It has been a very long time since I was last here. Not by choice. I wish I could write every day. But I was very busy managing a life that was exploding in several major ways, and I had to get my feet under me. It feels good to be back doing this. It just helps so much. I had hoped to catch up with the story and eventually write contemporaneously, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Of course, I then feel guilty that I have not been able to do that, because in the field of negative emotions, guilt is apparently my specialty. I’m here now, however, and I’m going to write about those early weeks as well as I can. I feel rusty, and my writing feels jagged to me, but I’m going forth anyway, just to get the wheels unstuck so I can move again. I told my friend Teresa that this piece will simply have to serve as my sacrificial lamb to the God of Flow.
I don’t generally share something until I feel like it’s “ready,” but telling this story is just something I feel compelled to do, from my core. I felt compelled to write this from the very beginning. I had no idea WHY I felt so compelled, I simply did. This sort of feeling does not often overtake me, but every cell of my body needs to write this account, so I here I go.
Oddly, and sadly, as I write this, my dear cat Clarence is fading from this Earth. Clarence, who sat by me as I futilely performed CPR on my deceased daughter. Clarence, who sat vigil at Alice’s feet during her wake, and who did not leave that room for hours after her body was removed — not even to eat. Clarence never missed meals (or second or thirds), so this refusal to eat was a sure sign of grief.
Clarence, who played with me, stole my food, slept on my head, endured without complaint my children knocking him down the rung a couple of notches, sat and purred near sick kids and parents, and brought gifts of beheaded lizards. Clarence, who sat inches away from workman drilling and hammering without batting an eye. Clarence, who loved a party, and could magically find the place where he was equidistant from every person in the room. Clarence, who looked you dead in the eye when you spoke to him, with a gentle, somewhat melancholy attention.
I’d never been owned by a cat before, but I fell in love with him at first sight. I’d gone by a friend’s house to check him out for my then-boyfriend. I’d told this boyfriend that I was going to need to see that he could keep a plant and an animal alive for a year before I could go any serious distance with him. But when Clarence walked up to me — looking me dead in the eye — I immediately thought, “Fuck, ____. I’m keeping this cat.”
And that is the abbreviated story of how I adopted my first cat.
He is at my feet now, under my desk. It is here that he has spent the majority of his time the last few days, while I write this memorial to him, and his baby, Alice.
Now it is a few days after I wrote the aforementioned. And now, Clarence has gone to play with Alice. He died early in the morning of October 28, 2015 after having a very rough day on the 27th, most of it spent at my feet while I cried and wrote about him.
I used to joke that “Clarence thinks he is my boyfriend, and that we adopted a cat named Sammy before allowing some dude and couple of kids move in with us, because, hey, we got the room!” People would laugh when I would say that, but when they met him, they always cried, “He really does think that!”
He was my main man for 16 years. As I write this, I realize that this has been my longest relationship with a man, so, hat’s off to you, Clarence.
Now, Clarence deserves his own memorial piece, and I’ve written it. I was going to tie it in with Alice’s Week 7 piece, but that just ain’t right. The Big C will get his own send-off, right after these messages.
Until then, thank you to all that loved (and fed) my sweet boy. And a special thank you to Meleva for her hilarious and moving eulogies to Clarence.
He was like no other. Fran said Clarence was my “soul kitty.”
I do believe she might be on to something there.
Tuesday, September 17th, 2013
This was a sad day. I mean, look, the last 7 weeks had been sad, but this was a particularly sad day. I was down. Low energy. Gutted. Hollow. Empty. Sadness and low energy do not always go hand-in-hand with me, but this day, they were. I wasn’t catatonic, but I was ambling on a bit aimlessly I seem to recall. I was getting stuff done, but not with nearly the level of efficiency I once enjoyed. Other days in the past seven weeks had been sad, but lacked the emptiness that this day did. This day’s grief had a touch of a new flavor, I noticed.
I was still maintaining an altar of sorts on the mantle, around Alice’s giant picture. For the most part, there were fresh flowers up there, and I believe I was still lighting the candles daily at this point. I wanted to keep her ashes up there too, but Grace did not know about the ashes/cremation yet, so this was not an option. I just had a very clear belief that it was not the right time to tell 4.5-year-old Grace about cremation.
So, the ashes lived in my Chinese armoire, along with some of Alice’s favorite things. Every now and then, I would pull them out. Some days, I’d stare at them in disbelief. Some days, I would hold them on my shoulder, sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” and cry. Some days, I would just collapse on the bed, ashes pressed to my heart, and cry. And some days, I would just put them near me and go about my business like it was no big deal that my daughter’s remains were with me. I just did what I had to do on any given day, and didn’t give it a lot of thought, to be honest.
I still didn’t care if I was “doing it right.” Strike that. At this point, it still had not even occurred to me to care if I was “doing it right,” or if anyone else thought I was “doing it right.” I was on auto-pilot, and this was a good place for me to be, as it turned out. I wish to God I had learned to operate from this place before, and without a precipitating tragedy, but I hadn’t. So, here I was. I was on auto-pilot, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I made some good decisions, without haste, whilst in auto-pilot.
I posted, on Facebook, our last family picture taken at the Grand Canyon at the end of June. I just stared at it, for a long time. I then closed my eyes and tried to go back there. I wanted back in that photo in the worst way. The trip had been a great one but that had been a tough day, because we were out all day, and Alice would rarely sleep if she wasn’t in an actual bed. So, I spent a good portion of the afternoon pushing her around the Grand Canyon, alone, hoping she’d sleep.
She didn’t. But we did get a picture of that entire side of the family for the first, and also last, time in that side of the family’s history. This was thanks to the efforts of my stepsister Mandy, who coerced a stranger into taking the photo for us. I am so grateful to her. It’s not the best photo in the world, but there will never be another one like it, so it’s a treasure to me. I stared at these photos from only 2.5 months prior and wondered how life could change so dramatically in such a short time. Nothing was the same. Nothing.
I also published “Thank you, Alice” to my new blog — this blog– on this day as well. I was completely bowled over by the response. I received so much support and encouragement, and so many kind words about the piece. I just had no idea that I would receive that much support, but that kind of support helps more than I can tell you. Telling my story, and having it heard, is one of the single most healing things I have done since I lost Alice. I knew it was healing me as soon as I started, and I knew I had to keep up whether I received encouragement or not. For once, I didn’t give a shit about disapproval. As I said before, I just HAD TO DO IT. It was in my bones.
Now, at this point in 2013, I had not yet read any books on grief. As I stated before, when I picked one up, I knew immediately that it would hinder more than help me at that point. I could tell I would try to “do it right” if I read those books. And I somehow knew that, for me, just doing what came naturally was the key to regaining my footing.
But now, over two years later, I have read a couple of books, mainly because I have been asked to teach some Continuing Education Courses on grief and I needed to do research. One of those books—On Grief and Grieving, by Kubler-Ross and Kessler—was sent to me by my friend Erich, the day after Alice died.
Now, two years past Alice’s death, I can say that I now find it validating. I can also say I was right not to read it right away. I know, in retrospect, that it was crucial that I started my new path without a lot of outside guidance. I can read the book more objectively two years later. And in reading the book, I find that so many things ring true to my own natural experience.
In any event, there are a few parts of the book that particularly resonated with me. One is “Other Losses.” One is “Fault,” and then there is “The Story.” I often underline or star parts of a book that I want to remember (because at heart, I am a dork). I could have basically underlined those entire sections. Every word. I could write an entire piece simply on how much those three parts resonated with me. But they wouldn’t have resonated with me in the beginning. I was not far along enough in September 2013, and I’m glad I didn’t read it then. But I’m thrilled to have it now, so thank you so much, Erich.
I’m certain that other people may find solace in such books right away; I just wasn’t one of them.
“Telling your story often and in detail is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed. Grief shared is grief abated… …. telling the story helps to re-create and rebuild structure,” say Kubler-Ross and Kessler.
I found this to be 1000% true for me. I just did not have enough breath with which to tell the story verbally; verbally telling the story exhausted me. So, I wrote. It was a decision my body made for my mind, really.
“But ultimately we learn that not telling the story and holding it back also takes an enormous amount of energy. Saying we are fine to friend can feel just horrible afterward. Telling our story is primal, and not telling it can be unnatural.”
So, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to all of those that have read this story, who have encouraged me to write this story, and who have reached out to me regarding this sad story. You were/are participating in a crucial aspect of my healing process more than you ever knew, and I am forever grateful.
You saved me.
Blog aside, it was an otherwise rough day. I had another panic attack. It wasn’t the worst one I had experienced thus far, but it was there nonetheless. Now, I was aware by this time that I was having them on the same day, at similar times. Luckily, I generally did not work at those times, so I was free to deal with myself, but trust me, there was plenty to do without having panic attacks.
I’m not sure why I wasn’t more proactive about the panic attacks, once I realized they were panic attacks and that they were cyclical. Well, I was still in shock, so there’s that. Also, I think I was thinking: “Now that I know they come at the same times, they will stop coming,” as if discovering their pattern would lessen their power over me. And the panic attack was not as severe that week, so that added fuel to my delusional theory.
In any case, I breathed, and slowed down, and the attack eventually subsided. Again, I called upon my friends that day. I believe it was Tommy that talked me through it on this particular day, even though it was his birthday. He’s a good friend, that Tommy Doyle.
Grace and I started therapy that night. Fortuitously, it was about five blocks away from her new preschool, because if there is one thing I loathe, it’s darting all over town during rush hour. It was her second day of the new preschool, and she seemed to really like it, thank God. Her ballet buddy Elle was at the school, which helped a lot.
Grace was fine, but I cried a lot during the session. I cried more than I had in days, actually. It made me realize that while I now had moments where I could press on, grief had not gone anywhere. I was slowly moving along, down the hall, but that grief would pour out, and pull me through, any open door. So, I went through the doors when they opened, let it out, and when finished, I’d walk back through the door and forward down the hallway. It’s all I could figure out to do.
It seems to work, so it’s a system that I uphold.
Sometimes, in those early days, there was no open door, but I would recognize that an unstoppable need to grieve had arisen. At those times, I opened the door myself. I had never been adept at this before, but I just sort of fell into after Alice died.
Sometimes, while my shaky hand reached for the doorknob, I realized that I was afraid that the door would not open. But, it always did. Every time. Eventually, I stopped being afraid to open them. But at this point in time, I was still a little afraid. Just not afraid enough to NOT open it.
Those doors were therapy, yoga, meditation, writing, family and friends. I have so many beautiful people around me who opened themselves up so that I did not have to grieve all alone, all the time. You all know who you are, and you have my eternal gratitude.
You saved me too.
Wednesday, September 18th, 2013
Like previous Wednesdays, I was exhausted. I went to work anyway. I did not have the luxury of lying about crying. And, I’m not sure I needed to, really. I cried in spurts, not long drags. I didn’t have much energy, however. If possible, I would have taken more time off of work and composed thousands of thank you cards. I completed some notes that fall, but certainly not all. I’d forget to whom I’d already sent a card. This wasn’t like me; I generally have a good memory. In any case, I was just basically a mess with the thank you cards. I wish I could have stayed home, thought of Alice, and wrote thank you cards all day. But I couldn’t. I had to hope that, for now, the simple act of not succumbing to the darkness would demonstrate my undying gratitude for everyone that has helped me and my family.
I’m still struggling with keeping up with thank you cards, a fact that upsets me. But there were/are just so, so many people to thank, and life just became so hard to navigate over the last two years, and it was all I could do to get the basics done most days. So, I keep putting one foot in front of the other knowing that: the more I can do for myself, the less help I need; hoping that people will understand that my gratitude for them knows no bounds; and hoping that one day, I’ll be together enough to go back to thank you cards.
It’s now November 2015, and I’m finally starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to see that light. I don’t even care how long it takes to actually reach it, now that I can see it. It’s there. I’m moving forward. And that’s just about the best feeling I’ve had in in 2 ¼ years. I am not completely and totally overwhelmed every moment of the day these days. I was beginning to think there was going to be no end to the suffocating feelings of being overwhelmed.
It’s hard not to give up.
I had a lovely, punch-drunk chat with Tommy on September 18th. He had checked in on me to see if I’d recovered from the panic attack, and got me got me laughing in the process. I’m not sure I had yet laughed so easily. It felt amazing to realize I was laughing without guilt. Laughing truly is good for your soul, and you reap the benefits of laughing long after the active chuckles have stopped. It really does change your headspace, and so, when given an opportunity to laugh, I take it. Every time. I can’t afford not to do so. I can never thank Tommy enough for knowing how badly I needed to laugh even before I knew it, for providing me the opportunity to laugh, and for having the wisdom to discern when I should be allowed to cry, and when I should be led to the laughter.
And Meleva, you are a master of that too, my love: knowing when to let me weep, and knowing when it’s OK to throw a joke in there to get me turned around. This is a risky business, getting someone to laugh through tears. One wrong move and you could have a real disaster. I am blessed with so many friends that can do this for me, but Tommy and Meleva are champs. And Fran. And Jennifer, Deanna, Jenna, and Nancy—you too. I love you all so much.
Now I am sure I’ve left someone out, and so I will feel guilty for that for a spell, because, Guilt.
A lovely mom in our neighborhood, Chaya, took me for Korean massage after work on the 18th. Chaya is a wonderful person. I got to know her a little bit when we both worked to start a charter school in our neighborhood. I remember, vividly, seeing her in my home the day after Alice died. I remember most of what happened that day, but there are a few things that really stick out. These things I remember not with movie memory, but as if I was standing RIGHT THERE, and seeing Chaya is one of them.
I remember standing in the doorway between the hall and the dining room, about 24 hours after Alice died. I was dazed. My eyeballs felt like raw hamburger from crying so much. My tongue hurt, like it had been dragged over gravel. My house was absolutely full of people.
I looked over my right shoulder, and saw Chaya and her husband standing there. I hadn’t seen them come in. Chaya was standing there with her mouth agape, staring at me. I wondered what she was thinking, but not enough to, you know, ask. I stared back for a minute. Eventually I walked over to them. I think we hugged. I am not sure she said anything to me at first. She gave me a baggy full of homeopathic remedies (she is a homeopath, as well as a therapist). She told me she brought them for me, if I was interested. She explained what they were for, and had written down the instructions, which was great, because I was completely incapable of processing lengthy instructions at that time.
I was, in fact, interested in the remedies. More interested than I was in those then the baggies of Valium and Ativan that had found their way into my house. I knew immediately that I wanted to try to do this drug-free, if possible. I wanted pharmaceuticals to be a last resort, not my first stop. Not because I hate Western Medicine, not because I think badly of people who do take meds, but because, well, I have no idea.
I just knew that I wanted to at least try life without the drugs. I didn’t want to stuff down my emotions with drugs. I KNEW this was too big for prescription drugs. I thought, “If there is ever a time I should be allowed to just let my feelings rip, this is the time.” My table at work is often occupied by people with anxiety/depression who are on meds, but still don’t fell well. And, I thought, if I start on meds, how can I gauge my progress, or lack thereof? So, I thought, let’s try meds last.
As I write that, it sounds my decision took some time to process. But, it didn’t. I knew the aforementioned in a flash. Shock, it seems, makes what is clear for you, really effing clear, really effing fast.
And, in the beginning, in the first few days following an unexpected loss/tragedy, you don’t know how to articulate what you need yet. YOU’RE IN SHOCK. And you know what, no one else knows what’s best for you either, so be wary of too much unsolicited advice. The people that really have your back give soft suggestions.
I wanted to feel my feelings, and if they became “too much,” or if I noticed I was becoming non-functional, the meds would always be there. For the time being, it seemed that people were willing to let me feel my feelings. I thought, “This is the time to feel whatever I feel. The unmentionable just happened. I am entitled to my damn feelings.”
And you know what? So are all of you.
In any event, Chaya had given me various homeopathic herbs, but the one I stuck with was a tincture called Star of Bethlehem. It was easy to take. I didn’t have to think about it; I just added a couple of drops to my morning hot lemon water.
I think it helped. When there are so many variables shifting in your life at once, it’s hard to say definitively what helped and what didn’t. It’s not like the powers-that-be issue you some homunculi that you can run through other potential scenarios until they reach the projected conclusion so that you can asses your best move. You are one, and you are all you’ve got, so you have to trial and error it, people, you have to trial and error it.
I think the tincture helped mainly because my close friends kept telling me that I was doing so well, and that they were so proud of me. I didn’t really know, or care, if was “doing a good job” or not, for once in my life. But I deeply appreciated their encouragement, and took it as a sign that I should continue tackling this loss, this grief, this guilt, in the manner that I had begun to establish.
Which, was mainly “winging it.”
I have, yet again, digressed.
Chaya and I went for a massage. This was the second massage I had received since Alice died. It was helpful. No, it was beyond helpful. I had no idea how much tension I was holding until the gal started working on me. But I was able to really let go during the massage, and I felt so much different after the treatment. Chaya and I had a wonderful talk over tea after the massage. She also asked me how I did it, or something to that affect. I can only remember staring blankly thinking, “I have no idea. Am I ‘doing it?’ I mean, I don’t know if what I’m doing could actually be considered ‘it.’”
I still very much felt like I was just surfing a wave the best I could, with as little effort as possible. I didn’t have it in me to exert much effort at this time.
Chaya helped me so much, in so many ways. She was the one of the folks that referred me to Southern California Counseling Center, which would turn out to be an enormous contributor to my healing. She also provided the very helpful, easy-to-take homeopathic meds. And she provided me this massage, which not only helped me in that moment, but also helped me realize that body work was going to be an essential part of my recovery.
Two years later, I have done some studying up on the physical symptoms of PTSD, and realize that I had so many of them on 9/18/13. Now I know how important it is to deal with them swiftly. Dealing with the physical symptoms is every bit as important as dealing with your mental and emotional symptoms. Chaya clearly knew this too, and she led me to something that I considered a luxury, which allowed me to realize it was anything but. It was crucial.
After the massage, I renewed my promise to myself; to do something for my mental-psycho-emotional-spiritual health every single day for at least an hour. Massage, therapy, good diet, a long bath, herbal supplements, writing, yoga, meditation, spiritual readings, hiking, all of it helped me, so all of it counted. And I knew I needed all the help I could get.
Thank you to every single person that made it possible to keep that commitment to myself. You helped more than you can ever know. And in helping me, you helped my daughter more than she will ever know. You allowed my daughter to continue to have a whole mother. A broken-hearted mother, yes, but a whole mother. I can look back now and know that although I was clearly not my best, Grace still had her whole mommy. And she had a real version of her mommy. And that’s what it’s all about, folks.
Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Thursday, September 19th, 2013
I noticed that I had not experienced a blepharospasm since I had the massage, which was of note, because my eyelid was in spasm for 7 weeks. It has never gone into spasm again. I noticed a massive release of neck, face and scalp tension during the massage, and I guess that release was enough to free my eyelid.
So, thanks to Chaya for that too.
I somehow got stuck on Big Star on this day. Now, I’ve been a repeat-ad-nauseum listener my entire life, but I hadn’t listened to music much since Alice died. And this was of note, because I am an enormous music fan. But now that I think of it, other than Alice’s memorial, I’m not sure I played any music at all for those first weeks after she died. Nor did I watch TV, really. I might have turned it on a couple of times, but I never ended up watching it. I guess I needed silence. I guess my brain, heart, and soul were so busy processing what happened that I could not take in much extra stimuli. When I wasn’t taking guests, or answering emails or texts, I guess I needed quiet.
But on this day, I found myself listening to Big Star. The song “Thirteen,” I believe. Over and over and over again. I call it, “Going inside the melancholy to purge the melancholy.” Purge has “urge” inside it, after all. I allowed myself to feel the music, and my own feelings deeply. I wept and swayed around a bit, and wept some more. After an hour or so, I felt a glimmer of the quiet sense of relief and accomplishment that I have often felt at the end of such listening sessions in the past. It is a passive, yet triumphant, feeling. It is as if diving into the melancholy allows its transformation into a new emotional state. Radiohead is also good for this, but Radiohead was too much, I think, for me at that time. Big Star is a bit more stripped down. In any event, it felt good to get back to listening to music.
And, now, two years later, I know that this signified that I was probably going to be able to avoid a slip into a deep depression. With clinical depression, one loses interest in things that one used to love. I mean, there’s a lot more to it than that, but that is part of it. I’d dipped my toes back into my passion for music. This was far more significant than I realized at the time. Again, I was just winging it then. But in retrospect, my instinct was in good shape.
Perhaps this is a good lesson in not overthinking things so damn much.
*An aside: Thirteen seemed like a safe choice because it’s melancholy, but it’s not about kids dying or anything. Nor is it the kind of song that makes you tear up by the third chord (Fuck you, Landslide). But if your kid just died, the words to Thirteen suddenly take on a whole new meaning. So, it kinda tricked me into purging. And that’s just fine.*
An apple picking trip had been planned, months before Alice died, for the upcoming weekend with my Mom and my beloved Stepmonster. I decided that we would still go. It was a tradition, and as I have said before, I didn’t want Grace to lose all of her established traditions after her sister died. Nor did I want to hide my grief from her. I needed to balance grieving Alice and going forward in life, both for Grace, and myself. I wanted her to see the real me — tears and heartache and all — but I also wanted her to see that I was going to do my damndest to ensure she still had some traditions. So, I grieved, but I moved. I moved, and I grieved. I wasn’t sure what else to do.
So, my parents flew into town that day with the intention of driving out to apple country the following day. It was a blessing that I was able to see them again, so soon after Alice’s passing, and I’m grateful beyond words that they did not cancel the trip.
I like, no love, going to Oak Glen, CA for apple picking in the Fall. I love Fall. I love apples. I love mountains, and dirt roads, and farmers, and bluegrass music, and the whole shebang. And so do/did my kids. The first year we did it, I decided it would be an annual tradition. Oak Glen is the cutest, quaintest, little mountain town. It has several pristine apple farms on a six-mile stretch of mountain road. All of the orchards do it up for the Autumn celebrations. There is, of course, apple picking, as well as horse drawn carriage rides through the orchards, petting zoos, music, make-your-own-cider stands, hay mazes, jumpy houses and all manner of fun for kids. I adore it. I knew my mom would love it — it is right up her alley — so we had planned her next visit around apple-picking.
It was also the two-year anniversary of the unexpected death of Tommy’s young cousin Eileen. Tommy and I babysat Eileen when we were in college, and after college, I was her nanny for a spell. Alice and I went to the funeral, as I wrote about previously. It was strange to think that my little baby — who had soothed so many broken hearts at the funeral of a girl I had cared for as a baby — went on to have her own untimely death. It just all felt so surreal. I felt like I was supposed to be paying attention to something, but I wasn’t sure what exactly.
Tommy read my blog and sent me a very complimentary text that day, which meant a lot to me, because Tommy is a damn good writer and storyteller. Tommy and his Uncle Terry had unwittingly taught me a lot about storytelling years prior, when I was still a shy girl from Peoria, taking on college in Chicago. Terry can talk, man. I mean, that guy get a conversation going in any situation you can imagine. As a young 19-year-old, I used to watch him work a room and marvel at his ability to shoot the shit, incorporating a room full of very different people into one huge conversation. He’s an inspiration still.
Friday, September 20th, 2013
In preparing for our trip, I realized that I did not have to stop myself from trying to pack the toddler stuff and diaper bag. This gutted me. Prior to this, there were several times that I unconsciously went to grab diapers/wipes/sippy cups/diaper bags or the like. But I didn’t need any of those things any longer, and every time I realized this anew, I developed a sinking feeling in my gut and water would literally shoot from my eyes.
We drove up to Oak Glen and settled into the hotel. It was the first year we were going to spend the whole weekend. We normally just went for the day, but I had always wanted to go for the weekend, and I had been so excited to share it with my kids and heir grandparents.
But Alice missed this trip. And this too gave me a huge sinking hole in my gut. Regret: Oh, God, regret is one of the more painful emotions in our human experience. I try to avoid it as much as I can, but this regret was unavoidable it seemed. At least I hoped it was, for we still did not know why exactly my beautiful daughter had died. Regret is a cold-hearted bitch with no bottom. I knew I couldn’t go too far into it, for I had just endured possibly the largest source of regret — the loss of a child. There is so much to regret: I should have done x while she was living, I should have checked on her more, I should have spent more time with her, and on and on and on and on and on.
I attempted to redirect my thoughts to a more positive form of mourning, if there is, indeed, a positive form of mourning. We do not live in a culture that really presents us with one, do we? You feel like you are in uncharted territory, without a compass, a guide, or instructions. You just have to figure it out for yourself, kids, and hope for the best.
I was teary on and off, but had fun with my family. After dinner, my Stepmonster taught me about Candy Crush. (I know, I know.) I stared with teary eyes and lined up colorful combinations without much concern about if I was doing it right. It was somewhat soothing. I realized that it was somewhat uncharacteristic of me not to get all competitive with myself about it. I am a generally always seeking out ways to maximize my performance, even in the most mundane tasks. I’m better than when I was younger, but it didn’t die out completely. Finishing a dissertation while running a business and caring for a colicky, non-sleeping, three-month-old cured me of my ultra-perfectionistic ways. One day, I looked down at Grace in her sling while I pounded out my dissertation, and realized, “This paper doesn’t have to be perfect. I don’t need to Melissa Monroe this. I just need to get it done. This will not be my best work, and that’s OK, because I have other, more important duties that now compete for my time.” It was a very liberating moment.
I graduated. And Grace eventually slept through the night, but that took a lot longer than my dissertation, I can tell you that right now.
Anyway, I didn’t try to master Candy Crush. And I knew this was not like me. I just liked lining up candy. When I messed up, I just started over again with no stress. Sounds banal, but for me, this was a big thing. I realized, in the aftermath of losing Alice, “I am not in charge of much, if anything. Just keep trying.”
Saturday, September 21st, 2013
The apple picking festivities started in earnest that day. I was excited to take Grace and my parents, but I had a heaviness of heart that is literally impossible to describe. I felt like my head was dragging my body through the mountains. I love the mountains, and it was healing to be amongst them, but the knowledge that this trip was planned with Alice in mind —but that Alice was not here and never would be again — was so omnipresent that it could no be ignored. My head pressed on, so that Grace would know no interruptions in her childhood traditions, but my body knew what my mind was trying to set aside: Alice should be here. Alice should be here. Alice should be here. And she is not. And she never will be again.
It was, perhaps, my first real wave of hopelessness, I can see in retrospect.
I never knew how people survived the loss of a child before I lost a child, and I had trouble figuring it out for myself once I had no choice. But I went at it. One foot in front of the other, through the mountains and apple orchards that I love so much. But the hole in my heart was very obvious that day. The beautiful orchards and mountains seemed like a set. I once again had that feeling that I wasn’t really a part of my surroundings. I felt like my surroundings were “fake,” as if I was Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.
Oddly, I had the unmistakable feeling that my body was “waking up” later in the day. I don’t know really how to describe other than, I became aware of my body that day, but hadn’t really noticed we’d been separated. I felt like, “Oh! Hi! There you are! I hadn’t noticed you were gone, but now that I think of it, I knew something was off! Welcome back!”
This is mainly of note because I had always been hyper aware of my body. I have danced since I was two. I’ve done yoga, and qi gong, and tumbling, and Pilates, and all manner of activities that require a strong mind-body connection for my entire life. Yet, in my state of shock, I hadn’t noticed that mind and body had become disconnected. I’m not exactly sure what prompted the returned awareness of my body. Was it the massage? Was it just a matter of time? Was it the mountain air? Was it everything? In the end, what really matters is: I had a glimpse of my body again, and this was a very good sign, I now know.
At the time, I had no idea that it was a good sign. That day, I mainly felt sad, and had a pit in my stomach. I don’t think I was capable of seeing any “good signs” at that time. I was still very much on auto-pilot.
That sign was good timing too, for I believe the newfound awareness of my body helped negate some of the hopelessness I felt.
It was an act of grace, perhaps.
Sunday, September 22nd, 2013
We went for more orchard time that day, and the skies were quite ominous. I recall thinking that it looked like tornado weather, which was curious, because tornadoes are not really the big concern in Southern California. Earthquakes, yes. Tornadoes, not so much. I found the ominous skies to be somewhat soothing, to be honest. Finally, the skies reflected my feelings. It felt somewhat validating, although I knew, of course, that the skies didn’t give a rip about reflecting my feelings. I’m just saying, when you are going through an existential crisis, and every day is sunny, warm, and cloudless, it gets a bit friggin’ annoying.
I wanted the sky to cry with me. I wanted to see that Alice’s death impacted the very heavens.
Yes, that is enormously selfish, and immature, and perhaps even ignorant, but it’s the truth.
Monday, September 23rd, 2013
Itwas back to the city. Back to school. Back to work. My parents went back to their home. It was harder than usual to say goodbye to my parents this time. I felt alone this day. It was one of the first days I felt that way. I don’t often feel that way, actually, because I actually like being alone.
I muddled through.
In writing this, I can see that I began a sea change during week seven. I read this, and I see the following words pop up quite a bit: auto-pilot, winging-it, emptiness, hollow, low, sad, and down. The weeks prior were tinged more with pure shock, and what psychologists call a “hyper-vigilant” state that you see in someone that has experienced a recent trauma.
I also see words that let me know I was undergoing changes that would help me stave off a deep depression: the reawakening of my body awareness, and the return my interest in music.
I recall my patient “Miriam” —who had come to me after she lost her daughter — telling me, just a week after Alice died, that the grief wouldn’t really kick in full-tilt until the shock dissipated, and that this could take weeks.
She was right.
Week seven, it seems, I was in a bit of a “grieving process” (ugh) limbo. There was diminishing shock, allowing for rising grief, and I was in the state between. It could be Purgatory for those grieving an unexpected loss. And from what I hear you can be in Purgatory a helluva long time (pun intended, I just couldn’t refuse), just hanging out, stagnant, unchanging. Purgatory always sounded worse to me. At least something happened in hell. To be forever trapped in limbo… that’s hell to me.
But, I didn’t stay in this purgatory long, thanks to my wonderful family, all of my incredible friends, the support of so many strangers, my therapists, my yoga teachers, and the access I had to bodywork, hiking trails, Chinese medicine, and homeopathy.
Prior to writing this, if someone would have asked me to identify which week I began to shift from mostly shock to mostly grief, I would have said that the shift started around the end of week eight, and was basically complete by Thanksgiving, which would be week seventeen, I think.
But in reading this thing that I wrote, I see words that belie an earlier shift. Although I was still in shock, I was becoming unstuck. It’s as if the shock was peeled slowly away, not only exposing the fresh, raw, grief and sadness just below it’s surface, but also allowing the fresh air of awareness and music in there to heal the wound.
My undying thanks for all of you that ensured that I became unstuck, then and now. I was grieving, yes, but I was not stuck. And that, my friends, is perhaps the greatest gift I have ever received.
All my love to you.