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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

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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Today is April 26th and the traditional time for me to write about my mom, on the anniversary of her death.

Last year my grief over my mom’s loss was weighing heavily on me. In retrospect, that was probably caused at least in part by the fact I was writing a book at the time that was all about grief and a teenager’s loss of her mother. In writing it, I was also remembering what it had been like when the grief was fresher.

This year, in contrast, my grief has been quiet. The book I’m writing right now has very little to do with grief, or mothers, or death. It is about other things.

But I have been thinking about the past because of my massive clean-out of stuff that is currently in progress. (Yes, it is still in progress. I just brought another packed carload to Goodwill yesterday, after spending another good portion of the weekend cleaning things out.  At this point I think I am fairly close to calling it good and stopping, but we shall see.)

I have always had a fraught relationship with my mom’s remaining stuff. It feels like a limited resource because she will never have any more stuff, and it also feels like all I have left of her.

I’m pretty sure this is false. It is just stuff. The reason I care about this stuff is because of the memories I’ve attached to it. But it is the memories that are what I actually have left. Memories and genetics, I suppose. The stuff is valuable in that it prompts memories I might otherwise lose. And that is why it is this stuff, stuff that belonged to my mom or that is generally from my childhood, to which I am ultimately most attached.

I don’t actually care that much if I remain attached to these objects. It would be great to be able to get rid of more of them, I suppose. But the really important thing to leave behind is not so tangible.

There is a sense of doom that pervades life after a troubled childhood. There is a fear that perhaps some things cannot be transcended, that there is an inevitability to the patterns played out by your parents, and their parents before them, and their parents before them, and back back back beyond living memory. Perhaps some people do not notice these dynamics playing out, but for those of us who want more from life than what we’ve seen in our families, this awareness is inescapable.

So then, it is this doom I wish to toss into the dumpster. Because we can make our own choices, we can educate ourselves, and we can reach higher. We can do better. It is not easy, this daring to strive for more, but it is possible.

If there is one thing this last few months have taught me, it’s that I can lay this idea of doom to rest. I can bury it in a field under an apple tree, a cautionary tale I won’t want to visit very often. Because the doom is heavy and clammy and it tries to pull you back down into the undertow. To believe in the doom is to give it power.

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Photo Credit: naismithd via Compfight cc

But it is not true. I have reached this anniversary of my mom’s death knowing that I do not have to become her. I do not have to live her life. I have made some of the same mistakes she made, yes, and who I am has been informed by who she was, for good and for bad. But I drive my own story and it’s already clear I won’t have the same ending.

I don’t know what my ending will look like, but I do know it will be all my own.

The relief of disowning the doom is profound.

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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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Six Months

I am writing this on Wednesday, and today is the six-month anniversary of the day I started dancing again. Many weeks ago, I put this date into my day planner along with a note to write about it.

Then I sprained my toe, and I haven’t danced for three weeks. But I decided I’d still write this post.

Then last night a colleague of mine who I really liked and admired died. So it’s been a hard day. I thought about not writing anything at all. I thought, how could I write about something as happy as dancing on a day like today?

I thought, why am I so upset? I haven’t seen this colleague of mine for years and years. But I am. I am upset. We do not need to be in regular contact with people in order for them to be important to us. We do not need to be close to people in order for them to have impact on us.

And then I thought, I will write about dancing anyway, because this friend of mine, Jimmy, he was a comedian and an actor and a director and a drama teacher, and he was one of those people who seemed so fully alive and so fully committed to and passionate about what he was doing. So it feels apropos for me to be writing today about something about which I feel passionate.

I haven’t danced for three weeks, and I feel a bit sulky about it. I really, really miss it. I think all the time about when I’ll be able to dance again, and every week, I think, well, not this week, because my toe still really hurts, but maybe next week. I can’t wait till I’m all healed up and ready to go.

But here’s what is incredible to me. Before six months ago, I hardly ever danced. And before a few years ago, I didn’t even have the option of dancing. No dancing. None. Ever.

How my life has changed.

How I have loved the last six months. Even the last three weeks of that, because even though I can’t dance right this minute, I know I will be dancing. It’s only a matter of time.

I feel like dancing has changed me, and during this last period of time of enforced non-dancing, this has been interesting to watch. Because now that I’m not dancing, it could change back, right?

But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like dancing hasn’t merely changed the way I exercise, or the strength of my muscles, or my priorities in terms of my schedule. It feels like dancing has changed something inside of me. To have a physical means of expression, and one for which I don’t place huge amounts of pressure on myself to be perfect, has grounded me in a way I didn’t expect.

Photo by Richard Seely.

Photo by Richard Seely.

And then there’s the joy. I am so happy when I’m dancing, I feel like my happiness must be shining out of me like a beacon. I am happy thinking about going dancing ahead of time, and I’m happy after going dancing, while I’m driving home to good music and then eating my instant oatmeal (brown sugar and maple flavored, of course). And I am the happiest of all when I’m in the flow of the dance, buoyed by good music, connected to my partner, and experiencing the joy of a moving creation.

When I am dancing, there is nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing. And having that space to be so devoted and focused is extremely precious.

So on this, the six-month anniversary of rediscovering this joy, I hope for much more dancing in my future. I wish I could dance this week. For myself, to celebrate this milestone, and also for Jimmy. Thanks for showing us how to live with gratitude and passion, my friend. You are an inspiration.

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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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