Lessons in Burnout

I’ve been working solo for the last month and a half, my co-worker having been deployed to the Covid floor to fill the gap left by staff taken out by the virus. My workload hasn’t diminished, being one man down; if anything, there’s more to be done. The ability to slow down seems to have escaped me; my need for speed has become a twisted coping mechanism. If I keep moving, I keep producing and if I keep producing, I feel like I’m accomplishing something. I know this thought process is whacked–I’ve been working through a pandemic on the front-lines–I’ve accomplished a lot just by showing up, but in the daily moment by moment, I feel like I’m racing against an imaginary clock and I’m not winning.

Constant check-ins with myself, reminding myself that I’m only one person, that I’m doing the best I can and that I can (should) slow down are futile. All I have to do is check my email, and another list of “must do’s” are awaiting me.

On one particular day, I was already feeling stretched when the mile long list of ASAPs showed up in my inbox. I felt my jaw clench and a prickly heat radiate from my chest to my head as I went for the step ladder. Almost one hundred snowflakes that had taken two of us over two hours to put up, now had to be brought down by yours truly. I was angry. The whole production of hanging Christmas decorations in the hallways seemed redundant to me in the first place; our residents were isolated inside their rooms over most of the holiday season. It seemed we’d been forced to create a false image of Christmas joy where sadly, there had been none.

Up and down the ladder I went, reaching overhead; fighting to find the gossamer strands suspending these snowflakes in mid-air through the glare of my mandatory protective face shield. The whole time I was plucking them from the ceiling tile, my resentment built.

Whether from frustration or fatigue, I lost my balance on the step ladder when the tread of my shoe got caught. It happened quickly, but in that slo-mo way that car crashes occur. In an instant, I was flat on my back, staring up at the snowflakes that now mocked me. My timing and locale was impeccable–right in front of the nursing station at the change of shift. Brilliant.

I heard the collective gasp of my co-workers and it only served to further fuel my anger. Sitting up quickly, I grabbed the offending ladder and fired it across the hallway. Like my walk about a week earlier that saw me nearly slide into the ice cold river, the requisite “For fuck’s sakes!” left my mouth.

“Are you okay?” the charge nurse asked. Historically, this has never been a good question to aske me immediately following injury.

“No. Actually, I’m not,” I snapped. What came next, surprised even me. “I’m burned out and I’ve had it!”

Then came the tears. Tears that I’d been stuffing down for the past several months. This literal ‘fall-out’ culminated in exhaustion, frustration, sadness and anger, and I really didn’t care anymore who bore witness to it.

Oddly enough, a few days prior to this event, I listened to a podcast by Brené Brown. She was interviewing the authors of the the book, Burnout–The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski.

In the interview, they spoke of the research done by Hubert Freudenberger on the phenomenon of burnout. He broke it into three stages which they explained in their own words:

Emotional Exhaustion: The fatigue that comes with caring too much for too long. Check.

Decreased Sense of Accomplishment: A sense of futility; that nothing truly matters. Check.

Depersonalization: A depletion of caring, empathy and compassion. Check.

I’d been nodding my head vigorously while I listened to them describe the last several months of my life, and then they added another layer–the Human-Giver Syndrome. It’s just what it sounds like–perpetually caring for, and about others at the expense of your own wellbeing. Because of the age-old stereotypical perception that women are to be pretty, nice and calm, the Nagoskis explain that it’s far easier for women to get caught in this role and Brown added, that there’s shame involved when they fail to meet the requirements. Well, I was none of those things the day I landed on my butt in front of a hallway full of my peers. Some may think I should have been embarrassed or ashamed by both the incident and my reaction, but the opposite was true.

I could finally stop pretending.

As if an imaginary pressure valve had been released, the words I’m burned out, brought relief. I was giving voice to the stress and the stressors that had been feeding on me for nearly the last year, and with that validation, came the tears. Following the advise of Emily and Amelia, instead of focusing on the cause of my tears, I just watched them. Big plump juicy tears landing on my cheeks, fogging up my glasses and soaking my scrub top. Snotty nose, requiring more than one tissue, and necessitating the change of my medical grade mask. Eventually my breathing slowed and the tears stopped. This is the sort of thing that is apparently required to go through a stress cycle. Each episode of stress has a beginning, a middle and end. Exhaustion is what happens when you get stuck in an emotion and don’t allow yourself to go through the whole cycle. I rode the mechanical bull of anger from one end of the cycle to the other and didn’t get kicked off. Booyah! (Getting kicked off a ladder doesn’t count.)

It’s taken me a while to get there, but there’s a freedom in being vulnerable; being brave enough to say, I’m not okay. I’m tired. Since that day, I’ve been able to be authentic about what I need to maintain my wellbeing while serving my residents. I don’t carry residual pain, neither physical nor emotional, from my stumble. In fact, it’s probably the best thing that’s happened in a long time.

You Can Go Now 2020– and Take Covid-19 With You

I really only wanted to enjoy a couple of days off. I’d worked through much of the Christmas holidays and did it like a boss. I spread sunshine to my residents like Mary-freakin’-Poppins, serving up Baileys with a smile, singing and dancing to cheesy songs without batting an eye.

So when I finally got my two days off in a row, I was stoked. I thought I might sleep in, but that seems to have become a thing of the past; my internal alarm clock has no regard for my desire for sleep. I was up by eight o’clock and rather than curl up in my pajamas for the day, I decided to hit the ground running–or sliding–as it turned out.

I was greeted with sunshine and blue skies; it was a perfect morning for a walk in the park. I fueled up with a bowl of oatmeal and before long, I was bundled up with my tunes plugged into my ears, ready for a peaceful self-care stroll.

I wasn’t too far into the park before I realized that 2020 wasn’t done with me. Apparently working the last ten months on the front-lines of a pandemic in a long term care setting wasn’t enough. ‘Oh, but there’s more,’ it taunted.

Normally, I’d be hoofing it down the trail that ran parallel to the river; letting the sunshine kiss my face, embracing the cold as the snow-encrusted trees and the flowing river created a picture-perfect post card. Instead, it was like trying to navigate a mine field. This well-worn path had become a sheet of ice and I had to make my way along, gingerly stepping from one patch of gravel to the next. Perhaps it was my naivete, but I was convinced I was still as spry as I’d been in my twenties and that my hiking boots still had enough tread.

Wrong.

One misstep lead to another and I became the winterized version of Wylie Coyote trying to avoid being slammed by the ACME truck. I was sliding backwards towards the river bank. In a split second, I decided to drop to all fours, groping for the nearest branch to avoid sliding into the icy cold waters of the Credit River.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I roared as I clamored back up to the path. If anyone else heard me, they had the decency to ignore my tantrum.

This near-tumble into the river epitomized the entire year of 2020; a shit-show, if you will. Slipping, sliding; grasping to keep from falling. It’s been a year of discovering a new normal within a new normal. As if losing my daughter to mental illness in the beginning of 2019 wasn’t enough, Covid-19 added a whole other level of adjustment. The one thing Hilary’s death accomplished was showing me what was worthy of my fear. Covid-19 wasn’t. It’s not that I don’t respect its virulence, it’s simply that I’ve survived worse; Covid-19 is just an added irritation.

The bulk of the irritation that Covid has brought with it is the monotony. Working in long term care, I spend much of my days facilitating FaceTime calls between residents and their families. No visit is complete without a family member asking me when I think it’s all going to be over. Am I Fauci? I have no friggin’ idea. My life is like the movie, Groundhog Day; each day a repeat of the day before, with no immediate signs of it changing. I’m not insensitive to the fact that the residents and their families are suffering from the isolation. I’m well aware of its effects, but it’s also happening to me and my fellow staff members. My way of coping with work is to just keep moving–and fast. Part of my strategy is to make the day go quicker to get home to my emotionally safe place, and the other is to to avoid some of my less than stellar co-workers. I struggle to reconcile my stress-induced speed with the sloth-like pace of others. Am I wrong? Are they? What I do know, is that this season is exposing the best and worst of us and we’re all having to take a long hard look at ourselves.

While I’ve decided that watching the news is not in my best interest, opinions of self-appointed WHO execs still find their way to my social media feed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve hit the “snooze this person for 30 days” button. Sometimes it only takes one more post after their muzzle has been removed for them to make it to the snooze pile again. Even though I work the front lines, I have no idea what is really going on in the world arena, and I’m pretty sure that those who are the most vocal in their opinions don’t either.

My days off were meant to recharge; forget what was behind and look forward to what’s ahead. Unfortunately, during my walk, my gaze wasn’t upon what lay ahead, but precisely where my feet were landing. Abandoning the ice-covered trails, I launched across the fields, hoping for a less treacherous path. There was little improvement; it was like a sadistic game of Twister designed by the devil himself as I plotted my steps from one bare spot to another. My music was still blaring in my ears, but I wasn’t feeling the same inspiration and joy; it took all my concentration to put one foot in front of the other.

I’d almost made it to the parking lot and safety was just within reach. Whack! Stunned, I spun around to catch my assailant. A sign. Danger–Tobogganers Ahead. What-the-actual-hell?! My toque took the impact, but it couldn’t absorb another layer of embarrassment. It was like 2020 was taking as many shots as it could before the clock turns over.

In the absurdity of the day, I found myself laughing–out loud. Sometimes that’s the best revenge; laughing at the attempts made to take you out, and keep going.

As midnight strikes on New Years Eve, we can truthfully say hindsight is 2020.

What’s in a Name?

I’d never met her before; I would have remembered a name like that. There was a timidness to her, but she also carried a distinct strength.  She was a large woman, but sturdy.  This woman could hold her own, I thought.

Her name tag read:  God’s Favour.

I imagined what it would be like, having such a moniker; it would be like being labeled with daily affirmation.  Who am I?  I’m God’s Favour.

 I knew there had to be a story there and I hoped for an opportunity to find out what it was.

This morning as I was doing my daily devotional before work, her name kept popping into my mind.  What would it be like to be given a name that spoke of your destiny, purpose and calling?  I thought about the other names we identify with:  Unworthy.  Shameful.  Not-Good-Enough.  Broken.  While not wearing name tag identifiers, we do, in some ways, walk around displaying our perceived faults.  As I thought of this, I teared up, realizing that even I, have allowed myself to be known by these names.  Often when I catch my own negative self-talk, I’ll review the lie and then ask God what the truth is.  He’s so much more affirming and life-giving in His appraisal of me, thank God. Literally.

Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church, had once preached about God telling Moses that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Furtick pondered why God would refer to him as Jacob, his given name and not the one He had changed it to– Israel– a far superior title.  Jacob’s name meant supplanter, deceiver and heal-grabber, while the name Israel was symbolic of the covenant God had made with His chosen people.  To Furtick, it seemed that God was saying that despite his faults, he was still seen, even with his many failings and shortcomings.  The message for us is that we are seen not for who we are or even once were, but for who we’re becoming.    This made me wonder if being given such a prophetic name- God’s Favour, would change how one felt about oneself?  My need-to-know got the better of me and I vowed that if this new girl was at work when I got there, I was going to find out.

I nearly pounced when I saw God’s Favour come round the corner when I got off the elevator.  “You probably hear this all the time,” I babbled. (So much for being chill.) “Is that the English translation for your name, or…?”

Her sigh, though slight, let me know this question was like asking someone over six-feet tall if they played basketball. “This is my name,” she said, gently caressing her name tag.  “It was the name I was given at birth. My mother knew as she carried me that this was what I was to be called.”

            “I’m guessing you get asked about your name a lot?”

            “To be honest,” she sighed again, “I wish I didn’t have to wear a name tag.  I’m actually shy and I’m dumbfounded that my name is such an oddity. It’s not that uncommon.”

            God’s Favour is a common name? Where?

Before I could ask, she was answering the question forming on my tongue.  “I’m Nigerian.  My father had four wives, but he loved my mother the most.  My step siblings did not have as a good a life as my mother’s children. He could be a cruel man. But when my mother was pregnant with me, our lives changed- for the better. Everything was improving, especially my father’s disposition. My mother decided that it was the child inside her that was bringing blessing to our family, so she gave me this name, God’s Favour, to give thanks and honour to God.”

 Nigerian names like Patience and Glory, I’d heard before, but never a name as powerful as God’s Favour.  I thought how strange it must be in the day to day: The phone rings and the caller asks, “To whom am I speaking?” and the response comes, “It’s me- God’s Favour.”   I couldn’t imagine calling down the hall after her—”Hey, God’s Favour, could you give me a hand with Mrs. So-and-so…”   I was curious if people shortened her name to Favour or God forbid, God, but I didn’t ask.

The masks and shields we were both wearing as part of our workplace’s COVID-19 protocol provided a little buffer for this rather intimate conversation.  I knew I was perhaps bolder than most in my questions, but I was so curious.   The questions kept coming and I guess she appreciated my child-like fascination because she continued to indulge me.

“I hope I’m not insulting you with my questions; I just believe that names are so important and the name you’re given can really impact your life.”  I’d read about a family with the surname, Daw, and they named their child, Zippity Doo.  I didn’t tell her this though. “What has it been like, growing up with such a strong name?”

“Well,” she began thoughtfully, her dark eyes fluttering.  “It’s been a blessing and a curse.  For the longest time, I felt like my name was like having a Christian bumper sticker.  I felt like I couldn’t say anything wrong, or even speak my mind; I had to live up to my name, behave almost saint-like.  But home in Nigeria especially, I found that people used my name as some sort of good luck charm.  I was constantly asked to pray for, or bring favour to a person or their household, as if my name were some sort of talisman.  I learned to set boundaries; now I’m happy to tell people how to find favour with God, but it’s not through me.  I choose to honour the name I’ve been given by letting my words be kind and edifying.  I don’t curse—I can’t—not with this name, but I don’t want to anyway.”

Our conversation was cut short; we both had to get back to work.  I had a feeling that for once, she didn’t mind answering the same question she’d no doubt been asked hundreds of times.  I’d asked some good questions, she told me.  God’s Favour smiled at me.  Just writing that sentence makes me smile. 

What Covid-19 Has Done for Me

Prior to the pandemic hitting the world stage, I was seriously thinking about quitting my job in the nursing home where I work as a restorative care assistant. Working a mere thirty hours per week in a place that was sucking the very life out of me, I wearied of the drama, in-fighting and low pay–all of which I had neither the time nor the energy to deal with. I survived by keeping my head down and my mouth shut; coping methods that were entirely foreign to me.

Had I quit when I wanted to, it would have landed me in the no-man’s land of CERB–Canada Emergency Response Benefit–if I’d even qualified. Instead, I found myself working over forty hours a week with the government offering pandemic pay–an increase in hourly wages for those working the front-lines during the crisis.

The lack of provision I was experiencing prior was replaced by more than enough. Ironically, I had nowhere to go spend the extra money, but at least I could rest easy knowing my bills were being paid without difficulty.

Where I’d once felt that the work assigned to me was without purpose; much of it seemed designed around creating the facade of a pristine and idyllic lifestyle, it had become life or death–literally. My days, though exhausting, centred around bringing comfort to those who would survive the killer-virus, and easing the suffering of those who wouldn’t. I ran from room to room to facilitate virtual visits between residents and their loved ones–some to say hello and others, goodbye.

At other moments in the day, I was the dispenser of silliness and laughter. The irony of singing songs like, “Don’t Fence Me In,” was lost on most of my charges, but music and socially distanced dancing from doorways helped to fill the void that the isolation created.

During the worst of the pandemic, I learned how valuable true friends are. For three months, I didn’t stand in line to buy groceries or fight over toilet paper. Friends and family steadily arrived at my door with groceries and my e-transfers would expire before they could be accepted. The clever ability to connect the dots on social media saw the friend of a friend of a friend deliver a basket of home-baked goods and wine on a Friday night. This is intentionality at its finest.

Self-care became top priority. I was too tired at the end of the day to move beyond the couch, but I’d usurp the early hours of the morning for myself, walking through the trails, taking in as much quiet and peace as I could, before the chaos ensued. The birds and bunnies didn’t mind me being in their territory and they sure weren’t asking, “Where’s your mask?”

Conversations became more meaningful. One particular chat with my dad brought new understanding and healing. We’d discuss the traumatic effects of isolation on a person and that led to talking about my grandfather–his dad, who had served in the Second World War. For the first time, I heard my father acknowledge that the man who was rarely given the title of “Dad,” but rather “the old man” or simply Jack, should be forgiven of his failures as a father and grandfather. PTSD was as real back in the 40’s as it is now; it was just called something else. He wasn’t a bad man–he was just broken.

My relationship with my siblings became stronger. Not a day goes by that we don’t talk–albeit generally through a group chat–but still, to have your sister or brother say good morning and good night to you on a consistent basis is pretty amazing.

Covid-19 taught me what bravery looks like. For some of my colleagues, alternate living arrangements had to be made. Rather than risk bringing the virus home to their family members, many opted to share accommodations away from the comfort of their own home and families. Still others volunteered to look after the most ill, to spare those who were going home to families, the additional risk.

In the most selfless act of bravery, I want to honour my co-worker–Denia. Through the worst of the pandemic when we were working over-time and struggling to keep everyone healthy and happy, Denia kept showing up, despite a troublesome, but unknown ailment nagging at her. She wasn’t sure what it was, but insisted when she had the time, she’d go to the doctor to get it checked out… We lost our good friend and co-worker just a few short days ago. She passed away one month after being diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t miss a day’s work until her diagnosis. Denia was literally dying as she was helping to preserve the life of others. It doesn’t get more brave–or heart-breaking than that.

While I choose hope over despair, I’m tired. I’ve made the decision to avoid the media, the updates and the grumblings about to wear the mask or not wear the mask? Some say nothing good can come out of this crisis, but if you look close enough, you’ll see friends going the extra mile, co-workers stretching themselves farther than they thought possible and relationships becoming more intentional and meaningful.

This season the entire globe finds itself in, is making us stop and ask what really matters.

Has anything prior to Covid-19 made the entire globe stop to ask this simple question? Not in my lifetime…

A Mothers Day PSA from Bereaved Mamas

It’s the day before Mothers Day and I feel compelled to share some thoughts before some of you send awkward wishes to mothers who have lost a child.

Let me begin by giving context for this post.

Last year was the first Mothers Day following the loss of my daughter, Hilary. While I was quite cognizant of its significance, I intended to spend the day the same way I had in previous years; going to church, a place where moms are joyously celebrated and acknowledged. But before I was even out of bed that morning, my social media feeds and text messages were flooded with well-intentioned messages that began with, “I know today is going to be hard…” or ” You must be feeling….” Really? Respectfully, I must say that unless you’ve walked in my shoes, you don’t know what I’m feeling.

I know you all meant well in acknowledging my loss, but in truth, it gutted me. I hadn’t forgotten that Hilary was gone; I’m reminded of it daily. So, instead of getting ready for church, I waved the white flag and crawled back under the covers.

I still have a reason to celebrate, friends. Even though he lives on the other side of the country, I have a son. We talk almost daily, and most recently, like so many others during the Great Isolation of 2020, we’ve taken to using video chats . Some of our conversations are mundane, like talking about his fish tanks or my work-day. In others, one or both of us are fighting off tears as we navigate a life without his sister/best friend, and my daughter, Hilary. There have been times when we’ve hung up on one another in frustration. But most days, I get to tell Cameron how proud I am of him; I get to remind him that he’s an amazingly talented young man, and an incredible father to his two young sons. There are days when he revives my soul with affirmation that I’m a good mama. These are the hallmarks of parenthood.

You see, I’m still a mother.

Cameron and Hilary circa 2017

So, as Mothers Day looms on the horizon, let me share some advice for how to approach me and other mamas whose motherhood has been altered, if not changed completely:

Please don’t send “helpful” articles on how we, as bereaved mothers feel, or how we should navigate this emotional day. We already know; we’ve been doing it since the moment we lost our child.

Don’t over-think the message. Simply send us the same wishes you’d like to receive. How we respond is up to us. Maybe we’ll tear up. Perhaps we’ll be resentful. Then again, maybe we’ll just smile. You’re not responsible for any of our responses.

On Mothers Day and on any other day of the year, don’t be afraid to say our child’s name. We love hearing their name mentioned in a fond or funny memory. The idea that speaking of our loved one will cause pain is a fallacy. Actually, the opposite is true.

I have friends for whom Mothers Day is going to look different, painful or bittersweet. You know who you are. To you, I say:

I see you. I honour you. I celebrate your willingness to keep going.

Happy Mothers Day. You are an awesome Mama.

When the Storm Hit

It began as a low rumble. We could hear it coming from off in the distance and began to batten down the hatches, making what preparations we could before it struck. Assuring our charges that they were safe, changes began slowly and inconspicuously.

“We’re going to have you sit two metres apart; just to be on the safe side,” we assured the residents as we rearranged their wheelchairs in the activity room.

Then the wind began to pick up and we had to change course.

“Don’t worry. We’re going to bring your meals to you in your room. It’s just to keep you safe.” These words brought little comfort when spoken by someone wearing goggles, a surgical mask and a gown. Their own fearful eyes and trembling lips were not masked by Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

I continue to be positive and focus on spreading joy and not fear. Sweating under my own PPE, I play my guitar and sing songs of faith and hope outside the resident’s rooms as they hum along and gently sway in their wheelchairs, safely perched in the doorway of their rooms. A musical concert played within the parameters of the government-mandated physical distancing.

Now, instead of music, the residents are making the sign of the cross as they listen to their beloved rosary being blared over tinny CD players that are plugged into hallway outlets.

Given the task of connecting family members to their loved ones through Face Time and other means of virtual connected-ness started out as fun and gave me a real sense of purpose.

In a resident’s room, I link a daughter to her mother through Face Time. “Mama, stai bene?” a voice, inches below hysteria asks her Italian mother. “Sei malato?” She’s asking if her mother is okay, or is she sick.

The praise we were once receiving for being there for their loved ones while they themselves are not permitted to visit, has become more accusatory. “Was that a cough? She just coughed! Is she okay?”

I answer as positively as I can. I don’t know if it’s a tickle in her throat or if in fact, she’s joining the number of sick. I just don’t know anymore.

I pass by Ermelinda’s room, peeking my head in her doorway. “Stai bene?” I ask. She says she’s okay, but lonely. What once was as simple as breathing, I enter her room hoping it’s not a mistake.

“This is so hard,” Ermelinda begins, tears already forming at the corners of her eyes. “I know we must do this to stay safe, but for twenty-four hours a day, I’m in this room with nothing but my thoughts.”

“I can sit with you a while,” I tell her, perched at the edge of her bed as she sits in the dark. Ermelinda suffers from perpetual headaches and cannot tolerate the light.

“My Mario died when he was forty-one years old. I know it’s been a long time, but I miss him so much. Especially now when I’m stuck in my room and my sons cannot visit.”

I know a thing or two about grief and what is required to ease the pressure on the ever-present hold it has on the bereaved. “Tell me about him. What was his name? Where did you meet him?”

The next fifteen minutes I learn about her beloved Mario whom she met in the same village in her homeland of Italia. She tells me about her son who was only twelve years old when his father died, thrusting him into manhood and role of provider. Ermelinda’s countenance changes in the brief time she purges herself of memories, both good and sad. A small sliver of light pierces the darkness.

I’m being called away for a debriefing meeting with the administrator and my colleagues. These debriefings are now associated with panic and fear as they usually mean there’s new cases. This meeting is no different. We discover that the virus has now infected one of our residents. Despite our administrator’s attempt as sounding positive–her symptoms are mild, we’re assured–it does little to allay the fears of the caregiver who’s been looking after her for the last six hours. Her head bowed in defeat, her goggles fog up from the tears she’s been trying to hold back. She’s a single mother of two young children. Where is she going to go? How is she going to look after her kids? We’ve already been instructed that beyond coming to work, we are to self-isolate and not venture out, even for groceries.

It’s Friday now, and I hit my own breaking point. I’m tired, but still managing to put on a brave face and crack jokes with the staff and residents. The Nurse Practitioner takes me aside.

“Monica…” he begins slowly as if he had to choose his words carefully. “Would you be able to do a Face Time visit Mrs. M’s daughter as soon as possible? She’s not doing well and her family would like to see her before she…well, you know.”

I go for the iPad, make sure it’s charged and make my way to the residents room. In over thirty years of caring for the elderly, I’ve seen many pass from this life to the next, but never has there been a time when a loved one was not able to have a family member by their side while they did it.

I punch in the contact information and immediately I see a grief-stricken daughter on the screen. I don’t focus in on her mother lying in the bed right away.

“I’m so sorry.” My words are muffled inside my surgical mask.

“Can I see my mama?”

It’s a contortionist’s feat to be able to get Mrs. M in the camera’s view. I’m sitting on the floor beside the bed which is at it’s lowest setting. My own head is resting on the bed beside Mrs. M’s; my arms raised and off to the side to keep her weakening body in view.

My arms are trembling and aching as I struggle to hold the iPad in place. In that moment I’m reminded of the story in the book of Exodus where Moses had to hold up his staff to ensure the Israelites staved off an attack from the Amalekites. His arm grew tired from holding the staff and Aaron and Hur had to put a stone under him to sit on and held his arm up for him until sunset. I feel like Moses, but I have no one to hold up my arms. I find myself weeping along with the daughter, as she pours out her grief and love all at once.

The storm is still raging. More residents have succumbed and others are still being threatened. I’ve lost count, but it doesn’t matter now–it’s all around me, this unrelenting howling.

I still believe in God, but I’m seriously wondering if He believes in us. This feels like deja vu. A trip that should have taken eleven days, the Israelites walked through the desert for forty years before a remnant was permitted into the land of milk and honey. Maybe God is waiting for us to do as He told Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sins and restore their land…”

I know God didn’t send this pestilence. I also know that what the enemy planned for our harm, God can turn around for our good. He’s done that in my own life–I’m still here, y’all.

Let’s humble ourselves–listen to what the government is asking–telling– us to do to protect ourselves and others. Let’s pray. Really, I think by now we’ve discovered that Covid-19 is bigger than mankind. What have you got to lose by praying to the Creator of the Universe? Seek His face. What is He asking you to do? What is that inner voice, that thing you call intuition, saying? Turn away from thinking you know better than the next guy. Stop hoarding toilet paper. Stop judging the leaders. Just. Be. Kind.

Yes and Amen

What I Have In Common with Ricky Gervais

You either love Ricky Gervais’ sense of humour or you cringe. I was neither for nor against him regarding his hosting of the Golden Globes. I was ambivalent towards both him and the awards show, because like him, I really didn’t care.

It wasn’t until weeks later in my support group for suicide survivors, that his name came up again. We were talking about movies that realistically portray grief. Someone mentioned After Life, a short series on Netflix, where Tony, played by Gervais, is grieving the loss of his wife.

There may be triggers, we’re warned. It might not be appropriate for some of us to watch.

Well, that was like dropping the gauntlet.

At the mere suggestion that it may not be appropriate, I decided right then that I’d watch it. If you don’t want me to do something, the best way to ensure that I do, is to tell me I shouldn’t.

I was prepared to cry. After all, it was about loss and grief, and that’s something with which I’m well acquainted. I wasn’t however, prepared to laugh until I nearly peed my pants.

As the story unfolds, we learn that before his wife died, Tony was a fun-loving husband and dedicated journalist. Not so much afterwards. He’d developed an inability to keep his darkest thoughts from escaping his mouth. No one was spared. Not the postman, the dog walker nor his colleagues. Whatever he was thinking, it just came out. His filtre disappeared as he wearied of the banality of life and the incessantly mindless chatter of those around him. Watching the Golden Globes followed by After Life, I’d decided that Gervais and Tony bore an uncanny resemblance to one another, and somehow, I fit in there as well.

Before you settle in to watch the series, let me assure you it’s the response to Tony’s grief that has me nodding my head in agreement–not the drug-sampling, the threatening of bodily harm nor his horrific potty-mouth (although I’ve been known to swear like a sailor at times myself).

Grief can show its face in the unlikeliest of places. Because it’s like a computer program running in the background of your life, you’re not always consciously aware that it’s on. You recognize its low hum when it gets close enough to brush up against you, especially along side a competing emotion.

For Tony, grief was personified in the laziness of the postman who wouldn’t deliver his mail properly, the guy in the park who criticizes him for not picking up after his dog, and the not-so-silent wish among his work mates that he’d just get back to normal.

For me, it reared its ugly head in the form of a scripted telephone call. I barely have the energy to talk to people I do know. Listening to someone talk from a guided script was like nails being pulled down a chalk board.

On this particular day, the call was akin to an ambush. I thought I knew who the call was from and what it was in regards to.

I answered my phone and could already hear talking and laughing before the caller on the other end had even acknowledged that I’d greeted her.

“Hello?”

“Oh, hello. Is this Monica?”

“Yes, this is Monica.” big sigh. “Who am I speaking to, please?”

“Great! I’m Marcy, (not her real name) from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). How are you today Monica?”

I felt a familiar sensation rising to the surface. “Fine,” I lied, regretting that I’d even answered the phone. “I’m sorry, but could you please just get to the point of your call? I’m sure you didn’t call to see how I am.”

“Of course, Monica,” There was no change in her tone to suggest that I may have hurt her feelings or even shocked her with my terse response. “I noticed that you signed our petition to raise awareness for mental illness.”

“Yup.” I’m practicing my mindful breaths between mouthing cuss words.

“Great, Monica. Could you tell me why it was important to you to sign our petition?”

“Yeah.” I let out a long sigh. “I signed it because me daughter took her life due to mental health issues.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, Monica… Have you seen our new site that opened up recently?

She didn’t even skip a friggin’ beat.

“Nope.”

“It’s designed like a university, Monica. Can you think of why it would’ve been designed that way?”

This was the precise moment I’d decided I was done. I wasn’t even thinking of Tony, yet I heard him speak as I opened my mouth. “No, I don’t know and I really don’t care. Everything you’ve said so far sounds like it’s been read off of a script. Am I right?” Before she could answer, I continued. “A little disingenuous for a mental health agency, don’t you think–reading from a script rather than actively engaging in an authentic conversation?”

Our chat wrapped up fairly quickly. I took the opportunity to tell her of initiatives I actually was interested in, none of them including the design of a building.

I didn’t swear at her, I didn’t call her names, but I did call her out on what I felt was a really bad communication technique, for which she made no apology. Go figure.

Perhaps in the years BG (Before Grief), I wouldn’t have given much thought to the whole situation. I’m discovering that when you don’t have an outlet for all the big and uncomfortable feels–or you can’t express them to the one to whom they’re directed, you become somewhat of an opportunist.

After Life demonstrates this theory perfectly. The whole premise of the series is to show how the consequences of overwhelming grief become something of a ‘superpower’ for Tony. As writer and creator, Gervais explains that the concept of the series was to have the viewer imagine what it would be like to simply not care about life any longer, and to just do whatever you wanted. At one point, Tony considers taking his own life but changes his mind, deciding to make the lives of those around him miserable instead.

I’m not suggesting that making those around me walk on eggshells is my goal, nor do I believe that grief and loss gives you carte blanche to behave any way you choose. What I am saying, is that in viewing the world in this past year through the harsh lens of grief, I have come to see just how disconnected we are from one another–scripted dialogues, void of any real connection, for example. It’s hard to remain silent in the presence of apathy or the lack of respect. Grief and loss put things in perspective. What wouldn’t even show up on your radar before is suddenly lurking just below the surface in a sea of roiling emotion. The Big Feels need to be acknowledged, to be seen and tended to. I think that’s what I liked so much about Gervais’ character, Tony. He was a loathsome and offensive brute, yet so damn honest, raw and real. Slowly, he gave himself permission to connect with others, allowing his grief to transform both him and his relationships. Like Tony, I’ve discovered the thoughts I’ve kept to myself are often best uncorked. If I have no choice but to live each day in this new normal, it’d better be an authentic life worth sticking around for, even if I have to inconvenience others with my authenticity.

On the plus side, you’ll never have to wonder what I’m thinking.

Yes and amen.

Lost Things

The morning light pours in the window and slowly he rolls over, stretching and yawning as he anticipates another day.  Just another ordinary, predictable day.

Now perched at the side of the bed, he rubs the sleep from his eyes and absentmindedly reaches into the drawer of the bedside table for it.  It was gone.

That’s odd, he thought. He was sure it was there when he went to bed last night.  Retracing his steps, he heads to the front door and checks the closet. The coat he wore last night is hanging there, but the pockets are empty. To the bathroom. No sign of it there either.  Not wanting to give in to the anxiety that’s beginning to creep in, he takes a deep breath and heads for the living room.  Cushions are frantically over-turned; blankets are shaken, and dust bunnies are disturbed with his hand reaching under the couch. 

It’s got to be here. He tries to assure himself as he circles back to the bedroom.  It can’t be gone.

Frantically, he rummages through the small table.  Note pads, pens, receipts and other miscellaneous items are being carelessly flung across the room as hope turns to panic. Impossible.

It’s gone.

He sits at the edge of the bed, slowly rocking back and forth in an attempt at self-comfort. 

I can’t even call anyone, he realizes.

Just get dressed, buddy.  You can do this.  Just one step at a time.

Standing under an ice-cold shower, he tries to bring some life into his stunned body.  He throws on the clothes that he’d hung on the back of the chair the night before,  unconcerned about the wrinkles.

The drive across town was a blur; he barely remembers being behind the wheel.  This should be cause for concern, but right now his ability to feel anything but loss is impossible.

Squaring his shoulders, he feigns confidence as he walks inside.  “Excuse me,” his quivering voice betrays him.  “I’ve lost my phone.”

“Oh, we’re so sorry to hear that.  Life can be difficult, you know.”

“Yeah, no kidding.  Could I please get a replacement?”

“Oh my,” the representative says.  “You obviously didn’t read your contract thoroughly.  Such a pity.  So many people forget the fine print.”

“What do you mean?  Just transfer my information onto another one.  It doesn’t have to be a newer model; I’d be happy with—I’d prefer– the same one.” His hands are splayed as he braces himself against the counter, sweat forming above his lip.

“I’m afraid not.  You only get one in a lifetime and if you lose it, there are no replacements.”

“But that’s not fair!  There were conversations that I hadn’t responded to yet, I didn’t have the chance to download the memories onto another device and all my connections were on it.  If I can’t have a replacement, I’ll lose everything.”

“Did I stutter, sir?” The representative was becoming impatient with him.  “I said no replacements. Ever.”

“You don’t understand!” he was crying now.  “Everything was on that phone. My whole life was in there.”

The representative stared with eyes void of any emotion.

“C’mon man, have a heart.  Do you mean to say I can never have my phone—any phone?”

The representative’s eyes narrowed, delivering an almost venomous reply.  “Listen carefully, because I’m not going to repeat myself.  For as long as you walk this earth, you will never again have a phone.  You will walk around watching people enjoying theirs.  You will see people smiling and laughing as they text one another. By habit, you’ll reach into your pocket for your phone, only to be reminded that it’s not there and never will be.  The only pictures you can retrieve are the ones that are etched on your brain.  The memory card was lost with the phone, and you will have access to neither.”

It’s been a bit of a shit-show these last few weeks. My peer support mama warned me about this phenomenon.  I call it Groundhog Day.  To everyone who follows a regular calendar, Hilary died almost ten months to the day. For me, it might as well have been yesterday—sometimes even today. I get that it’s old news to most people—even family members, but please don’t force me into your timetable.  My journey isn’t the same as yours and there are no familiar landmarks for me to use to get my bearings. 

I’d been wracking my brains to find an analogy of loss that people can relate to, and it came to me on my morning drive to church when I thought I’d lost my phone. If there’s anything that can cause a human-doer’s emotions to run the gamut from mild concern to near hysteria, it’s losing one’s cell phone. 

Maybe it’s irreverent to compare losing a child with losing a cell phone, but for those of you who think ten months is long enough to be sad, to cry and to lament, give me your frigging phone.

 For an entire month.

 I’ll lock it up for you where you can’t even see it or hear that ridiculous ringtone.  For the next thirty days, you can imagine the thousand memes you’re missing on Face Book.  All the likes on your Family Christmas photos will be irrelevant by the time I give you your phone back, and should I even mention the missed text messages?  Yeah, people are going to think you’ve forgotten them.  They’re probably going to write you off because you’ve been ‘distant’.  If you weren’t savvy enough to WRITE OUT your contact list with phone numbers, you won’t even know how to get in touch with people.  Of course, you’ve probably already ditched your landline, so now you’re really screwed.  You may actually have to resort to real-time visits with those who recognize you outside of your FB profile. Brace yourself: this will involve getting dressed, wearing deodorant and, God-forbid, leaving your house. 

Can you feel the anxiety?  Can you imagine how inconvenient that loss would be?  And it’s only a phone.

I don’t intend to lament forever.  I will grieve forever, but I suspect at some point there will be more laughter and fewer tears.  Maybe, maybe not.  I’m still new to this and each day brings with it a new revelation.  Disbelief, for one.  Not just in the situation, but the way people handle—or don’t handle it.

 If you think you’re helping by not speaking Hilary’s name or talking about her, you’re not.  It actually hurts more.  Hilary was a funny, complicated and talented young woman.  I want to hear your stories and I need to share mine.  You can nudge me if I tell the same story twice– I’m prone to that because, quite frankly, some are worth repeating.  Tears, I’ve found are very healing, so if you feel like crying, let it come.  Your tears won’t upset me—let me comfort you for a change.  We can only deeply grieve someone whom we deeply loved. 

I’ve learned to let a lot go in the last year. In a year of refinement, I’ve given up mindsets. Roles. Relationships.  I suspect as I let go of things, it will free me to pick up other things.  Peace, joy and a genuine sense of purpose—these are things I want for 2020.  It may take a while to get there.  If you don’t want to join me on the journey, fine.  Just don’t get in my way.

The Taste of Raspberries

The past few months have done a number on my identity. When I think back almost thirty years when I’d had a miscarriage, I remember feeling like motherhood had been stripped from me. From the time I knew I was pregnant, I was a mother, and then in an instant, I wasn’t. Doing the simplest of tasks, getting dressed, making a meal or vacuuming the floor took gargantuan effort. I didn’t understand the complexity of grief then, but I do now.

Everything is filtered through the lense of grief even ten months after the fact. Whether it’s a conversation, a decision of how, where, or with whom to spend my time, it’s all observed from an altered perspective. Like looking through the bottom of an old-fashioned pop bottle, everything is distorted. Nothing looks the same as it once did.

Another bereaved mother once told me that everyday is like groundhog day for a parent who’s lost a child, and it’s true. To others, my loss has becomes old news, “Oh, that was ten months ago.” For me though, it may as well have happened today. Grief is like a computer program that is constantly running in the background of my life. Different nuances of it emerge with a surfaced memory, a holiday or a song on the radio. I’m tired of the incessant pulse of it in my brain, so I frequently shut down. I put on a smile and say I’m fine when I’m not. I say I have a son when asked if I have kids. I don’t acknowledge the child I’ve lost because I don’t want to break down and I certainly don’t want to make others uncomfortable with my brutal honesty. It’s not from pure altruism that people are spared, I just don’t have the energy to deal.

A good day looks like waking up to sunshine and a blue sky. Sounds corny, but trust me on this. When all is dull and grey with your eyes opened or closed, the warmth of sunshine on your face under a blue sky is beautiful. And if you have the energy to leave your cave to enjoy it up close, it’s a freakin’ miracle, my friend.

There’s raspberries too. Popping one of these beautifully plump time capsules reminds me of being a kid in a limitless world. It’s like tasting innocence, when there wasn’t a care in the world. Raspberries remind me of a time when watching Aunt Sadie bake for an entire Saturday morning was considered pure entertainment, of days when I could ride my bike to the lake with my sisters, or lay on a blanket in the backyard with my nose in a book for an entire afternoon. Memories as sweet as those berries pulled from the bush.

I wonder what eight-year-old Monica would have said if someone told her what 2019 would look like. She probably would have headed across the field to the gigantic rock with a fistful of raspberries and had a good cry.

C’mon 2020. No pressure here, but…

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.