Tag Archive for: grief and loss

Part One is here. 

This one’s for Birdie. 

Oh, Birdie. I don’t know you, but I know you. We’ve never met, but I hear you. 

Birdie left a comment on the previous post that I’ll excerpt. She wrote, in reference to seeking professional help to process the trauma she experienced as a child, “I can’t be helped and soul destroying because it means I am really messed up. I am so afraid of opening Pandora’s box and becoming unable to deal with what lies waiting. But I am tired. Tired of never being happy. Tired of always feeling anxious. Tired of always, always being afraid.”

Talk about ‘bringing the whole house down.’ That’s what compartmentalizing does to us. It makes us feel safe for the moment, but it ultimately destroys us from the inside out. Because when we hide those things away – either for later or for what we think is forever – we deprive ourselves of community and support. 

Human beings are social creatures. We are designed to live with each other. Our bodies respond on a molecular level to touch and interaction from each other – our adrenal glands activate, our neurological systems light up, we secrete hormones that make us feel safe and loved and happy when we let ourselves share experiences with other people (and animals – never underestimate the power of a soft, furry creature to snuggle up to). 

But when we wall of parts of our human experience, we relegate ourselves to holding what are often the most traumatic and painful things all by ourselves. It is akin to telling everyone that we would like their help carrying the 20lb. box of papers but that they can go home after that because we’ll figure out how to lug that 200lb. desk in the corner alone. Or not at all. There are so many reasons we do that – shame, denial, overwhelm. We hate that desk. Maybe we will just leave it there and never look at the corner where it sits, heavy and ugly. 

It is counterintuitive to expect ourselves to bear the heaviest weights alone. We can’t do it, no matter how much we want to or how hard we try. And we aren’t designed for it. But when we compartmentalize, that’s what we’re setting ourselves up for – isolation, solo work. 

So, Birdie, if you’re reading this, know that even as you wait for a therapist who is the right one to help you work through that pile of stuff you’ve hidden in the corner, you aren’t alone. While it’s important to find skilled counselors to help us dig through the deepest traumas, in the meantime, there are people out there who will help you support the weight of what you’ve got sitting there. Let them. Don’t worry about whether they’ll get something on their clothes. Don’t think about how it smells or what it looks like. Just know that, together, we can bear so much more weight than we think we can, and that there are people out there who care for you who would like nothing more than to hoist up a corner and take some of the pressure off of you. That’s how we’re designed. That’s what we do for each other. And while it takes some practice (often, years of practice), that feeling of relief that you get when others come along to help bear the load is the beginning of healing. 

Thank you for your courage.
You will get there from here. I know it. You won’t do it alone, but that’s the sweetest part of this. You’ll discover, along the way, which of your friends and family is really great at unpacking, cleaning up, and showing up. Let them. Don’t apologize. It’s how we’re designed. Embrace it and know that you were never supposed to hold all of this by yourself. 

It has been a challenging few weeks around here and I feel like I’m learning a lot about grief and emotional overwhelm. The first thing I’ve noticed is that they both feel very different to me as an adult than they did when I was a kid, but maybe that’s because I have a much stronger bedrock beneath my feet these days. Maybe knowing that the bills will get paid and there is someone to share the load of parenting and managing everyday things leaves me more space to just feel what I’m feeling. Or maybe being an adult means that I don’t have anyone telling me that my strong emotions make them uncomfortable or that I’m over-reacting, or if they do say that, I don’t give a shit.

My brother-in-law died quite suddenly at the beginning of July and even though I hadn’t seen him in several months, I was acutely aware of the loss. Like me, he married into Bubba’s family – a close-knit, fairly traditional clan – as someone who came from a very different background and family dynamic. We bonded over our “black-sheep-ness” and became allies early on. He was someone who always, always had my back, someone who was as sensitive and stubborn as I am, someone who always went to bat for the underdog. He was fiercely protective of me and my kids and Bubba’s sister and we had great fun together – often in the kitchen during family gatherings. Even in my grief, I marvel at the fact that our paths ever crossed, given the difference in our ages and the fact that he was Croatian, and I am grateful for the two decades I got to share with him on the planet.

A week or so later, I lost my beloved CB, my “mostly companion,” my shadow, my furry boyfriend. For more than a decade, he followed me through the house, prompted me to go for walks to clear my head, slept next to my side of the bed, scared strangers at the door, and cracked me up with his ridiculous dog antics. He was loyal and loving and when it came time to let him go, he sat with his head in my lap and trusted me implicitly. I still hear phantom toenail clicking along the hardwood floors and expect to see his smiling face at the door when I come home from the grocery store. Taking walks in the neighborhood without him is strange and disconcerting and I can’t bring myself to move his bed from its spot in the family room quite yet. I feel his presence in every room of my house and my grief is tempered by the absolute joy he brought to my life each and every day, by the years he was there to wake me up with positive energy.

Two days ago, my grandfather had a stroke and reminded everyone when he got to the hospital that he doesn’t want any lifesaving measures. He has lived a good, long life, outlived one of his children (my dad), two wives, and has struggled for a while to really feel as though he was thriving. He is my last remaining grandparent and my childhood memories of him are strong and clear. He is a gentle, funny man who was always ready to teach us something, whether it was a magic trick or how to use a belt sander. In my father’s last months, he was such a comfort and source of love for my dad and watching the two of them interact was incredibly healing for me.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine lost her husband in a freak car accident. He leaves behind two teenage children and my lovely friend who has been a rock for me more than once. I am overwhelmed. And I am thankful that I have learned a thing or two about grieving – at least my process for grieving.

I have learned that while it is often incredibly helpful to have friends and family around, ultimately I have to grieve in my own time in my own way. I have learned that grief – like life – is not a linear process, but one that requires me to circle back around to what feels like the same spot over and over again, but that each time I come back around, I have a slightly different perspective, an ever-so-advanced understanding of what I’m feeling and how it fits into the larger picture.

When CB died, I was home alone for a few days. Someone advised me to “go do something – don’t stay in the quiet house – distraction is good,” and while I know they meant well, I know from experience that distraction only leads to protracted grief. I came up with a sort of formula that consisted of deep, unapologetic dives into sadness followed by a period of mindless activity like laundry or cleaning out the fridge followed by social interaction. By allowing myself to really feel what I was feeling without descending into it so far that I couldn’t get out, I was able to feel the edges of my sadness and honor them without letting them define me. I follow this pattern over and over again without placing any sort of expectation on how long it will take me to “finish,” and the simple act of accepting my own feelings, whatever they might be, is an exercise in trusting myself.

I have also learned that it is important to surround myself with people who understand that grief is not a quick and dirty, check off the boxes kind of process. I need to surround myself with people who don’t find my strong emotions uncomfortable or unpleasant because that means I either have to stifle my true feelings or I end up emotionally taking care of them. I actively seek those who are willing to sit with me during those deep dives without trying to fix or abbreviate or deny my feelings. These are often people who have really grieved themselves, and they ‘get it.’

While there is a tendency to throw my hands up in the air and ask Why? as the tragedies pile on, I have learned that that is simply a distraction tactic that doesn’t serve me in the end. It doesn’t matter why. I am in the midst of sadness and overwhelm and the only way out is through. There was a time in my life when I would have wished for a magic wand or a time machine to transport me through these days quickly and efficiently, but these days I am content to take the feelings as they come and do my best to find the revelations that often accompany them. It can be painful and often overwhelming, but it is all part of this glorious, messy, beautiful, painful, honest life I choose to live.

I will admit to being altogether unsure of how to begin. My faithful companion of over a decade is failing and, while he may live for another several weeks, things are getting rough.

We were away for three weeks at the beginning of the summer and I knew at that point that he had a small tumor on his liver and a few more “bumps” on his skin in various places, but none of them were causing him any distress. Indeed, he was eating and drinking normally and he still raced for the front door with a shoe in his mouth when the doorbell rang. The house-sitter said that had I not told her about the tumors, she never would have known.

By the time we returned, two of the bumps on his neck and shoulder had grown significantly and within another day one of them burst open. The vet said that it was cancerous, but given his age and medical status, surgery was not likely to be helpful. Still, he does not show any signs of being in pain, so I dutifully change the bandage a couple of times a day and make sure it doesn’t get infected.

Over the past three weeks, he has both surprised me with his continued health and given me a scare or two. The tumor on his liver is now the size of a lemon, the one on his shoulder about the size of a lime. He has at least six more that I can feel along his back and head that grow larger every day. He is down to eating once a day and has less energy than before, but his eyes still sparkle when I come in the room and his tail wags. He makes it up the stairs to lie next to my side of the bed every night and perks up when I offer a walk. Last Thursday we had 15 people over for a backyard bbq and he made the rounds, poking everyone in the thigh with his nose and demanding to be petted with his tail thumping wildly. He slept for the rest of the night after making sure each and every guest acknowledged him.

Our walks are very different than they ever were. He also has some dementia, so it isn’t strange to have him stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk or street and look at me in utter confusion. Other times, he refuses to walk unless we go on his chosen route, but that route has increasingly become a simple straight line away from home and when I determine that we must turn back or I’ll be stuck carrying him, he plants his feet stubbornly and won’t move. The tumor on his neck means that I can’t tug on the leash to make him move, and today I was considering picking his 70# frame up and shoving him forward to get him moving. When I wrapped my arms around him, he sat down and licked my face. I waited a few minutes, coaxed sweetly, cursed the fact that I hadn’t thought to bring treats to entice him, and finally did the parent-of-a-toddler-at-Target move. I left. I dropped the leash, turned my back on him, and walked away (don’t worry – it was a quiet residential street and there were no cars around). After about 20 paces, I snuck a look over my shoulder and saw him slowly following me.

I don’t know how much longer we will go on like this. I have spoken with the vet who assures me that  I’ll “know” when it’s time, and I hope he’s right. At this point, he seems happy, he isn’t indicating that he is in any pain, and he is still interested in eating and drinking. I am learning to pay really close attention to his cues and slow down. If he wants to take 40 minutes to go around the block, sniffing and lying down in the cool grass for a bit, I’m game. If he would rather snack on peanut butter and bison treats than his kibble, I’m fine with that. And if I need to lie down on the floor with him and scratch his ears several times a day, it’s the least I can do for this magical creature who has loved me unquestioningly and wholeheartedly for eleven years or so. The fact that he continues to just be who he is and look to me for comfort when he needs it is all the encouragement I need to drop what I’m doing and just hang out.

I am having a little bit of seller’s remorse. I’m having a little bit of buyer’s

remorse. I know that’s perfectly typical when you sell or buy a house, and I’m
trying to keep that in mind as I navigate these difficult emotions.

At first I was caught up in the excitement of finding our new home, so it wasn’t until I started really working hard to get our current home ready to put on the market that I began feeling a little stressed.

The first issues I had, actually, were panicky feelings about the damage we’ve done to this house over the years. The dinged walls, stains on the carpets, places where the kids took a Sharpie to a cupboard door or a pen to the window casing – those all became magnified in my head and seemed like total deal-breakers. The remembrances of septic tank alarms in the middle of the night and standing water in the backyard after weeks of solid rain – those things seemed insurmountable.

And then the listing agent came through the house with her critical eye and tucked all of my favorite things away.   Down came my electric tea kettle – stashed in the cupboard.  I had to pack the fragile blown Easter eggs the girls made one year in school for fear they would break if I simply put them in a drawer and the agent was certain they ought not to be on display.

“It shouldn’t look like you live here.  It should look like someone lives here – someone generic and random, not you. No personal photos. No personalized towels or jewelry, toothbrushes on the counters or worn blankies on the kids’ beds.”

I feel like I live in a model home. And not in a good way.

One day before the Open House, the agent was here with a rag and some cabinet cleaner wiping down all of my kitchen cabinets and scrubbing the wooden pillars on the deck back to white.  She mopped the dog prints off of the front door and asked if we had any touch-up paint for a few spots where the kids had missed the keyhole in their rush to get inside.

She assured me this is what she does with all of her clients and that I shouldn’t feel bad about her nit-picking.

She told me the house looks beautiful and it will show well.

And still, I feel like I am only visiting this place.  This lovely house that has been my home for over ten years.  This place we moved to before Lola was born. The only house she has ever known.

After a busy weekend of showing the house and nine families coming through for Sunday’s Open House, I collapsed in a lawn chair in the backyard yesterday for a few quiet minutes and looked around.

The beds are full of fresh barkdust – still red and cedar-scented.  The flowers the girls and I planted to add some color are all standing tall in their pots, glorious after a few days of warm sunshine.  The deck and front walk are newly pressure-washed and look lighter and fresher than I’ve ever seen them, and the outdoor kitchen is staged to look like Bubba’s heading around the corner with some thick steaks to lay on the BBQ.  This place is gorgeous. This place is home.

Why am I leaving?

I closed my eyes and picture the new house, warm and inviting with hardwoods and sturdy radiators in every room.  The magnolia tree in the front yard was blooming the last time I was there and sunlight was streaming through the leaded glass windows.

I forced myself to think back to last Thursday night when I had to pick Eve up from cross-country in the rain.  Lola and I reluctantly climbed into the car at 4:15 for the trek across the lake and a few minutes later I realized this was likely to be a long journey.  It took us the full 45 minutes to reach Eve’s school to pick her up at 5:00 and the first thing she said when she got in the car, her ponytail dripping steadily into the hood of her sweatshirt, was, “I’m starving!”

We drove back across the lake in the now-rush-hour traffic in the rain and arrived home after 6:00.

This is why I’m leaving.

The new house is 10 minutes’ drive from the school.  I could have been there and back inside

of a half an hour and Eve could have been warm and dry with her belly full by 6pm. 

But I still asked myself, “Am I doing the right thing?’

Of course it is an entirely moot point at this juncture.  We have bought the other house. Closed the deal.  Shelled out the money and the check has been cashed.

Besides that, it’s not “I,” it’s “we.” Bubba signed those papers, too. He looked at the house and fell in love, too. He agreed that moving across the lake was the right thing to do, too.

But I am still compelled to ask, and so I did.

Fortunately, I was able to recall asking myself the same question when we bought this house. And frequently over the years as we were forced to install an expensive sump pump and repair the septic tank and grieve over cats lost to coyotes who roamed the neighborhood, I had occasion to ask again.

As I sat there in the backyard looking back at the beautiful house we live in, I felt good. Ultimately, questions, concerns and all, we took this place and made it in to a home.  We put our O’Driscoll stamp

on it – expanding the outdoor living areas to fit the way we live and interact with friends and family and using every inch of space to enjoy our lives together.  In the end, I feel good that we will all grieve as we move on, that we are all so attached to this place where Lola took her first steps and Eve taught herself to ride a bike, this home where Bubba and I have played a million games of Scrabble and eaten
some of the most delicious meals of our lives.  We have spent evenings shooting baskets with the girls and wicked winters huddled inside near the fireplace when the power went out. We have cleaned up vomit at midnight and laughed until we nearly peed ourselves here.  We have barbecued with neighbors and walked their children to the bus stop and received dinners made with love when Bubba was recovering from surgery.  The girls have gone from making sandcastles and mud pies in the back yard to skateboarding and painting each other’s nails on the deck.  We came in to this place a family of
three with a cat and are leaving as a family of four with a dog, a cat, two hamsters and a fish, richer for our experiences, older and wiser, and ready to move forward to whatever adventures await us next. 

These thoughts gave me hope that no matter where we end up, we will manage to make a home for ourselves that reflects who we are as a family and as individuals.  And while the stage may be different and we may wish we could take some parts of this place with us, it will be exciting to create new spaces where we can live and laugh and play together.  This house, this home, holds a special place in all of our hearts and it will be hard to not be here anymore. It will be difficult to say good-bye.  But like Bubba says, “Once you’ve made a decision, it’s the right one,” and so we will look forward to making our newhouse in the city a home for us as we feel the bittersweet sadness that comes with saying good-bye to this one.