Thursday, May 28, 2015

Incomplete

It's been a tough few weeks. My father has been in the hospital for almost a month. I've been shuttling back and forth from my home to the city of my birth, a 1500 mile one-way commute, so I can accompany both of my parents in this stage of their journey. It's been a challenge in so many ways (exhaustion, flashbacks, moving, juggling too many things...) but I'm glad I'm here. It's giving us a chance to have the conversations we might not have otherwise. There is nothing like looming mortality to make you say the things you might have held onto.

My parents have been married 48 years. Kevin and I had 15 and I am still struggling to understand the world without him; my mother is looking at losing her beloved and is justifiably terrified. We were talking the other day and she said, "I know I am a complete person without your father, but I think about him not being here and I feel incomplete, like there is a part of me missing." She nailed it. I am a complete person without Kevin - I'm sure part of what he loved/s about me is that I am my own self - but without him I am incomplete.

There are the practical matters. Kevin took over our electronics and networking; I cooked and managed the house. We both were capable of doing these chores on our own but we delegated to one another and we trusted each other enough to just let the other manage things. It's as though we each took over a part of the practical matters of life, so we each let various skills atrophy. I no longer really know how to network my new apartment. I am figuring it out and I am getting help, but it's not the same. It's Kevin's job. Or it was.

There are the intangible matters. Kevin knew me like no one else ever has or ever will. He understood me in a visceral way. This isn't to say other people don't know me or to imply I am some kind of conundrum, I'm not, but there is a level of understanding between soul mates that just doesn't exist elsewhere. He knew me in my sleep as I knew him. No one else does. He would understand better than anyone else what my father's illness means to me.

And there are the other things, too. Kevin was my safe place. I was thinking I want to go home, but then realized home has become a less meaningful word, because what I really want is Kevin. Which brings me back to visiting my father when he is ill and trying to support my mother as she supports him. I never imagined I would have to face this without Kevin. I am, and I am finding the things I learned from his death are again useful. It's knowledge I wish I didn't have.

Kevin filled in my weak spots. Together we were greater than the sum of our parts. Alone I find I am unbalanced, missing parts, for all that I am a functional, able person.

That's one of the risks of loving, I guess. We depend on someone else and when they are gone, really gone, we have to rely on ourselves again and, no matter how able we are, it is a dance for two performed by one. Incomplete.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 22, 2015

Celebration, grief and paradox

My life goes on. Even when I want desperately for time to stand still, it doesn't stop. I resent each second that takes me further away from Kevin's life and yet I embrace them. Healing is a looping, wandering path.

Because life goes on and (I suppose) because it is my nature, I keep forging ahead as best I can. Things are happening. I've moved, I'm working more, I'm getting good gigs and so on. Each time one of these things happens I want nothing more than to tell Kevin. To see him grin and say, "That's great!" all the while looking as though he expected nothing less and knows more great stuff is on its way.

I still tell him, but the delight I hear in his voice is in my head. I feel the warmth of his grin as a beloved memory, still alive in my heart, and maybe, hopefully, a bit of connection to the beyond.

The person I most want to celebrate these small victories with is gone, and this is the reason the smallest of victories requires celebration. I got out of bed today, hurrah! I secured a great gig, yippee! Were Kevin here I would still tell him, still be thrilled with his joy, but the need to tell him and the the need to feel his pleasure is so much greater with him gone.

This is so much of my experience of grief. It is a paradox. The thing and person I need most in the world is the thing and person I most cannot have. The person who would understand the best were I to tell him, "Hey, I got up today! I didn't cry for you today. I even laughed a little," is the person who cannot respond in ways I understand.

I find myself celebrating these small victories for us both. I tell him anyway, even if I cannot hear his response. I toast the air with my glass of wine and "clink" for us both. I hold onto the paradox because is better than only pain. Because in this confusion and uncertainty I can at least remind myself that there are glimpses of light in the dark. That the sound of his laughter is still in the universe, that the photons that touched his face are still touching mine. That even in the cold and dark the memory of his warmth and light and life is better than never having had it to lose in the first place.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 15, 2015

Flashbacks

Trigger warning: This post is about having flashbacks. It includes descriptions of hospitals and illness. If that would be difficult for you then please pass this one by,


I am in a hospital room, keeping my parents company while my father waits for heart surgery. As heart surgery goes it's not too bad and I wouldn't be anywhere else but, as you can imagine, it's complex.

The new images of my father in the hospital bed (doing quite well at the moment) overlay the images of my husband in his hospital bed. Each sound I hear in this cardiac critical care unit sends me back to another critical care room. Each time I hold my father's hand I feel another. I watch his monitor and remember another. I remember when we shut it off.

As I sit here waiting, listening to his airbed inflate and deflate I slow my breath and close my eyes so I am not overwhelmed with the feelings and memories of my beloved in his last days. I want to be present with my parents in this moment, though the pull of the other moments is strong.

Grief is multi-faceted. There is sorrow and guilt and unexpected light. There is the struggle for connection and the ever-changing understanding of what "loss" means. There is the trauma of Kevin's illness and of his death. And there are flashbacks.

Just about everyone I know who has experienced a significant loss has had flashbacks. Those sharp, intrusive memories triggered by a sight or a smell or nothing at all. For months after Kevin died I couldn't walk by a hospital without starting to shake. I would lie in bed and be sent back to the uncomfortable bed in the hospital, to waking in the middle of the night to see if he was still breathing. Now, in another hospital for another loved one, everything sends me back. If I blink it smells and sounds the same; I half-expect to open my eyes and see Kevin, in pain and dying, in front of me. I kiss my father good morning and remember the scrape of Kevin's beard on my cheek. I remember helping him shift. I remember the smell of disinfectant and sweat and oxygen. It is all in front of me again. I'm lucky in that the flashbacks are not overwhelming for the most part. But they are demanding and a challenge to balance while I want to be present in this moment.

I am grateful that I at least understand what's going on. These triggers are big and obvious, not like the ones that send me back to a hard moment and I scarcely understand why. This circumstance is manageable, thought it will have a cost. I expect rough nights and some turbulent days once I am in a situation where I have the leisure to react. It's an acceptable cost to being here now, with my parents when they need me.

I wish it were different. I wish I didn't know these smells and sounds so intimately. I wish there were no associations and I could call Kevin on his cell, tell his about this day and know I was returning to his comfort. As it is, I will tell him in my own way. I will take what comfort I can. And when the images become overwhelming I close my eyes, breath, and remind myself that, while I would undo his illness if I could, these flashbacks are an acceptable cost to loving him so well.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 8, 2015

Chaos, stuff and a momentary lull

As you know, I'm moving. Strictly speaking I have moved; yesterday the movers came, put pretty much everything Kevin and I have owned into a truck and carted it to the new apartment. It's utter chaos.

It's so chaotic I've not been able to think clearly into a blog post.

The move is churning up all kinds of things; I've been going through Kevin's things. It feels really invasive. I want to respect his privacy, even now. I've put a lot of his stuff into storage because I just can't cope with sorting it yet. And it's making me look at all the stuff in my life. I'm thinking a lot about the relationship between self and stuff, grief and stuff, stuff (the physical kind) and stuff (the emotional kind).

Right now? Right now this minute I'm okay. I need to keep moving because sooner or later I won't be able to move anymore. I'll have to stop and let the feelings overwhelm me. But in this moment I'm okay. I'm sitting at my desk in my new office listening to the birds.

I need to keep going. Please forgive me for sacrificing this week's post to the alter of unpacking. If you've ever moved you know this feeling. If you've ever grieved you know what a relief it is to be, in just this moment, alright.

More soon. Thank you.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 1, 2015

Moving and matter

For the last two weeks I've been packing to move. I'm leaving the last place Kevin and I called home. I'm moving for some very good reasons: I found a nice, far more affordable apartment in a neighborhood I like and I don't need or use all of this space. I need to be more frugal. None of that makes this easy or desired.

Packing has been difficult, as you can imagine. Touching the things his hands touched, removing them from the places he put them, all of that is hard. I'm not going to do anything with the clothes in his closet until I am no longer living in this space; I can't bear to see it empty. It hurts, knowing that the very air I breath in this place has some of his cellular matter in it. The new place will have only mine and that of the people who lived there before. Strangers.

Every bit of this feels like a violation. I am dismantling a life I loved so I can move into something uncertain and murky. I can't bear to throw away anything with his handwriting. I have pictures and mementos of his life long before I was a part of it, before his kids were born, before he was anything like the man he came, but I am saving them. I have a storage unit, full of things I will slowly sort through, as I can bear it. I want to do it with care and attention, so I don't hurt myself or dispose of anything his kids value.

It sucks. I don't want to violate his privacy like this, I don't want to take our life apart like this, but I don't know what else to do. Damn it.

All of this being said, I expect it will eventually be a useful change. I don't want to call it a good change because I don't want this new life; I just don't have a choice in the matter. I'm sure, wherever he is, he's pleased that I'm doing this. He would like the new space, it's his kind of place with high ceilings and big rooms. That's part of why I chose it.

I am planning to include Kevin in my new home. To put some of his things into the space so it isn't just mine, it will remain ours. His matter remains mixed with mine. His heart intermeshed with my heart. All of the things we used to build a home still present. Couch cushions dense with his cells. My life dense with us. It matters, maintaining this connection, and I will move mountains to do so for as long as I need.

(As a footnote, please don't tell me that moving will help me move on. I am moving the physical matter of my life. I will move forward at my own pace and no one else has the right or authority to tell me otherwise. Someone tried to recently. That was a mistake. It is also a whole other blog post.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 24, 2015

Conventional wisdom is a liar

Conventional wisdom seems to state that the first year of grief is the worst. You have to get through all the "firsts" and each one has its own pain. First birthday without, first holiday without, first anniversary without, first.... first everything without. It's brutal. Everything is a reminder of without. Conventional wisdom is wrong, however. The first year isn't the worst. The first year is simply the first year.

As I came closer to the anniversary of Kevin's death a number of widowed friends told me that they found the second year to be worse that the first. I asked them why and they all said, essentially, that the numbness had worn off. I didn't know what to think.

Now, less than a month into the second year, I am beginning to get it. I don't think it's that I'm less numb (though that may be part that I can't recognize yet) but it's something about magical thinking that is encouraged by conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom suggests that after a year I should feel better. Part of me has bought into that. There is a part of me that keeps thinking I've been good. I've been doing my best to be okay. I've been REALLY good. So you can come back now. I'm a good girl, right? There is so much cognitive dissonance in grief and so much frustration over the fact that I can change none of this. I have never been so powerless. No matter how good I am, no matter how diligently I move through the world, Kevin is gone and I will never, ever, ever see him again in this life. Which looks to be annoyingly long. Conventional wisdom is wrong. I don't really feel better, but I sometimes thing I should.

That's part of what I'm having trouble with as I move into this second year of life without. I think part of me thought that, if I got through the first year, got through all of the firsts, that things would somehow be different. That Kevin would somehow be back in my life or at least I would feel more balanced. I feel no better today, 56 weeks after his death, than I did 51 weeks after his death.

Conventional wisdom does us as much harm as good here. Because on some level I had some expectation that things would be different in the second year, the ongoing pain feels sharper, even if it is little different from the pain yesterday or a month ago. What's more, because of the conventional wisdom that it takes about year (to my shame I know I've said that to people before I experienced loss. Please forgive me.) others' expectations of how I should be doing are skewed. Grief takes as long and as much as it takes. Today it's taking a lot, my face is stinging from my tears. Tomorrow it might take less. I won't know until tomorrow comes.

I do know that this second year is bringing its own set of first. The first time I celebrate his birthday without him for the second time. The first time I observe Passover without him for the second time. The first time I experience the without for a second time. Layer upon layer of memory. Our lives are sedimentary.

I imagine this time next year I will write something about how the second year was both better and worse than I had hoped. I imagine there will be new ease and new pain. I don't know who I will be in a year. All I know is it will be another year, another layer, another set of new first and new withouts.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 17, 2015

Unwitnessed

There are so many things I miss about life with Kevin. Having my back scratched. Not washing the dishes alone. Laughing. The list goes on and on.

These were all things I could have predicted missing, long before he died. If someone had asked me prior to his illness, what my greatest fear was, I would have told you it was his death. If they asked what in particular I would miss, back scratches, the dishes and laughter might have shown up on the list.

I never would have imagined this one. I miss being witnessed.

When you are in a significant relationship, part of what keeps it going are the mundanities. The things you quickly take for granted, such as being able to tell someone about your day. Having someone to celebrate the small victories (the sauce tastes good!) and console the small defeats (those shoes don't fit anymore). Without a partner I am unwitnessed. We need witnesses to help us understand our own lives and to offer us external perspective. A witness offers us a reflection through which we can consider ourselves and our actions. Without a witness I turn to my journal to help me mark the victories and frustrations. Today I....

I know this isn't particular to being widowed. Single people the world over have to contend with this, be they single by choice or by separation. I am finding that being single via death means I have become acutely aware of how much I depended on this one relationship. Because it didn't end by choice and because Kevin and I were very close, I didn't build the kinds of friendships that could witness my life everyday. Frankly, that isn't really who I am. I don't want to talk with most people every day. I want to talk with Kevin every day.

I want Kevin. I want his laughter and insight. I want him to witness me as I build my business, as I write, as I succeed and as I fail. His absence in my life is part of why I blog about grief; you have become my witnesses for some of this. Thank you.

But in the everyday? I am unwitnessed. My pet guinea pig doesn't care if I screwed up a gig, he cares only if I have carrots. My friends, beloved and wonderful, have their own lives. We catch up in chunks, not in the every day. I don't want the artificial construct of a daily call. My family, supportive and caring, all have their own concerns as well they should. They are all witnessed by their partners. Again, I don't want a daily call out of obligation. I want the one person in the world whose daily life was part of my narrative. My journal is as close as I have now to a witness. And that's okay. I don't want to sound like I'm whining that no one cares about me. I am blessed with friends and family. I am surrounded by people who care and I know how very lucky I am.

I am grateful. Thank you all.

And still, without Kevin I am unwitnessed and I sometimes wonder how much of life is due to an observer effect.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 10, 2015

What does healing look like anyway?

My friend Bridgette and I were chatting recently about grief. She lost someone close to her when she was young and it's had a lasting effect. I asked her about healing, how she knew when she was moving through the grief, and she replied, "What does healing look like anyway? I still miss him, even years later. The loss is still there. It's just easier to bear."

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Having just passed the year mark of Kevin's death, I already have people say things like, Well, it's been a year, you must be better now, right? I know these things are said lovingly, with hope and encouragement behind the words. The honest answer is no, I am not better. I don't know if I ever will be better or what better looks like.

What I do know is I experience more ease. The pain of losing Kevin is not gone. I doubt that wound will ever heal. But it is easier. Sometimes. I still have days when I wake crying, when I can barely function. They are slightly less frequent now. I am more likely to have days that are a blur where, while I may not be sobbing, I still am shrouded.

Rose Kennedy, a woman who knew something about love and loss, said, "It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone." I think she's right. I have the thinnest layer of scar tissue now, easily scraped away, but there nonetheless. The grief still comes in waves. I still drown sometimes. Now, at least, I know the wave will pass.

So what does healing look like? For me it seems to mean that I can talk about Kevin without immediately crying. It means I can visit some of our shared pleasures without falling immediately apart. It means I am beginning to think about what the coming days and weeks will be like without feeling only the lack of my heart. Healing looks like crying, like staring off into the distance, like laughing and stopping with a start. It looks like good moments mixed in with the bad. It looks like me.

I don't think I will ever recover from this loss, in the sense that I will recover who I was before he died. I am and will be different. A loss of this magnitude should leave scars. A love of this magnitude changes you. So does the loss.

My heart is still broken. It beats in a different time now, without Kevin's heart in rhythm. I am learning to hear the new rhythm and I may eventually find the dance in it. Not today. But I am still here. I am able to feel the sun on my face. That, perhaps, is what healing looks like. I am still here.

p.s. I've hesitated to publish this post because I don't want anyone to think I am done grieving. All I am noting is that things change. To deny the change would be as false as denying the pain, would be as false as denying the ease.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Listen to the world around you

I taught a storytelling class recently and started, as I always do, with listening. Afterwards one of my students asked me, "What do you mean when you say storytelling starts with listening? I get that we need to have people listen to us, but what about before?" I realized I hadn't done a good job explaining.

What follows was originally posted in this blog waaayy back in 2008. I've rewritten portions but it still stands. I will adjust the way I reach listening but for now? Listen. Listen to the world around you. There are stories in the birdsong, in the rain spatter, in the overheard.

*     *     *

Shhhh.

Listen.

Listen beyond your own inner monologue and the hum of the computer and your to-do list.

Take a moment and just listen to what's happening around you. What do you hear?

It can be hard to just listen, whether to your environment, to a selected sound such as music, to ourselves, or to another person. We're so accustomed to our own running monologues or to filling our environments with other sounds that when we take the time to just listen, it can be a little overwhelming. Yet this experience can lead to a transcendental moment, to a deeper understanding of another person or our own selves.

I listen a lot.
I listen to other people. I listen some to music, though less so since Kevin died. I listen to the natural world. I listen to the hums and rumbles of everything surrounding me. I listen to myself again, to see what might have changed. I've always been a listener, but even more now. I listen to the world to find myself, to find echoes of Kevin, to be reminded that I am not alone.

You already know I'm a storyteller, that I create my own works of fiction and non-fiction and perform them in front of live audiences. Well, good storytelling comes out of listening to the audience. More than that, it comes out of being listened to deeply prior to the performance. More than that, it comes out of listening to the world around you to find those kernels that become stories in the first place. Storytelling is an act of listening.

If storytelling is my life's work, as I believe it to be, then listening is also my life's work. Helping others learn how to listen and understand the impact of deep listening is part of that work.

Listen. Don't interrupt. What do you hear? What does it call upon you to say? What happens when you listen then speak for the world?

(c) 2008 Laura S Packer

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, April 3, 2015

A plague of loss

One of the many things I cherish about my relationship with Kevin is our approach to the Holy. Kevin was a faithful Christian. I am a struggling Jew. We had many conversations about what it means to have faith and how that faith could be expressed. This was one of the things that bound us to each other in the early days of our relationship; it was one of the things that helped us navigate the end.

Though Kevin and I came from different traditions and had different understandings of faith, god and spirituality, we found common ground. We respected each others beliefs, talked about it frequently and eventually built new rituals that honored us both. The new traditions honored religious calendars, community and common ground between us. Many of you may have heard about or participated in our Christmas celebrations. Far fewer knew about our Passover celebration.

Blood
Frogs

I was raised in a secular home. It was only once I was involved with Kevin that I really began to explore what it means to have more than 3,000 years of history behind me. While I am unlikely to ever be deeply observant, being Jewish has become an important part of my identity, one that is tightly bound to my Christian husband.

Lice
Enraged beasts

As I explored more of my own heritage, with Kevin's encouragement, I found that I particularly love Passover. I love the ritual and story of it, that it celebrates freedom and memory and does so through food and narrative. Kevin and I attended friends' Seders and then began to host our own. It was another piece of common ground for us, as descendants of enslaved people and as people questing for our own understanding of the world.

Cattle disease
Boils

Every year I would consider the Seder and the story told. I would look to my own heart for the parts that had the most meaning. I developed my own Haggadah and sought a deeper understanding of the ritual. Soon I noticed that the naming of the plagues always brought me to tears and I would find myself shaking as God forbade the angels from celebrating the death of the Egyptian firstborn, stating that all beings are beloved. It helped me understand the depths of enslavement, if it took something so terrible to break it. It helped me feel empathy for all people and helped me remember that everyone wants to feed their family, everyone loves their children, everyone grieves. I would encourage those at my Seder table to consider how truly terrible each of these plagues were, how they are more than words on a page and drops of wine on a plate, but each one brought pain, loss and grief.

Hail
Locusts

Now, in my season of grief, this is even more acute. Before the grief was a theoretical thing. Now it is intimate and personal. Kevin's death and my grief feels like my own plague and I keep wondering what I have done to deserve such punishment. Of course I know cancer is not my fault. Of course I know I did nothing to make him ill or deserve this loss. But grief has its own language and own fickle logic. In the middle of the night my heart cannot help but ask why, over and over again, wondering if there was something I could have done to change what has happened.

Darkness
Death of the firstborn

For the first time in many years, this year I am not hosting a Seder. I will go to a friend's home and say the prayers with her community. I will be the welcome stranger. I will close my eyes and hear Kevin's voice mixed in with all of ours as we recite the story together. And as we place drops of wine on our plates to signify the losses incurred by the plagues, I will add one extra.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.truestorieshonestlies.blogspot.com.
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