Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Duck and the Elephant

In one of the "Peanuts" comic strips, Lucy is in her "The Doctor is IN" booth and Charlie Brown says "Some days I'm up, and the next days I'm down."  Lucy replies, "Like an emotional roller coaster, huh?  Do you ever feel like you're on a roller coaster, Charlie Brown?" to which he responds, "How about bumper cars?"

I was recently talking to someone else who is grieving after the death of someone she loved, and the topic of support systems came up.  We discussed how we aren't sure how respond to questions like "How are you?" when we feel like we are expected to say "Fine."  She said on days when she is really not doing well that when she is asked that question she really, really just wants to say "Shitty - but thanks for asking."  

So often, especially here in the South, we tend to throw out questions or comments in a casual, just-in-passing way, oftentimes not even pausing to hear the other person's response.  It's a greeting, really, not a check-up on someone's physical or emotional health.  I used to think it was catchy and clever the way financial guru Dave Ramsey always responded "Better than I deserve" when a caller on his radio talk show asked him how he was, but now I think it's disingenuous and superficial.  Most of the time I don't even like to be asked that question because I feel like I am forced to be at least somewhat deceitful, pushed into discussing the weather or vacation plans when there is a giant elephant in the room.  So here it is:  I am like a duck, calm on the surface and paddling like hell underneath.  

I have learned that everyone experiences and copes with grief differently but that, even as different as situations causing the grief can be, we all need support as we are dealing with one of the most (or maybe THE most) difficult things we have ever faced.  It's hard to know what to say, I know, but actually it's not a situation that calls for advice or answers.  There are lots of resources out there about what to do to help support someone who has suffered a loss, like this info on the American Cancer Society's website:

Mostly, though, from my perspective, it's good for others to just check in, to let me talk about my dad, and to sometimes help me to think about something other than that elephant.  I've seen a picture of a "Support Wheel" with each spoke of the wheel representing one of the roles that a person can play in helping someone who is grieving, including serving as "Someone I can always count on," "Someone who makes me laugh," "Someone I can talk about my feelings with," and "Someone who will just listen."  All are very valuable and appreciated.  I am so very grateful for the people in my life right now who are helping me as I try to find my way.  They let me talk, vent, and cry, or sit on the periphery if that's all I can do at the time.  They seem to know that I need to know that people care, that those who knew my dad remember him, that I am not totally crazy even though I feel that way at times.  They let me put away the broom I sometimes use to sweep away the pain so I don't have to always hide what I am feeling.  Even if they aren't in the bumper car with me, they let me know that it's ok that I'm not "fine."

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath.  When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against 
his chest.  He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over.  Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb.  But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
~from the poem "Michiko Dead" in the book The Great Fires, by Jack Gilbert

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Details - Hoarding Memories

I always say that if any kind of crime happens on my watch, I hope the cops and the lawyers aren't counting on me to be an accurate witness.  I usually either don't notice the details of what's going on around me or I don't remember them, but either way, I would be the world's worst witness in many situations.  

I remember lots of details from while my dad was sick though, and at this point the events of that time play out in my brain like an old-timey movie.  Some parts of it are crystal clear with very vivid details, some have more of a blurry or grainy quality to them, and during other parts the screen just shows several frames of blackness in a sequence.  Some of the film is very sad to watch.  Some of it brings tears to my eyes out of happiness, though, not sadness.  I'm not sure if the parts that are blacked out are better off left missing or should be recovered; for now, I am busy processing the other frames.

One thing that we were lucky to have during the time that Dad was sick was the awareness that some moments in the time we spent with him could likely be ones we needed to hold in our memories forever, like one day in early December when I was driving the car with him in the passenger seat on our way to get a large Diet Coke with extra ice from Sonic for him.  It began to snow a lot, and he started belting out the song "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." Dad was very musically gifted and had a beautiful voice, and, listening to him as the snowflakes barrelled into the car's windshield as we drove down the windy two-lane road that day, I remember thinking "I am going to remember this forever."  At that point, I thought we would have him for at least a couple more years instead of just a few more weeks, but I did know at the time that the memories needed to be hoarded just in case.

It would be so easy to look back at what wasn’t handled exactly right during Dad's illness, but, following his example, I want to look more at and remember the things that happened that were right.  I want to be sure that I remember him as he was during my whole life, not just during the ten weeks that he was battling cancer.  I want to be certain that the many lessons he taught me are always part of who I am and that I have those readily available to share with my children, my nieces, my nephew, and other generations to come.  I want to remember every wrinkle on his face, his smile, his voice, his hands, his laugh, his smell, his walk, his voice, everything ... This time, I hope I noticed all of the details, and I really hope I remember.

"Understanding grief may only come when we surrender:  surrender our need to compare our grief, surrender our self-critical judgments, and surrender our need to completely understand.  Surrender is not the same as resignation; surrendering to the unknowable mystery is a courageous choice, an act of faith, a trust in ourselves."  
-- Alan D. Wolfelt

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Things I've Had to Learn

This sounds kind of like a quote from a Dr. Seuss book, but it's not:  The things I've had to learn over the past 8 months could fill at least a bookshelf, and maybe even a library.  Some of the lessons have come from things I have read or have been told, but the majority of them have come from what I have had to do or see and the mental processing that I have had and am continuing to do to do as a result.

Here are a few:
*Grief and mourning are not the same thing.  Very simply put - grief is more internal, at least initially (thinking about the loss, etc.), and mourning is more external (like crying).  One must do both to adequately adjust to a loss.   

Oftentimes in our society, after the funeral, people are encouraged to move on, to be done with mourning.  Advice like "keep a stiff upper lip;" "be strong;" and "stay busy!" is offered as an attempt to help, but actually doing these things only serves to make the person who is grieving feel isolated, abnormal, or like a burden to others as emotions are bottled up instead of expressed.

*Grief isn't just about emotions; it involves state of mind and can also include physical reactions that can affect the body such as fatigue, insomnia, physical pain (backaches, headaches, stomachaches, etc.), panic attacks, and anxiety.

*In cases when a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, that person and those around him can experience anticipatory grief before the death occurs.  Any or all of the behaviors and emotions that are associated with grief can be experienced during this time, including bargaining, anger, denial, sadness, and acceptance.  (more about this on a personal level later)

*Even when grief seems to be under control, the intense feelings associated with loss can come back at any time.  The things that bring about these feelings are sometimes referred to as "triggers" and can result in "upsurges" of grief.  Things like holidays, anniversaries, other important events (graduation, birth of a child, etc.), coming across personal effects, music, or familiar smells can cause memories and associated feelings of loss to resurface.

*Although there are some commonalities in the grieving process when a loss is suffered, each person's grief process is unique.  One's grief can be influenced by things such as the relationship with the person who passed away, the circumstances of the death, the ritual or funeral experience, the people in one's life and support that is or isn't offered, personality, culture, religion, background, other co-existing stressors, past experience with death or loss (if any), and overall mental and physical health.  I was told early in my dad's illness that it's important to recognize that even people in the same family can experience and cope with the same crisis differently, and I found this to be very true.  If a family in crisis is lucky, like mine was, each person in the family is able to use his or her strengths, experience, and knowledge in a productive way to propel the family as a whole towards their common goal.  As well, each person has to find his or her own way of coping, and of grieving, based on things that are personal to each individual.

*Loss can change people for the better or the worse - or sometimes just into someone different.  More on my personal perspective about this later ...

*Grief is "heart-based", not "head-based." One cannot rationally think one's way through grief.  This is a tricky one for me; I much prefer to think, to identify a problem and then set goals to fix it.  This is the first time in my life that I faced a challenge that I knew there was not a way out of, a way to fix, no matter what I did.  Not at all a good feeling, and something I am still trying to reconcile.  

*For as many questions that are answered as one grieves, so are as many or more brought up to be asked.  Part of getting past the tears, the anger, the pain, and the shock must be accepting that there are questions to which there really is no answer.  I see that, but I can't really accept it yet.