death

Good Grief, It’s Christmastime

xmaslightsI’ve come down with a common heart cold. Tis the season, I suppose. It’s hard when there’s so much holiday cheer everywhere; I want to be taken in by the bright lights and rosy cheeks and joy joy joy, and every now and then I can feel the magic of Christmas and it’s good, but mostly, this time of year depresses and stresses me. This was true before my mom died and is especially true now. Though honestly, it has gotten easier. This is Christmas #3 without her, and also Christmas Eve #3 without her, which just so happens to be her birthday. What a serious double-whammy, right? (Side note, she double-whammied me in a few ways: birthday/Christmas in the same two days, Mother’s Day/my wedding anniversary in the same few days, and back-to-school with new students/anniversary of her death in the same week. I swear that wherever she is, she laughs hard every December, May and September. Gotta love her dark sense of humor.)

Of course I’ve been sad today; tomorrow morning, my dudes, dogs and I embark on our holiday road trip to visit my family in Kentucky, and the packing and prepping have been endless reminders that she will not be there when we arrive. I’ve cried a lot. Not just a few tears but that horrible, throat-clenching, suffocating wail/moan that only grief can bring about. I described that feeling in the first piece I was able to pen (type?) after her death, and I have to say, while it doesn’t come nearly as often anymore nor last as long when it does come, it still sucks. But you know what? It doesn’t actually suffocate me. It feels like it will, it feels entirely possible to die from how hard it grips my throat and heart and guts and just all of me, but then it releases and I’m left with a lingering ache in my thyroid and a big, stinky Boxer dog licking snot and drool off my face. And I’m okay.

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So grief doesn’t kill us. That’s nice. And, as I said, it really does get easier. The most cliché phrase ever is also the truest: things do get better with time. Today I looked at a photo of Mom and Granny and me, and I felt happy inside. I also sang her favorite song to L and we smiled together when I finished (I couldn’t even listen to that song for a year after she died, much less sing it to my son). I also told him about how we’ll bake her favorite cookie recipes on her birthday, how we’re bringing back stockings this year because she and I always loved them more than anyone else (still can’t believe my family just dropped that tradition after her death. Are you kidding me? Stockings are better than real presents!). And, instead of giving into my exhaustion and lying around my apartment in a grief bubble all day, I bundled us up and walked across the park for a date with two lovely writermama friends and their wonderful, crazy toddlers, and even though I spent most of the afternoon lying around my friend’s apartment in a grief bubble, I felt so grateful to have such wonderful people in my life who not only accepted the state I was in but offered me love and support to get through it. Plus, the babies! So in the end, the majority of this day was truly enjoyable, and that’s a HUGE improvement over days of Decembers past.

xmascarolsBut can I please complain about carols for a minute? I’m not a Grinch, I swear. I love Christmas lights, especially the big-bulbed retro kind, and trees and ornaments and I even like gift shopping, but what the hell is up with Christmas songs? They’re just awful. The music is terrible, so boring and repetitive, and the words beyond cheesy. Plus there are only like, five of them, and these same five songs are redone over and over in equally terrible ways, and when I walk into a Duane Reade to get some baby Advil because L’s cold just won’t go away and Holly Jolly Rudolph is blasting on the speakers, I want to vomit, scream, and break things. And do not tell me that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is at least one of the better songs because that shit is rapey. The only thing that makes Christmas carols okay is David Bowie.

Thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far. It does feel good to get that out of my system. And while I do harbor a completely reasonable amount of anger directed toward Christmas songs, sometimes I just need to rant about something trite instead of the fact that Mom always wanted grandkids and died when her first one was only a few months old, her second one (my baby) was conceived just ten months later, and her third one shortly after. I’m excited to see my son with his cousins – that kind of bond is so special – but it’s just fucking heartbreaking that Mom will never get to see it, to hear it, to hold them in her arms.

But I must stay present and fully experience this visit, to keep myself from falling into that dark hole of my past and also because she is not here to enjoy this time and how dare I waste the beautiful gift of life on crying about death? Yes, little L will learn that his mama feels sad this time of year, but he will also learn the value of grief, the power of mindfulness, and the joy of family, including his Grandma Sandy.

For more info on this column, please read Brain-Picking Becky: Intro.

Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe in Lumen Magazine

Granny_Mom_MeThere is no better way to honor my mother than by writing. While she was not a writer herself, she did fully embrace her own creative energy throughout her life via the piano, her voice, and, mainly, her needle and thread. She passed her love of art onto me, celebrating the goofy short stories I wrote in elementary school as if they were Nobel Prize quality and always urging me to write more. When others told me a Masters in Creative Writing was a waste of time and money, Mom told me to do it not just because I wanted to, but because she knew I needed to. Therefore, it is incredibly special to me that Lumen Magazine has published my essay, “Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe,” that I wrote on the first anniversary of her death. Please take a moment to read and share; not only do I hope to keep her spirit alive, but I also think that, in a society where death is a taboo topic for conversation, it’s important to share our experiences. Thanks, Mom, for the support that I still feel and will always feel.

Pictured: Me, Mom, and Granny.

Memories

My mother loved all things Victorian, especially Victorian Christmases.

My mother loved all things Victorian, especially Victorian Christmases.

I received such an overwhelmingly positive response to my last post that I’ve decided to continue sharing my process with you.  So many people commented on my Facebook page about their experiences with grief or how they also struggle with talking about death.  I’m honored that something I wrote sparked this dialogue.  I think we should keep it up.  It’s important to share our stories.

This past week has been surprisingly okay for me.  I thought it was going to be a lot more stressful with the miserable month of holidays coming up, but so far, so good (it also helps that I went to acupuncture and was able to exercise almost every day).

That’s not to say it has all been nice and easy.  It occurred to me at some point during the week that when I was kid, my family used to put the Christmas tree up on the day after Thanksgiving.  At first, this memory felt sudden and overwhelming and I had to take some space to be alone and process it.  But the more I thought about it, the warmer and happier I started to feel. (more…)

Grieving My Mother: How I’m Really Doing So Far

My mom with her first grandchild, Ian, my nephew.

My mom with her first grandchild, Ian, my nephew.

In the past two months since my mother’s death, many people have asked me how I’m doing.  I’ve wanted to answer honestly.  Instead I’ve said, “I’m okay,” or, “It’s up and down,” or, “Getting better with time.”  None of these clichés come close to capturing my experience, but they work in context.  People want to let me know that they care.  I acknowledge and appreciate their care without forcing either of us into a real conversation about death.

At the end of the day though, I keep finding myself compelled to share more.  I want to get this out of me, and I want you to hear it.  I want us to have that real conversation.  But I can’t seem to find the words.  Even when I’m talking with a good, trust-worthy friend, I speak about how I’ve grown, what I’ve learned about myself, how it’s hard but important, how her death has helped me to better appreciate life.  While these things are true, they’re only half of it.  Why can’t I find the words I need to talk about all of my experience?

It occurred to me recently that I can’t find these words because they’re not here.  Our society doesn’t talk about the messy side of death.  Our society doesn’t allow for open discussions on grief.  Death and grief are depressing.  Morbid.  Weird.  Only freaks talk about death.

Because of this, we as a society didn’t develop a common language for sharing the entirety of our experiences surrounding death.  In fact, we developed language that pointedly doesn’t share our whole experience.  “Up and down” doesn’t mean anything at all.  Everyone is up and down, regardless of death or grief.

And now, here I am, trying to let you know how I’m doing and finding it difficult because in order to really let you know, it’s got to get messy.  For me, that’s okay.  People who are in the midst of grieving shouldn’t have to worry about sounding too morbid or freaky.  They shouldn’t be asked to only share the “acceptable” pieces of their experience.  They should let it all out.  And people on the receiving end should be honest, too.  It’s okay to feel uncomfortable, saddened, or angered when hearing about the experience of death.  In fact, it’s good to feel something.  The more you talk and feel about death, the better.  I badly wish anyone had shared the reality of death with me before I learned it firsthand.  While nothing could have prepared me for this experience, a little knowledge on what to expect would have been nice.

So, for those of you who asked me how I’m doing and really meant it, here goes.

The sadness can still be overwhelming at times.  It starts in my chest.  A tight clenching and shortness of breath.  Then it’s like a hand reaches up from my heart and grips my throat.  I cry so hard my face, neck and head hurt.

Other times, the sadness is more subtle, like the way my left ankle, the one I sprained years ago, occasionally aches on cold days.

Sometimes, the sadness is surprising.  I’ll be in a good mood, absorbed and happy, when it suddenly takes me over.  There may be a trigger, like the girl I babysit for receiving a phone call from her mother’s mother, an experience I will not get to share with my future children.  Or, there may be no trigger at all.

The lack of sadness can be surprising, too.  Like last week when I spoke with one of my aunts for the first time since the funeral.  We talked about how much my mom struggled, how we’re glad she’s no longer suffering but how much we miss her.  My aunt cried hard.  I somehow didn’t feel sad at all.

Then there are moments where I can’t stand how unfair it all is.  How unfair that my mother had to deal with such extreme mental illness.  How unfair that after all of that work to rebuild our relationship, she died.  I get mad at her for not having been honest with me about how sick she was, for not having held on just a couple more months until we had one more visit together.  I get mad at myself for having ever blamed her for anything, for not having asked her more questions when I had the chance, for not fully understanding her situation.

Thankfully, my anger is not long lasting; I can’t imagine how different this would feel if we hadn’t had those years of rebuilding.  I can pass whole days now feeling warm and happy, filled up with her presence.  I tote her on the back of my bike and complain to her about annoying pedestrians.  We walk the dogs through the park together.  We eat lunch on the beach.  I tell her secrets I never would have in real life.  These are my favorite days.

There are also days where my emotions take a break but my mind has trouble.  Big questions about the point of life.  Little questions about what to do with my evening.  I get trapped in obsessive cycles, asking myself the same questions, repeating the same thoughts.  It’s difficult to get anything done.  On these days, I feel lost.

And then there are times where I don’t think about or feel it at all.  I used to have guilt over these moments.  Now I find hope in them.  My mother’s death has changed my life, but it won’t always consume it.

I’m grateful that enough time has passed that I can look back and see the progress I’ve made.  I do feel better than I did in September.  I haven’t burst into tears on the sidewalk for a few weeks now.  I can conjure up good memories more often than I could before.  I can’t look at the photographs yet, but I can listen to her favorite musician without blubbering.

Still, I struggle to find balance.  How much should I rest versus how much should I push myself to write, to sing, to exercise?  How much should I be actively processing it all versus how much should I let go?   They say giving into the depression and anxiety is unhealthy.  It’s good to keep up old routines.  But they also say pushing yourself too much will backfire.  You need to take time to heal.  They say making space to feel whatever comes up is the only option.  Be sure you don’t ignore any of it.  But they also say surrounding yourself with friends is the remedy.  Do not get trapped in your grief.

I could do this to myself all day.  Instead, I make a decision and go with it.  Sometimes, it’s the right decision.  Sometimes, it’s not.  And that’s okay.  I’m learning that life can still be enjoyable even when things are tough.

While grieving is a universal experience, it’s also a very personal experience.  What I’ve written about does not describe what it’s like for everyone.  I’m very lucky to have the support I have; I’m grateful to everyone who has reached out to me.  I hope that we can continue through this process together and that, through talking about death, we can all learn and better appreciate the value of it.