The Messy Road of Grief and the Flies of Life
“Whether we are conscious of it or not, the ground is always shifting. Nothing lasts, including us. there are probably very few people who, at any given time, are consumed with the idea ‘I’m going to die,’ but there is plenty of evidence that this thought, this fear, haunts us constantly.” – Pema Chodron
I woke up not feeling well. I am bone tired and wonder if I am getting sick—yet today, I saw the light. I should say, I saw the light again as I see it and then lose it, then see it and then lose it again and again and again. Two steps forward and one step back, I walk through this thing called life (with the rest of you) and I walk through this thing called grief (with many of you).
It’s been an interesting ride. I miss my mom dreadfully. Seemingly more now than before, as before it was still new and raw and unbelievable. Now, it’s settled into my system and it’s heavier and bona fide. The sharp stab of pain has mostly been replaced with a deep dulling ache, although I still fall into utter panic when for a moment I forget, and then remember she is gone. I miss my dear friend Denise too yet my system starts to short circuit when I think about writing of missing both of these fortifying pillars of female wonder and energy. See, now that I have said that, the tears come and I start to go off into the dark.
Today, I sit in the place where I write most frequently and flowingly—my tiny office in my tiny mansion with my not so tiny dog at my feet. This places drives up so much. It’s expansive views, space and silence quiet my mind as well as dredging up conflicting, unresolved feelings. One day, it might just open it’s welcoming arms for our arrival but not quite yet. There always seems to be something to deal with as a result of our adrenaline filled decision to re-build on national TV (and therefore spend way too much money) and the shoddy construction that such a fast decision and quick build resulted in. We solve the construction problems as efficiently as we can, yet they keep coming, the latest being the “fly invasion”. Apparently, along with the lack of proper sealing that allowed water to pour in under the sills at the foundation, there was also a lack of proper sealing in the eaves, which appears to be the gateway to Mecca for insects of all types—spiders, stinkbugs and the ever plentiful flies. Even after multiple freezes and a few snows, they still come. They fall in my water glass, on my dish towel, on my pillow. Our sheets of fly paper on the upper windows blacken with their bodies and their incessant drone fills the air. This morning, I tried a ‘re-frame’ and reminisced about the sweet buzz of summer-time flies on family trips to a Wyoming ranch as we picnicked by the river. But truth be told, the constant hum is enough to drive us a bit nutty as they dive bomb our heads and I spasmodically shriek. With my earbuds in and gentle music playing, I can pretend they aren’t here until one hits me on the nose. Even our seasoned exterminator said, “Wow, that IS a lot of flies.” We hope a pending solution of sealing up the cracks will solve the infestation issue and we will have what normal households deal with in the fly arena—but until then the flies remain my reminder of what I resist.
Three weeks ago, a friend recommended a book called The Grief Recovery Handbook which gave me a place to stand that has been lacking. The authors spend a lot of time countering our societal cliches around loss, the false notion of progressive stages of grief, as well as emphasizing that everyone has a unique grief path with no predetermined timeline. Of course, I have heard much of that before, but hearing it from these two straight-laced guys who write sans flowery prose, it sunk in.
We are so fucked up about grief. We celebrate the shiny and have little space for the messy. We want it all wrapped in neat packages and laud the upward progress we witness in others and go blank at a more wavering path. This leaves no room for the real deal. In my scientific research on the microcosm of the world called Facebook, I observed a few friends posts on anniversaries of a loss. Thankfully, much of what they received back was love and metaphorical hugs. But there was also the pervasive platitudes and cliches that some people can’t quiet help but cough up:
You are so blessed to have your memories…
He will always be in your heart…
At least she is out of pain…
As The Grief Recovery Handbook points out, statements like these are intellectually true, yet emotionally they are, at least, missing the mark, and at most, damaging. The underlying message is: “Don’t be messy, or undone, or focus on the negative.” Instead we should be grateful for what we had. And, hey, I am a big believer gratitude, yet I demand the right to miss the fuck out of someone—however that looks.
The over-emphasis on the stages of grief are another dis-service. According to The Grief Recovery Handbook, Kubler-Ross’s stages were meant for someone who is dealing with their own terminal illness. They were not designed to be the cookie-cutter approach to every grief experience. The idea of stages becomes a trap and then an expectation that we will pass from one place to the next, moving always onward and upward toward the hailed land of acceptance (and we will look pretty doing it).
I am eternally grateful for those who allow the ambiguity; for those women who grab me by the hand, press their nose toward mine while affixing me with a penetrating gaze and say things like, “It’s been 20 years and I still cry over missing my mother.” Tell me that. Don’t tell me she’s in a better place, she’s at peace now, she will always be in my heart, she’s out of pain, yada yada. Again, it may be “true” but it’s not helpful. It doesn’t demonstrate an ability (or willingness) to stand shoulder to shoulder in the trenches with the depth of loss.
I am very fortunate to have many many many warrior women friends who can stand in the fire. And, truth be told, I have received relatively few platitudes. Yet, I see the pervasiveness of platitudes in our culture and we just keep passing them along. And guess what, horrified as I am to admit it, occasionally I indulge in the thoughtlessness too. Recently, my husband was mourning the fire-related loss of his incredible wood-working tools and equipment. He had a large shed that housed many types of saws and chisels as well as a beautiful collection everything from weathered barn wood, to cherry, to walnut for future projects. He doesn’t talk about it often yet after a tour of a totally stocked shop where a friend gets to play, he said, “I wish I still had my shop.” And instead of getting it, I responded, “Well, we have a garage and you could have a shop again if you want”. A few days later, I realized what I had done—and delivered a mea culpa. Alas, I, the hater of platitudes, uttered one. We all do it from time to time, I just hope we can slow the mindless flow and really consider our responses to someone else’s angst.
One universal truth about grief is that people will subtly and not-so-subtly pressure you to ‘feel better’ well before you’re ready. – Eleanor, Program Director and Co-Founder of ‘What’s Your Grief’
So, how does my paranoia around the pressure to feel better and the proliferation of platitudes stop me? It stops me from sharing my messy. It stops me from complaining about the flies (I almost edited the fly section out, and perhaps you think I should have…). It stops me from writing. Writing was my avenue and outlet after the fire, and as I have shared in earlier posts, this time, I am not so prolific. I am bottled up and often stuck in the muck. Much of that is due the depths of this loss but a lot of it is due to fear of how it will be received.
I hoped as I approached 50, that I would stop caring what others think. I have made progress in this area but it is not the automatic protective balm of not giving a shit that I had hoped for. Today, in talking with one of my fabulous clients who shares a similar personality pattern, we discussed the “two steps forward and one step back” dance. Lately, she is much more forgiving of herself and although she can head south with the best of us, she rights herself much more quickly and doesn’t agonize over the fact that she got off track. And, probably “off track” isn’t the best expression as that’s part of the myth. There is no “track”. There is just this messy march as we ‘trudge the Road of Happy Destiny*”. It’s true, that some of us are more sensitive than others. Some of us carry the weight of the world, the day to day heartbreaks—and certainly the overwhelming horrors such as the recent Paris attack—which make us want to run screaming for the woods or return to an earlier simpler time. Some of us internalize this stuff and then it bubbles over elsewhere. Some of us turn to something, anything, to turn our brains off. Then, add in the occasional minor (or major) misunderstandings with people we love, the disappointments in things we care about, along with litter on the street, missing dogs in the paper—a house infested with flies—and for a sensitive system it can seem like WAY TOO MUCH.
Sometimes David and I ponder the eery similarity between the biblical ‘end of days’ and the progression of events at our land. Although fire began this version, and the floods followed (with erosion and leaks), and now the insects… it makes us wonder if have we have outstayed our welcome at this land. Or is this simply just the way life is—and a constant reminder of how we grasp for certainty. It’s clear that left unattended, this precarious perch would indeed succumb to the forces of nature. Since the fire, mother nature is ravenous; storms batter the barren hillside, winds whine and the house groans in protest, noxious weeds threaten the more delicate vegetation—and, the universe laughs as we humans try to stay and create something permanent.
To be human is to live with the fact that anything could happen at any time. Our options are to drown in the angst of that, hide in denial—or remember to practice being truly alive. Today, I face the dark nooks and crannies of a mind that whispers “all is lost and the world is not safe.” It reminds me (cruelly) of other losses looming on the horizon that could strike at any moment. It has me hold my breathe for a moment as I glance at my love sleeping beside me, knowing that at some point, one of us will lose the other. It has daggers pierce my heart as I kiss my dog and know that he is not immortal.
But as I turn to the page, my canvas, I talk it out with myself and with your eyes and ears as company. The page is my flash of light, a reminder to cut myself some slack, drop some of the expectations, allow my foibles and wrinkles, allow myself to be the way I am, and to not be the way I sometimes wish I was. I embrace teachers such as Pema Chodron and Anne Lamott who share their humanity bravely, and on-goingly, Anne in her poetic way and Pema in her encouraging way with a gentle reminder to turn back to the truth of who we are and not berate ourselves for forgetting to see the beauty that is all around us. Sometimes I don’t see the beauty for almost an entire day, so at night I lay in bed and force myself to recall moments. Sometimes I am so caught up in my to-do list, in talking with my clients, in being there for others, or being lost in my own head that I simply forget. Sometimes I don’t want to stop and take “3 conscious breaths” as Pema teaches. And sometimes, many times, fortunately, I do stop and see the beauty in the world. I touch the wrinkled forehead of my beloved Tigger, I hear the guitar strumming of my husband, I look deeply into another woman’s eyes and tell her she’s not alone, I allow my hand to be held—and I hold another.
David returns from plowing the mile-long private road of it’s foot and 1/2 of heavy snow. We eagerly connect and share our moments. He feels the pride of a mountain man and the deeper pull of this place towards peace in our hearts, as I do. I break from my writing to open the door for him to carry in more wood for our fire. I share the joy of being in a writing rhythm—a place that is my connection to my higher self, my wisdom center from where I can peer back into my darkness with a kind eye. Earlier, he took breaks from work to play guitar and learn songs, his reclaiming of his art and his expression. We agree to ‘show and tell’ later. I will read him this story and he will play me his music, but first we will embark on a fly eradication mission which will knock them back for a few hours till they rally the troops and threaten our sanity again.
My legacy while I am here is to be one who grips tightly to another woman’s hand (metaphorically or in real life) as she grapples wth her darkness, to remind her that she is not alone, that she is ok even as screams her pain, as the snot runs down her chin, and whiskers poke through her once smooth skin, as well as in the times when she snorts in joy or peers deeply into her own heart. I walk next to my soul-sister friends who dare to delve into the depths of what it means to be a messy human and not a perfect, plastic, all-together hyper-idealized version of a woman. Like a heat-seeking missile, I seek out sisters who spread this gospel as well as those who beg to hear it for themselves.
* from page 164 of a ‘Vision for You’ in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous