An “F” in Grief

I’m like a dog with a bone when I want to learn something new. I’ll devour everything until I reek of the topic. I’m finding, however, that grief is not something you can learn by osmosis. Who knew?

In my quest to ace my Grief exam, I’ve gone through a stack of books, tons of blogs–everything I could get my hands on–and I’ve given myself an F.

I must admit, I’ve been a little cocky when it’s come to navigating the winding path of my feelings in the past six months. When I’d met Caroline (not her real name) two months after Hilary had passed, I took one look at her and thought, Oh hell, no. She had been bereaved three years after losing her son to a deliberate fentanyl overdose, and she still looked like hell. I determined that I wasn’t going to look like that in three years. Like the 1 in a million person who thinks they’ll be the only one who won’t require antidepressants for clinical depression, I was going to be that one person who would get through grief with a smile on her face. Not a huge toothy grin that said everything was just peachy, but rather, the wistful, damn-she’s-been-though-hell-and-back-but-she’s-still-showin’-up smile that shows just enough grace to hide the arrogance.

Fat chance. We were sitting in a coffee shop sipping on lattes and I spilled the beans, along with a torrent of tears.

“I owe you an apology, Caroline,” I sniveled. “When I met you, you told me that it was one thing to seek joy, but not to be disappointed if I didn’t find it. I was so angry at you for being such a Negative Nancy. But here I am, miserable. It’s all I can do to get my ass out of bed on the days I’m not working, much less be joyful.”

One of her rare, almost-smiles emerges; even a little laugh. “That’s ok. I get it. Who would sign up for this?”

I’m learning that Caroline is a whole lot stronger than I’d ever given her credit for and I’m honoured that she will take her bandages off to allow me to look at her wounds. To me, she’s a freakin’ grief rock star. She can spot a trigger from a mile away, knows enough to give herself “I’m gonna allow myself to feel like shit today” days and buffers them with moments where she chooses joy–or something close to it.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that reading every book written on grief, surviving suicide, and every other literary attempt at finding hope in the midst of crap isn’t getting me any further down the road. It’s actually been a distraction from doing the real work of grief. This is where my friend, Peter would tell me that there is no right or wrong way to do grief, Monica. You do what you need to when you need to. I know this in a head-smart kind of way, but I couldn’t shake the fact that my emotional responses weren’t adding up. Does grief look like irritation? Annoyance? Panic, even?

I was at a dinner party with friends. I made myself go. I didn’t really want to; I was prepared to curl up on my couch and happily contemplate my navel for yet another evening, thank you very much. But eventually I decided that isolating myself was probably not healthy either, so I showed up. I was doing okay, just hanging out on the periphery of conversations. A hot discussion on gun control ensued; proponents for and against making their impassioned pleas for their stance on the matter, talking loudly and passionately over one another. I could feel my head start to spin and my heart beating fast in my chest. I began doing the grounding techniques I’d heard about. Ok, Monica. What can you see with your eyes? What can you smell? What are your feet touching? I couldn’t take it anymore and I bolted from the room, locked myself in the bathroom and bawled until I was spent.

I think C. S. Lewis best describes what had just taken place.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times, it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” (C.S. Lewis: A Grief Observed)

There it was. Grief does indeed look an awful lot like fear. Fear of being alone and fear of having to be among people. Even resuming hobbies I once enjoyed, like my writing classes or musical theatre haven’t been the same. I could handle seeing people that I’d met in previous classes, but who were these new students? I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. Stay away from me. This is an unexpected nuance of grief, this fear. Fear pisses me off. It shows up as anxiety, wakes me up way too early with the incessant, what are you going to do? on repeat, until I throw the covers back, cursing the very day itself. I decided that rather than make space in my sock drawer for fear, I’m giving it an eviction notice.

The fighting back has involved psychotherapy with a gentle giant who doesn’t irritate me–which is good–very few attempts at seeking professional help in the last while can boast the same result. (During one telephone counseling session, the counselor referred to me as Lady throughout the entire discourse.) There’s also a pair of hot pink boxing gloves that are routinely donned to pummel the crap out of a heavy bag. That feels good. The gentle giant once asked me if I had anyone’s face in mind as I whaled on it. I had to think for a bit, but no one came to mind– unless grief can be personified.

I’m not as far along as I’d like to be on this wilderness terrain, but it is what it is. Some days my only testimony is, I’m still here. That’ll have to do for now.

Yes and amen.

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