Saturday, April 28, 2012

Seizing the Moments

The last time I saw my dad healthy was on a big family vacation at Lake George in upstate New York.  As usual, we did a lot of hanging out on the trip ("binding"), which was great.  One of the activities we did during that time was to go to the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course, an intense rope course composed of stunts involving zip-lines, Tarzan swings, hanging nets, wobbly bridges, and suspended logs.  Through an Internet search of things to do in the area, I found information about the park and encouraged others in the family to sign up.  Unfortunately, I didn't pay much attention to the term "extreme" in the title beforehand. I also didn't realize just how high in the trees the majority of the course would be situated or how long the course was (we later found out it usually takes 3-4 hours to complete the course).  

When we got to the park, we were given instructions and a quick safety lesson, and then we lined up and started climbing.  I knew Dad was afraid of heights, but, as I said, I didn't think the course was going to be roughly twenty feet off the ground.  I was pretty nervous while we were on the course, both for my own sake and because of a few other people in the family whom I knew were struggling for various reasons, including Dad.  In the many athletic pursuits in which I had participated over the years with my dad, I had never felt such a sense of protectiveness towards him; he was the one who was typically having to assist me.  Dad was completely capable of managing the physical demands of the course - he was already in training for the Ironman triathlon at that point - but he was anxious about the distance to the ground.  He wasn't about to quit or even to admit that he was scared, though; that was a given.  As always, Dad stuck with it and finished, laughing and cutting up along the way.

No one could have possibly predicted what would be going on just 3 months later - or less than 3 months after that.  While Dad was sick, I often thought back to the time when I was watching him on the Adirondack course that day.  I could clearly remember feeling like I needed to safeguard him, to shield him or "spot him" on the bridges and ropes, maybe not as much from what was required of him along the course but more from his apprehensiveness; I didn't want him to be scared.  It was a weird kind of foreshadowing for the way we would have to guard and encourage him though the fear and instability during his fight with cancer.  

I often think about the last “this” or “that” for my dad – the last birthday card he sent me, the last time I talked to him on the phone, the last time we ran together, the last email and text he sent me.  Thinking about those things makes me so sad and, truth be told, afraid, almost to the point of being paranoid, because it leaves me wondering WHAT’S NEXT, what could be just around the corner at any point in time … I know that’s not productive, and probably not all that healthy, except that it’s part of this crazy grieving process, and I also know that it’s something I cannot avoid.

Thinking about “lasts” for my dad makes me think about the popular message Carpe Diem, seize the day.  I love the movie “Dead Poets Society” as much as the next person, but here’s what I’ve started to consider since my dad went on ahead:

People are always talking about living for the moment, enjoying each moment of each day, and trying to find joy in everything one does.  While I understand the sentiment behind this goal, I have to say that for me, the whole Carpe Diem thing doesn’t really fit.  Not all the time, and not for everything I do.  In fact, that message makes me feel like I’m falling short of something (Gratitude? Time? Perspective? Joy?) if I am not in a constant state of happiness, if I’m not smelling the roses every single second of every day.  I think it’s a good idea to have the perspective that today was a good day when one’s head hits the pillow at the end of each day, but, really, if I truly set out to live each day to its fullest, I wouldn’t be taking care of what needs to be done (going to work, occasionally cleaning the house, cooking supper, etc.).  It might make for an easier day that day, but on down the road, not so much.

I think it’s possible that a person who truly lives in such a seize-the-day state is faking it or lying, being reckless, and/or at least partially hovering close to some mental problems, in many cases.  From fighting traffic to balancing the checkbook to emptying the trash (don’t smell THOSE ROSES!) to scooping the litterbox, it’s inevitable that there are some things in life that aren’t all thatBut here’s the important part of this message:  THAT’S OK!  It doesn’t indicate weakness or failure or ingratitude or anything else.  Feeling the pain, complaining every once in a while about the grind, looking forward to the weekend doesn’t mean that one day we’ll be SORRY for anything.  

The author Dorothy Parker said, "I hate writing. I love having written."  That about sums up what I’m trying to say.  Life, and some of the things in it, are HARD sometimes.  And that’s ok to admit.  When I consider the whole “appreciate every minute of the day” thing, I think it’s so ironic that being expected to maintain that “I’m so lucky/everything is great” attitude 100% of the time just ends up being JUST ONE MORE THING on our to-do list, in the column of things that never gets to be crossed off, giving us something ELSE to worry about, to feel inadequate about, and to feel guilt over, a top-off of what could become an inevitable DOUBLE FAILURE.

I’m pretty sure that’s NOT the real message behind Carpe Diem.  I think we can and should choose to be grateful for what we have, make the most of every moment, and take a deep breath when things seem overwhelming.  I think we should appreciate the simple things in life, love one another, and do the best that we can in any situation.  I think we should Carpe whenever possible but that we shouldn’t feel guilty if that Carpe isn’t for the whole Diem.

I think time comes in two forms – Real Time, which involves the ins and outs, the struggles, the grind, the waiting in line, the countdown ‘til something else happens (5 p.m. Happy Hour, bedtime, vacation time, time to eat chocolate, etc.); and Good Time, the actual smelling-the-roses, savoring-the-coffee, basking-in-the-spender moments.  The spiritual times when we take it all in, whether we do so intentionally or accidentally.  It’s when we notice the magic, the goodness, the love, and the peace.  It’s counting your blessings, feeling lucky, no matter what the actual circumstances are.  It’s getting perspective.  Those are the moments we need to bookmark, to hoard in our memory banks for later, to seize, for just in case, for the future when we can look back and reflect on the goodness of life.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Say WHAT???

During the ten weeks my dad was sick and in the months since he went on ahead, I have been touched by the people who have reached out to me in some way in an attempt to comfort me in my grief.  Before my own very personal loss, I really had no idea what to say or do when someone I knew was grieving.  I tried, but I’m sure now that I missed the mark in at least some cases.  I didn’t know, as I am sure some people with whom I have come into contact since my own loss also don’t.

Every loss, every person who is grieving, and every situation is different, and so the words and actions that may be appropriate in one case may not in another.  However, I have learned that in general there are some things that are often said in an effort to comfort someone that might truly be comforting, some that can be improved upon, and some that are really not so effective.  

Someone told me at one point while Dad was sick after I had commented about the way he kept asking for candy that she’d heard that sugar “feeds” cancer cells.  “Maybe it’s the cancer asking for the candy, not your dad,” she said.  Armchair medical advice, either during the illness or after the fact: not helpful

A couple of months after Dad died, someone I know implied that she’d known from the time he was diagnosed that he wouldn’t survive, and then she added, “I kept wanting to tell you, but you were so caught up in the whole thing.”  Nope, not helpful – in fact, if you feel the need to say something like this that belittles or second-guesses the hope and/or the decisions made while someone’s loved one was ill, you should seriously consider ducking for the punch that is very likely coming your way.

One of the things that completely pisses me off now is when someone who has heard about my dad’s battle with brain cancer and subsequent death and then feels the need to tell me other stories about people with cancer.  “My aunt’s best friend had cancer too, and she really had a hard time with the chemo before she got better,” someone actually said to me recently.  Um, no, you do NOT want to get into a contest with me about suffering or loss or anything else related, and it is not at all comforting to tell me that the person you know survived what my dad could not.  It's not that I can't stand to hear about someone else who has or has had cancer; I am very well aware that this horrible disease is out there and that much of what my family went through wasn't unique.  I just don't appreciate it when this kind of information is presented to me in such a way that it seems like a one-up pissing contest.  

I’ve heard the statement “I know just how you feel” at least several dozen times over the past 18 months or so, and, for the record, this is a claim that cannot possibly be true.  Hell, the majority of the time, even I don’t know exactly how I feel in regards to my loss (Lost? Angry? Sad? Scared? Scarred? And the list goes on and on!), so there is no way in hell someone else can know!  A statement like that seems condescending in a way, like my grief and my feelings aren’t that important or special; it doesn’t feel supportive, at least not to me.  

Any “at least” statements that may be on the tip of your tongue should be squelched immediately:  It is NEVER a good idea to say “At least you had many years together,” “At least he didn’t suffer for too long,” or “At least you got to say goodbye.”  Doing so minimizes the loss and makes it seem like the person who is grieving isn’t grateful enough.  Most grievers realize the fact that IT COULD ALMOST ALWAYS HAVE BEEN WORSE, but we are also deeply aware that things could’ve turned out better.  We need to feel what we feel, not to have our emotions second-guessed or judged, even in an implied fashion.

Be strong” is another one that really gets to me, whether it is said to me or to someone else in an effort to comfort.  I keep wanting to say, “Why???”  I think it’s good NOT to be strong some of the time; I think that grief that isn’t let out WILL at some point become illness of some type.  When someone tells me to be strong, I feel like yet another burden or responsibility - one that I will not be able to live up to - has been thrust upon me, which, obviously, isn't helpful or comforting.

In my opinion, it’s also a good idea to tread lightly concerning issues of spirituality; it is not unusual for a person to question his or her belief system in the face of tragedy, and in some cases a message based on your convictions may not only not match up with the feelings of the bereaved but may actually invoke negative emotions, despite your intentions.  Here are some commonly used expressions and some examples of possible reactions to illustrate what I’m talking about:  

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” -- Um, WHAT??  So, following that logic, should we all be wishing to ALMOST be killed?  

“God may not give you what you want in life, but he will give you what you need." -- Did I NEED my loved one to suffer? To die?  

“People are only given what they are strong enough to handle.”  -- Does this mean if I were weaker my loved one would have survived?  Wow, talk about guilt and confusion!

Even the simple “It was God’s will” can be viewed as not that helpful or even dismissive and inflammatory; many people who have witnessed the suffering often involved in a terminal illness in particular may have trouble believing or accepting that their loved one’s pain and death were part of a plan.  Personally, when people have said, “He’s in a better place now” to me since my dad died, I still want to scream, “But he loved it here and I know he wanted to stay longer!”  Hearing this statement, I do NOT feel that my grief is being addressed; I feel like the person is implying that I should be glad my dad got sick and died.  Nope.  Not comforting, at least not to me.

Personally, I can only view statements like this as "bullshitty."

One thing often said to people who are grieving that I’ve mentioned before is “Time heals all wounds.”  I won’t get into my issues with that one again right now, but just suffice to say, nope, not helpful.  

These comments may serve to comfort some individuals, but they can also play a role in minimizing the loss and may even seem to suggest that the griever shouldn't be grieving.  This is not the time for a theological discussion or to try to convert someone over to your own beliefs.   In some cases, you may choose to follow the person’s lead in discussing religious beliefs, but, as I said, I suggest sensitivity and proceeding with extreme caution in any case.

Something that I learned during my dad’s illness is that, even as well-meaning as general offers for help likely are, saying things like “Let me know if you need anything” or “Keep me updated on his condition” are not really that helpful when the family is dealing with extreme stress and/or grief.  Statements like these actually put the burden on the person who is already overwhelmed with trying to cope with a crisis.  A concrete offer of help like “I’m going to the grocery store tomorrow and would love to pick up anything that’s on your list too” or an expression of concern that does not require a response on their part are much better.  During my time of need, a friend of mine text-messaged me daily to let me know she was thinking about me, and each time she added, “No need to respond,” which let me off the hook from having to thank her or to give her an update if I didn’t have time or the inclination to talk.   

Here’s one of the biggest blunders I’ve experienced in my own grief: having someone ignore my loss/pretend like it didn’t happen.  I think some people do this because they aren’t sure what to say, and in some cases they may think that bringing up the subject may upset the person who is grieving.  Take it from me: grief and loss are one huge elephant in the room; they may be able to be avoided, but they really cannot effectively be completely ignored.  In my opinion and experience, it’s better to say something that’s not perfectly phrased than to say nothing at all.  The person who is grieving is ALWAYS thinking about their loved one on some level, and it won’t make them sadder to have their loss acknowledged.  It very likely will, however, be upsetting or offensive to not have anything mentioned because the person will then feel like their loss has been forgotten or ignored or that you don't care about them or their loss. 

What’s MOST helpful if you knew the person who has died is to share a story or a memory about them.  In letting the person who is grieving know that their loved one left an impression on you if that is the case, you will let them know that their loss matters, that they are not alone, and that their loved one will live on in memories other than their own.

What should you say if you didn’t know the person who died or if you don’t have a story to share about their loved one? My recommendation is something empathetic, something that validates their loss, something that lets them know that they are not alone.  Any of these will work:
"You must miss him so much."
“I’ll always remember her ___ “ (laughing, smiling, helping others, etc.)
"I can't imagine how painful it must be to lose someone you love so much."
“I know she would be so proud of you.”
Or just the simple, “I’m sorry for your loss.”  

If nothing else comes to mind, it’s ok to say you don’t know what to say or that you will be thinking about them or something else non-specific like that.  It may not necessarily be original, but if it is something that is spoken with consideration and from the heart, it will serve its purpose.