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.

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A Tribute to My First Dog Oreo

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Oreo, October 1999 — July 2015. RIP.

Last night, my first dog Oreo died. He was a little black-and-white shih tzu who spent a wonderful fifteen and a half years as a constant companion to my family. I’m gutted, but I also know it was his time and that he lived a long, happy life. This week, I’d like to memorialize him by sharing a little bit about his life and our relationship:

Flashback to the Fall of 1999: I’d convinced my mother to maybe let me get a dog for my birthday (by the way, “maybe” totally meant, “yes, but only if you kiss my butt for a little while first” in Nance-language). Originally, I wanted a Yorkie, but as many puppies as I met while we surveyed breeders, I was having trouble finding one that called out to me. As my 14th birthday neared, I worried I’d never find a dog, and that my mother would lose interest in our search and change her mind. Then she suggest we meet a shih tzu puppy instead. “They’re small and personable,” she reasoned, “and wait ’til you see how cute they are!” This was, of course, before the days of obsessively researching breeds, breeders and rescues on the internet, so I pretty much had to take her word for it. I agreed to meet a puppy on my birthday, December 3rd, 1999.

I remember playing a basketball game in a puppy-fiending haze and then taking a long drive with my mother to the breeder’s house in Eastern Connecticut. When we walked in, the breeder kindly told me to sit on the couch while she went to get the puppy.

“We only have one left,” she explained, “he’s the runt of the litter, but I think he’s got the best disposition of them all.” I held my breath as she walked into the other room. Nance gave me a reassuring smile and a thumbs up. The breeder returned with a ball of fluff no larger than the size of a grapefruit in her hand. She placed him on the floor to sniff me, and without hesitation, he ran as fast as he could up my legs and torso and went straight to licking my face like crazy. Never had I ever loved a creature so quickly and with such abandon. I caught my mother’s eye as a mischievous smile crept across her face.

We’d found him. He was coming home with us.

“I want to name him Oreo,” I said decisively. It wasn’t the most creative name, but it just seemed to fit. He was so cute, you could gobble him up, just like a cookie. He was so tiny that a puppy collar wouldn’t even fit on him. We had to buy him a kitten collar in the smallest size.

When we pulled into the driveway later that evening, my mother said, “just walk up to your father and show him the puppy. Say nothing.”

“Wait, you didn’t tell Dad?! I thought you were going to talk to him! He’s going to be so mad!”

“No he won’t. Not when he sees how cute the puppy is. Besides, it’s your birthday. He won’t yell at you on your birthday.” She had a knowing glint in her eye, and I sensed that she was right about how he would react. My father would never agree to bring another animal into the house (and for good reason, since he always got stuck taking care of them, even though he was never the person who wanted them in the first place), but he also wouldn’t kick a pet out. He was a softie at heart.

(Author’s Note: I reiterate that these were different times, and acknowledge that surprising someone in the household with a pet is a huge no-no. I would never do this again, and highly discourage anyone from doing so).

I brought Oreo into the house, shaking with nerves. My father was standing in the kitchen. I approached him as he caught a glimpse of the fur ball in my arms. “What’s that, a rabbit?!” He asked, confused. He was used to us just bringing home all kinds of animals and springing them on him. He didn’t seem at all surprised.

“No, a puppy.” I said, and put Oreo onto his outstretched hand. He was so small, he sat right in my father’s big palm with room to spare. He wagged his tail enthusiastically, putting on his best “look how adorable I am and please don’t send me back, mister!” show.

“He’s cute,” my father admitted, and handed him back to me.

And that was that. Oreo was cleared to move in and became a fixture in all of our lives. He wormed his way right into our hearts with his sweet demeanor and energetic puppy sociability.

I remember staying home from school “sick” for a few days in his first couple of weeks just to be with him all day. We’d lay together and nap and I’d try desperately to help house train him. He became my best pal, following me around the house, and never letting anyone else ever sit next to me. That was his spot — right by my side. He was a true companion, full of personality, affectionate, a bit protective. He was my guy.

I hated leaving him when I went away to college in New York City, and even tried to take him back to school to live with me one time. Although I learned quickly that he hated being an only dog (my parents were so smitten by then that they’d gotten another shih tzu as a companion for Oreo), so I dutifully took him back home to Connecticut.

Every time I’d go home to visit my parents, Oreo would put me through the same wringer: at first, he’d be ecstatic to see me. His whole body would shake with excitement and he’d shower me with love and affection. That is, until he remembered that I’d abandoned him for the city. Then he’d act really cold and throw me shade left and right. He’d look over his shoulder at me and roll his eyes, or walk away when I called him, as though to say, “you left me, lady! Get in line!” After a day or two, he’d stop trying to resist me and let me back in again. “You’re staying this time — I knew it! We’re back together, the old partners in crime! YES!”

And then I’d reluctantly him leave again. So was the pattern of our relationship and our love.

He grew a lot more comfortable with my abrupt entrances and exits later in his life. He understood that we didn’t live together, but that when we’d see each other, it was special Chelsea-Oreo times. I visited home to spend time with him as often as possible, and after I graduated Fordham, he started to visit me in the city once or twice a month along with my parents at the apartment we shared together. He still insisted on being right by my side, and would often sleep in my bed with me, while his two sisters slept with my parents in their room.

Some things I adored about him:

He loved Wheat Thins to an unhealthy degree: He pretended to be selectively deaf for the backend of his life, but always exposed himself whenever a box of Wheat Thins would be opened in the next room and he’d come running like a little bat out of hell.

He was a grumpy old man: A grumpy, slightly judgmental old gay man, if you ask me. He had no time for nonsense, and would complain to anyone who would listen if someone or something was annoying him. He did this with incredible vocal fluctuation. Sometimes, I really thought he was talking to me.

He hated to exercise: and on the off chance that you took him on a walk that was longer than a block or two, you would need to give him positive verbal encouragement the entire time. He was a major lap dog.

He was protective of me: Not in a I’ll-bite-you-if-you-come-near-her kind of way, but in a much more subtle, gentlemanly way. He’d show his quiet disapproval of my boyfriends by turning away from them and outright ignoring their existence. “Oh, you’ve brought HIM?!” He’d communicate with his eyes to me privately, “I had no idea you were still super into dating losers! Get it together, darling, you’re not getting any younger.”

I knew Dave was different when Oreo met him for the first time, and sat right in between us, rather than on the other side of my lap. He even let Dave pet him, and looked into his eyes. Maybe he just had a thing for big muscles and blue eyes — who knows what that crazy little man was thinking. In my mind, I saw approval. Maybe I manufactured it, or maybe it was there. All I know is, Dave was the first guy I brought home that didn’t totally repel my favorite furry guy, and that was enough for me. Deal sealed.

I’m so incredibly thankful for the years I was able to spend with Oreo, and that he was in good health for the majority of his life. I’m going to miss him immensely and am having a hard time imagining life without him as a fixture. There’s also the fact that losing him feels a bit like a double blow: I’ve lost my first dog, along with another little piece of my mother — a symbol of the strong, beautiful connection we shared. But in the end, it comforts me knowing that I loved them both so fully.

I’d like to close by sharing a poem I wrote about Oreo in the Spring of 2000, when I was 14 years old. It’s a little silly, as most poems written by children are, but I think it’s the perfect memorial:

Knowing That You Were Mine

I remember

the first time I saw you —

your glowing eyes, 

filled with adventure, youth, curiosity

And how I held you —

your fragile, tiny body

so gently, as though holding an infant

I cradled you in my arms

knowing that you were mine.

You’d show your affection

with kisses; nuzzling me

And I would smile 

knowing that you were mine.

I brought you home

and put you down —

you were tentative at first

but your little legs could keep still no longer,

I played with you

knowing that you were mine.

The days passed,

and I grew fonder of you

Even though sometimes, 

it’s hard to clean up your messes

I love your warmth, 

to hug you, kiss you, love you

the perfect friend — my little dog,

It comforts me

knowing that you were mine.

Oreo as a wee puppy, 1999.

Oreo as a wee puppy, 1999.

I love you, old boy. You’ll be missed.

Lessons from Grandma (AKA, Newsflash: You’re Not the Center of the Universe!)

Last night, my grandma passed away.

For those of you who have been following along, this is my second great loss in 2013 (my mother, and best friend, died in July). Obviously, it’s been a difficult year for myself and my family. I haven’t written anything new for the occasion. If I did, I’d undoubtedly regale you with memories of museum visits, egg sandwiches, long walks and being spoiled to no end. And speaking of “no end,” that’s a perfect way to characterize the patience with my grandmother played “Sorry!” the board game with us, over and over and over. And over.

But this isn’t about that. This is a piece I wrote, about a year ago (November 2012), when I heard that my grandma had taken a turn. I was on the Peter Pan bus on the way to the hospital, feeling desperate — for the first time, fully aware of time and its inherent finitude. There was so much I wanted to ask her, and uncover about her past and our family. Unfortunately, she never grew strong again. I never was able to ask her all of my questions. But I’ll tell you what I was able to do: slow down.

I finally stopped running from country to country, life to life, looking for my great new adventure. I spent more time with my family, and less time thinking about myself. I bailed on moving to Buenos Aires with a friend (sorry Laura — but you know it was worth it!) and instead put time in at home.

I took a more patient tone with my mother, and apologized every time I failed. I listened a little bit more intently and said “I love you” at every opportunity. For the first time in my life, I was present.

And I am so incredibly thankful for that.

Grandma may never have been able to get oversized-flannel-and-ripped-jeans-8-year-old me to see the importance of table etiquette for all of the future dinner parties I’d be attending (“WHO still goes to dinner parties, Grandma?!” “You will, one day.” “Sounds boring — I will never care about this stuff!” I declared. Funny thing is, nowadays, dinner parties are just about my favorite thing. Oops!). But, practically on her deathbed, she was able to teach self-involved-26-year-old me this valuable lesson:

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Yesterday, I got the text I dreaded, “Your grandma has taken a turn for the worst. Your father is heading to the hospital now. I will let you know as soon as I know more.”

No. It’s far too soon for this. Only weeks ago, we lovingly spoke on the phone, with our ceremonious familiarity; her, totally lucid and reasonably healthy. Sure, she had her complaints; Parkinson’s has certainly taken its toll on her demeanor. She moves slower, sleeps longer and vocalizes her ailments more readily. But she’s not this — paranoid, disabled, hooked up to machines. She’s not failing. She can’t be failing. She can’t be losing her will. How could this have happened so quickly?

How could I not have been there more?

I had so many questions for her. It was only last Spring that I realized that this woman has lived a full life – grown up, gone to college, traveled the world, married, birthed (times three!), endured abuse, divorced, built a career path in a time when it was unheard of for a woman to do so, remarried… and undoubtedly a million things in between. And yet I had never seen her as anything other than my grandmother – a vessel for my love, stories and triumphs. She never missed one big event – she was at every graduation, every championship basketball game, every show. She even bothered to witness some of my minor achievements; choir concerts and art shows… supporting me in hobbies she knew deep down inside I’d never keep. My grandma let me shine, and she shined for me. She let it be about me, and I was happy with that relationship.

But now I’m getting older and realizing more and more that the world does not revolve around the young. We cater to the young, to be sure. But they are not the immensely interesting set – with their fumbling through life, trying desperately to figure out how to be extraordinary, surrounded by screaming peers trying to do the same. Who was I to take all of the attention and to never ask, “Grandma, what was it like when you went to college?” Selfish, selfish, selfish.

Now I want to know, and I want to know everything. In all of the years in my relationship with my grandmother, who was essentially the only grandparent I had growing up (after the age of 8), my best day with her was the day I finally asked her about her life. We were walking around West Hartford Center, choosing a place for lunch, and she was telling me a story from being young and having far too much control over her mother’s decisions. That was the moment it dawned on me that I really knew nothing about this woman. I knew my father’s history, vaguely. But I had never thought to ask my grandmother about the world that she knew. So I asked, timidly at first. As the stories began to roll, I asked, and I asked, carefully unraveling my fascination and adoration. I even told her, “I really don’t know anything about your life, Grandma.”

“You just have to ask.”

We spent the day talking, sorting through her attic, going through old photographs and documents, and getting to know each other as adults.

If she never speaks another lucid sentence, I will always have that day to cherish. That one day where I stepped outside my own selfishness and let my grandma shine, for once.

I want to give her more of those days. I want to fill her life with those days. As her health fades and her will is tested, I want her to feel loved and cared for and valued, not as a vessel, but as a full person.

I hope with every fiber in my being that I will have the chance to give that to my grandma, and frankly, to myself. If I am to preserve our family’s history, as I’ve set out to do, I need to know hers. She is the last living link to our Holocaust story. That is not what it is important right now, and I logically know this . . . but the weight of my waiting is so heavy I can hardly stand it.

No more waiting. The time is now and I know what I have to do. I am on a bus to CT and I am going straight to the hospital to see her. To tell her I love her. To tell her I want to know more about her, and to ask her if she wouldn’t mind sharing (if she’s feeling up to it). I will sit next to my beautiful, incomparably strong grandmother, lying in her hospital bed, and I will listen, to the woman who listened to me my whole life; the woman who asked for nothing more than an occasional visit or phone call, the woman who always showed up and was always proud…

I will let go of all of these words, and I will listen. 

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Rest in Peace, Barbara Clark. Jan 15 1929 – Dec 19 2013.