course that’s what it’s about. And I will think about her. And I will miss her. And life will go forward, the way it always does.

And I will write about it here on the blog, because grief is nothing to be ashamed of. It is simply another reflection of love.

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As long-time readers of my blog might recall, at the end of April every year I write about my mother as a way to remember the anniversary of her death.

I was kind of on the fence about writing about her this year. I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. It’s been a long time.

It’s interesting because after someone dies, it doesn’t mean your relationship with them comes to a full stop. You still carry on with it, only it exists in your own head instead of in the outside world, for the most part. Anyway, my relationship with my mom has been a bit turbulent this last year. I think that’s a good thing, but it does leave me feeling a bit more ambivalent than I might otherwise feel.

But then I got an email this afternoon announcing the sudden death of a colleague of mine. She was fine, in good health. I saw her two weeks ago. She was hit by a bike while taking a walk one morning early this week, and she received a head injury, and that was it. She never woke up.

I don’t want to offer you platitudes. I don’t want to offer myself those platitudes either.

Sudden death, or really any kind of death, makes you consider what is actually important.

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Living every day as though it’s your last sounds great but is really bad advice. We can’t actually do that. If you think about an agrarian society, for example, if everyone lived as if today was the last day, no one would bother to work the fields. Why would they? And then everyone would starve to death unless they lived in the type of climate where you can gather enough on a day-to-day basis to survive.

In other words, living every day as if it’s the last limits focus too severely.

But you can think about what matters to you and try to spend at least some time and focus on that every day. Sometimes it might only be a little bit. Sometimes it might be more.

The trick is, we don’t want to subsume ourselves to the fear of loss. We don’t want to become the captive to the idea that there might not be a tomorrow, that today is everything, that failures can’t be followed by successes, that there will never be another chance, that if you don’t give everything today, you may lose what you care about tomorrow. The fear of death can keep you so tightly in a cage.

So where does that leave us?

I was talking to my friend on the phone today, and I asked him what I should write about for this blog post. He gamely came up with a bunch of ideas, all of which I rejected, and we went on to talk about other things. And of course, it’s one of those other things I would like to write about.

We were talking about Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech last year. I hadn’t seen it, but after hearing my friend talk about how it had been a little bit out there, I checked it out after I got off the phone. I don’t want to talk about the part of the speech that was out there, though. I want to talk about something he said before that part.

He said he wanted to thank his mother because she had taught him and his brothers to respect themselves. And he’s realized that respecting himself made it a lot easier to respect others.

Yes.

So today that’s what I have for you. Love, yes, Connection, yes. But also one way to achieve those things in a healthy way: respect. Self respect first, and then from a true respect that lives deep within us will come respect for those around us. And with respect comes empathy and kindness and empowerment. That’s what I think is important.

I wish my mother had taught me that, the way Matthew McConaughey’s mother taught him. But she didn’t, and that’s okay. Luckily we can search for other teachers, and sometimes we can teach ourselves things instead. And here we are.

We can’t determine how long we get to live. And we can’t control how long the people around us get to live either. But for me, trying to cultivate inner respect is a way out of the trap that is fear, and then I can focus on how I really want to be living for the time I do have.

Happy April, Mom. Thanks for this time.

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I read this essay by the movie reviewer Film Crit Hulk (it’s interesting, but it is also super, super long, so fair warning), and I thought, oh, I should blog about despair. Because it seems to be going around lately. I know a lot of people who have been having a rough time personally, and then there’s been the whole GamerGate thing, and the global warming impending apocalypse thing, and the posting nude pictures of actresses thing, and a bunch of other things. And, well, it’s not a huge stretch to think that some people are experiencing despair right now.

Despair is a difficult experience to live through. It comes with its own built-in gravity well, in that once you find yourself in that despair place, it is not always obvious how to move forward or through it. So there you sit, in this incredibly painful state, feeling like really important things are broken and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And then I read my friend Damien’s post about Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, and you might remember I adore Brene Brown and think the work she’s done is really important. And reading through the list of strategies she talks about, I think they are somewhat applicable to dealing with despair as well as living a wholehearted life. So that’s one resource that’s out there.

But really I want to talk about what I do when facing despair, because that’s what I know. As usual, take what seems useful and discard the rest.

  1. Self care, self care, self care. If you are feeling despair, then you are going to need to self care the shit out of yourself. Beyond the basics (eat, hydrate, sleep, exercise/move), this includes giving yourself alone time or people time depending on what you need. For me, I often want lots of time with Nala. This also includes allowing yourself to be distracted or take a break from the despair. I don’t care how a big a problem it is or how big a realization you’ve had; being in full-on despair mode 24/7 is simply not healthy. Dealing with it is great, but not at the cost of complete burn-out. Finally, this covers allowing yourself to disengage and set boundaries as needed.
  2. Focus on the present moment. Sometimes despair involves things that happened in the past or things we’re afraid will happen in the future. And those things are important and provoke strong feelings and need to be grappled with. But to pull myself out of the despair, paying attention to right now right this second instead can be helpful.
  3. Baby steps. Despair requires patience, because maybe you’re beginning to feel better and then something happens and you fall right back down the well. But if I can think of even one tiny positive thing I can do to help my situation or take care of myself or reframe, then I am better off than I was before.
  4. Vent. Or cry. Or both. Sometimes I just need to let it out, and if I have a safe space in which to express myself, it can be extremely helpful. This one requires judgment because it totally backfires if the space turns out not to be safe after all. But you can do it alone or in writing (or with a pet) too.
  5. Try to stand apart from your emotional reality. Or in other words, try to call yourself on your black and white thinking. Despair can be overwhelming, and it can feel really, really big. For example, if you have been experiencing a lot of really bad behavior from other people, it can begin to feel like all people are awful, or all people are going to betray you, or whatever universal your brain has decided to come up with. But while your experience of that feeling is real, that doesn’t mean it necessarily reflects the external reality. So to pull out of it, you can think of one person who has treated you well. Maybe you can even text them or message them or call them or whatever it is you do to communicate. Or you can just think of a nice thing they did or said that one time. Then think of another person. Then another. Look at data if you need to: pull up a nice text or a nice email someone sent you.
  6. Don’t give up on yourself. Even if you really feel like it. You can give up on everything and everybody else, especially if you’re having a nice venting session, but hold onto that self-esteem like you’re in space and it’s your oxygen tank. YOU WILL NEED IT. GUARANTEED.
  7. Find a reason to hope. It can be a dumb reason, like the fact that ice cream exists or Nala is consistently adorable. That’s okay.
  8. Remember: everything changes. I don’t know if anyone else finds this idea comforting, but it has been my fall-back in hard times for at least ten years, maybe longer. If none of the above works, or if it’s not possible at the moment, and you’re wrapped up in the stifling blanket of despair, knowing it won’t go on forever and ever because that’s not how the world works gives you something to hold onto.
A reason to hope.

A reason to hope.

Hang in there, my friends. Or, as Theodora Goss said:

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I’ve been writing about death a lot. Since my friend Jay died at the beginning of June. Then writer Graham Joyce died about a month ago, and I wrote about that.

Then writer Eugie Foster died a few weeks ago (also from cancer, all three of them from cancer), and I didn’t write about it. Because I felt like I’d been writing about death death death, and also I’d never met her. But her novelette Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast was one of the first pieces of short fiction that I completely fell in love with after starting to write short fiction myself. It was one of the stories that made me realize how powerful short fiction can be. And also, the title! (Also you can totally go read it right now because it is super good.) So I felt a real sense of loss.

And then a few days ago, Zilpha Keatley Snyder died. I was trying not to write so much about death and grief, but I mean, I have to write about this. So. I tried. And this is what you’re getting.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder was the author I wanted to be when I grew up. She was one of my first author crushes. I loved her name; I loved how dignified it sounded, how I’d never heard the name Zilpha before, how it had three parts instead of only two, and how I could never shorten it because otherwise it didn’t have the right ring. I loved that she lived in the same county that I lived in, which meant writers were real people who lived in real places and I could be one of them someday.

Below the Root, how I love you!

Below the Root, how I love you!

And most of all, I loved her work. I devoured her work. I shared her work with my mom; I’m pretty sure my mom read The Velvet Room out loud to me at some point, and maybe also The Egypt Game, but I can’t remember. I loved the Below the Root series so much, it was one of the books I tried to copy in my own young writing, along with The Wizard of Oz and Anne of Green Gables. I spent about a million hours playing the impossible adventure computer game based on Below the Root. I never beat it, but I got pretty far. Well, at least I thought I did at the time.

And then, just when I might have been getting a little too old to be completely enamored with Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s work (I was probably around 12), I found Libby on Wednesday, which I read repeatedly. Because it was about a girl like me, a girl who was too smart for her own good and didn’t really understand the social maze of middle school and, most of all, wanted to be a writer. I loved that book so hard.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

I never met Zilpha Keatley Snyder. But her books meant, and still mean, the world to me. They are a crucial element of my personal book collection. They influenced me both as a writer and as a human being.

I will miss you, Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And I still want to be you when I grow up.

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