When Grief Throws You a Curveball
I was sailing along with my sadness, honoring my grief process and doing “pretty well”. I was out there living my life, making friends in our glorious little town, still the new kid on the block, but settling in. I was slowing my system down after being revved way too high for too long. I was studying Buddhism, and meditation on being ok (ha!) with impermanence. I was hiking a lot and enjoying the best time of year in Colorado. Yet, what they don’t tell you about the grief process is one day, the bottom will fall out. Something will happen and your world will rock further on its axis. And this time, you might not feel you can right it.
This happened after I walked innocently into my local ATT store to get a new power cord and happened to mention my cell signal challenges and the clerk happened to mention that maybe it was my SIM card and she could swap it out “no problem”. So swap it, she did.
Later, after being prompted five or so times to reenter my voicemail passcode, I thought to check my messages. I noticed my visual voicemails were not there. Not alarmed at first, I rebooted the phone and there they were. There they were, except for any messages from before July. I panicked. I had messages going back to November—from mom, from Denise. Messages I curled up with when I missed them most. Messages I cherished. Messages that left me with some sense of their presence. They were all gone. All gone. All. Gone.
David rushed us back to ATT to retrieve the old SIM card which the clerk said had been wiped clean. Sobs coming with each breath, we rushed home to my computer where I had a vague recollection of seeing voicemails backed up in the past. No such luck. After an hour call with Apple, a software download to retrieve lost files, I was still SOL.
The terror that I would never hear those voices again began to suck me under. Wracking sobs choked my breath. Raw grief arrived like a freight train, as strong as the day I got the news about mom but this time without the benefit of numbing shock. All my tools went out the window, I was drowning in devastation, utter emptiness. I wondered if I would ever care about anything again.
I’ve not been avoiding grief. I sob in the car when I am alone and shed a few tears here and there. I reach out and pat photos of mom, Denise and Dane. I study their bright blue eyes, their smiles. I press my face against my mother’s paintings, longing for heat but feeling only one-dimensional coldness. I went back to therapy and seem to be doing what I am supposed to be doing. Yet that day, I crumbled and wasn’t sure I would stand back up. I felt the darkness closing in, sucking the life from me, wanting only to obliterate, self destruct—anything to not feel the pain. Thoughts raced—run far away, hide somewhere dark, drive fast, cut deep into my skin to stop the ache in my chest.
Seeking refuge under the covers with Tigger’s backbone pressed up against my side, I finally had a moment of reprieve. Spent from the sobs, thoughts began to form, I realized I now have something to say about grief that I didn’t know before:
The bottom will fall out at some point and you will be brought to your knees again, often when you least expect it. And it can (or will) feel even worse than the first time as you are already overtired and don’t have a lot of resources remaining even if you think you have been doing “pretty well”.
I struggle to write about this now. I find myself protecting my pain and not wanting to share. The depth of it has faded in the background again, it’s a constant hum now instead of the piercing sharpness. But that moment scared me as I starred into the face of something that could take me down. And at the same time, I walked through it. I didn’t act on the thoughts to hurt myself, to run far away. They remained only thoughts, that ultimately passed into exhaustion.
Like the one-dimensional photos that fail to deliver a true experience of essence, now my words seem to fall short. Just tell the truth, I think. The problem is that the truth shifts like the wind. A grief reaction like that tells us we won’t survive it and that’s what I believed in that moment. When I was in my 20’s (and earlier I am sure), I was absolutely positive I would not survive the death of my mother. I warned David of that in our early years. I will not. I cannot. I was sure of it. Now she is gone and a small part of me tucked deep down inside still believes that. Then I have the part of me that functions in the world, laughs with my friends, loves on my dogs, succeeds at work. Grief is confusing. The grief after the fire seemed less confusing. We lost our dream house, we were displaced, we searched for home—and still sometimes do—but it seemed there was a path to follow. Losing mom, I have lost the path.
I have stopped and started writing this story many times. I have written countless vignettes over the past almost 5 months that remain unfinished. None seem to capture, none seem to describe. They are too raw, too unedited, they all fall short. I am challenging myself to stay with this. As a writer, it’s what I am “supposed” to do and it was my lifeline after the fire. During that time, I turned to the page and let my grief pour out. I let it all be there, the messy, the dirty, the snot-filled rawness that I felt. In this grief journey, I haven’t done that. It’s felt too heavy, too much, too private even though unlike the fire, I realize I am part of a larger tribe of those who have lost parents.
Even in the devastation of the fire, I could see the poetic beauty. I knew the metaphors. The Phoenix rising from the ashes called me forward—and I heeded the call.
I don’t see the beauty in this loss. I don’t feel the magic. I don’t see metaphors. I don’t know where I am going in it. I am clear I will walk through, that it won’t always feel like this. I know that the moments when I want to forget are ok. I know that my “Portlandia” and “Califonication” binges are ok. That laughing with friends is ok. That my late night sweet snack is ok. That grabbing my dogs more tightly than usual is ok. That staying in bed on a sunny day is ok.
This morning, I sit in this place on our land where I have written so much. I sit in the morning sun, in the quiet. I have no answers right now. I dip into my grief again and feel the magnitude of it and don’t quite want to go there. I back off the edge and look around at the view. My eyes rest on mountains with small patches of snow, then quaking aspen leaves shimmering in the sun, then the stripe of a river far below.
Death is so final. So forever. We know this yet when it happens, we aren’t really prepared for it. Not really. My heart cracks open and I let sobs come. I allow myself stop and go into the ache that feels like it won’t end, ever. I long for my mom. To be able to hear her voice one more time on the other end of the phone, to touch her face. To have her tell me one more time how I am loved and tuck it away deep into my heart to hold forever.
As I commit these words to paper, I worry about being judged, of being reminded of just how good I have it, or of being misunderstood.
Yet I know there are hearts that beat like mine and as a writer, I know why we must write:
We write to know ourselves, to move through spaces and places and find a foothold as we go. We write to find our way home. We write to speak our truth and clarify it on the page. We write to find out why we are here—what our life has been about, why we stay and what we want next. We write to make sense of the nonsensical—life and ourselves. We write to find a place to stand that is firm in an ever-changing world. We write to find peace during the transitions and upheavals of life. We write to name the unnamable, describe the indescribable and give voice to what lies deep inside us. We write to celebrate and to mourn and everywhere in between. We write so others can find their own way through and know they are not alone, so they can read their own thoughts echoed back to them, those thoughts that they have kept to themselves and felt condemned to or isolated by. We write to unite our hearts with others on this crazy ride called life.
So I keep writing even though my fingers feel stiff. I heed the advice I give my clients: Write through the agony of getting words on the page, write past the judgment once those words appear. Write it all, then only later, go back and work with the words. Look at it from a distance and see if it says what you want. Then at some point, decide it is good enough. Step away. Call it complete. And then promise, declare, commit, swear that you will keep building that writing muscle that like a closed heart so easily atrophies and fades away.