Friday, May 30, 2014

What helps. What doesn't.

With Kevin's memorials coming right up in Kansas City and Boston, I find myself anxious.
I'm anxious about seeing so many people at once. I don't do well in crowds these days (frankly, I never did).
I'm anxious about the symbolism of these events and how they will impact my mood as well as his kids' moods.
I'm anxious about remembering to be kind when I am in such a state.
I'm anxious.

To allay that anxiety I thought it might be helpful if I put together a few thoughts about what helps and what doesn't. This is a highly personal list, I'd love to hear your thoughts. What really helped? What was such a mistake that you had to try not to laugh? I'm so early in this journey that I barely know my name, let alone the answers to most questions. This post was triggered by this article in the Grief Toolbox about the best and worst things to say to the grieving. I've already heard a bunch of these comments and no, heaven didn't need another angel.

And please note, none of this is written in stone. Grief is a constantly shifting landscape. I would far rather you talk with me and make a mistake out of loving concern than not interact with me. If you're afraid that you've already done some of these things, please don't worry about it. I know you were doing the best you could and I appreciate every sincere effort. I still love you.

It helps when you ask me how I am and are genuinely wondering.
It doesn't help when you ask me how I am and then immediately backpedal or launch into how you think I am.

It helps when you are patient as I formulate an answer. I often find talking difficult these days. Equally, I often don't really know how I am.
It doesn't help if you try to fill in the blanks while I'm thinking. I am slower than I used to be and it takes me some time.

It helps if you notice when I'm relatively cheerful or making a joke. Sure, it might be dark humor, but it's humor.
It doesn't help if you get all teary when I try to be upbeat and tell me how strong I am. I don't feel strong. I am just teetering towards managing and wanted to share it with you. Additionally, I am struggling enough with feelings of guilt whenever I feel okay.

It helps if you ask me questions, talk with me about Kevin and respect my need to sometimes abruptly change the topic.
It doesn't help if you avoid talking about Kevin, death, grief, etc because you don't want to upset me. I'm already upset. Pretending these things didn't happen makes me fear he will disappear.

It helps if you let me cry. Sometimes that might be scary, I cry big these days. Get me a cool cloth or some water if you want. It also helps if you let me not cry. Sometimes I just don't want to, so I work to control it.
It doesn't help if you tell me not to cry. This stuff has to come out. I think grief is composed largely of snot and tears. Maybe it's ectoplasm. Who knows. I produce a lot of it.

It helps if you let me grieve in my own way. I don't know how long this will take, I don't know how strange I might become.
It doesn't help if you tell me how I am supposed to grieve. Suggestions are welcome, but may not be helpful.

It helps if you take a moment before hugging me to assess if I want to be touched. Try putting a hand on my shoulder first. I miss touch terribly, but it's Kevin's touch I really miss. And let go when I start to pull away.
It doesn't help if you grab me without thinking.

It helps if you let me know you miss Kevin, too.
It doesn't help if you expect me to comfort you - I'm having enough trouble holding it together - or if you compare your grief to mine. Each grief is different.

There are plenty more I could add, but I won't. Read the post in The Grief Toolbox. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments, your own helps and doesn't helps. And please forgive me if I'm short-tempered, get distracted or say the wrong thing, just as I will do my best to forgive you. We are all doing the best we can.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, May 29, 2014

69 days

Kevin lived 69 days from his diagnosis. Today it is 69 days since he died. Yesterday was two months to the date. Tomorrow is nine weeks.

I've been told over and over again that grief is a roller-coaster and that certainly is a good metaphor for my experience. I have glimmers of ease. Not peace, not happiness, not anything but the suggestion that someday this pain will ease. And then I plummet again. I fall deep into that place where my very body hurts from the emptiness and rage and sorrow.

At 69 days a human fetus is not yet a bump.

I know each day must be taken on its own terms, that I cannot and must not rush this process. I know that the very volume of my grief speaks to the depth of my love.

A baby who is 69 days old is likely smiling.

I look back on those 69 days with something akin to awe. I have never been closer with another human being than I was with Kevin during that time. Our connection and need for one another became more and more central until, in the end, it was all that mattered. I have never been as focused as I was during those days, making sure he got the best care, the proper attention, the alone time and the distraction that he needed.

Now I find I am in a void. While I am coming to believe he and I are still connected, it is not what it was. It can't be, though I believe with time it will become something vital in its own right. For now though, I ride the roller-coaster up to a moment when I can breath, then back down to where I am nothing more than a flayed skin. I never knew I could feel so sad, so empty. I never knew I could continue, even in this state.

69 days is a lifetime.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 23, 2014

Road signs for the land of grief

Today marks eight weeks since the love of my life died. In a few hours the clock will tick past the time that he gasped, slackened and left this world. In five more days it will be two months.

I am struggling with what to write. Really, the only thing running through my head is the same thing that's been running through my head for the last eight weeks.


and so on.

It's a hard place to be living, this land of grief. There is no map. I've spoken with others who have gone here before me and they all assure me that this is the hardest thing and yet still survivable. I'm not sure I believe them, but I take it breath by breath and find, for better or worse, I am still here.

I have learned a few things in the last eight weeks and, since there is no map and the land is barren, I may as well leave some road signs for the next traveller. Because there will be another traveller. We each venture here.

  1. I'm so sorry you're here. 
  2. Your grief is unique. There is no map because no one travels to the same land. 
  3. That being said, it is useful to spend time with those who have been to their own grief country. Many of the landmarks are familiar to us all.
  4. Anyone who rushes you, tells you this is God's will, or asks if you're over it hasn't been here yet.
    Don't resent them. They will have their turn in this country. But don't listen to them either. Walk away and pity them; their misconceptions will make it that much harder when they take their journey.
  5. Be grateful for every oasis. It may feel like a betrayal to your loved one to set down your burden for a moment or two but, I promise, you will pick it up again. Rest when you can. The breaks will come when you least expect them as will the pain.
  6. Don't go anywhere without tissues.
  7. If you wear glasses remember that tears splash and will dry in salt stains.
  8. Write down lists of the things you need to do. Your brain is working very hard and doesn't have the room to remember the way it used to.
  9. You will be met with unexpected kindnesses. Accept every one because you will need it.
  10. These signs may all be lies. You will have your own journey. I will witness the best I can because that is all I, or anyone else, can do.
Maybe these are more like Burmashave signs, but no matter.

I want to write something stirring in conclusion, something with meaning, but I haven't got those words right now. So I leave you with this: If we are lucky, we all grieve. We live long enough, love enough, connect enough that we feel loss. Those who die too young or never connect with others are the only ones who don't grieve. In some odd and brutal way, we are the lucky ones. 

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Five months

I've written about time before, but I've never experienced it like this. It expands and contracts unexpectedly.

Five months is at once an eternity and a moment.

Five months ago today I woke up next to Kevin. It was a cold winter day. Kevin and I were planning to look at some houses, since we had decided it was time to buy. We didn't move quickly, he wasn't feeling well with back and stomach pain which had been troubling him for months. I made breakfast. He didn't eat much, but had what he could.

We looked at listings, compiled a set to drive by and yet we just couldn't get moving. He was in pain.

We spent most of the day at home, but I didn't mind. I loved spending time with him, pretty much anywhere. At home. In the supermarket. Running errands. It didn't matter. When I was with him I was happy just to be there. On that day I was also concerned, but we were together.

I don't remember exactly what we did all day. In my journal I wrote about how worried I was about his health, that I didn't trust his diagnosis of back strain and gastritis. I wrote about feeling helpless and frustrated. I didn't name my fears.

We went to bed early since he wasn't feeling well, but by ten p.m. he was writhing with pain. I massaged his back, he took medicine, but nothing helped. I finally began to cry and told him I was afraid I couldn't keep him safe, could we please go to the emergency room. I'd asked before and he always said no. This time he said yes.

It was a long night.

Sometime late they took him for a CT scan, the next of a set of progressively intrusive tests. When he came back, I put my head on his gurney, his hand on my shoulder and I thought, "Remember this moment. This is the last moment of not knowing."

His hand. The dim room. Fatigue. His breath. The nurse, bringing pain medicine. The doctor walking into the room and sitting down.

Half an hour later we had a diagnosis.

Five months isn't long at all. Five months is a geologic era.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 16, 2014

The widow considers her options

Crying has become a reflex now and
I barely notice it
breath like 
heartbeat like 

A drink, perhaps, engaging senses and
stilling thought
numbing this moment like 
morphine like 
oxygen like 
cooling skin.

Masturbation, a possibility, slippery finger and
the convulsive shudder
lonely comfort like 
our bed like 
our home like 
the dawn chorus in the dark

I taste salt
I swallow
I curl in on myself, again 
a seed, a reverse bloom


Consider nothing.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer
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(seven weeks) Creative Commons License

Friday, May 9, 2014

The grief continuum

We have terrible cultural models for grief. If you turn to movies or television, grief is the wailing and gnashing, the inability to leave bed or otherwise function and the utter devastation. Yes, that is part of grief. Movies and television also tell us about heroic grief, the people who turn their loss into action for the greater good. They found an organization, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They organize blood drives or volunteer. They act to honor the one they have lost. This, too, is part of grief.

But it's not that black and white.

Someone recently said to me that grief is a continuum, like most things are. Some people lean towards the devastation, others towards action and most of us fall somewhere in the middle, even moving from pole to pole throughout a day. It doesn't mean you're not grieving, even if you can act. Can do the laundry or even smile from time to time. It doesn't mean your grief is any less deep than that of the person who stays in bed for the day.

This past week I have been reasonably functional. I've gone out, I've gotten things done, I've even begun to work a bit again. And I've had literally dozens of people say to me over the last few weeks, "Wow, I can't believe you're doing so much! If it were me I'd still be in bed." I've also heard, "You're so strong. I couldn't do what you're doing." Here's the thing: When someone says that, while I know they are expressing admiration and also expressing their own fears, it doesn't help. We each grieve in our own way. And we don't know what we would do in this kind of situation until we are here. I certainly didn't. I still don't know how I will feel moment by moment.

When someone marvels at how functional I am, I wonder if I'm doing something wrong. If somehow, by taking small steps to move forward in my life, I am honoring my beloved less than if I were still prostrate. I have been prostrate. I will be again. But being in the world, living my life, continuing aspects of the life we built together, should be no less an honor and no less appropriate than crying, even if it is only six weeks since he died.

This isn't to say I don't appreciate the kindness, the company, the sympathy and even the wonder people have expressed. I just struggle with the model of grief that says simply because I am up and moving I must not be grieving. Maybe I'm having a day where my grief is private. Maybe I sobbed earlier and will again. Maybe I just need permission to feel something other than lost for a little while.

We need a new cultural model for grief. One we can talk about before we actually are grieving. Maybe this new model could encompass all the things we feel or do while grieving, and they could all be okay. Howling is okay. Going out to dinner with friends is okay. Starting an organization and staying in bed are both okay. Maybe if we had a new model of grief, workplaces could support grieving employees more. Loving friends would understand what might help more. The strangers who see us crying would more often be compassionate and the relatives who are surprised when we laugh would be more understanding. All of this is grief, and more.

This loss, this grief is the hardest thing I have ever experienced. There is no roadmap. But maybe if we start talking about it, and recognize that grief is as individual as every one who goes through it, that there is no timeline, and that one expression is no less valid than another, we can together begin to chart it out.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, May 2, 2014

A day in the life. This life.

This isn't what I signed up for. Five weeks today and you are still gone. You will not be walking back in the door. It's sinking in.

My days are a study in paradox; full of activity, all of which feels empty. I get up. I bathe, dress, eat, go do something useful. I smile, or bear an expression that is a reasonable facsimile of a smile. Some people smile back. Others look confused.

Most of my errands are somehow related to you not being here. Today I met with another young widow; while we couldn't offer each other any real solace, we at least spoke the same language. I went to your workplace and spent time with your boss. I cleaned off your desk. I returned your work computer. I walked the halls where you walked, where you smiled, where you were happy, creative, excited about the work.

I spent time with a friend, in preparation for our walk tomorrow, raising money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Four months ago I didn't know they existed. Now I will walk for them, wearing purple, meeting others who have been through something similar. I am part of a club I never wanted to join.

I didn't cry this morning, the first time since you died. I didn't cry at your work. I didn't cry as I walked. I walked into the house (our home, the place we created together) and within minutes was curled up, crying so hard my muscles hurt. A few minutes later the storm passed as it always does though I never remember that it will. I blew my nose. I drank some water. I turned on the television so I could hear something other than my own thoughts. I went on. I cried again later. And I expect I will cry more before I try to sleep. The crying always surprises me, since I am nothing but empty. Maybe it's the void speaking back.

I suppose it makes sense that the days feel empty. I envision myself as a hollow skin now. I know eventually I will reflesh myself, but I will never be who I was. I will be someone different and that will be good enough, but... I am not yet ready to be her. I am not yet ready to be anyone other than the woman who grieves you.

Tomorrow is another day in the life. I will get up. I will do things related to you not being here. I will do things to tell myself that I can move forward. I won't believe it. I will smile, maybe even laugh. I will cry. These things I know. I will slowly find my way back to some kind of self but in my own time, not tomorrow or even next week. I will never stop loving you, missing you, yearning for you. Not in this life. This, too, I know.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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