Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween: My beloved dead

Today is Halloween. I've always loved Halloween. When I was a kid I would spend many days planning my costumes; to this day my favorite may be the year I dressed as a shadow, all in black with filmy veils. I would stand behind people and imitate their movements which turned out to be a lot creepier than it sounds. As I grew older I became one of the adults who always has their porch light on for trick-or-treaters, even when I lived in a neighborhood where no one went out past dark.

Last year Kevin and I did what we always do - did - on Halloween. With great forbearance he would watch scary movies with me while I answered the door for trick-or-treaters. When there was a particularly wonderful costume I would yell for him to come look. Unlike previous years, last year he rarely came. He didn't feel well. We didn't yet know what that meant.

This is the world I live in now, one where every day, every commonplace event has associations with Kevin, our relationship and, from now through the end of March, with his illness. Everyone says the first year is the hardest because of all the "firsts" and I am certainly finding it challenging. I expect this year I will keep tissues handy while I answer the door.

Halloween is traditionally a time when we consider the dark. When we pay homage to the ghouls and ghosts that always surround us. Tonight we enter into Dias de los Muertos, the day of the dead and I have an alter set up for Kevin and my other beloved dead to welcome them in. In truth, this is no different than any other day for me now. What else can I do?

In some ways my life is now a perpetual Halloween. Every day I speak to the dead. Every day I pay homage to the unseen around me. Every day I welcome my beloved dead in because that is far preferable to closing the door on possibility.

Tonight I will watch scary movies, though not as scary as the ones I would watch when he was here. I will answer the door and pass out candy. I may yell for Kevin to come look at any particularly wonderful costumes and hope that he sees them. I will set out some of his favorite food and share a meal with him. I will celebrate my dead, because there is no other choice but celebration of life, even when that life has ended.

Happy Halloween.

(31 weeks. I love you.)

(c) 2014 Laura Packer
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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ask the storyteller: so whaddya want to know?

I used to write a lot about storytelling. I really miss it, but I'm having some difficulty writing about anything not related to grief, so I'm asking you for help.

What questions do you have about storytelling? I have 20+ years of experience as a performer and consultant. I've told stories in some pretty odd places. I've seen stories transform lives.

I've thought deeply about storytelling, its meaning and practice, myth and folktale, story application, use and misuse. I love this stuff.

This is a chance for you to help me back to my calling, get me back on the road. What would you like to know? About performance, application, process? About my experiences as a performing artist, writer and consultant? The field is wide open.

I'd like to make this a weekly column on Wednesdays. Leave your questions in the comments below or send them to me here. If you see this on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media you can leave questions in the comments section.

I really appreciate your help. Let's make some beautiful stories together.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Seven months: Obvious and true

Today is seven months since you took your last breath. I can't believe it. I have no choice but to believe it. Seven months since we last held hands, seven months since I kissed you, seven months since... everything.

I miss you.
How stunningly obvious.

Yesterday was my birthday, the next in a long line of milestones marking your last year. On my birthday last year we had a few friends over. We laughed. We ate cake. I remember being worried because you weren't eating much but you assured me you just had a stomach ache. It was a sweet day. Afterwards we both remarked that we were finding friends, community, that Kansas City was going to work for us.

Yesterday I was well taken care of by friends, some of whom you've met, others have arrived since you died, brought into my life by your death and my need. It was nice. They all did their best to let me know how much I am loved. I appreciate it. They were kind and loving and concerned.

But they aren't you.
Again, how stunningly obvious. How utterly true.

When I blew out my candles I forgot to make a wish.

I sobbed last night, violent painful tears.
That's okay. As I move through grief (and I am moving though the path is jagged) I have learned that even if I feel truly, utterly, horrendously sad, it will ease. It won't abate, but I will eventually be able to breathe for at least a little while.

I eventually fell asleep and dreamt.

I had some new and magical way to travel through time. It was a year ago, my birthday when you were still here, and I had knowledge of what was to come. You had begun the rounds of doctors' appointments and I begged you to insist on a CT scan. I knew what the results would be and I was hoping against hope that it would be caught early enough that we might be able to do something, save you somehow. I gave you a hug and kiss, watched you walk out the door and thought of how I would look surprised and upset when you came home to tell me the results of the scan. How we would find the best doctors and how maybe things could be different. I knew it wasn't soon enough so I was already thinking of how I might go further back in time and try again.

I woke full of painful hope, knowing that even then it wouldn't be enough. That I would still be here, a year later, alone in our bed.

I lay awake for a long time, staring into the dark, wishing I had magical powers.

I still wish I had magical powers. I didn't think to wish for them when I blew out the candles.

I miss you. I always will.
I love you. I aways will.
I do not regret a minute of our time together, even with the pain I am experiencing now.
How true. How obvious and how true.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, October 27, 2014

Birthday post: Two lists

Today is my birthday. For most of my life my birthday, and the birthdays of those I love, have been my favorite holidays. This year it feels, at best, superfluous and confusing. I no longer know why I am here. While Kevin was not my reason for being he helped me find confidence and meaning even in (what I thought were) the most challenging of times. Without him it is very hard to find. I know that feeling will change, that eventually I will have purpose again and reason to celebrate my existence, but for today, it just feels like another piece of cognitive dissonance.

In past years I have posted lists of things I am grateful for, one for each year of my life but, for obvious reasons, this year that would be hard to do. Coming up with 47 things to celebrate would be a reach and one I don't want to undertake. I'm sure some of you are thinking but that's the best time to write out a gratitude list! when you aren't sure what you're grateful for! You may be right, but it's not going to happen. As the song says, it's my birthday and I can cry if I want to.

Nonetheless... In all of the difficulty, trauma and loss of the last year there are some things I'd like to draw attention to. Some thank-yous to be said.
  1. I am grateful for my friends and family. Thank you for dancing with me through all of this, being understanding when I've been sharp, giving me space or embracing me as seemed right.
  2. I am still grateful for the beauty in this world.
  3. I am grateful for social media that allow me to have company at 2am and readers for this blog.
  4. I am grateful for tea. 
  5. Lastly, and most importantly for me this year, I am grateful for Kevin.
    For his love.
    For the enduring memories of 15 superlative years.
    For his grace in the face of death and utter engagement in his life.
    For his foibles and follies and the rhythm of his heart.
    There is no one on this planet I love more. Even now. Thank you, sweetheart.
In The Hobbit we learn that hobbits give gifts on their own birthdays. I like that, especially at this time in my life when I have far more than I need. So I'd like to offer this to you:
  1. May you love and be loved so well you shatter and must rebuild anew when it ends.
  2. May your grief be punctuated with moments of grace.
  3. May you love again, be it a dog, a friend, the world or a partner.
  4. May you remember who you are and rejoice in it.
  5. And may you know that your life touches many, that you matter, and, in eventual time, may you be mourned and remembered as well as you mourn and remember.

Love to all.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A lexicon of grief

I love words. I love their possibility and precision. I expecially love archaic words that once had significant context and meaning but now only reflect an outmoded way of thinking.

A great example of this is collective nouns.
A murder of crows.
A hastiness of cooks.
A blush of boys.

You would think such thorough lexicographers would have found a collective noun for just about everything.
A charm of finches.
A knot of toads.
A pity of prisoners.

They didn't.

There is no collective noun for a group of widows or widowers. There is no word that captures the utter isolation you experience when you lose a spouse. There are no specific words for the darkess of the night, the silence, the emptiness where once there was warmth. There are no graceful, antiquated words for the particular keening sound I make. There are no words

I don't have the words. My most trusted ally is absent.

So I offer you a few collective nouns, specific to those who are grieving. Perhaps the lexicographers can add them to their lists.
A keen of sorrow.
An echo of silence.
A singularity of widows.

Grief underscores the old axiom "needs must" and so in my need I must create new words. New patterns. A new udnerstanding of what it is to be a singular entity, even in a crowd. I have become a singularity of widows. 

(c) 2014 Laura Packer

(30 weeks. No words.)
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Friday, October 17, 2014

Writing about grief. Mathematics.


I wasn't sure what to write about this week. Truthfully, I rarely know exactly what I'm going to write about when I sit down for my Friday post. I know only that writing helps. That analyzing, sharing and being present with my grief through the written word helps. 

I started to write about exhaustion. But that felt trite and, really, how interesting is it to hear how tired I am? Then I began to write about the very physical nature of grief, but I've written about that before and I get tired of listening to myself say the same things over and over again. I then thought about how grief is a roller coaster. But I've written about that too, and I want that post to stand on its own since it's from the before. And then I thought about the dividing line, the before and after. But that's not for today, I'm not ready yet. I may write more about fatigue, the physical pain of grief, the inescapable cycles - heck, I probably will - but none of those are what I wanted to say today.

I started thinking about the process of writing about grief and that felt interesting. I thought about how writing shifts things and I knew what I wanted to say this week.

I've had some lovely and humbling comments about how helpful my public grief journey has been. Thank you. Honestly, I don't feel like I have a choice. By giving it voice, by writing about it, I can understand it more thoroughly and remind myself that I am neither the first nor the last to feel this way. Kevin was one in a million. Together we were one in maybe five million. But considering there are 7 billion people on this planet, we weren't as unique as I might imagine, so it helps me to think that maybe my expression of grief, my changing understanding, will be useful to one of those other thousand or so couples like us. Or, more accurately, to the remaining part of those thousand or so couples.

Giving my grief voice is important for another reason. I do not live in a culture with good models for grieving. I'm coming to think that part of my life's work is education around this inevitable part of living. If we live and love, we will experience grief. It's as simple as that. By sharing my own experience, as individual as it is, maybe the next person will be a little less afraid. Maybe they will feel a little less alone.

Maybe I'm fooling myself and this is all just self-indulgent. I'm sure that's part of it too. But that's okay. Grief is overwhelming and the mourner needs permission to experience it and to not be alone. Sometimes we all need to be indulged.

For me, part of that permission and indulgence is writing. Blogging. Journaling, which I do far more than any other form of writing. Eventually storytelling. All of this helps me believe that I still have a reason for being here and that I will be heard.

I have built my life on a public examination of my experiences. Whether I am telling a folktale, a myth, a piece of fiction or a story from my life, they are all really personal stories. Whether I am writing a blog post about grief, a recipe or directions to a place I love, they are all reflections of my own experience. Fellini said, "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography." I don't know how to do this but to express it and I am profoundly grateful that there are people willing to share it. Here is my pearl.

I hope each of you can find your voice, however that may be. Silence gives the darkness power. Speak up. Be heard. Wail. Live.

(29 weeks. I love you.)

(c) 2014 Laura Packer
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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Two songs. A post in two parts

1.  How did I get here?

At this moment I find myself in a coffeehouse in Topeka, Kansas, waiting for a friend prior to her open mic.
Topeka.
Kansas.

At this moment I find myself not crying over the loss of Kevin, but I feel like a walking absence.
Kevin. 
Gone.

In another moment I will cry and try to pretend I'm just wiping my eyes, blowing my nose. An everyday thing in a coffeehouse in Topeka, KS.

At this moment I am drinking tea. I am listening to REM playing over the cafe stereo. I am watching the man across from me talking to himself.

At this moment no one in the world knows where I am. If I close my eyes I feel like I am floating. I am, in many ways, adrift. Not all. 

One of my favorite bands is The Talking Heads. For years I loved the song And she was because it felt like it described my life so well. Now? Once in a lifetime feels more apt.

And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

Here. Listen.




2. I grieve.

When I was in college I experienced my first bout of major depression. I got through, though it was a near thing. Friends helped. A good crisis intervention hotline helped. And some music helped. The Peter Gabriel/Robert Fripp song Here comes the flood helped immensely; I am still here in part because of that song. I listened to it over and over in my dorm room, imagining what it would be like to let go and drown, what it would be like to choose to survive.

When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls

Since Kevin died I barely listen to music. Too much of it is too painful still, carrying memories and secret moments. As you know, music connects to emotion and right now I have more emotion than I can easily handle.
But...

A friend reminded me of this song. While it doesn't represent all of my experience of grief it captures some of it.

the news that truly shocks is the empty empty page 
while the final rattle rocks its empty empty cage 
and i can't handle this 

Once again, Peter Gabriel speaks for me. Thank you. And if anyone knows how I could get a letter to him, thanking him via paper and pen, please let me know.



(c) 2014 Laura Packer

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Grief is a verb

There were many things I was unprepared for as I grieve my beloved. I wasn't prepared for the depths of the pain. I wasn't prepared for how stupid I often feel, my brain clouded with sorrow. I wasn't prepared for the moments of light amidst the darkness, their utter beauty and how shocking it is that beauty can still exist. I wasn't prepared for how utterly exhausting it is to grieve and take a breath, grieve and take a breath.

Grief is not lying prostrate on a fainting couch. There are still dishes to be done, people to be talked to, chores to be accomplished. Life to be lived as best I can. Grief is a weight that is carried everywhere within me. To the pool. To work. To the supermarket. It's not dissimilar from depression in that it colors everything, but I am finding grief to be a hell of a lot more work than the episodes of depression I have experienced.

It's physical. There are days when my body hurts. I sometimes cry until I am on the verge of vomiting. Even in the easier moments, I find I am hunched, braced against the next blow.

Grief is an active process, albeit often an invisible one. To grieve is a verb and grieving is as active and involving as anything I have done.

Everything I do is colored with the questions of why am I bothering, would he have liked this, been proud of me. Every interaction I have has an unspoken dialogue running underneath, one that is unwelcome and distracting but present nonetheless.
How are you?
(why are you asking? I know we've never met, but can't you tell?)
I'm okay, and you?
(Do I really want to know? Oh, better listen.)
(Don't you know my husband is dead? How can your world still be vibrant when mine is broken?)


Living in this double world takes an enormous amount of effort. Even when I'm interacting with someone I know and love, grief circles like a shark that I must be wary of lest it decide to attack. And sometimes it does. The wariness is exhausting. The trying to keep it at bay is exhausting. I marvel at how tired I can feel and yet still function.

It helps when I give myself permission to rest, to put down the burden of everyday life and to not pretend I'm okay. It helps when I find a neutral space so grief can go about its business while I take a breath.


Grief is active and it helps when I rest up for the next bout.

It helps when someone meets me where I am and gives me the space to feel what I need to feel at any given moment. The inner dialogue calms. The shark may still attack but its watchful circles aren't so near. It helps when the grief is acknowledged and permitted space to exist without being called out.

It's active and it helps when you are present with me and accept that I am doing a lot of things all at once.

It helps when I and the world are able to come to a detente and recognize that grieving is much like running an ultra-marathon. It's exhausting. It's all-consuming. It's going to leave you battered and sore and incapable sometimes. Grief is active, as draining as intense physical activity or taking an ongoing test. It changes you and, if you're lucky, it leaves you stronger. Because you're going to have to keep running tomorrow.

(28 weeks. I love you.)

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer

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Friday, October 3, 2014

How it feels

You would think that we all understand how grief feels. We see it in the media all the time and that has to teach us something, right? Watch any action movie and the hero is moved by grief to destroy the bad guys. Characters are knocked off weekly on tv. Books, poetry, music, art... it's everywhere. Isn't it?

Frankly the most accurate modern media depictions of grief I have seen lately are on The Simpsons, when Homer sobs because something painful has happened. We're supposed to laugh at his reaction, at the noises he's making, at his distorted face. I don't laugh. I have wailed like that and will again. In the next moment Homer is fine, whistling and wandering off to another hapless moment. That, too, is true to my experience of grief. When the waves pass I have no choice but to wander off to the next thing I must do because there really isn't any other option. The similarities are minimal and shallow but there.

Homer gets to stop grieving. Minimal. Shallow. Few.

I'm sure if I were a social scientist I would nod wisely and tap my pen against my lip. I would find it significant that the most accurate depictions of grief easily found on television are in an animated show that is supposed to be funny. What does that say about our discomfort with grief?

When Kevin was diagnosed I was shattered. His death has sent me into some kind of transformational process I do not yet and may never understand. I am often still in shock. I find that I am perpetually startled because the idea that Kevin - Kevin! - had cancer and died is blasphemous. Sometimes I howl. Often I am living in a grey world that is utterly indifferent to me and my efforts, rather than the world that I once inhabited where I had some agency. Every once in awhile I feel okay and even that is startling. How can I be okay if he is gone? Guilt sweeps in and the cycle begins again.

That's one of the oddest things about grief. It changes by the moment. Some moments I'm okay. As close to okay as I can be without Kevin. I smile. I might even laugh a little. And in the next? Well.

Here. Try this. Imagine yourself. See your body, your expressions, your movement. Not in a mirror. In your imagination.

When I imagine myself the first thing I see is a flayed skin. Bloody, shapeless and incoherent. Grief means I have lost contour and form. Even in the best moments I am a ghost, grey and transparent, belonging in neither this world nor the world beyond.

That's how it feels.

It's not comfortable. But it is essential.

I would rather live in a world in which I grieve him than one in which I never loved him.

So it goes.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer

(27 weeks. I don't understand how this can be. I love you. I miss you.) Creative Commons License

Monday, September 29, 2014

Grief and story

Humans use narrative to understand our lives. We tell stories to process what we experience, we listen to stories to gain wisdom from others. It is among our most basic of tools for managing the world, for helping us find the small actions that we can control in a universe beyond our control. Whether we experience love or loss, hope or despair, greed or transcendence, there are stories that show us a path.

Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis says that narratives of trial are essential. The teller is saying I've been to hell. I came back. Here is a map. Each map is unique because we all have different inner landscapes, but they offer signposts for the journey. 

There is no one narrative to grief, each person experiences it differently. But the overarching story - love, loss, despair, survival - is an old one, and one everyone experiences. As I travel through the land of grief I am being offered so many story maps. Personal stories from those who have suffered loss. Myths. Fairytales. Each is inaccurate to my journey because each grief is unique, but each reminds me to look for the stacks of stones as I travel my own barren road, landmarks saying I have been here too. You are not alone.

I find myself turning to myths for consolation. At its heart our oldest recorded story, Gilgamesh, is a story of grief and endurance. The King Arthur stories are full of loss and sorrow. These old tales remind me that I am not alone but that I am in the midst of an essential, miserable human experience. Fairy tales, too, have wisdom. They so often begin with loss - I'm talking about stories that long predate Disney and their disappearing mothers - and then they show us that we can recover. We may be transformed into something unrecognizable - we may become the witch, the beast or the princess - but we can endure. 

Even now, as I hesitantly step back into the world of performance storytelling and writing beyond my own experiences of grief, I am handing out maps. My stories are changing as I am changing. Each story I tell says I have been to hell. The road is long but I will come back. I will not be the same. Neither will you. Here is a map. Each story is another stone in the piles along the barren road. I have been here too. You are not alone.
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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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