Monday, August 27, 2012
"Grief is a love story told backwards."
Many times in the past when I've been out running and have ended up on a two-lane road without much traffic, I've often counted the telephone poles along the way to mark both the time and the distance covered.
Similarly, whenever I’ve run a long race like a marathon, I’ve found that it helps me mentally to adjust the way I think of the miles ahead so that the numbers stay small from the halfway point on. For example, at the 15-mile mark, I say to myself, “I only have 11 miles to go” instead of saying “I’ve already run 15 miles.” Again, it’s a mental game as much as it is a physical challenge, and it often comes down to perspective. I'm sure I learned that trick from my dad on one of our many runs together when I was growing up, and I've realized its value many times over the years.
Another thing at which my dad excelled (besides running) was calculating things in his head, "running the numbers" as I've heard it called. I'm pretty sure he developed that skill in the distant past by thinking about time/speed/distance while he was out on long runs. For as long as I can remember, he could work out in a matter of seconds just how fast each part of a race needed to be run in order for the finish-time goal to be achieved. Doing "mental math" was definitely a strong suit for him, and, at some point, this ability became a talent that furthered his career in addition to making him a better athlete and a valued coach.
Lately I've been thinking about how much I wish I could know when the pain of the grief I've been experiencing since my dad's death will lessen; I wish I could mark the time or distance covered or have some way to count down how much further I have to go before it gets any better. I wish I could do the "mental math" so I could know when I will be able to celebrate my dad more and mourn him less, but I'm just not sure how to get to that point.
As stabilizing as it was to have my dad in my life, it seems like his death has had the opposite effect on me. I've never before had to work to have a glass-half-full perspective, but that's what has resulted from this loss. Through all of the emotions of this grief, though, I've not lost sight of the fact that if not for the strength and the perspective and the inner joy given to me by my dad, I might not stand a chance at coming out on the other side intact. Before Dad went on ahead, when people who knew me met my parents for the first time, I felt like they got a good look at whom I was and how I got to where I was. Now, though, with half of the equation not on site, I feel like it's much harder to know who I am, even knowing the stories that I can tell of my dad, maybe even for me: it's like an identity-crisis of sorts, but not one that can be solved by changing careers or buying a sports car. It's a point of no return that is resulting in me becoming a changed person, albeit not per my choice. Before I was this up-close to it, I never saw grief as this complicated or this powerfully altering.
For me, the first year after my dad's death was full of tears, shock, anger, disbelief, confusion, and more tears. There was lots of auto-piloting, lots of just getting through it, and lots of telling myself that the next day would be better, even though I wasn't always sure that it would seem that way. In many ways and for many reasons, I am finding this second year to be even more challenging. The trauma isn't over: the further out we get from the last time my dad was here on earth with me and the longer I have had to go without him, the more I miss him, but the less I feel that other people understand and feel like tolerating my grief. It's so troubling the way this grief often feels so indulgent and how it feels so - for lack of a better word - mopey much of the time to think about or talk about him, even though he is so frequently still on my mind. It feels abnormal to still be this sad, this angry, and to still feel as shocked as I do when the realization hits me again and again that he's gone.
"For some people, the second year after a major loss is even more profoundly painful than the first. The reason for this is that the fog and blur of the first year has started to lift. Deep and intense pain reveals itself. Do not be afraid if this happens. Continue to ride the waves of grief, breathing into it, and letting the process unfold as it needs to." ~Ashley David Bush, in Transcending Loss: Understanding the Lifelong Impact of Grief and How to Make It Meaningful
When I think about how long I’ve been without my dad, I wish I could count backwards as I moved ahead towards something that would matter; I wish I could think of some mind-game or strategy that would somehow help me feel better. When I think about how long this loss will hurt this badly, I wish I could predict. Being about to count backwards would allow me to focus on a goal, to breathe through the pain like Lamaze breathing during childbirth. But that's not what we have in grief, and perhaps that's the toughest part of all.
When I think about grief and those five stages everyone talks about, I'm just not sure where I am in all that. They all seem so swirled together. I can't really check off any of them on the list, not even denial (the "first" one!). I recently read about another model of grief - J. William Worden's Four Tasks of Grief - in hopes that there'd be something there about which I could say "Been there, done that." He says there are four tasks (or "Things To Do") in the grief process:
Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss. - This sounds a lot like Kubler-Ross's model, except that Worden says that "healing" begins with acceptance instead of listing acceptance at the end of the stages in the process. He suggests this can be done through funeral and/or memorial rituals like viewing the body or tending to the grave.
As I've mentioned, I don't think the term healing can be applied to grieving the loss of a loved one. Like the cancer that my dad had, there is no cure for grief. Perhaps "mitigating" is a better term for what we should hope for in this process.
Task 2: Process your grief and pain. -Worden points out that there are lots of different ways of doing this. He suggests that it is ok to process grief through action instead of just by thought, if the action is productive in moving through one's grief instead of serving to avoid it.
I'm not sure if I can put a check-mark beside this one or not ...
Task 3: Adjust to the world without your loved one in it. - Again, this can be done in different ways by different people. Worden gives examples of meeting this challenge by doing things like celebrating holidays or getting through important events despite the fact that our loved one isn't able to be there with us.
My family and I have done some of this, like taking family vacations since Dad went on ahead, but I will admit that there are some things that I still haven't "adjusted," like taking his cell phone number out of my list of Contacts on my phone. (Maybe I can get partial credit on this one ...)
Task 4: Find a way to maintain a connection to the person who died while embarking on your own life.
Again, I think this can vary from person to person, even within the same family. Some people like to talk about the loved one they've lost; others don't. Some (like me) find it comforting to write. Some may participate in things like volunteer work in honor of their loved one. Whatever the path we choose, though, I think we'll know it's right for us personally if it helps us to feel better (connected), even if just a little bit. I think I get credit for this one; I just hope it's helping me also to move forward (not "on" - I hate thinking about "moving on" without my dad!). Sometimes I think writing about my dad and grief is adding to the stagnancy of my grief, but then a few days go by and I can't quiet the calling to jot down my thoughts about what's going on in my head or in my heart.
I'm still not sure what the grief process is really about - maybe learning how to still have a connection to my dad, maybe it's convincing myself that I can go on without the ongoing support of one of the people who made me who I am, maybe it's accepting that I have no control but yet I still have to live the best life that I can to honor my dad and others I love.