So just a short time after my aunt and grama passed, my mom got me into the show, “Long Island Medium.” So good. If anyone is legit, I swear it’s her. I just discovered that seasons 1 and 2 are on Netflix and I’m enjoying watching them. I choose to think that stories similar to mine have a message for me, too. It feels nice to imagine the afterlife the way she describes it. It makes me think that it’s bigger, more complex, and beyond the idea I have been taught in terms of what happens after we die. Bigger, more expansive. More comforting. I like it right now.
Thanksgiving was dreaded, but turned out better than expected. I think that’s my new normal on holidays.
It’s been about month since I was laid off. I immediately sprung into action. Within a week and a half I had 2 new job offers. I ended up accepting one, and am slowly training and building a client load. But losing your job is a loss. One that triggers those other losses as the merciful numbing of shock and action wear off.
Again this year, the blessing of being a(n unemployed) therapist is that we attend to our feelings and acknowledge the grief and walk each other through our shit. An angel came in the form of a fellow laid off coworker, and we spent hours on the phone processing and acknowledging the dirty shit and laughing, sometimes bitterly, sometimes with evil joy. We talked until we began to perceive a vague outline of the shape of what had just happened, the grief and the trauma, the ugliness. We talked for a week and a half until I knew what I would say when the call came to join the new agency rising from the ashes of the old agency. “At this time, I have to say no. Maybe we’ll work together again in the future. Good luck.” As it turned out, only 1 of the 5 original therapists agreed to join the new agency. To me, that said a lot. It was validating in the extremely difficult decision I made not to return to the agency that made me, to the job that was so much more than a job. I chose the unknown instead.
It looks like it’s working out. The new job I chose to accept has big opportunities for growth and leadership, sooner rather than later. I will be getting a really good range of experience to complement the training I’ve had so far. I’m getting unemployment as I build my caseload so though the building is slow, I’m not rushed or panicked financially. That’s a blessing. Thanks.
From the outside it looks like things are in order, and from the inside I know that in a couple of months I may be settled into a new routine. But there’s a hollowness that caught up with me around last weekend. It’s hard. I’m not good at connecting and reaching out when things are darkest, I prefer to stew and wait it out alone, telling my survival tale when I’m on the way back up.
So I think I’m on the way back up.
Talking to a friend tonight, I’m pinpointing this feeling of a loss of professional identity. Yes I will still work in mental health, yes I will be back to therapy in a short time. But I lost something, a big piece of myself. I don’t have a boyfriend or kids, so I overemphasize my professional life. That’s where I gain meaning, power, self-esteem. And it feels like that was snatched away. And I’m nervous about how the identity will be rebuilt as I return to work. It will be a different version, because who I was as a Therapist at The Agency was very specific, it was something I had never had before on a number of levels – culturally, professionally, as a leader. I felt comfortably embedded with Place, Role, Respect. I was a very specific person with specific worth. And that was lost.
And damned if it doesn’t feel eerily similar to surviving the death of my loved ones last year.
I lost some things. And aside from the concreteness of Auntie Barb, of Grama, of my job… its a loss of pieces of myself, of my identity. What will I look like when I put me back together in a new place, a new life, without them?
The cosmic timing. The first inkling of my job loss was on the anniversary of Grama’s death. Then quicker than I could imagine, we were back into the holiday season. I felt dread settling back in as we approached Thanksgiving, randomly bursting into tears again, only this time without the distraction of work and clients. Healthy planning of my free time slowly broke apart into willfully unstructured days filled with daytime talk shows (I recognized rather quickly which stars were on media blitzes), or long stretches of Scrubs in bed with my laptop (which was actually fantastic, no apologies, no shame for that, I fucking love Scrubs!). Alas, everything gets old in excess.
By the time Thanksgiving Day rolled around, I was pretty deep into a downward spiral with no interest in the holiday. I forced myself out of bed and onto the couch. Trying to find something to fill the 8am hour before something dependable was on, I accidentally hit channel 2 (public television, which I rarely watch, but my aunt used to rave about) and it was all this program on hospice care, death and dying, and end of life choices. I was easily mesmerized in the best possible way. I swear to you, it was the only thing that pulled me up out of the depths that morning. It was like someone was speaking my language. Yes some of it was very sad, yes I cried like a baby at parts of it, but it was exactly what I needed. I’m not sure how to explain other than that it was validating. Just like coming here to read grief blogs last year, I needed to know that grief and loss were on other people’s minds during the most wonderful time of the year. With that programming in the background, I got up and baked bread. I could do this.
The day was uneventful, just our little family gathering at my mom’s house. No friends, no extras, no replacements this year. My cousin and his fiance came over for a while on their drive-by. We laughed and had a good time. We watched “The Outsiders,” which I loved. It was my first favorite book as a kid. The way it is bookended really touched me as a kid, and inspired me as a writer. So that was nice.
I feel like there should be something nice, some way to wrap this up in a bow. But I’ve still got Christmas to get through and like I said, I’m building a caseload slowly with a lot of free time on my hands. But. I’m also coming up out of the hole, and working to take responsibility for my time, structure, thoughts, and feelings. I’ve done a little EMDR on myself the past 2 mornings and that is helping. We’ll all get through it.
What I can say about a year is that looking back, it seems like a lifetime ago, and like yesterday.
Over the past couple of weeks I have come to a new place in grief where I can find the peace in holding the past and the present simultaneously. I can go back into memories of last year at this time, and feel it and cry, and yet know this new safety and control that grounds me in the present. It happened. Auntie Barb died last year (still so bizarre sometimes) and I had to experience it. I experienced that horror and panic of, Where the fuck is Barb? She was just here, where did she go?? I experienced the terrifying lack of her physical presence, and the hole where caretaking was. I can feel all of that again like it was yesterday, and then I can make the shift in my mind that is the comfort of knowing that I don’t live there anymore. An entire year has passed and life is so completely different. And I am fully invested in my present. I have a life. I lived. I’m here now. And my life is pretty good, with the intention of getting even better. I’m here now. Not back there anymore. I can visit but I don’t live there. What a relief. I’m grateful.
Yesterday morning I went to grief group. I had skipped a couple of weeks – once because I just didn’t feel like it and once because I was in an amazing training (post to come). But out of a sense of duty I went yesterday. It was… nothing. The format is they have a speaker and then you break into groups according to your loss. I wanted to ditch after the speaker but I made myself stay because I thought I should. I’ll still never understand why there’s always one if not four people who have a significant mental illness in these groups, people who need a higher level of support than grief group can give. Still. I did my best to stay with it, but I just didn’t need it. I could comfort others. But frankly, I do that for a living and wasn’t feeling it on my free time. Plus, I’m just not in the overwhelming sadness anymore. So listening to other people in the depths of it, yes it tugs at heartstrings somewhat, but I’m not in that place.
Where am I? Maybe this is acceptance. I still cry sometimes, it sneaks up on me. But I love her, and I think back on things she said and her support and love. And I know that my leaving her behind in a sense… it’s good for me. I leave her behind and I take her with me. She is always with me. I wear her watch everyday. I put on her other jewelry. I think of her words of encouragement and support. I think of her long list of complaints about work and people and life. And I make choices to enjoy mine more. I love her very much and I am blessed to have had her for the time I did. She decided not to fight cancer the second time around and die on her own terms. And in her own sentiment, she expressed that this was a good way to die.
I don’t know where she is. I assume she’s with everyone she ever loved that passed away before. I’m not so angry about religion and spirituality and afterlife anymore. And I’m not trying to decide what it is or isn’t. Sometimes I think I feel her and then I try to rationalize it or quantify it, and then I let it go and smile let it be whatever it is.
Here is her favorite picture of herself.
And something else I think about a lot lately is that she left me her laptop with her iTunes library. I merged our music and discarded some things. But my iPod has saved the history. I’m somewhat repetitive about what I listen to, and I’ve been working with my same library since about 2007. Still, today, the 25 Most Played are a mixture of Arcade Fire and Danger Mouse (hers). She was nothing if not obsessive! She would always tell me about how beautiful she though those albums were.
I miss my beautiful, wonderful aunt. She’s here and she’s a million miles away.
… that tomorrow will be September and the year is imminent. My aunt died on September 22, 2012. Five weeks later, my Grama died, too. It’s getting rough again. I’m feeling exhausted all the time, distracted, my concentration is shot. Sometimes. I’m still productive for the most part. But then there are the flashbacks. I keep thinking of little things I haven’t thought of since last year. The seasons, the heat, the end of summer events… all are triggers that shoot memories to the surface of the sad dreading, the unknown, the watching and waiting.
I remember rubbing my aunt’s feet and legs, swollen so full and tight that it looked like they could crack open from the bloating. I remember medications, so many medications to organize and provide. I remember waiting while her swirly, medicated mind tried to make sense, tried to manage, tried to order these endless medications. She was smart and stubborn and determined not to overmedicate, but her mind wasn’t clear. So patience was required.
I remember her alarm. It’s that alarm on the iPhone that sounds like a 4 alarm fire disaster, I don’t know how else to describe it. Every once in a while I hear a neighbor in my building with it, and I’m brought right back into bolting up out of unrestful sleep in my cousin’s room… time for meds…
It was a year ago this weekend that I moved in part time with my aunt. To take care of her presumably until she died at home like she wanted. It only lasted for 2 weeks, til she couldn’t take it anymore, til she got too weak and shuffly like an old woman, til she asked to go to inpatient hospice. For peace.
I don’t dream about my aunt or Grama very much but last night I did. We were at a restaurant finishing up and it was time to go. Grama kept pushing herself up like she was trying to stand, to leave. I ran to grab her wheelchair to bring over to her so she could transfer into it. I was asking my sister to help her, but Grama fell down before I could get the wheelchair to her. She kept trying to get back up and then falling down again. I was mad at my sister for not helping her, protecting her… she kept falling and getting weaker and smaller. I was horrified and felt helpless. The last time she fell, it was like she fell straight backwards, flat, with a thud. I just knew she was broken beyond repair. I went to cradle her while someone got help. Maybe an ambulance was coming. She was almost like a little gingerbread man at this point, that small and flat. The next part I remember is what felt like a little while later and I was holding a baby. It was a baby of course, but it was also some version of Grama having survived the fall. I cradled this baby and kind of showed her off to other people and I was thankful that she had survived. She looked small and thin and kind of weak and weary, but I was happy that she could track people’s faces so I knew the baby was going to be ok.
did you watch that show, starting over? i loved that show, i was obsessed. only 3 seasons long, it was like my light in a dark tunnel time of life. free therapy on tv. network tv. awesome!
this post is not about the tv show. but when the title came to me, i had to relate it back. who knew, during those dark times in my life, my first real severe and persistent depression, working as a server at a bar and drinking all night, sleeping all day, do it again… i used to watch life coaching and transformation in the form of starting over religiously. if i woke up around 1, i could see a little bit of passions, but i was for sure up by 2 for my show. i would never have fathomed then that i would pick myself up and put in the work it took to get where i am today. now i’m the therapist and i help others transform their lives. (and sometimes it really, really works!)
i’ve been taking a hard look at where i am today. i feel like i’m waking up. i’ve been in this focused terrain of various tasks/projects/obsessions/addictions for quite a long time. i’ve been looking at my busy-ness for a while now, wanting to understand the purpose. specifically i’ve been looking at the last 3 years. 3 years ago, i was enrolled in grad school, knew someplace inside me that drinking was not working anymore, and feeling kind of dissatisfied in my friendships. at least my day-to-day friendships. i felt like i was along for the ride, stuck, compulsive, powerless.
time passed. i wrestled with drinking and social life. after a long, drawn out, dragged out fight, i let go of alcohol. i immersed myself in my studies. friends fell away. some friends were surgically removed. some friends transitioned with me, doing new things and seeing me less frequently. i still have my best friends. i’m so proud of my good friendships! i feel incredibly fortunate. but they’re not generally part of my day-to-day, hanging out life. i generally hang out by myself. which was working for a long time. i’m content and unaffected alone. but it’s not what i want anymore.
grad school took over my life and my attention and my energy for a little over 2 years. as i was finishing, my aunt got a terminal cancer diagnosis. shortly after we enrolled her in hospice, my grama’s nursing home made the recommendation that she be enrolled in hospice as well. i remember that day. my aunt and cousin came down to the nursing home to meet me and sign papers. barb was in a wheelchair, which was so strange. she was weak. but her mind was still alert. so we sat at this sterile table in this sterile lounge area and talked about hospice. that was the first time i noticed my new tic. i felt myself rhythmically tapping my leg with my fingers, compulsively, subconsciously at first. i still find myself doing it when i accidentally get deep into a disturbing memory of these times.
so the end of school was the beginning of caretaking. caretaking and waiting and wondering and terror was another darkness. but i was the strong one who took care of business and made them feel comfortable, and in my aunt’s case, empowered. i suppose the role is what kept me above water and able to move forward. there’s this sense of unreality that made me able to keep moving. shock was a protective factor even then. sure i cried, and i premourned. barb and i had lots of talks about what was coming. she cried about how sorry she was that she was leaving us. i comforted her. i sat with grama. i went through the motions and tried really hard to feel it all, and i did my best.
and caretaking led into the horrific shock of death. they died. and with all the preparation and saying what needed to be said, and in the end praying for the end of their suffering, there is no greater shock and void than when they are suddenly gone.
so i mourned. and mourning is the most incredibly lonely thing in the world. you can have loved ones around you. they remember her, too. they are feeling their own pain. but in grief it is very hard to connect, to match up your timing with someone else. to feel the same specific brand of grief at the same time as the others. so blogs became very important to me. i dealt with grief in an obsessive way. i went to work and did my job and came home and read grief blogs. and cried. and wrote grief blogs. and cried. and got angry. and went numb. and read some more. and kept crying. and was alone.
grief is never over. i believe that in my experience, connecting with it willingly, actively, assertively… helped. i allowed it. and i still allow it when it comes. sometimes i say, “not now,” and i come back to it later. i am not afraid of it. i know it will not overtake me. my will to keep living, keep growing and moving forward is strong. they gave me that.
something else was this tyler perry movie. it was a filmed stage play, set in a nursing home. my mom had it and made me take it home and watch it a few weeks ago. there was a storyline with a young woman who compulsively visited her alzheimers-stricken mother for 9-10 hours a day. madea has a little teaching moment with her at the end when they wrap all the storylines up. she tells this young girl that she is overemphasizing one part of her mother’s life. that the end is just a small part. you can remember the good times and try to let go. i’m not capturing the loveliness of it, but it helped me a lot. focusing so hard on the end of life. so i’m trying to focus more on the good times, of which there were many! and when the bad times and the end come up, that’s ok, too. but i’m trying harder to hold the good times longer.
so i find myself here, today. i’ve been thinking a lot recently about dating, getting into a relationship, having kids someday. i’ve been doing a lot of personal work on clearing out old emotional relationship baggage, and getting very clear on what i’m looking for. i had a friend in town who is thinking about this, too, and we talked about how we can be more pro-active, but also how we want to expand our social circles. i’ve been writing about that over the past couple of days, and it feels good!
for most of my life, i have been kind of pessimistic, a yes, but… kind of person. i feel like in doing these clearing exercise, in thinking about the people i love and the life i want, i finally have turned a corner on some of my self-protective focus into a more connection-oriented outlook. sometimes it’s so wonderful to be a therapist. i talk to people about their lives, and their thoughts, and their social issues and beliefs. the person that i am cannot talk to people about these things all day and not take it to heart, not self-reflect. i get to see patterns of self-protection and why people do that, and i also get to know and advise, therefore saying it out loud, affirming it: there are more kinds of people in the world than the ones you grew up with and repeated. i finally believe that to an extent that affects change.
i’m developing a vision of the kind of life i want, which includes dating and relationships, but also friends, social circles, specific kinds of people with like mindsets, communities, events, where i want to be, what kinds of things will make up my day-to-day life. i want the fullness. it’s becoming more clear in a way that makes the steps to that life light up in front of me. it’s not just going out, it’s being social, connecting and learning and making decisions. which is not necessarily an epiphany, but i’ve been closed down for a long time. in particular, the last 3 years.
so 3 years ago, i had a best day-to-day friendship with a girl who was also prone to negative focus, harsh judgments, and unhappiness. we brought out the worst in each other. we drank heavily. our social life was sometimes fun, she was impulsive and up for anything. so i also got myself into some situations i didn’t want to be in. she was boisterous, loud, engaging, demanding, charming to some, overwhelming to others. and i lived in her shadow. we understood and accepted each other in the darkest times, and at the time, to me, that meant a real friend.
3 years ago, i went with whoever invited me. weirdos glommed onto me and i wasn’t assertive enough to choose wisely who i wanted close to me. i worked in a deeply shitty job, hung out with people i didn’t really care for, and drank myself stupid on a regular basis. it felt like life was happening to me and i had no control.
3 years ago, i dated a few times a year. the year before i had broken up with my last boyfriend for boring me to tears. i wasn’t too incredibly picky because i had never really examined what i wanted. or for that matter who i was. so i’ve had dating spurts, but knew without a doubt that i would rather be alone than be with someone with whom i had to compromise what i liked about myself and my lifestyle.
3 years is a long time to learn and reflect and change. i don’t think i’ve ever been more clear, proud, in-tuned, and accepting of myself. i’m ready. and i’m grateful! i’m coming out of a point of view that saw myself as weird and problematic, defective that i could spend this much time alone and not have a lot of people in my life. but today i’m thankful. because now it’s time to rebuild from a place of clarity. i’m not 36 and stuck with a relationship and social circle that i fell into without thought and intention. i am far from powerless about the type of relationships that will color my life from this point forward. i am here, today, knowing and accepting myself, thoughtful and clear about what kind of life i want, and able to begin to rebuild from here.
i’m starting over.
i never typically do anything for memorial day, except the standard bbq. there was a picture floating around facebook of a woman laying on a grave with the caption, “memorial day: in case you thought it was just national bbq day.” this year it’s different. i still wasn’t sure whether i would visit graves or not, but after the gym and running to the grocery store, i kinda felt like it so i decided to make the rounds.
fort snelling was kind of a zoo, but it was pretty, it was nice. they had flags everywhere, many flowers, lots of cars and people milling around, traffic cops, opportunists selling flowers across the street. it was interesting. until i got there i wasn’t aware of how it would feel on a national day of mourning. i just got really curious and wanted to look at people’s faces, their rituals, i wanted to know how they felt to be there. i noticed that one family had laid out a blanket on the ground and appeared to be having a little picnic by the curb. i walked over to grama’s grave, i was just here last week with my sister to mark what would have been her 95th birthday. every time i look at her name on that stone it just looks surreal. i still get that feeling of unreality looking at it. i teared up a little bit. laid hands on their stones and went back to my car.
after grama and grampa’s graves, i drove down to the cemetary where barb and rick are buried. i’d been there a couple times recently when i was in the area. i’ve been waiting for barb’s headstone to appear. it’s a bit of a sore spot in my heart, but i can’t seem to address it anymore. it’s my counsins’ (her children) responsibility to get her stone placed. but somehow, 8 months later, it still hasn’t happened. during the last visits, there looked to be a space carved out and a little red flag marking the area so i just knew it was coming soon! on the way there, i imagined that of course they would have it up by today. today is a big day. well i got to the site, and there was no stone, but there was what looked to be a fresh patch of grass seed with that garden netting stuff on top. i looked over at a fresh casket sized grave next to their plot. that one had the same grass and netting, but still had a space carved out for the new stone. it had a 2012 death date.
i just went blank and kind of confused. the realization set in pretty slowly as i stood there. they weren’t preparing it for a headstone. the flag and the outline was for a fresh planting of grass. i didn’t stay long. i admired the two pretty plants placed on rick’s stone, and noted another pot of fresh flowers a few yards away, marking rick’s dad’s grave. his family had been here already to pay respects.
i walked back to my car slowly and noticed a man close to my age had come up on a bicycle. he leaned it against the tree and we made brief eye contact, and he went on to visit his loved one. there was a family a few yards away from my aunt and uncle’s spot. i realized that’s the closest i’ve ever been to other people in a graveyard.
i got back into my car and started to cry. hard. i’m trying to be patient with my cousin. we don’t communicate much, he’s not a talker. i don’t know how he is emotionally handling the death of his mother. it has felt like a taboo subject, one we gloss over with jokes and distractions and small talk. but i’m angry that he hasn’t gotten it together and ordered the stone. i know my uncle’s family comes regularly, i see their offerings. i don’t leave anything, but i come. seeing that the cleared area and flag were only there to make way for fresh grass kinda fucked me up a little bit.
my aunt is under there.
don’t just let it be a place where the grass is greener, fresher. in this fucked up turn of events, this is where barb and rick live now. that’s traumatic enough, but to have them cover her baren spot where the grass didn’t grow, to make it pretty and uniform and for the goal to be for that piece of ground to look like nothing happened?? that was more than i could handle. i want to shout in his face, “get it together, give my aunt a fucking headstone! she is here! this happened!” but i can’t do it. i feel like i’m gagged on this situation. it’s frustrating.
i’m waiting for her stone. i’m waiting to see how it feels to look down and see her name and her dates. what it will look like next to rick’s. if it will take me to the next level of grieving. if i will lose it right there in the graveyard. i guess it’s just not time yet. (giant sigh)
anyway, today was my first memorial day where i decided to go out and do what the people do on memorial day. it was strange. i’ve been thinking over these past 8 months about the way grief is such an isolating experience. even when you grieve with others, your timing never quite matches up. it’s something you have to go through in your own time, on your own schedule, based on your willingness to delve into it. how deeply? how often? how much surrender? or based on your avoidance. or healing. or backsliding. it’s such an individual process, so lonely.
but. on memorial day, looking around at the many people who were there to mark the day, and seeing the flowers coloring a typically barren place, it reminded me that there are only a few things as universal as grief. unless you die young, you will experience the loss of someone you loved so much. on this day, i understood the contradiction of this lonely process coupled with the universal experience of it. it was humbling and kind of beautiful.
and i’m probably not the only person whose loved one is not marked.