What I wish someone had told me about grieving

Beyond_grief

Photo credit: Annemariebusschers

When my mother died unexpectedly of a stroke, there was no shortage of platitudes offered:

“It will get easier with time.”

“One day this will all make sense.”

“She’s in a better place now.”

As I’ve written before, I found these types of sentiments, at the time, to be rather empty and unhelpful. Nonetheless, I learned to appreciate the fact that the people who said them were just looking for something, anything to say to ease my pain. And I can’t fault anyone for trying to comfort me as I faced the unimaginable. Dealing with death is not easy. There’s no playbook. You simply offer your condolences and try to be there for the bereaved as much as you can.

But there are so many things I’ve learned through grieving; things the platitudes never mentioned and that no one ever warned me about. Things I wish somebody had told me before I started the process. Things I want to share with all of you so that you might be able to better understand a friend who is grieving, or your own feelings if you’re going through the process yourself, like:

The world won’t wait for you. 

You will stand still, very very still for a long time. I cannot say how long. Everyone’s journey is different. You may try to fight against this stillness by filling up your calendar, or going about life as normal, or ignoring your pain. The world will continue to move at a breakneck speed, but try as you might to keep up with it, inside the stillness will remain. You will not be ready to move on; to pretend as if it’s all ok. Not for a long while. I call this the zombie phase. As I wrote in the Long, Lonely, Road of Grief, it went a little something like this (for me): “I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.

Your friends may stop asking you how you are doing after a few months, assuming your loss is old news and that you must have compartmentalized it by now. They may talk to you like they always have, assuming if you wanted to talk about “it,” you would do so — they don’t want to upset you by bringing it up. You will learn to forgive them; for both assuming that you aren’t conscious of your loss every moment of every day, and for failing to address the elephant in the room, when you just don’t have the strength.

You will be angry at the world for spinning, and frustrated because all you want is to get back to moving with it. Eventually, you will get there. But this time, this space of stillness is sacred. It means you really lost something; that you’re learning to live with a massive hole in your life. It is normal, and it is ok.

Grief knows no timeline.

One day, you will start to walk amongst the living again and you will be thrilled at your re-acquired excitement for life. It is the surest sign that you are healing; that you will move on, even if you’re never quite the same again. You will start to feel excitement, rather than dread, at the big happenings coming up on your calendar. Your good days will outnumber your bad. You will breathe a sigh of relief — I am getting there, you’ll think, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Until, after many months of feeling great, the tunnel closes in on you and you are thrown back into despair. Just as you’ve gotten the hang of your new life; your new normal, you’re thrown for a loop. You might need advice on your taxes, or a new career path, but you find that nobody can guide you like your mother could. You feel the loss all over again as if it happened just yesterday, even though it’s been years. You are depressed. Nothing feels right. Your skin crawls with an unshakable wave of grief. I thought I was past this, you will chastise yourself, dammit, things were really looking up!

They’ll look up again, but give yourself time. The “active” grief comes and goes. Things get easier until they aren’t anymore. This is because grief knows no timeline. There are no definable stages to be found. Grief is fluid and, at times, unpredictable. You can only take your time, roll with the tide and accept that sometimes the waters will be calm, sometimes you’ll get smacked in the face with an unexpected wave, and sometimes you’ll be thrown violently by a tsunami of pain.

The ripples will affect every area of your life. 

Nothing in your life, or in your psyche is an island. Your loss will have a “ripple effect” and touch every aspect of your life. You might get easily knocked down by small setbacks (like an injury or your car breaking down), and start to feel like the world just isn’t fair. You could find yourself suffocating those you love; terrified to lose them — or pushing them away to avoid the inevitable pain that their loss would bring. You may become anxious at holidays, unable to explain why.

You might adopt a puppy and struggle to bond with him, because you are so afraid to love him, knowing that you will most likely outlive him. Yet, the hole inside you that your mother’s death left begs, screams to be filled and you let it, partly, by a sweet dog with a red beard and boundless joy. 10 months later, that puppy might get very sick and now that you love him unimaginably, the concept of losing him is already too horrible to bear. The anxiety grips you as you make your way through the snow to the emergency veterinary hospital at 2 AM on the first night of spring, tears streaming down your face, as you relive your middle-of-the-night drive to the hospital the night of your mother’s emergency surgery.

Some of the ripples you will see and understand, and others will elude you. You will learn to accept these ripples, even though they make your life more complicated. They are part of you now.

You will be changed, forever.

This one is hard to swallow. Nobody wants to be defined by their trauma, and we go to great lengths to remain “ourselves” in the face of earth-shaking sadness. But the truth is, it is nearly impossible to avoid these changes. Losing a close loved one will most likely irrevocably change who you are, for better or for worse. There is a growing body of evidence that trauma can actually change our neurobiology. You may find that your priorities suddenly shift, or that grudges you’ve long held against loved ones simply aren’t worth it anymore. You may decide to sell all of your stuff to move to an island somewhere, because the grind seems totally worthless to you.

You might grow up nearly overnight, finding yourself making decisions about end-of-life care and funeral prayer cards when just 6 months ago, you were seriously considering moving to Buenos Aires on a whim. You might lose your wanderlust, or your deep love of watching sports, and not understand why. You could suddenly hate crowds, when you used to thrive in them. You might move to the Jersey Shore (an idea that would previously have seemed absurd to you) to get away from a city that was once the only place you felt at home. You may find yourself holding onto ridiculous things, like a shirt your mother bought you that you always hated, for the simple fact that she’ll never buy you a shirt that you hate ever again.

The good news is, these changes aren’t all bad. You will likely grow in ways you never imagined, and find yourself more easily prioritizing what’s important to you. You can even come out better than before: more empathetic with your ear and far more careful with your time and limited resources.

Everyone grieves differently.

This one is very important. In your pain, you may have a hard time understanding the pain of others, especially those in your family dealing with the same loss you are. Remember, everyone handles grief differently. Others’ actions may be truly confounding to you. One person may experience PTSD or battle depression (or both). Another may try to go on as though everything is normal, but be haunted by nightmares and anxiety. Still another may compartmentalize their pain. None of these reactions is “right” or “wrong,” though, in your pain, you may be pulled to assume differently.

You may find yourself angry with your family as they ignore the empty chair at the holiday table, rather than bringing her memory into focus. It might be difficult to talk to them about your pain, because they process things differently than you do. You might judge them, and assume they’re doing it all wrong. You might find yourself at Hamilton: The Musical, a full two years after your mother has died, unabashedly weeping, realizing your resentment towards your family is wrongheaded, as the cast sings:

There are moments that the words don’t reach,
There’s a grace too powerful to name,
We push away what we can never understand,
We push away the unimaginable.

They are standing in the garden,
Alexander by Eliza’s side,
She takes his hand-
Forgiveness… can you imagine?

There is no wrong way to grieve. Some grievers may not be able to relate to a word of this, and that’s ok.  We are all different. It’s important to remember to give a grieving person the space to do it their own way, on their own timeline, even if it makes no sense to those of us on the outside.

With that said, I hope these words can be of some help or comfort to those struggling with grief, whether you’re just starting the journey or feeling stuck.

I can’t tell you that it will be ok, and I will not feed you a beautiful platitude. But I will offer you this: You are not alone. Please know that.

Don’t get a dog: the worst piece of advice my grandma ever gave me

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I’ve traveled a lot of places, and nothing compares to these faces.

It’s common to canonize somebody after they die. When someone we love passes, we often think of them in their most angelic, pure form. At least for a while. It feels awkward and uncouth to recount a recently deceased person’s negative traits. Sometimes it can take months, or even years, before you’re ready to remember them as the flawed, layered person they were in actuality, rather than the holier-than-thou version of themselves you wistfully create as you grieve.

And so, it took me a while to admit to myself that the last piece of advice my grandmother ever gave me was complete and utter bullshit.

It was the Summer of 2013, and grandma had recently been moved into a nursing home. Her husband George had just died, and she was struggling mightily with her Parkinson’s disease. Her spirits were low and she all-but-begged us to help her die, conveniently ignoring the fact that my 59-year-old mother was in a hospital just 15 minutes away, slipping away slowly in palliative care after a massive stroke.

After sitting by my mother’s side for eight or ten hours a day at the hospital, we would go to visit my grandmother in the nursing home (did I mention it was the most depressing summer ever? It was).

“At least grandma will be able to talk back to us!” I said optimistically, on the drive over to visit her with my father. I was exhausted by my mother’s inability to communicate — the stroke took away her language center, meaning she could neither understand or speak to us — so our days dragged on in silence. The prospect of carrying on an actual conversation was a welcome change.

“I wouldn’t count on it. She’s not always lucid,” Dad warned.

As we arrived at the nursing home, my father was intercepted by a nurse wanting to show him a new prospective room for grandma. “You go see your grandmother. I’ll be in shortly,” he told me.

I sat down next to my grandma, who was unusually frail and chatty. Her room had stark white walls, a television, and was outfitted in the same furniture as my college dorm room. I couldn’t help but empathize with her depression. I hated being in this place, and I certainly didn’t have to live here.

“What’s new?!” She asked, chomping at the bit for some news from the outside.

“I am thinking of adopting a dog,” I said. At the time, I was convinced that adopting a dog would help me through my grief, and was the best possible thing I could do.

“Why would you want to do that?!” she asked, appalled.

“Grandma, you know I’ve always wanted a dog.”

“And I’ve never been able to understand why. A dog will chain you. You won’t be able to travel or take off spontaneously or do anything at all. You’ll be stuck with the dog! Don’t tie yourself down with a pet. It’s not a good idea.”

Her words hit me like a gut punch. Was she right? Was I unable to commit to a dog? I’d always wondered if I was really ready; if I should take the plunge or wait for a better, more stable time (note: I did end up waiting for a better time — about 2 more years, and I’m really glad I did). I wanted to say “grandma, you’re one to talk — you already had 3 kids by they time you were my age!” but I didn’t. I couldn’t bear her response and fighting her didn’t seem worth it. Besides, the damage was done.

I said nothing. But I internalized her words, and the hurt that they brought.

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What I should have said: “Grandma, you’re full of shit.” Because LOOK AT THAT FACE!

It’s been nearly two and a half years since that conversation, and only now it strikes me as funny that it was the last lucid talk we ever really had. As I stare down at my puppy Alfie, sleeping peacefully next to me while I work, I am pulled to thoughts of her.

She was right that I used to prize my freedom above all else. In my teens and early twenties, I traveled like I’d never get the chance again. If there was a trip and I could somehow afford it, I went, without thinking much about what I was leaving behind. I stayed gone for as long as I could, often abandoning my apartment for months at a time, soaking in all that the world had to offer me. My wanderlust knew no bounds — I was young and unattached and free.

Sure, coming home to all of my creature comforts was nice, but in truth there wasn’t much there waiting for me; an empty fridge and piling mail.

All of that has changed for me.

Today, my apartment is bursting with love. I have a family to come home to: Dave, our cat Penny and of course, now Alfie. We do almost everything together and being with them fills my heart up to its brim, and makes me feel whole in a way I never imagined before. Leaving them is hard, but not because of logistics or the cost of pet sitters. It’s hard because I love them and I miss them, and frankly, I hate being away from them. They’re my favorites!

Although I have to admit, in many ways, having a dog does bind me. I have to get up each morning at a reasonable time to take him for a walk. I have to plan out my days around his needs: I must make sure he gets his meals, enough exercise and socializing, and that I spend adequate time training and bonding with him. I can’t just pick up and go whenever to wherever. All of that is true.

But when I think about how much I’ve gained — a sweet, loyal companion, a furbaby who loves me no matter what is going on in my life; an unrelenting best friend — I realize that ultimately, “freedom” is not the most important thing to me anymore.

If I could talk to my grandma again, or if I could go back to that conversation, I would kindly tell her what I know now: I could keep my life set up forever so that I am unattached and free. That would mean I could do whatever I want, and I wouldn’t have anyone to answer to. But having a partner and a cat and a dog to love and to love me is worth more than all of that to me now. They give me something to come home to; something to miss, something to work towards. I’m more patient, more giving, more loving and more myself.

I don’t feel tied down or imprisoned; I feel complete. I feel whole. I’m no longer trying to escape my life. I’m right here living and loving it.

I gave up my “freedom,” and I found something that’s worth a lot more: the beautiful feeling of home.

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I’d choose him all over again. 🙂

#DearMe — An Open Letter to My Younger Self

Some of you may have seen the #DearMe campaign that recently debuted. It features the famous ladies of YouTube addressing their younger selves with life advice. It’s basically an “It Gets Better” campaign for ladies, taking aim at the insecurities that hold us back from being ourselves and reaching our potential. Check the video below:

A dear friend posted this brilliant and important bit of viral goodness to a Facebook group I participate in, and proposed the simple question: what advice would you give?

Obviously, I couldn’t resist writing a little something up. I love talking to Past Chelsea (as evidenced by last week’s essay), So I wrote these words to my former self. Younger me really, really needed to hear them, because she certainly wasn’t taking any of her mother’s brilliant advice.

Check it out, and let me know in the comments what advice you’d give your younger self!

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Dear Me,

You will spend your entire young life trying to be cool and proving your worth to others. Don’t do it. Your worth is inherent; it’s as fundamental as your propensity to breathe. 

Stop questioning yourself at every turn, and throwing yourself into the fire each and every time a person who can sense your willing vulnerability sets out to take advantage of you. They will. They will control you, manipulate you, rape you, discard you and throw you to the wolves. They will isolate you from the people who do love you and see your worth, and make you unrecognizable to everybody; including yourself.

You are not a savior.  

Learn to read their signs and to love yourself enough to walk away from them. 

And if you can’t — because lord knows with your bursting heart, you can’t — forgive yourself when they hurt you.

What they do says everything about them, and nothing about you. Go on loving and being the open-hearted, sensitive, hyper-empathetic, love-seeking writer that you are. 

You may not fit in with your family or your peers, but you will find people who love and appreciate you for you. Thing is, you will never find those people if you aren’t authentically yourself. 

Stop playing the “cool girl.” You’re not her. Not by a long shot. The “cool girl” doesn’t exist, and if she did, I doubt she’d cry into her journal after pretending to be cool with being a side piece. 

Listen to your mother. She sees what you can’t yet see. Her wisdom will speak to you when she’s long gone. One day, you’ll learn to read those subtle signs, too. 

Take care of yourself. Stop worrying about your body, and whether you’ll find love. Love will come when you learn to love yourself and stop giving yourself away to those who are unworthy. Your body won’t matter when that love comes. 

Let yourself be a writer. It’s ok to follow your calling, even if it won’t bring you riches or a steady career. Don’t let anyone convince you to give up something that is essential to your happiness and to who you are as a person.

Don’t let them make you feel not good enough.

You are enough.