Grief, part 2: Stories

Fictional storytelling has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first fan fiction in the 5th grade. I crave story, I think about it almost constantly. I surround myself with other writers and creatives to whom stories are more than a passing interest or hobby. But lately, personal narrative is of increasing importance to me, too. Collectively, I think we need stories for these tough times, and we need them to help us imagine a better future. Personally, I need them for recovery from grief.

I’ve carried this scrawled message to myself for the past seven years.

I wasn’t surprised to find evidence from the fields of mental health, educational psychology and even cardiac treatment that all suggest telling stories AND being heard is integral to healing. Mental health treatment points to a specific reason. Once experienced, trauma lives on in not just the mind but also the body, and the resulting anxiety, dissociation, and other stress reactions have lasting consequences for well-being. The brain struggles to make sense of events or block them out, but the trauma doesn’t really leave us until we’re able to reconstruct and reframe dissonance to reach understanding. We can reclaim our sense of self and safety through speaking. This is especially true when the dominant narrative is in conflict with our lived experience, as this study seems to indicate (at least, to me, without the authors actually positing). Listening to and telling stories that resonate with our own lives is healing.

So, I’d like to tell a story about grief. I’m going to do so without thinking too hard about word craft, as though I’m speaking to you over a cup of tea.

This is my maternal grandmother, Inez. When she died, I was twenty. She wasn’t a conventionally beautiful woman. She was overweight and uncouth and messy. She laughed loudly and often.

Inez with my mother and uncle, 1968. I was born just five years later.

All ┬ámemory is flawed but this is what I remember. She died when I was two months into my junior year in college. I’d just transferred from a community college to a university and settled into a dorm room full of misfits two hours away from home. The distance seemed a world away, my first experience on my own and without a car. I was the first person in my immediate family to go away to college like this, so I had no generational wisdom to draw from.

I learned the news of my grandmother’s death when Jeff, my then-boyfriend-from-back-home, showed up unexpectedly at my door. Jeff took hold of my shoulders with both hands, and looking me in the eye, gently said, “Your grandma died.”

Here, dear reader, is when something somewhat unusual occurred. This occurrence made the normal process of grief quite difficult.

My breath caught, and I asked him as calmly as I could which grandmother he was referring to. I had the good fortune to have three living grandmothers, my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal great-grandmother. Grandma Inez was the cheerfully stubborn Southern matriarch who gathered the extended families of her two sisters together on holidays and cooked huge pots of comfort food. She was warm, silly and affectionate. She was relatively young, as my mother had been a teen mom. She was the one who squeezed me in her sweaty arms and told me she was proud of me. My other grandmothers were more reserved and less affectionate, more silently judgmental, or so it seemed. To further complicate matters, there was also a fourth woman I called Grandma, a step-grandmother, if you will, who had married into our family.

Incredibly, Jeff didn’t know which grandmother had died. My parents had asked him to convey the news to me, hoping his presence would soften the blow. He was also there to drive me back for the funeral. Sweet and helpful, but short on information. I can’t quite describe the feeling of grappling with this incomplete message. I couldn’t even cry, not knowing for whom I grieved.

I felt almost as though I could keep the fact of death from being true by holding this incompleteness in my mind. Like the unthinkable hadn’t really happened. I might be attending the funeral of one grandmother in a few days, or it could be totally different person’s, with another kind of sorrow to feel. Who knew? In this time just before the popularization of cell phones, my parents could not be reached. I felt bewildered, with the grief that should have been flowing through me arrested in my chest, like a physical sensation of choking.

In the blur of days that followed, I can’t remember when or how I learned the rest of the story. Of course, it was Grandma Inez. She’d suffered sudden heart failure while watching television in my parents’ living room. She fell from the recliner she’d been sitting in, and as she fell, pulled the chair sharply across the hardwood floor, leaving a gouge in the polished wood that continues to serve as reminder of those moments when my father frantically performed CPR.

At the funeral and family gatherings, I found myself in the role of the Good Daughter, the College Girl, which was completely foreign to me. I was also something of an oddity as the family weirdo who wanted to be a writer. I dressed for the funeral in an old skirt-suit of my mother’s, probably handed down to her by her cousin who works in real estate. No one else in our lower-income family owned much in the way of funeral-appropriate clothing. My own cousin David, a lanky young man only a few years older than myself, came late to the funeral directly from his manual-labor job, wearing a dirtied uniform. I remember being angry on his behalf when more distant relatives whispered remarks about his lack of respect, and I hugged him fiercely.

I positioned myself as the buffer between my introverted mother and the rest of the mourners. I could see the tremendous toll the rituals of death were taking on her; she was responsible for holding the space for the family. So, instead of grieving, I worked to protect her. I tried to hold the space for her. My own grief was still tightly coiled inside, unreleased. I have a murky, half-submerged memory of the graveside service, and of clinging to the casket handles, refusing to let go, until my father took my hands and led me away.

When I returned to school, the numbness of those few days at home seemed to harden, compress and solidify. I felt cold and hard. My boyfriend Jeff ended our two-and-a-half year relationship for someone he’d met in our hometown. I then suffered a health crisis and then fell into a deep depression. I earned a D in a course I loved, a class on creative nonfiction. I couldn’t write, much less write about my own life. I was numb.

Later, I returned home to help my mother clear the belongings from my grandmother’s home. The process of packing and sorting the dishes and linens, which I think my mother found hard but healing, seemed surreal, as though my grandmother would return any moment, and the silence was too bright and loud. Time crept, its passage taking on a thicker quality. An image I’ll never forget: I opened a drawer in the sewing room only to encounter the slow sleepy eyes of a baby possum, whose slumber I’d disturbed in the long-empty house. Nature has a way of reclaiming and moving on, even when we cannot.

The circumstances of not-knowing and serving as protector meant the grieving of my grandmother’s death was deferred for me, but the cognitive need remained. Windows into grief flickered open unexpectedly. I’d be reminded of her by a word or phrase, by something as simple as the sight of a breakfast cereal in a grocery store (she’d treated me and my sister with sweet cereals my mother could not afford to buy), and I’d feel a sudden sharp, bewildering sensation of her absence. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, if I couldn’t properly accept the loss, coupled loosely as it was with the betrayal and abandonment I felt when my relationship with Jeff crumbled.

A few years later, something changed. I attended my first yoga class, and at the end of the session, I found myself drifting into a dreamlike state when the instructor took the group into Savasana, the Corpse Pose. In this resting state, I saw behind my closed eyes my grandmother’s face turning toward mine. I was badly shaken, and I certainly didn’t want to return to yoga the following week. But I did, and the same thing happened. I couldn’t avoid her face by keeping my eyes open, even though I tried. I told the kindly instructor, Jen, what had happened. She advised me to see the unwanted “visitation” as a gift. For weeks afterward, I opened myself to that interpretation, and to my surprise, I wept each time we entered Savasana. Not sobbing, just quiet streaming of tears and a silent vision of my grandmother’s face. The relief this gradually brought on is difficult to describe. I was able to both release the knot in my chest and obtain a sense of conclusion. Her face seemed to say that it was alright to let go of her. After this release, I found I could write again.

I’m grateful for the healthy capacity of the mind to heal itself. Recounting this story here reminds me of my own potential for resilience. Relationships end. The world seems terribly unjust and even absurd. Denial of closure or justice welds pain in place, makes healing even harder. But I’m still here, and I have stories to tell, some painful truths and perfect moments of joy. Each of us have such stories, and many others besides. I could make a plug here for self-care, but I’m not saying yoga changed my life. I saying that telling our stories is truly essential to healing.

I’m also grateful to have recently discovered podcasts like The Moth Radio Hour where people share their lives. I highly recommend it. If you have a story about grief you’d like to share, I invite you to do so in the comments.

Grief, part 1: We are not broken

Neighborhood turf tagging positions the word “grief” along the path of my morning walks.

Grief is complex: a cognitive jolt after the sudden realization of loss, then incredulity, perhaps anger or denial, and the mind’s grappling with an ongoing wrongness in the world. Grief is a response to trauma, and moving through can be cathartic and exhausting. But when we do, we can reach some kind of closure, regain a sense of safety, and move forward. We may feel broken, but we mend.

I’m writing this at the conclusion of what I thought was to be a lifelong partnership, and I feel like someone died. In a very real way, something formerly vital is certainly dead.

This sense that I have grieving to do is growing, both heightened and hindered by recognition that the world is incredibly broken and violent right now. Just reading the news is traumatizing, and there is a distinct dissonance between the awfulness of it all and the belief I have in the basic goodness of humanity. There is desperate suffering in the world, and a great many people I care for feel aggrieved and helpless. Worse, some feel their personal struggles or victories are not worth talking about, or they are somehow ashamed to focus on themselves.

I’m considering what happens to us when closure, justice and healing are difficult to come by, and what I think can be done about it, for myself. But I’d like to share because tools are needed for sorrows large and small, for healthy ways to live in a world gone wrong. We are not broken.

More later.

What Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy looks like

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while.

“Everyone Here is in Therapy”

Early this year, I embarked on a deliberate campaign to reassert myself into my own lived experience, the flow of life, to be intentional about how I spend my moments and how creative, connection-oriented or self-reflective I want those moments to be.

In other words, I started seeing a therapist. It didn’t last long, but it wasn’t supposed to. I chose cognitive behavioral therapy, which is designed to be short-term and diagnostic: find the problem (usually self-damaging thought patterns) and pursue specific solutions. I chose CBT because struggles with depression and regular panic attacks were impacting my quality of life, and I’m a solution-oriented person who resists being medicated for almost everything. I wanted to write about it because mental healthcare has a stigma attached to it, in spite of clear evidence that self-care and mental health are vital to overall wellness. This stigma seems especially prevalent in the south, where I’m originally from, perceived as a sign of weakness or only for very serious problems. I remember jokingly telling my father (who thinks California must be a strange place) that “everyone here is in therapy.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I was.

What Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was like, in brief

I picked Dr. G off of a list, prepared to go through a long search to find a good fit. It’s like finding the right hairstylist! Or so I told myself. I enlisted a “therapy buddy,” a friend who was also nervously pursuing therapy options, to motivate me with texts and encouraging emails, and I returned the favor. I drove to Dr. G’s office once a week and perched on the edge of a leather sofa while Dr. G sat across from me in a chair. I talked while she took notes. During some sessions, I just rambled and for others I had specific goals; occasionally Dr. G interjected or asked me to further explore a particular thread of thought. But sometimes it felt like talking to myself (which I’ve always done quite a bit but had virtually zero alone time to do in those months that I was attending therapy). A couple of times, I cried, and that was alright. Tears came when I spoke of a hurtful thing that felt particularly true upon articulation. Crying felt safe, though it took me by surprise when it first happened. I didn’t sob, no catharsis occurred.

What I gained

Through talking with Dr. G, I learned some things about myself, and not necessarily because she did anything special. Dr. G gave me someone to talk to. I talked out my frustrations, my grief and anxiety. I spoke a little about my birth family (like you do), the people I was living with, and about my son. I talked about the grief I felt concerning the loss of meaningful relationships in my transition from Florida to California, and about the sadness I felt about difficulties in current ones. I talked about the cumulative toll of providing counseling of my own to distressed students at my job. It was helpful to look carefully at the complexness of my life, to realize that it made sense that I might be feeling overwhelmed.

Dr. G gave me tools and suggestions to try between sessions, kind of like homework. I offered to journal about the process, and she encouraged that. Mostly, she gave me tips sheets to review and try out. This seemed so ridiculously simple that initially I doubted her effectiveness as a therapist. But then I reflected on my choice of this kind of therapy, which puts the responsibility for change squarely on the patient.

Some of the tips pertained to realigning the stories we tell ourselves, the thought patterns that form the basis of our thinking and coping. Some of them were metaphors, like (for anxiety and fear) The Sentry, who stands on your shoulder and whispers constant warnings in your ear about perceived threats that keep your adrenal response in overdrive.

Here’s a resource link about CBT.

What I’m thinking now

The Thinker and Death, by Bel17b (Deviant Artist). Image used under Creative Commons.
The Thinker and Death by Bel17b (Deviant Artist). Image used under Creative Commons.

Drawing, which I’m not doing.

Writing, which I AM doing, no matter how gross or stolen (or sometimes perfect) those moments feel.

Heteropatriarchy and the damage it does every day.

Women Destroy Science -Fiction, which is practically the best thing ever.

My third, most recent Interzone sale, which I will say more about later.

 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Ursula K. Le Guin and the hermeneutics of love.

Clarion West, which is four years ago for me and right around the corner for others.

The desert, Trickster mythology and motorcycles.

Changing my name.

Making the Cut

This post is not about writing, and really, it’s a rant about my inner life. But it could make my writing life better, so maybe it is about writing.

With me, it takes a crisis point to realize something’s wrong. Or better stated, “nature has a way of restoring balance.” Usually, I stress so hard that I make myself sick and have to spend a week in bed with a cold or something worse. Then, I realize that the world doesn’t stop turning if I take a break from all my responsibilities.

Well, I got a big shove in that direction on Sunday. I was nearly frantic trying to fulfill all my obligations, and I just broke. I know my life is out of balance: the things I most want to devote my time to (writing, spirituality, family) are the ones I give the least to, in favor of activities that satisfy the least and best serve others. SO, I’m done!

A little prayer, to the Goddess: “Mother, help me. Mother, heal me. Please release me from all things worldly that do not serve me.”

I know what needs to be cut. I need to be at peace in myself to do the work I most desire.

So mote it be!

Ack

I haven’t posted in several days, and I just don’t know where the time went. It got eaten by the zen-eating monster again, I guess. Lots of little side projects and articles, but no fiction. Gonna try to change that today, even though I’m under another deadline for an article.

At least it’s kept me busy enough to keep my mind off the lack of response from Clarion. Apparently, I am not the only one. Like Oso Muerte, I am in a holding pattern on that part of my life. It’s surprising how many opportunities have come up for that part of the summer, and how optimistic I can sound saying, “I may be at a writing workshop in San Diego then, I’ll have to let you know.” Maybe absurdly optimistic, I don’t know. I get this sensation in the pit of my stomach when I think about Clarion. Whether I get in or not, the process so far has been a touch emotional, which has really taken me off guard.

Whew!

I am finally reviving the old blog, after a long hiatus. Time slips away when I schedule it to the hilt, and that means I’ve finally realized something basic that anyone could have told me: I didn’t lose my zen, and no one took it. I gave it away. I’m still doing that, but I’m slowly getting better.

I gave it away to:

–PCC, every time I signed a full-time contract.

–Waste, to where, I don’t really know, but it went, and I’m unhappy about it.

–Television, a profoundly addicting escape.

–Time spent wishing I could write but not doing it.

–Volunteer work, which gratifies me but is also slowly sucking life out of me.

What I’m doing to make it better:

–saying no.

–practicing magick.

–gardening, which means slowing down.

–writing. Ah, writing.

Wow

This is my first post since April! I think what happened is all that responsibility stuff I was raving about finally overwhelmed me to the point where I stopped thinking and just kept moving. Survival mode. Then I purged it all at a bonfire. All-night dancing and celebrating. I was caught off-guard by the level of catharsis I experienced. People talk about that word, catharsis, but I wonder how often they actually experience true release. I think that was my first time.

So now, I have no excuse to procrastinate, haha. While all those pressures have eased up with the ending of the spring term, I am at risk of becoming overwhelmed by the summer to-do list I’ve made for myself. You know, all the fun stuff I never have time to work on. I realized that I tend to pile stuff on, like I’m afraid of sitting still. So, I making myself take a day off, sit still one day a week, all summer. I’ll see how long that lasts, I guess.

Progress

At last! Well, in one area, at least, at the expense of others.

You see, I haven’t had a working kitchen since sometime in February. My dishwasher leaked water everywhere, resulting in a parade, in and out of my house, by insurance adjusters and contractors. All the cabinets were ripped out, and the appliances had to be moved into the dining room. The floor was dried out and refinished by tough-looking men with noisy machines. This was all uncomfortably smelly and stressful. Then the Doing Nothing began, and that seemed worse.

Not being able to cook or do dishes is sort of novel at first, but then one gets tired of trying to figure out meals that the microwave can produce or that are electricity-free. And washing dishes in a dishpan on the dining table is not all that much fun. It’s a little like camping, without the good parts. So, we started using paper plates and plastic utensils (gasp!) and eating out a lot (which also sounds like a good time, at first).

The Doing Nothing phase meant lots of wistful staring into the empty kitchen but no actual painting or remodeling or anything. We’d decided to do it ourselves (haha) to save money. Paint was purchased and even a new sink cabinet and other kitchen-remodeling goodies. But Nothing happened. I felt too confused and crazed by all the other things going on (once again, ladies and gentlemen and other non-existent readers, the Main Point), so not much happened after that. More wistful staring and some fantasizing with IKEA catalog in hand, mostly while choking down yet another frozen Lean Cuisine or an instant something-or-other. Meanwhile, my child whines that there’s never anything good to eat and gets constipated from eating too much instant something-or-other (mostly generic Easy Mac), and I get depressed (more).

But today, there is progress! Happy day! The kitchen is almost entirely painted, and all systems are go for the sink and stove to be put in SOON. It may be that I am euphoric from inhaling paint fumes all day, but I’m so thrilled at the prospect of having a working kitchen. I’m not even especially worried about the fact that I didn’t spend any time at all today on the research project that’s due in three days.

Why I Miss Douglas Adams

Some time ago, Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, wrote a silly little book entitled The Meaning of Liff. This is a dictionary of words for concepts everyone recognizes but has no words for, such as “the vaguely uncomfortable feeling you got from sitting on a seat which is warm from somebody else’s bottom.” Thanks to Adams and co-writer John Lloyd, this can now be expressed as “shoeburyness.” Apparently, Adams, Lloyd and others came upon the idea as the result of a drinking game, in which a player stated the name of a town, and another player had to assign it a meaning. They quickly realized that there are quite a number of things that are universally known but for which there are no words. Hence, shoeburyness. It helps that English towns often have ridiculous names.

I mention this not because I am a fan of Adams’ work (although I am), but because one of the words from The Meaning of Liff gave me insight into The Main Point of this blog (see previous post).

The word is “farnham.” I experience farnham on an almost daily basis, and it’s somewhat depressing. Farnham is the feeling you get at four in the afternoon when you haven’t got enough done.

That’s me. I miss Douglas Adams.