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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and loss and inspiration and kindness.

How are you going to tie all of those ideas together in an essay, Amy? Yeah, I’m not really sure either. But I am going to try.

When I first checked my phone on Tuesday morning, I learned that fantasy writer Graham Joyce had died. I felt sad. Sad because many of my friends are grieving the loss of someone important to them. Sad because the one time I met Graham, he had been kind and generous to me.

Sad because then I thought about Jay, and I miss him. I don’t talk about it much. I’m not sure there’s very much to say. The sadness is here, inside of me. That’s all.

We try so hard to distract ourselves, and others, from the reality of this sadness. We want so badly to fix, to take away pain, whether it’s our own pain or somebody else’s. Distraction, cheering up, intellectual discussions about philosophical implications.

But at some point we have to stop all of that and just sit. Sit with sadness. Sit with whatever emotions there are. Turn off the fixer, because there is no fixing death. There is no fixing loss. There is no fixing of so many things.

Sometimes there is someone who is willing to sit with us so we will not be alone. But we are not always so lucky. And sometimes being alone makes it easier. Either way, at some point, the sitting must occur.

Graham Joyce’s final blog post is being widely quoted because it is brilliant. This is my favorite part:

“Actually I know what the dragonfly said.  It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.

And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?”

Cherish. There is so much that is beautiful and good in the world, and it deserves the attention. It is so easy to miss seeing it; it’s so easy for it to be drowned out by the ugly and the ignorant and the damaging. But the good still matters; it keeps us going.

Inspire. We all need a hand up from time to time, or a new idea, or a fresh way of seeing. We help each other to be creative and kind and informed and engaged. We help each other to be better than we could be on our own.

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

I’m reminded of another quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s from E. Lockhart’s novel We Were Liars: “Be a little kinder than you have to.”

That’s it. Be a little kinder. I hear these words in my head several times a week. They help me get out of my head when I’m about to stand up for myself or deliver bad news. They help me get past the empathy response that encourages me NOT to stand up for myself, because they give me a guide for how to behave that honors that empathy while also taking care of myself. They remind me that I can be clear and firm and honest without being unnecessarily cruel.

And they encourage me to a little kinder to myself as well.

Cherish, inspire, and be a little kinder when you can. Yes. That is what I’d like to spend my life doing.

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Well.

This was supposed to be a bright, happy, bouncy post. And we will get there, never fear. But now that I’ve sat down to write it, I find I want to provide a little context for where we’re going.

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I believe there is value in documenting the grieving process, so this is what has been happening.

My friend Jay died two months ago now. And in those two months, I have taken an emotional beating. Close readers of this blog apparently already know this, so now I’m just taking the final step and being explicit.

Very little of this beating has had much of anything to do with Jay’s death. His death was a catastrophe that put me in a vulnerable place, yes, and apparently that’s all it took to allow floods of bullshit to wash in.

I was going to call it drama, but let’s call it what it is, shall we? And sadly, much of it is bullshit, plain and simple.

I’m exhausted. And my tolerance for such things has dropped to historically low levels. I am considering keeping it there.

An unfortunate side effect of all of this is that I’ve had to put my grief on hold while I deal with other things. Yes, it’s a luxury to even be capable of doing so, but it is still not a situation that makes me happy. In my experience, putting grief on hold has a tendency to backfire in unfortunate and sometimes unpredictable ways. Not ideal. Not at all.

But that is what is happening. Hey presto, context!

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In more fortuitous news, I’m going on vacation in a few weeks. A blissful, well-deserved, drama-free, AMAZING vacation. I can’t wait.

And in the meantime, I have signed up to participate in GISHWHES, otherwise known as the GREATEST INTERNATIONAL SCAVENGER HUNT THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

At this point, I think my belief that sometimes things need to be shaken up is well documented on this blog. And there is no better time to shake things up than when life is being unfortunate. So I am extra super excited to be spending next week doing something completely different and outside of my comfort zone.

It should be especially exciting because improv makes me nervous, doing strange things in public makes me a little nervous too, and me crafting doesn’t so much make me nervous as it often yields results that are suboptimal (and possibly hilarious). Or else I’m just kind of slow. Seriously, the only C I’ve ever gotten in my life was in 6th grade art because it took me so long to complete each project. Pushing Amy out of her comfort zone? Check check check.

On the other hand, writing a real online dating profile for Nala? I am so all over that. (Yes, this was a real task from last year.)

I am sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

I am a sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

The founder of GISHWHES, Misha Collins, has this to say about the hunt: “GISHWHES is about creating art, pushing boundaries, perpetrating acts of kindness and, ultimately, redefining our perception of “the possible.””  And I am 100% behind all those things, as a creative person, sure, but more fundamentally, as a human being. It’s so easy for our view of the world, and of ourselves, to become limited and stagnant, and it is so important to do what we can to work against this trend.

I’m hoping I’ll have time to post updates on the blog over the course of the next week on how things are going in GISHWHES land, but I’m not sure how all-consuming it is going to be. So I will be playing it by ear. (Gasp!)

Meanwhile, I’ll be remembering, and gleefully celebrating, that life is what you make of it, one day at a time.

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I want to write about acceptance, but it’s tricky. I don’t know if I have any insight to offer. Maybe you have insight to offer me.

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There are some open questions about the stages of grief: how valid it is as a model, whether there are five stages or seven stages. But the stages, along with some religious thought, emphasize the culmination of grief and healing from grief as acceptance.

What is acceptance? At first glance, it seems to be agreeing with basic reality: This person is now gone. This person isn’t in my life anymore. This terrible thing did actually happen. (And of course, this can be true in situations that have nothing to do with death and still everything to do with grief.)

Or maybe acceptance can be thought of as letting go. Letting go of what used to be, or what you wanted to be, or what you thought was except it really wasn’t ever. Letting go of controlling what you cannot control.

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But I think acceptance encompasses something more than this.

Acceptance is also about understanding the reality of how life has changed because of what happened. Not just, this person died, but how is my life now different because of this death? Not just, this relationship ended, but what does mean for me to be single? Not just, my body doesn’t work the way it used to, but how do I have to live my life differently now that I don’t have certain physical capacities?

Acceptance involves integrating these changes, which can sometimes feel like consequences, into your life and into your concept of who you are.

Who am I now that I can no longer walk? Who am I now that I am no longer a spouse/sibling/parent/friend to this person? Who am I now that I have survived this terrible ordeal?

Who am I?

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Acceptance, I am beginning to believe, requires a generous amount of compassion for the self. Because as you sort out who you are in this new landscape, you are bound to find wounds and doubts and weaknesses and regrets. You probably won’t like everything you see.

But until you can love this new self, including any perceived drawbacks, including the tender and misshapen bits, I wonder if the process of acceptance can be completed.

I suspect it can’t.

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So then. When you are grieving, know this. It might be hard to remember, even impossible in this moment, but. You are still a beautiful and worthwhile individual.

You still shine with the light of a thousand stars.

Photo Credit: Skiwalker79 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Skiwalker79 via Compfight cc

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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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