Future Shock

2016 is kicking my emotional ass – and that’s a massive understatement. A realistic summation of it simply fails me.

It’s nearly 29 months since you died, Kissie. January 5th was two years. It has been unlike any two years of my previous 53, and I have by turns crawled, trudged, sleep-walked, and literally slept, my way through it. I’ve also wept, laughed, raged, hugged, and tried to love my way through it, but my experience of time has irrevocably changed. From the outside it must seem I’m just aimlessly adrift. Acquaintances and friends inquire about my interests and pursuits, which appear to be abandoned. I am not what I once was.

One of the ongoing difficulties is trying to find (or create) the right language to convey what’s happened, and how I’m adjusting (or not). I’m really not adjusting, though I must be adapting to some extent. I keep going – that’s what I do. When I open my eyes, I try to remember to give thanks for another day, and for the ability itself to weep for you.

I sometimes call this time and space I now occupy “future shock,” which is to say it feels neither here, nor there. It’s an in-between, disorienting, ambiguous-feeling time. And something I don’t recall experiencing before, though maybe I was not as conscious of it as I am now. Is it because I’m grieving deliberately? It’s future shock because I’m here two plus years later in a future I never imagined or wanted. It’s a liminal place because it feels transitory and unmoored, but not aimless, to me. It feels necessary.

We just celebrated your birthday for the third time since your death, Kissie.  It’s the happiest day of my life, especially the ones we shared in person. Looking at every single birthday card I ever gave you, each a tiny paper monument to our love, that liminal sweet-sadness wells up, and an old, bones deep longing I’ve always felt whenever we’ve been apart.

Unwelcome Guests

Missing you hurts like hell, Kissie. It’s a fact of my life now. How could it be otherwise? I’m socially conditioned to judge my pain, so I struggle not to. I don’t think it’s productive, it doesn’t change anything, and it feels harmful. I’m convinced that judging my emotional pain also perpetuates the grief phobia I observe and experience regularly. It’s really difficult to stay out of that judgement, needless to say.

Culturally, we’re definitely not of the mind Rumi was when he wrote The Guest House, encouraging hospitality for our darkest emotions: “Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.” How to entertain my darkest emotions? For starters, I’m offering regular, open acknowledgement of my grief, even when it’s uncomfortable for others, as it often is. Grief, disappointment, longing, anger, sorrow, and pain are communally viewed as “unwelcome guests,” and trying to entertain them, as Rumi suggests, is like swimming against a powerful, though often subtle, current. Persisting takes energy, and I’m not high on energy right now. But, I am committed.

When I spend time with others actively embracing their unwelcome guests, or attempting to integrate their “shadow aspects,” as Carl Jung called them, it’s such a relief to my body, mind, and spirit. Maybe more importantly, I feel a sense of burgeoning community. This unorganized, under-the-radar companionship, and the humanity I feel privileged to encounter there, are giving me the strength to resist self-judgement, and to keep “treat[ing] each guest honorably.”

Grief Bursts

In a video on coping with grief during the holidays, I heard the expression “grief bursts,” as used by counselors and others working with the bereaved.  This immediately resonated. You could say I’ve been having a plethora of bursts lately. Apparently, they are also referred to as subsequent temporary upsurges of grief, or STUGs, by grief therapists. These terms are helpful to me – they provide a way to name my experience, and describe it to others.  Both refer to a flare or increase in sadness brought on by a trigger of some kind (sights, sounds, seasonal reminders), or a memory, and they are usually not predictable.

Now there’s quite a bit of reading out there on the predictable upsurge of sadness during the months of November and December, and some of it has solid guidance, even if it is mostly of the Coping in Six Easy Steps variety. And even though I could amply anticipate my increased sadness this past month (and expect it also in December), I still find its intensity and duration catch me off guard. My grief is stronger than I anticipated – having been through my “firsts” already – and acknowledging and embracing that fact helps me move through the upsurges. So does spending time with the “grief positive” people in my life.

Maybe most important is recognizing the personal significance of the season. November held one of my last visits with Kissie, and December was the last full month of her life. My consciousness of this feels essential to weathering these especially intense bursts, and it helps me have compassion for, and patience with, my vulnerability.

The Physical Demands of Grief

Grief is exhausting. It takes a huge amount of physical energy, in addition to the mental and emotional. As Ginger Sullivan, LPC and psychotherapist, so aptly blogged, “Grieving is a 24/7 job that places high demands on our whole self.”

My grief has left me bone tired, blurry, achy, and unable to concentrate. Then, I’ll experience a short recuperation, or even a burst of energy, after which a strong current of tiredness overtakes me again. I’m trying to accept the back and forth, and allow myself to go with it, instead of fighting it with a willfully imposed productivity that usually backfires anyway. 

Letting grief temporarily build-up – whether from the day-to-day demands of life, or unconsciously trying to push through it – has physical repercussions for me too. I’m like a pressure-cooker and I have to regularly let off the steam of sadness by giving myself over to the experience. I do this primarily through crying (alone, or with an understanding loved one or friend), talking about Chris, writing about her, and to her, and listening to, and making, music. Being able to distract myself from my grief allows me to function, but too much of a build-up exhausts me even more.

In his book “Better Than Blessed,” psychologist and minister Donald L. Anderson said, “Healthy are those who mourn. Only very recently have we begun to realize that to deny grief is to deny a natural human function and that such denial sometimes produces dire consequences. Grief, like any genuine emotion, is accompanied by certain physical changes and the release of a form of psychic energy.”

My stress response is also compromised. I don’t have my normal “bounce back” from situations that really aren’t that big of a deal. I find that I need to consciously remind myself that these minor melt-downs are a signal that I need to retreat for a bit to release and/or renew my physical energies along with my emotional ones. I’ve never felt to this degree how physically demanding vulnerability can be, and that there must be recuperation from that emotional expenditure. Is it any wonder that embracing our experience of grief is unpopular?

Some things that are recuperative and energizing to me (though I struggle with consistency) are extra sleep, quiet time (especially in the morning and at night), gentle exercise like walking and yoga, eating nutritious foods and drinking extra water, practicing guitar and writing music, and talking honestly with those who are recently bereaved or experienced in attending to their own grief. And of course, talking about Kissie and her influence in my life, and hearing others’ stories of her influence in theirs, is deeply restorative. 

Of May

When I returned to work after my sister’s death in early January 2014, I couldn’t face the oversized year-at-a-glance calendar awaiting its annual mounting on my office wall. I’d found the dry-erase, overview style useful for the year-long planning I’m involved in, but the thought of putting it up just then, and seeing an entire year laid out before me without her in it, was just too overwhelming. It still is.

The first year of marking each first – the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, seasons – has only just passed. Sixteen months is so very little time after fifty-one years.  And all at once it was May again. I knew it was coming, of course, the glorious May that is Kissie’s birth month. The one, I think, that captures her essence most eloquently – boisterous, vibrant, radiant, and quicksilver – everything rushing to life – just like her. The whirling dervish, as I jokingly call her.

If I thought last May – and her first birthday since her death – was difficult (I did), I really could not gauge just how, and at which junctures, this one would trigger a deluge of acute sorrow. Yes, I anticipated it (a haphazard way of trying to prepare oneself emotionally), but that didn’t really equip me, so to speak, because this year is different. I am different. Last May was an incomprehensible ache. This year, my sadness feels like a kind of relentless sobriety, periodically (and often unexpectedly) punctuated with the wild unreality that has characterized so much of the last sixteen months.

As May spins shining into June, I am grateful. There have been unanticipated gifts, steadfast companions, and great beauty amid my grief and mourning. Each week, month, and season, has its own particular fierceness, its own distinct significance; and memory, its own calibration of what should be faithfully retold, honored, and held up to the light.

The Power of Vulnerability

There is risk in vulnerability. In letting ourselves acknowledge and feel our wounds and imperfections, and then, in letting others see them. To be vulnerable – to let ourselves be seen as we really are – is to open ourselves to the possibility of rejection. The risk is one of connectedness. Will this vulnerability of mine bring us closer or push us apart? In my grief, if I show you my devastation, will you run?

I highly recommend this moving, informative, and humorous 20-minute talk by researcher Brené Brown. In it, she speaks to the power of vulnerability, the cultural avoidance of it, and the necessity of embracing it, if we are to be “whole-hearted” people. What makes you vulnerable, makes you beautiful.