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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

It has been a grim few weeks.

This morning I painted my nails purple and sparkly to commemorate a little girl who died of cancer on her sixth birthday and to support my close friend who is grieving her loss.

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When I first thought of painting my nails, I almost decided not to do it. I thought, do I really want to think of something so sad whenever I look down at my hands? As if the last week and a half hasn’t been hard enough?

And then I thought, of course I want to do it. This is what it is to love, and this is what it is to be human.

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I first met Jay Lake when he’d already been fighting cancer for some time. I’d heard tons of stories about him, and I’d passed him in convention hallways. I put off reading his blog because I knew it was all about cancer, and my mom died of cancer, so I thought it might be too much for me.

But then I finally got the chance to spend some real time with him at my first ConFusion. And I began reading his blog. And we became friends. And at the time I thought, do I really want to open myself up to becoming friends with someone who is this sick? Do I really want to allow the possibility of the pain of losing someone I’ve come to care about?

And then I thought, of course I want to do it. It is worth it to me to have the chance to know this incredible person.

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I’ve been falling down a lot lately. Part of that is because I’m still learning, and part of it is because I’m practicing and practicing requires a fair amount of failure. Part of it is simple fatigue.

And part of it is because this is what happens when I don’t wall myself off from the rest of the world. This is part of what it means to care. So I fall down, and then I get up, and then I fall down, and I get up again. And then I fall down, and I fall down again before I’ve had a chance to get up in between, which is a special brand of awful.

And then I get up.

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There is a part of me that thinks the best thing ever would be if everything about my life was just easier. That this should be my supreme goal for my life. That if everything were easier, then I’d be very happy and I could stop trying all that hard and enjoy a nice coast through the next decade or two.

I think I want everything to be easy.

But when I look at the choices I make, it is obvious that this isn’t actually what I want at all. I don’t pick the easy choices. I’ve never made a habit of picking the easy choices. I majored in music, I moved to another country, I started my own business, I started writing seriously, I’ve changed huge swathes of my life.

I became friends with Jay Lake. And I painted my fingernails purple for a little girl I never got to meet.

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This is what it is to create meaning. This is what it is to be human.

This is what it is to love.

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“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

—Kurt Vonnegut

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“This is just too hard.” I declare this late at night, tears streaming down my cheeks, head rested on my friend’s shoulder.

To be soft is to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable is to have those moments when it seems impossible to continue.

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Photo Credit: Send me adrift. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Send me adrift. via Compfight cc

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I tell my friend about a share my blog post about grief got on Facebook. “I have never experienced loss to this degree,” the person said about my post.

“Why?” I ask my friend. “I want to be the person who has never experienced loss. Why can’t I be that person?”

I have all the silver linings for loss and suffering memorized. They build character. They mean I am living life fully, that I am throwing myself fully into the world around me. They have helped me develop the resilience that allows me to pick myself afterwards and keep moving. They give me a depth of experience that I can use to help other people and that I can use to enrich my writing. I wouldn’t give up who I am today, and my experiences have shaped me.

But I’d be lying if I told you that whisper of “Why?” doesn’t linger in the background.

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We cannot erase the why. But there isn’t always an answer to that question. There isn’t always a reason.

Life doesn’t always have a satisfying narrative.

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We don’t get to determine why. But we can try to affect the how. We can strive to retain our softness, or we can allow ourselves to harden in defense. We can allow a moment of impossibility to extend to a lifetime, our doors remaining securely locked, or we can reject that idea and live to fling the door open once more. We can withdraw in fury or fear or hopelessness, or we can look for a way to give, to reach out, to make our time count.

We can believe the world is still a beautiful place. Maybe not all the world, and not all the time. But we can start with a small moment: the beginnings of a smile, the release of a sigh, the comfort of a hand on a shoulder.

Why? We do not know. But the beauty remains, if we allow ourselves to remember how to see it.

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Here Lies My Grief

I am grieving.

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I dive right into the morass of emotions. This is my way. I don’t want to stifle it or pretend it isn’t there. I find numbness disturbing. I sometimes allow myself to be distracted because conserving energy is important, but this is not my primary concern.

I carry on with the essential daily tasks. I eat, I shower, I sleep. I take care of the little dog. This is always a weird part of grief, this continuation of life. It feels like everything should stop, but of course it never does. Knowing this, I do what I must do without complaint, but also without much attention.

Mostly, I feel. This grief is a palpable physical experience. My temperature fluctuates. I’m breathing normally, but I sometimes feel like I’m not getting enough oxygen. There is a knot between my breasts that won’t go away. A scattered panicky feeling lurks at the back of my awareness. I burst into tears unexpectedly, or I would do except no tears are actually unexpected right now. I wander around my apartment, and then I sit, and then I wander around my apartment, and then I sit again. I feel like I could do this all day.

I exist underneath a heavy blanket that makes the world seem muted and every action and decision seem more effortful than usual. The loss comes in waves that take my breath away.

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Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ecstaticist via Compfight cc

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I don’t want to be alone. In this physical experience I’m having, the only thing I’m sure I want is physical contact. Hands holding my hands, arms wrapped around me, my hair being stroked. It reminds me that I’m still here, and it reminds me that I’m not alone. My brain is more convinced by touch than it is by anything else.

I want to be alone. My grief is still raw, and I think it will make other people uncomfortable. I don’t want to have to pretend it’s not happening. Just hold me and hold me and hold me, and remind me to eat. But I feel like that’s asking a lot.

I have no masks to offer you today.

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I want to feel this way. I wouldn’t feel differently if I had the choice. My grief is a celebration of the life of someone who mattered to me. My grief is an expression of love. My grief is a gift that I offer gladly.

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I wanted to write something about Jay Lake today. This isn’t what I sat down to write, but this is what I have right now. I might have something else later.

But this is still about Jay. Because my grief is for him, and because I am writing publicly about grief for him. For years he wrote unflinching accounts of his experience as a cancer patient. He talked about the things we’re not supposed to talk about, and he did so in service of others.

We’re not supposed to talk about grief either. But grief is a natural part of life. It’s here, whether we like it or not. It is something we all must face.

There is no right way to grieve. It comes as it comes. All we can do is accept it when it arrives.

So I eat, and I sleep, and I feel grateful for what I have.

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I am grieving.

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A few months ago, Robert Jackson Bennett, Ferrett Steinmetz, and I wrote a series of blog posts that Ferrett called a “death-triptych.” I read Robert’s, then I wrote my own, but I didn’t read Ferrett’s. Well, I read the first sentence, and then I stopped because I knew it would hurt me to read it. So it’s been sitting in an open tab ever since, waiting for me to be ready.

Well, a few days ago, I was finally ready.

And this is the part of that post I want to talk about. Ferrett says:

“And I think: Gini is not a guarantee.  There is literally nothing in my life that is a guarantee now.  And I think: You were foolish to think that it ever was.”

This thought, that nothing is a guarantee, is not about death per say. It’s about life, and it’s about the human condition. It’s about how we experience life after we’ve been through trauma.

Or, as Myke Cole says:

“PTSD is what happens when all that is stripped away. It is the curtain pulled back, the deep and thematic realization that life is fungible, that death is capricious and sudden. That anyone’s life can be snuffed out or worse, ruined, in the space of a few seconds. It is the shaking realization that love cannot protect you, and even worse, that you cannot protect those you love.”

So the question becomes how do you go on living, once you have this knowledge? Once you know how fragile everything in your life is? Once you know how quickly you can lose what you value most? Once you know that sometimes nothing you can do will be enough?

My answer is that it is really, really hard. Sometimes you try to construct meaning into your life, like Myke talks about. Sometimes you question why you’re doing anything at all even while you continue to go through the motions, like Ferrett talks about. Sometimes you bend over backwards to create something, anything, that might be different, that might be a sure thing, that allows you to enfold yourself in the comforting fiction that you have some control over the vagaries of life.

And then there's always ice cream, which makes many things at least slightly better.

And then there’s always ice cream, which makes many things at least slightly better.

Sometimes you live your life with an intensity that other people cannot understand. Your emotions are heightened because in some way, you’ve entered into the cliché of living life like today is your last day: like right now is the last time you’ll have with a loved one, like every decision could have a lasting and significant impact, like any small sign could be your only warning of impending doom.

Instead of fear of the unknown, you have fear because you’re intimately aware of just how bad things can get.

And sometimes you become very adept at finding a nice, comforting rhythm with which to end essays like this, like the kind that Ferrett wished he could find but couldn’t. And the thing is, those uplifting positive statements are true. I believe in them with all my heart. I believe in making the most of the time you have, and I believe in keeping the heart as open as you can stand, and I believe that people can be good and noble and beautiful. I even believe that people can change. And I believe that making a difference in somebody’s life–even a small one–really matters.

But the truth is complex. And just because I can see the meaning, the stuff that makes life worthwhile, the positive outlook, that doesn’t mean I can’t also see the dark monster skulking under the bed. Life is freaking terrifying. It sometimes leaves us with too little to hang onto.

In the face of this reality, all I can do is put one foot after another and try my best to be the person I want to be, because of the rich tapestry of my life or in spite of it. It’s not much, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Oh, look. I found a nice, comforting rhythm with which to end this essay too. What a shock.)

 

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Well. It’s the end of April, and as always at this time of year, my thoughts are with my mom. But instead of talking more about her, I’d like to talk about how our society deals with the issues of dying, death, and grief.

I was in college when my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of breast cancer and later given a terminal diagnosis (meaning this cancer was going to kill her). I was struggling with what was going on, and most of my peers couldn’t really relate to my problems, so I decided I wanted to join a support group. I was on a college campus, so how hard could it be to find one?

There was no support group on campus. There was no support group in the Santa Cruz area. I found a grief support group at a local hospital, but I was only allowed to begin attending once my mom had died. No support was deemed necessary for dealing with the traumas associated with watching someone die slowly, apparently.

Eventually I gave up. I didn’t have a counselor on campus to talk to. I didn’t receive any support. About five months after my mom died, my voice teacher, who was as close to a mentor as I had in college, was berating me for not having it together as much as a fellow student whose mom had also died. As you might imagine, this didn’t exactly do wonders for my morale. Grieving, I learned then, was not acceptable, even though I was functional and doing all the basic things I needed to be doing (going to class, completing my assignments, feeding myself, etc.).

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This is all bullshit. When people have loved ones diagnosed with terminal illnesses, they need support during the time before death. That time is just incredibly wretched. Bad news streamed into my life in a steady torrent, and watching my mom suffer while I was completely helpless to do anything about it squeezed my heart in an unforgiving grip. The uncertainty of when hung over everything else, a promise of future misery.

Grief doesn’t have a timeline. Grief doesn’t disappear overnight, or in a month, or in five months, or in years. And grief affects people differently. When someone is dealing with something like this, processes to get support should be made simple, not complex and unclear and obviously involving much jumping through hoops. Instead people have unrealistic expectations and they simply don’t want to talk about it.

Grief takes the time it takes. Sometimes it crashes into your life and all you can do is try to hold on. Other times it creeps in stealthily, quietly, and you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you don’t feel more than you do. Years may pass and suddenly it jumps out at you when you least expect it. And it gets mixed in with all sorts of emotional experiences: fear, anger, relief, shock, numbness, hysteria, throwing yourself into your work, the ache of emptiness, recklessness, hopelessness, a gnawing sensation of searching for something.

There is no way to sugarcoat the truth. Having a loved one diagnosed with a terminal illness really sucks. Losing someone you love really sucks. Being reminded of your own mortality really sucks. And dealing with our society’s stupidity about these things makes it suck even more. After all, everyone dies at some point–why does it have to be a subject shrouded in silence?

And this doesn’t even get into the way our society treats those who are seriously ill and/or dying. Luckily we have people like Jay Lake documenting both the ways our society gets it wrong, and his experiences dealing with cancer.

We can do better.

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I started having insomnia a few months after my mom was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.

I had moved away to college in late September and she was diagnosed, I believe, in November. By springtime, I was having trouble sleeping. A high school classmate of mine had died in a motorcycle accident that winter. A fellow student in my Romantic Literature class was hit by a car and killed while jogging. The news from home wasn’t good. I felt surrounded by death.

I shared a bedroom at the time, and even though I lived in an apartment, one of my other housemates always slept on the fold-out couch in the living room with her boyfriend. When I was awake in the middle of the night, there was nowhere to go where I could cry or turn on the lights and read. So instead I’d go outside and sit in the dark on the front stoop or on top of the picnic table, a box of tissues by my feet.

There is a special kind of hush that happens at three or four in the morning. The stillness of the night while I sat on that stoop spoke of shutters being closed over the normal world while everyone slept. Everyone but me. I couldn’t sleep, so instead I sat. I thought about my mom and I wondered why people have to die and I wondered if I hoped hard enough maybe she would be okay after all and I wished I could sleep so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.

In the daylight hours, it’s not quite so difficult to keep the dark and grief-stained thoughts at bay. But in the shadows and the quiet, there’s no longer anything blocking them from view.

I was eighteen.

Photo by Elina Linina.

Ever since that time, there have been nights when I can’t sleep. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m too excited about the day I’ve had or the trip I’m taking in the morning or I’m worried about tomorrow or I haven’t allowed enough downtime before going to bed. Sleeping at conventions can be tricky for these sorts of reasons. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m sick or in physical pain.

And sometimes I can’t sleep because my heart hurts. These are always the worst nights. They remind me of those nights on the stoop, sobbing quietly for an incomprehensible loss I could do nothing to stop. I used to hope that if I cried enough, I’d create enough space for the sleep to come.

There are times when insomnia visits for a reason. Sleep stays away so that I pay attention. Often it’s something I don’t want to pay attention to, but my body has its own ideas of what’s good for me. Sometimes it’s even right.

What is insomnia like for you?

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A couple of recent articles about what to say and not to say to chronically ill people reminded me of an essay I’ve been wanting to write for a long time: an essay about what to say and not to say to grieving people.

This is not that essay.

Instead I’ve been thinking a lot about the fundamental difficulties in communication. Those articles I linked to have excellent advice for how to support people who are ill, and yet… implementing that advice is no easy matter. It can be hard to be supportive, and it can be hard to be supported.

One way to be supportive

I’d love to think that having gone through the experience of losing my own mother would make me some kind of expert when it comes to grief. But it hasn’t. I still find myself at a loss for words. I still don’t always know the best way to support someone experiencing grief. Because people are different, and they need different things.

The reason I wanted to write that essay is because of some profoundly stupid and upsetting things people said to me about losing my mother (both during and afterwards). But I recognize that some of those things that grated against my raw skin would have been comforting to others. So if you don’t know a person extremely well, how do you know? How do you know what they need to hear? The answer is, you don’t. You do your best to be thoughtful and caring, and you listen in hopes of hearing what they need.

Of course, some responses are simply a bad idea. Pushing our religions and religious ideas onto others who don’t share them in a time of grief is shockingly dense. Comparing one grieving person with another one unfavorably is also completely out. (Julie lost her mom last year and is doing great, so why are you such a mess? Ugh.) Continuing a conversation normally as if we didn’t just hear someone tell us about a recent loss? Completely inappropriate. (And yes, these are all responses I received personally.)

But beyond that, some people want alone time, while other people never want to be alone. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend like everything’s okay, and sometimes another minute of pretending seems completely insupportable. Sometimes people will want to talk about it, sometimes they’ll want to cry, and sometimes they’ll want to play video games. Some people will want to talk religion, some will be experiencing grave doubts, and some will simply want to avoid the subject as much as possible. And the relationship between the grieving and the dead will be different in each case as well. But somehow in the aftermath of death we forget this and make assumptions that aren’t always correct.

Our society teaches us to tiptoe around grief. What this often means is a flood of well wishes right after the death of a loved one, followed by…resounding silence. No one knows if they’re supposed to pretend nothing is wrong or if they’re supposed to inquire after you. People don’t know how best to support you. Those who grieve are not always encouraged to figure out what they need or communicate those needs to others. Sometimes they are too upset to have any hope of doing so.

Because this is not that essay, I don’t have any nice, neat conclusions for you. I don’t have definitive answers or a list of ten things you should do to help your friend who is grieving. What I try (and sometimes fail) to do myself is to be compassionate, remember that the other person is not me, and pay attention. I don’t feel like it is enough, but it’s all I’ve got.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, what kind of support did you need/want? What things did people say to you that were particularly helpful (or unhelpful)?

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My short story “The Box in my Pocket” has recently come out in the anthology Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, which is available as a paperback and an e-book. Here it is directly at Amazon (paperback and Kindle e-book) and B&N (for the Nook).

I wrote this story in January of 2011.  I remember thinking of the story seed, writing the first line, and then the story had its hooks in me. I put aside the novel project I was supposed to be working on in order to write this story instead. (And given that I usually become quite single-minded during my novel writing time, this is saying something.)

Yes, that is my name on the cover. 🙂

This story is one of the most personal I have written to date.  The point of view character is a teenage girl who is losing her mother to cancer. This character is not me, but the situation is one with which I am intimately familiar. Well, except for the fantastical element, of course. That part didn’t happen to me. Really.

Normally I shy away from writing anything too autobiographical. Bits of me will inevitably worm their way into the words I write and the telling details I choose; I am never completely separate from my work. But early in my writing days, I found myself defending characters’ behavior in a story I had written, saying, “But this actually happened exactly like this.” It didn’t matter, of course. It didn’t work in the story. Real life doesn’t always translate well into fiction. People don’t always behave in “believable” ways. So now I don’t tend to write with real circumstances in mind.

I do not, however, avoid writing about the emotional truths I have experienced. “The Box in my Pocket” is one emotional truth of what it feels like to lose a mother at a relatively young age. It deals with the dual themes of death and memory, both of which I find myself addressing in my fiction repeatedly; my fascination with them never seems to fade. It asks the questions, how do we deal with loss, and how do we finally let go (or do we hold on forever, and at what price)?

As for the anthology itself, Warren Lapine is its editor, and it includes stories by Mike Resnick, Harlan Ellison, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Kelly McCullough, Barry Longyear, and many other writers, so I am in extremely good company.

 

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It’s the end of April, April 26th, to be exact, and as always on this day, my thoughts are with my mom.

Her death at age fifty really brought home to me the reality of mortality. All things must end. We have a finite amount of time. It made me realize how important it is to prioritize, to make things happen now because there might not be a later, to fight against becoming stuck in a daily routine if it makes me unhappy.

Her death taught me the importance of shaking things up.

You want to know the truth? I don’t like shaking things up. It’s scary and uncomfortable. There tends to be a fair amount of risk involved, as well as failure and disappointment. It can be hard to decide when to shake and when to let things settle.

But when in doubt, I’d usually rather shake. I remember the finite life span of human beings. I remember my mom’s unhappiness, and how she couldn’t shake things up to make her life better. And then it was too late.


Could I be a writer if I didn’t believe in shaking things up? Could I be a blogger? I don’t know. I’m guessing I couldn’t be a blogger because blogs tend to shake things up. Any blogger worth her salt will have to occasionally offer up an opinion, and people will disagree. Shake, shake, shake. And without that extra push to make life happen for myself, would I have found the courage to spend so much time writing? To attempt a novel? To send stories out to be rejected? All these choices shake things up.

I worry when people my age (thirties) tell me how much they want to travel, but they haven’t been anywhere. I want to say, I hope you’re not serious. I hope travel isn’t actually that important to you. I hope it’s a nice dream that provides a pleasant thought diversion. Or else I hope you’re just being polite, like me when I say how amazing it would be to learn to knit (I don’t actually care if I learn to knit or not). Because otherwise, what if it never happens? What if you never shake things up enough to make it happen?

This is why priorities matter so much. So we can decide when it’s important to shake and when we can take a break, be laid back, and let things sort themselves out. It’s like my experience with Las Vegas. I live a short flight away from Vegas. People I know are going to Vegas all the time. It’s never been a real priority of mine to go to Vegas, so I sat back and figured it would happen when it happened. I chose not to shake things up.

And guess what? I’ve still never been to Vegas.

So in a way, today is about remembering my mom AND remembering the power of shaking things up. I don’t want to be a people pleaser anymore? Then bam, I’ll learn more about it, I’ll push myself to change, I’ll ruffle some feathers. I want to be a writer? Then bam, I’ll take risks with my writing, I’ll go out there and meet people in my industry, I’ll leave myself vulnerable, and I’ll commit myself fully even knowing failure waits right around the corner.

Hi, Mom. This earthquake is for you.

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I started watching the first season of The Vampire Diaries on Monday night. I could say it was for research purposes, to see what’s going on in YA high school land and vampire land right now (in which case Glee is also research). But really I just wanted to watch a silly show that wasn’t taking itself too seriously after receiving bad dental news. Who knew that it would inspire my next blog post?

The first episode establishes the teenage protagonist of the series, Elena, who is starting a new year of high school only a few months after her parents were killed in a tragic accident. We see her getting ready in the morning, telling herself that she’ll no longer be “the sad girl”. And later on, she complains how everyone is asking her “How are you?” when really they don’t care and just want her to be fine. She spends the day lying because, of course, four months after losing her parents, she’s not fine. She’s pretty far away from fine.

A lot of that first episode was bad in a funny way (some of it, I suspect, on purpose). But I keep thinking about that moment of complete truth, because the writers completely nailed the “How are you?” detail. That simple question had the same effect on me. It took me quite awhile to accept its usage as a social nicety and standard greeting rather than the question it purports to be.

Offering this greeting to a grieving person is like jabbing a sore muscle to see if it still hurts…only it’s somebody else’s sore muscle being poked. It’s a reminder that no, you’re actually not doing fine at all, and not only that, but you are now expected to lie about it and pretend everything’s just peachy. That kind of pretending, unfortunately, takes energy, and energy is in fairly short supply when you feel like your chest is going to split open from missing the one you lost. In addition, it causes you to feel like you should be as together as you’re claiming. After awhile, you learn to dread the question.

Another variant of the problem is the person who asks you how you are constantly, like you’re going to explode into a million pieces any second now. (Or, as shown during the episode, the fake, over-concerned, and pitying rendition.) The true answer probably hasn’t changed in the last day or two, but sometimes it’s nice, even necessary, to take a break from the wellspring of grief for the comfort of normalcy. Overasking shatters any possibility of creating moments and experiences of relative peace.

So should we avoid saying “How are you?” altogether? I don’t think so, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we began meaning it as a question again, instead of allowing it to remain just a form? And perhaps thought more about appropriate times to ask it and how to listen in a nonjudgmental way? Then, instead of lying, a grieving person could honor their own difficult feelings and feel more supported by the outside world. Heck, I’m not grieving right now and I’d still like to be asked how I’m really doing. But many people never ask.

Here’s how I’m doing. I’m tired. I’ve been having a hard time this last several months. I’ve been under a lot of stress and in a fair amount of pain. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed. But I’m also determined, and I’m completely in love with life. So I’m hanging in and appreciating the good things even more than usual, especially the people who I love (and the dog, I can’t forget her). And I’m looking forward to change.

How are you?

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