Friday, November 28, 2014

The Grief Critic

In the 3 years and 4 months so far of this death tsunami I'm living since losing my husband, there is something I have learned about other people. Sometimes they suck. A lot.

When it comes to living with the death of your partner or spouse, I have found that there are two kinds of people I deal with: the supporter, and the critic. Technically, there is a third type of person, and that would be the "disappearing magic trick", but since those people sprint so fast out of your life and choose to handle the death of your partner by ignoring and abandoning you forever, I won't count them here because I am not actually dealing with them at all. They are gone. So, that leaves us with the supporter and the critic. The supporters are those wonderful and often unexpected friends and family members, who, although they might not fully understand or comprehend what you are going through, do their best to sit with you inside your pain and to get on board with how you are coping and choosing to live your life. The supporters are there for you, they continue to be there for you well after the initial funeral and first few months period, and they let you be yourself; which means being able to talk about the person who died without them staring at you like you are some sort of circus freak. Supporters are very often people that you weren't even very close with before your person died, but who jumped onto the "I am here for you now" train after your world changed forever. Supporters are wonderful. They are also quite rare.

The more common type of person that appears over and over again in this tsunami, would be the grief critic. They come in all shapes and sizes; family members, friends, acquaintances, Facebook "friends", co-workers and colleagues, total strangers, and more. You cannot get away from the grief critics. They are everywhere, and they seem to multiply and grow like cockroaches. Ah yes, the grief critic will show up without warning, uninvited, spewing their opinions and their forced thoughts about your life down your throat. The most ironic part about the grief critic is that they all have one thing in common, every single time: They have not been through this themselves. They have never lost a partner / spouse to death. Most grief critics are married, single (which is totally different than being widowed, even though they like to act as if it's the same), or divorced. Now, some divorced people absolutely love nothing more than to inform you how it is the same thing exactly to be divorced as to be widowed, and they will insist upon it and then continue to say more hurtful things. (but that's a whole other blog for a whole other time, really) Bottom line is, grief critics usually have no basis whatsoever for what they speak, and they usually have little clue what they are talking about.

Grief critics will say things such as: You really need to move on / get over this now. - Don't you think it's time you started dating again? (or) Don't you think it's a bit too soon to be dating again? - Maybe you should take these pictures down of him/her. - You shouldn't make any big decisions in the first year after the death. - You need to move. - You need a change of scenery. - Don't be so negative. Focus on the things you do have. BE GRATEFUL. - I think it's time you got rid of his / her things. - You need to stop living in the past. - You should see a therapist / get on some medication. - Why are you still seeing that therapist / taking that medication? - You need to stop talking about him / her so much. It's depressing. - You should just be happy. Life is too short not to be happy. 

In the first few months or even year of this hell, I was much too fragile and scared and broken to take on these types of people. Usually, when things like this were said to me in the beginning, I would get very hurt by it, run to my counselor and cry about it, and genuinely ask her why are people so mean and cruel and with little compassion or empathy. As time went on, however, my sadness turned into anger, and then eventually, into not really caring much. Now, I recognize these grief critics far sooner, and I dont usually have a problem letting them go from my life. It still hurts, but it has become easier for me to realize that person and their comments are no good for me.

The grief critic has one comment that I will never truly understand, however. A common judgment or comment from most critics comes in the form of them suggesting that perhaps I shouldn't hang out with my new widowed friends so much, or perhaps I should stop going to Camp Widow, or maybe maybe that isn't the best way for me to "get better" - because as we all know, losing your spouse to death is very much like the flu. In fact, it's the exact same thing. (sarcasm alert)

Why on earth would anyone try and stop me or other widowed people, from being around other people who share our experiences? To me, being around others and creating bonds with them through our grief makes total sense. If you're an alcoholic, you go to AA meetings and talk with other people who are a lot like you are and who understand. If you are going through a divorce, your friends who are also going through that experience will get it. When you are married, you usually hang out with a lot of other couples. If you have kids, you hang out with other couples who are parents. Why is this any different? Why would anyone try to take away or critique the one thing in my life that gives me hope and inspiration? And it's not just Camp Widow they want to judge. It's the very idea that I now have a lot of widowed friends in my life. Again, there are many people who understand this and are hugely supportive of it. But the grief critics like to ask in their condescending tone: You doing that camp thing again? You going out tonight with your widow people? Isn't that depressing? Do you all sit around together and cry? 

No, we don't, you idiot. And sitting here talking to your judgmental ass is a hell of a lot more depressing than being with my friends who lift me up, understand my constant changing emotions, and give me hope that I can survive this and even feel joy again. Yes, there is crying. There is also tons of laughter, and my widowed friends are some of the strongest, most incredible, compassionate, empathetic, beautiful, inspirational people I have ever met. So when you sit there and talk to me in that condescending voice when I try and tell you that Im writing a book about my grief, or that Im having dinner with widowed people, or that I am presenting my comedic presentation again at Camp Widow - you are not only insulting me, you are insulting my friends. These are the people that have been beside me every horrible and painful step, while you were home having an ordinary night with your husband who is still alive. These are people that matter to me, and this is the life that I never asked for, but that I now have. And in this life, I get to choose who I spend my time with. So either get on board the supportive train, or get off at the next stop, because I have no time for critics.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Surviving Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving Mike and I spent together in 1999, we went out for Indian food. We thought it would be a lark to be totally untraditional, and we did that together for a few years until we moved to Hawaii. Once we got here we started hosting the holiday ourselves with various groups of family and friends over the years. I have a lot of fond memories of it all. But in truth, Mike and I together were never super big on any of the holiday kaboozle. We could take it or leave it…and some years, we did leave it, preferring instead to take it easy. Those were good years too.

Honestly I can’t believe another year has gone by. Today is my second Thanksgiving without him. If not for the hoo-hah surrounding the holiday season, on TV, in stores, I probably could just very well ignore the whole thing. Last year, I did. Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, as much as I could avoid it, I did not mark either Thanksgiving or Christmas really at all. I couldn’t bear any sort of special meal or event with that empty chair staring at me.

But here we are again. And things have changed during this past year. I can’t avoid the fact that relationships have shifted, new people are in my life, and I have new projects and responsibilities. So while I’m not planning anything big, I will be stopping by a couple of family and friends to mark the day…but more for them, not for me. I find myself wanting to be supportive of the relationships around me. So that’s my priority this year. And I’m going to hope there won’t be that empty chair staring at me.

Honestly, I’m just glad I survived this year. I can’t help but think, as I’m writing this, of the first Thanksgiving, as we are told the story. That group of Pilgrims who celebrated having enough crops to survive the coming winter of 1621, thanks to the help from the Native Americans. So many Pilgrims had died the year before without enough food. So that first year, they were essentially celebrating survival.

This year, I can say that maybe, a little, I find myself in a similar state of mind. I am grateful I have enough food, and a roof over my head. So many widows I know struggle with even these basic necessities after the loss of their spouses. I am also grateful for the friends and family, my therapist, and fellow widows and widowers who have stood by me during these 21 months without Mike - they taught me the resources and tools I needed to make it, much like that local tribe did so long ago. I am grateful…yes, I really am grateful, that I have survived. 

And that is really saying a lot, because in the beginning after he died I didn’t much care whether I did or not. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Read Patiently. There is an Actual Point~

It's turned out, for me, to be all about the hair.  

I didn't intend it to play out like this; it just has.

Shortly after Chuck died, I cut my hair off to the scalp.  Short, short, short.  First scissors then a razor.  It was done in a violent manner, in a way that I hoped would allow me to release some of the devastating pain of his forever gone-ness.  It didn't matter to me what it looked like.  I had no interest in my appearance in any case and somewhere inside of me was the thought that maybe by the time it grew out long again, the grief would be less.

In the 19 months since I was left behind, my hair has grown out a bit.  I trimmed it at one point, not even an inch, and by now I'd guess it's probably below my ears.  I say probably because the proper length doesn't show since I had it dredded into what I call Lovelocs.   My hair is longer than it looks but it's a mess and I kind of look like Medusa unless I wear a scarf to hold it back.  Which I do for now and will until the dreds grow into what they're supposed to look like.   Again...and still...I don't really care what it looks like because there is an intent behind it.

I sat for 9 hours to get my dreds in and not all of my hair was long enough at the time so I'm still working on the bottom layers.   Dreds can take up to 4 months to even begin to look the way they're supposed to and they require quite a bit of upkeep.  Every couple days (more often if I feel inspired), stray hair must be woven into already established locs, and end pieces must be locked into place.  I use a small latchhook with an eye on it for weaving, and my fingertips go numb at times from the tearing and backcombing that forms the locs.   Sometimes my hair looks like I hope it's supposed to look like but mostly not, at the moment.  Which is also okay with me.

All of which is to say, my hair is reflective of my life.  My hair is wild and sticks up in places and is unraveled daily and must be woven into being again.  It must be pulled and torn and tightened and locked into place.  Doing all of this is tiring to my arms as I reach behind my head or hold them over top, doing what must be done to attain what it is I want to attain.   I work at it diligently for focused amounts of time then take a break and come back to it when I feel inspired once again.

I'm a mess emotionally.  I freely admit that.  I still struggle with the shock of the man I love being dead and me being without him.  I struggle with that knowledge during the day and always at night.  Life without him is exhausting and un-nerving and I'm completely uninspired to do anything other than survive.  I feel untethered and at odds with myself and those around me.  Working on my hair, whether harshly backcombing it and tearing it into separate pieces, or more calmly weaving stray hairs into the locs;  it describes me, and my life, fairly accurately as I stumble through this grief into a new, and undesired, world.

Maybe, by the time my Lovelocs develop fully, my life will feel more sane.  Maybe I'll feel more sane.  Meanwhile,  working on them has become a meditation for me.  Daily, loc by loc.  Working on one, then another.   It takes time, and patience, and repetition and determination and due diligence and it isn't easy.

Grief.  Sadness.  Missing-ness.  Creating a new life without him.  And...Lovelocs...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Longer than...


First, thanks to Chris for filling in while I dealt with preparing for and sitting 3 finals in 4 days. 

Of course, while I was meant to be studying, I came to the realisation of something.

Come June 18th 2015, Ian will have been gone longer than we had known each other - three years and four days versus three years and three days.

I have no idea why this realisation hit.  I don't think I was doing anything to do with calendars or even thinking about next year. I think I was picking up wayward spaghetti strands from under John's chair. The realisation seemed to come out of nowhere.

And although a sad realisation, and that that much time has passed doesn't feel real, it was also positive.

It felt like a threshold.

I've been able to move some more of Ian's clothes out of the house, donating them to a shelter. 

I've been able to think about taking his clothes out of my walk-in closet and packing them away.

I feel like I'm now more likely to tell new acquaintances that I'm single, not a widow. I'm single because I'm a widow, but 'single' seems to be more forward in how I identify myself than 'widow'.   

I feel somewhat lighter.  I don't know if it's because I feel like a burden's lifted, or if it's because I'm now stronger and the weight is therefore not as difficult to carry as it was before.

I've still been having sad or anxious times, but they don't seem to last as long, they seem to don't go as deep. 

I've always been able to look ahead into the future in terms of what I'll do, how I'll survive, but they've been practical considerations.  Job and income, schooling for John and so forth. 

There's a more positive vibe in the air as I move to 2015. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Cost of Grief

my older brother, Dennis
I have been here in Indiana for over a week. My days have been quiet, but they are about to get much busier, with family and friends taking time off work in preparation for Thanksgiving. My social calendar, which, to this point, has been fairly empty, will soon be filled with scheduled meet ups and events.

I am not sure I'm ready. I find it difficult to spend time with people, even those who know me well. Regular conversation feels pointless. It is hard to make chit-chat. I can only pretend to be light and happy for so long before I need to retreat, somewhere, in search of a bit of space.

I have spent most of my time, here, with my brother and his two little dogs. These dogs were his constant companions when he was sick three years ago, on several litres of oxygen, and unable to walk beyond a few steps, having waited almost a year for a lung transplant.  

He received that transplant on his 60th birthday. Best present, ever, the gift of life.

My brother’s son died 10 years ago, at the age of 23, so he knows a bit about this thing called grief. Christopher was a sensitive young soul who lived life to the extreme. He didn’t get to find his way through his pain or to grow out of his risky behaviour. He died before he could grow up. Our family has weathered many tragedies, but Chris’ death was, by far, the worst.

People surrounded my brother and his children at the funeral and for a few weeks afterward. Then, before long, the rest of us went back to our daily lives. I felt sad, when I thought of him, but I didn’t reach out to my brother or my niece and nephew, often. I had my own son, who was experimenting with risk, himself, and I was so afraid that it could happen to him. I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything at all.  I left them on their own to deal with the emptiness and grief.

It is strange, this living with loss. Our world has shifted on its axle, throwing everything into question, but others return to their routines and move through their days as if nothing has changed. Fortunately I have people around me who are not afraid to speak my husband’s name. They miss him, too. They recognise that five months is nothing at all in this long journey, and they allow me the time and space to grieve.

Others, though, want to avoid the subject when we meet. They ask how I am but don’t wait for the answer. They seem uncomfortable with sorrow. They deliver aphorisms of positivity and hope. Their words imply that I should smile and move on from these messy waters. They want to feel better when they look at me. They want things tidied up.

Some avoid me altogether. People I once counted as my closest friends. Some family members, too, have neglected to send me even an email of condolence.

We become pariahs. We are the harbingers of the bad news that this could happen. They could lose their partners at a moment’s notice. Their children could die. They could be plugging along, with plans and dreams, when the whole earth shifts. They could watch their husbands collapse in front of them. They could get that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night.

Who wants to come face to face with that? It makes sense that we, and the reality we represent, would be avoided at all cost.

So I forgive them, and their human frailties. I was once one of those, who avoided death, who met the pain of someone’s grief with silence. It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s that I didn’t know. It’s that I was afraid.

The loss of my love has given me an empathy that I didn’t have before. From this day forward, I vow that:

*When I see someone who has experienced a loss, I will move toward her, rather than away from her.

*I will sit with him and let him cry. I will not offer a tissue, a pat on the back, or a hug, when he is in the midst of it. I will just let him grieve.

*I will share a memory of her loved one with her.

*I will encourage her to share her own.

*I will not wait for him to tell me what he needs. I will offer something practical instead—a lift, a cooked meal, a meet up for a coffee.

*I will respect her need for space and quiet, and not take it personal if she does not return my calls.

*I will check in, by phone or text, to let him know he is in my thoughts.

*I will not tell her to be grateful for what she had, or that her loved one is in a better place, or to be strong for others. That is the last thing she needs.

*I will remember his special dates—birthdays, anniversaries, date of the death, and make a point of acknowledging it.

I will use my presence to remind them they are not alone.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Still, Life

"Hope" ©Sarah Treanor

This week has been a whirlwind for me. I met a fellow artist who, upon seeing my photographic series on grief, asked to write this feature about it for a creative blog he writes for. That one blog post at this point has led to around 6 other blogs contacting me to share my story and the project… which has resulted in hundreds of people sharing the project via Facebook and Twitter. It has been certainly one of the most memorable and moving weeks of slogging through the past two years since my fiancĂ© died.

To catch you up, this is a year-long self portrait series I have been doing since February called "Still, Life". Each weekly image - which I share on my blog - explores and expresses the emotional and psychological journey of living on after the death of someone you love. It touches on aspects like desperation and isolation, hopelessness and hope, fear and trust. It has been a grueling and often frustrating project. I've wanted to quit MANY times. I've cursed enough over it to make a sailor blush. I've had total emotional breakdowns over it. But, I've needed it project to survive. It's given me something to put myself into each day… like being able to climb into a boat on this stormy sea of grief. Still in the storm, but with something to hold me and help give me some small bit of direction.

So here I am this week, reading kind words written by other people about this work I've poured myself into for the past nine months. A project that could have never come out of me had he not died. It is so bittersweet - but my God, it's beautiful. The first two years were deeply survival. But these first 5 months of the third year since he died, it feels like he lives on in every step forward I take. The bitter is beginning to fall away, and leaving more and more sweetness over time.

As I read the headline to one of the articles this week - "Photographer Takes Moving Self-Portraits To Cope With Her Fiance’s Death"- and the article itself, I realized for the first time that this project is actually about a lot more than I ever knew. The images themselves may speak of pain and loss, but the project as a whole speaks of other things. It is about healing by making something meaningful out of loss. It is about love, and how unbreakable love is. Even when death tries to take it, it cannot be taken from us. Not ever. Finally, it is about the most important lesson he taught me in our three short but beautiful years together; Never give up on your dreams.

He worked for years to achieve his dream of being a commercial helicopter pilot. The man loved flying more than I've seen anyone love anything. Like any big dream, there were plenty of big fears along the way. He feared he wasn't competent enough. He feared the responsibility of transporting others safely. He feared dying in a crash, of course - which is ultimately how he did die. They were some very real fears. But he never let it stop him. I was lucky enough to be by his side to watch it all unfold. To watch him pass every check ride and gain every certification and land his first commercial job. There was a deep joy in him that last year as his dreams came to fruition. A joy unlike any I've witnessed so closely before. Watching his journey was the fuel that led me to chase my own dreams to be an artist. His death is what ignited it.

I feel now that this whole project is far more about him than me. It is all the things he stood for and the things taught me in life. And all the things he is teaching me still, in death. How he is showing me that still, even after all of this, there is life. And love. And that it is my job to get up every day, live life, and be love. My job to look for beauty still wherever I can find it. My job to decide to make something out of this crazy, awful, shitty, unbelievable journey. And my job to create my own meaning out what life throws at me.

I am completely overwhelmed to even be a part of it all right now. In deep gratitude that he came into my life 5 years ago… just a friend, who turned into more, and who has changed the entire course of my life now in ways I could not have ever imagined. The fact the just one person can come into your life and have THAT much impact still amazes me. I cannot help but be grateful that he changed my life and is still changing it today.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Living With The Hole

A young widow in my on-line support group, who lost her husband to depression very recently, said something this week that really got me thinking.  She had one of those moments that happen in the early days where you kind of forget your partner has gone - she picked up her phone to text him about something and then it hit her hard, she could never contact him and tell him her news again.  

I had forgotten that feeling.  After 16 months without Dan, I've pretty much adjusted to being on my own again.  Sans-partner.  Table for one.  Lone wolf.  I don't like it - God no, it's bloody awful and lonely and it freaking sucks.  I miss him like my left arm, but I don't forget that he's gone anymore.  

That realisation that I've adjusted in this new life still takes me by surprise.  When Dan first died, the hole he left was so vast, I couldn't imagine how I would go on living and navigate my way around it.  But now I see, looking back, that I have.  I've slowly, step-by-step, started to rebuild my life around the hole. 

It is still there but I don't fall in as often anymore. I've gotten used to it. Then I've felt terrible for getting 'used to it' and confused by what that meant.  It's a long and difficult path but I have been walking it. I still don't really know how.  

Every time I've taken a step forward it's come with the complications of guilt and confusion along with constant self-analysis and judgement.  How can I be moving forward into a life where he's not here beside me?  So. Many. Things to feel bad about.  So much information and emotion to process and comprehend.  No wonder I'm exhausted all the time, with so much going on in my head.

I raised this with my grief counsellor and we spoke about the importance of trying not to assess my progress or determine my status in this process.  While it's wonderful to realise that I've made some kind of progress or grown in this after-life, I still get nervous when I'm having a good day, or disheartened when I have a bad day - because of my inherent need to 'assess' what it all means.  

Am I going backwards?  Have I turned some kind of corner?  Is this a milestone?  Ugh - so much pressure!  I am working really hard at letting go of the expectations I put on myself.  

She pointed out that people have good days and bad days - even when they're not carrying the extra complication of bereavement.  Before Dan died, I wouldn't sit and think 'But WHY am I happy today?  What does that mean!?  Will I ever feel sad or angry again or is that behind me now?!'.  

So I am trying not to question.  Not to assess.  And gee, it feels nice to stop worrying and just 'be'.