The Clouds of Grief

Dear Zach,

This is not as much for you as for anyone else reading today finding themselves struggling with grief, but this is something I desperately wish I was mulling over and discussing with you! While flying home from Canada today, I found myself even more mesmerized with the clouds than I usually am. There was nothing particularly enchanting about them, nothing exceptionally beautiful about these dreary grey clouds, but my eyes were glued to the window. Really the whole idea of flying and how it compares to grief was on my mind, but especially the clouds.

I realized that flying through the clouds is much like grief. I despise, DESPISE, the five stages of grief concept that people preach about (something those who know me well know I have wanted to write about since day one) because there is no linear track through grief like a subway where you can get on at one stop and take a straight shot to the last stop (something I have already written about). All that to say….. the clouds spoke to me about grief today in a way I had never thought about.

Bear with me as I may seem longwinded, but there has been a lot pondered during this hour layover and it has become heavy on my heart to share. But I do apologize for what is apparently my longest post ever!!!

I know there are so many people out there who think they are grieving wrong because they are doing it differently than how other people are. Society has a much different view of grief and I know I thought I had gone stark raving mad…. that no one had ever felt this way and that I was so wrong to feel this way. So this is me trying to use my own grief to appeal to all the people out there who think what they are feeling is wrong. Spoiler alert – it is not wrong. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you what it is or how you should grieve. images (2) When we get on the airplane, we have a destination in mind. We know where we need to go, but we surrender all control to higher powers – – – the pilot, the weather, good luck, God… what have you. No one can control the timeframe so you have to sit back and let it happen. You will get there when you get there.

GRIEF: once forced upon a journey of grief, you are forced to surrender control. We who grieve know where we should be or need to be (a healthy, functioning, not devastated place), but it may not be our choice when we arrive there. I believe grief is a process experienced by everyone differently and some may heal faster than others, but everyone will grieve in their own way. We have to feel what we are meant to feel and no one can impose a time schedule. The whole “one year to grieve” misconception makes me so frustrated because those are the people who do not understand loss and that maybe you do not heal in a year. It isn’t their place to tell you how long you need to recover from your loss and to go through the grieving process. Go ahead… I give you permission. Grieve as long as you need to until you get to a place of healing. images (3) During takeoff you can feel yourself slide back in the seat slightly as you hurtle at high speeds towards things you cannot see. Still powerless, simply accepting the path. You can feel it coming as the pilot accelerates down the runway, but you never know exactly when he will takeoff and leave solid ground behind.

GRIEF: when I say a “wave of grief”, I am sure many of you know what I mean and have experienced this yourself. A wave of grief can often come out of nowhere and blindside you knocking you off your feet, but sometimes you can see it coming in distance. You know it is coming, you don’t know when and you don’t know what it will entail, but the emotions are building and all you can do is blindly prepare. You hold on. You pray it will not last forever and you accept the powerless feeling until it passes and you can regain control. You get your footing, balance yourself back out, and go back to putting one foot in front of the other. You know another one will come one day, but you go on because you have to. images (5) Then you find yourself lost in the clouds, surrounded by immense amounts of white; sometimes light and fluffy, other times thick and heavy with rain. There is no visual end in sight and the clouds can seem to go on forever. You don’t know what lies on the other side and you may have to cross your fingers or clutch the armrest with a death grip or say a prayer or take a breath to trust that catastrophe isn’t on the other side.

GRIEF: finding yourself lost in a thick cloud of grief can be extremely disorienting. You may find yourself surrounded by feelings and thoughts you have never had before causing you not to recognize who or what you are. Grief can cause you to question everything and it may scare you. It becomes easy to lose your bearings and to become lost in the vastness of your grief because there is no end in sight. You become blinded to everything else other than the crushing emotions surrounding you. A thick cloud of grief that is especially heavy upon you can cause you to doubt what lies beyond it and can make you feel like it will last forever. You have to trust that it will pass and that you will come out unscathed on the other side. You will still grieve for who you have lost, but nothing compared to being lost in a crushing blinding grief cloud. untitled (2) During your time in the clouds, turbulence may rock you, jolt you, maybe frighten you. For a less-seasoned traveler or for one who is afraid of flying, this can feel like the end of the world and make you fear the worst. It feels like the bottom is dropping out as your heart jumps into your throat and the panicked thought of, “This CAN’T be right! The plane is going down!’ may cross your mind. It shakes you around, but leaves you unharmed just as quickly as it came.

GRIEF: going through grief is not an easy process and there will be days that completely rock you and shake you up. It can feel like the end, that the worst has happened, and that there is nothing else for you to do. Grief can cause you to question how so much wrong could have happened and how unfair it is. It can make you feel like the bottom is dropping out and you are freefalling through life, flailing to grasp onto anything that can bring you back to reality. The turbulent effect of grief can make an average day feel like you have gone to battle or ran a marathon because you are left feeling battered and broken. It can make you feel like giving up. But the turbulence in those thick clouds won’t last forever, you will come through it, and you will be left shaken, but ready to face another day. images (4) Eventually the airplane makes its way through and the clouds begin to dissipate and the vast whiteness gives way to glorious light. Regardless of the weather below on the surface, you can find yourself staring at an incredible landscape of gorgeous blue skies and glittering sunshine; you may feel like you are in another world. You may feel a sense of awe at this place and cause you to feel pity for the people thousands and thousands of feet below. It is a place only you are seeing and you are seeing it differently than everyone else on the plane with you.

GRIEF: perhaps grief is nothing like coming through the clouds to a beautiful place so that wasn’t a great explanation to start it off with, but grief will take you to place that you have never been and it is something unrecognizable that you may have never seen or experienced before. Living a life of grief is living a life in a totally foreign place. The house may be the same, you may still work at the same place, and your family may still celebrate things they did before; everything may be the exact same. The truth is that loss has changed your life and grief has tainted it. Things that were once comforting and usual to you may become unrecognizable, stressful, uncomfortable. You are now looking at a life that you did not have before and one that you were not expecting. Grieving is such an individual thing that no two people will experience it in the same way even if they have experienced the same loss. What you are looking at and experiencing may make you question why people aren’t feeling what you are or to ask why they aren’t feeling the impact of grief as much as you. Same as sitting on an airplane with a couple hundred people…. everyone will look out their window and see something different. Your grief is personal to you and no one can tell you that you are doing it wrong. imagesST16XUDK Then come the clouds again. Without warning, you are lost back in the whiteness. Blind to where you are going and searching your way through it, either back to the blue skies or down to the earth below. Giving up the idea of being able to see where you are going is something unnatural to humans, but lost in the clouds you have no choice. You can panic and not trust the process or you can sit back and accept what is happening.

GRIEF: days, months, or even years may pass, but one day grief may sneak up on you again because grief lives with you and becomes part of who you are. Most people learn to live with it and to live their lives as they did before, but I think they will always grieve for the person they lost even if not as deeply as during a time of fresh grief. There will always be part of you that misses them or thinks of them or mourns their loss, but the sense of overwhelming grief has passed. This is a concept that I have not reached yet with my grief for Zach and honestly it feels like an unattainable goal for me right now so I am probably not the best to write about this, but I do grieve for my father who passed away from cancer 18 years ago in this way. I still grieve for my dad. Most days I am fine. Months will go by and I go on day to day, but then there is that one day that sneaks up on me and a wave of grief will wash over me. I mourn for him still and grieve his loss and what he is missing, but that is just what will live with me and for anyone else who has lost someone that they love. I just have to accept it, even when I am unexpectedly plunged back into a feeling of grief, and not try to fight it. images3T0W74EO Finally you break through the clouds one last time and you eventually see land. Just a few more minutes and it will all be over so you can put your feet back on solid ground and regain some of your control. The ground gets closer, you may brace for impact, suck in another deep breath, but in the end you have left the clouds behind and are back to reality.

GRIEF: they tell me that one day this heavy weight of grief will pass and that the burden of Zach’s death will not weigh so heavily on me. I don’t know how it will happen, but just like an airplane making its last decent through the clouds and finishing its journey, I am told that one day it will end and this is my hope for all of us. They tell me that eventually it is supposed to pass and I will regain my footing in life so that day to day living does not feel like a desperate fight to survive. They tell me that eventually I will break through those thick clouds of grief and a less painful day will be in sight. They tell me that one day the darkness will pass, my sadness will lift, and my devastation will ease. Our realties will forever be changed because of what we have lost, but I am told that one day we will more so return to the people used to be. I don’t know when that day will be, but maybe there is hope for all who are grieving.

The Advice We Give but Do Not Take

advice

She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it). ~~ Lewis Carroll

Zach,

I have realized that so many of us, myself included, are capable of giving wonderful advice to our family and friends but are also wonderfully able to ignore our own advice.  Even since I lost you, I am still able to occasionally pull myself out from under the rock, AKA grief, that I live under and offer solid advice to my family and friends.

“I think talking to someone would really help you.”

“You have to take some time for yourself.”

“You have to eat.  Not eating will magnify everything and make you feel worse.”

“Getting some sleep would really help you.”

“Try not to think that way; you could not have changed anything.”

“Just ignoring it won’t make the problem go away.”

“Drinking yourself to sleep every night isn’t the solution.”

“You can’t just hide from this.”

Oh, the advice we give but do not take.  Most days I feel like I am exactly where I was October 9, 2011.  Most days I don’t feel like anything has changed other than that I manage to get through my day a little easier at this point.  This is probably because I am working myself to the bone between my extremely hectic job, my teaching schedule, my own classes, and my homework.  Denial, denial, denial.  If I keep running, I won’t have time to think.

But is that the same advice I would give my struggling friend, my best friend having relationship problems, a mutual friend of ours having severe coping difficulties, to someone I love whose marriage is quickly failing?  No, not at all.  When it comes to them I take on an air of wisdom.  I become the wise one who imparts snippets of wisdom that will help them face their problems.  I can offer that outside perspective that is just what they need to hear.  But do I do any of it myself?  Nope.  It is the advice I can give, but I cannot take.

They say, “Those who cannot do, teach.”  Maybe that is what is happening.  I can’t do it myself.  I can’t let go.  I can’t take care of myself.  I can’t take a moment to breathe for fear of completely and utterly falling apart.  I can’t take the time to go talk to someone.  I can’t make myself eat, sleep, or live like a healthy human being.  I cannot do it, so I guess I will teach.  But Zach, that is so hypocritical, right?  How can I expect my loved ones to take care of themselves if I cannot take my own advice?  Does it only apply to their situation and not to mine?  Is it easier to help fix their problems than to confront what is going on in my own world?  Probably.

Zach, I know I can’t continue like this.  I am broken down, beaten up, and in a state of perma-exhaustion.  My body constantly hurts, I never feel caught up, and am always struggling to keep moving.  And yet I still cannot take my own advice, or any from anyone else, because I am afraid of what will happen if I stop and just let myself breathe.  I’ve kept going for so long now that if I put everything else on hold I am sure that I will collapse into the million tiny shards of what remains of me which is only being held together by a busy schedule that necessitates being held together. If I let go, even for a second, I think it would be irreparable.  And then what?  I just don’t know nor am I even fractionally curious to see what would lie behind that closed door right now.

I came across two quotes a few weeks ago about how to give advice to someone who is grieving and they truly resonated with me.  It is hard to see clearly when you are deep in the throes of grief and even harder to see a way out of it.  But I have been blessed to have family and friends who understand that I am just not there yet.  I think they understand that I don’t ignore their advice on purpose or intentionally act hypocritical by offering advice I don’t take myself, but instead they show their support and love for me just by being there.  Zach, I am truly blessed to have the people who have stood by me through all of this so I close with these two quotes as a thank you to them.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.   -Henri Nouwen 

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At some of the darkest moments in my life, some people I thought of as friends deserted me-some because they cared about me and it hurt them to see me in pain; others because I reminded them of their own vulnerability, and that was more than they could handle. But real friends overcame their discomfort and came to sit with me. If they had not words to make me feel better, they sat in silence (much better than saying, “You’ll get over it,” or “It’s not so bad; others have it worse”) and I loved them for it. – Harold Kushner, Living a Life that Matters 

My Third Guest Post ~~~ How to Acknowledge Their “Death-versary”

Back in April, I had the pleasure of speaking with the lady who coordinates online articles for the Hello Grief website and she was interested in what I could contribute to their online community.  This website is an extremely helpful resource for people who are grieving and provides much needed support and advice to its followers.  I was honored to be asked, but the time was just never right.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to share.  As I have hesitantly approached the year marker of Zach’s death, I found myself with something to say.  I tentatively approached Alisha again, because I was unsure if she would even remember me after so much time at passed, and she immediately loved the idea and provided the encourgement I needed to put into words what I wanted to say.  It was honor, not only to be published on their website, but because these truly important words were shared online on Zach’s actual day, October 9th.  It has meant the world to me and I thank Alisha for her motivation, encouragement, and for being a listening ear via email as I attempt to process my own grief.

 

How to Acknowledge Their “Death-versary”
http://www.hellogrief.org/how-to-acknowledge-their-death-versary/

Many people refer to the date of their loved one’s death as an anniversary.  I can’t bring myself to do it.  It actually makes me cringe every time I try to say it or explain what October 9thmeans to me.  The word “anniversary” has an intended association with joy, celebration, and happiness, so why would I want to acknowledge the loss of my beloved Zach with this word?

None of us ever imagined having to say good-bye so soon, so suddenly, so tragically to the ones we love, which leads me to believe that none of us are feeling particularly celebratory as the date draws near.  We all have that one day.  A day filled with dread and loaded with dismal realizations; our own person D-Day.  No, I can’t bring myself to call it an anniversary so “death-versary” it is.  Sounds a bit morbid, I know.  But how else can I honestly begin to approach this day?

October 9, 2012 marks the one year death-versary of my fiancé, Zach.  It is unimaginable that he has been gone that long.  I have alternated so many times over the last year between feeling like he was just here a minute ago and feeling like he has already been gone for four lifetimes that I think I have given myself whiplash.  Life has continued to go on while I feel frozen in place.  Days have come and gone, and yet I feel like nothing has changed.  Over the last year my friends have gotten married, had babies, gotten new jobs, found new boyfriends, and bought houses.  My crowning accomplishment is that I woke up every day and went to work or school.  I got out of bed.  Seriously? That is my accomplishment?  That is all I have achieved?  Is that really all I am capable of doing now, without Zach?  I guess I should see it as surviving, but I have a sneaking suspicion that my aspirations should be higher than just getting by.

Whether I like it or not, the first year has passed.  One whole year without the person who gave my life meaning and filled my heart with unimaginable amount of love.  So how am I supposed to acknowledge this day?  How are any of us, the unwilling members of “Club Grief,” supposed to recognize this day for what it stands for?  For most of us this day signifies one of the absolute worst days of our entire lives,  filled with loss and devastation, questions that can never truly be answered.  So how should this day be spent? I wish I had the answer, any answer, but I think every single one of us must slowly live our way into our own answers.

I truly believe that even among those grieving the loss of the same person, there will be differing opinions about how to approach this day.  Some members of the family may want to do something to commemorate the day while others adamantly refuse.  Throughout grief we are forced to constantly make decisions like: what to do with their belongings, how to celebrate the holidays, what traditions to continue on with.  These difficult decisions are ones that family and friends may agree with or firmly disagree with.  The death-versary is just another one of those decisions and one I am currently faced with.

As October 9th has slowly crept closer I have been questioning what his family and I should do.  My initial plan was to organize a fundraising event in his memory and donate the money to the school Zach had been working at.  He had recently switched from teaching to being the Parent/Teacher Liaison, a Social Worker of sorts, for a county with tremendous struggles and needs.  The resource center he created during his time there was renamed the “Zach Zone” after we lost him.  The teachers have continued his work and tried to fill the gaping void he left behind, but there are still many community needs such as food, clothing, and school supplies.  I thought organizing an event for this would be the perfect way to honor his memory, his life, and his work while giving something to the community he did so much for.

But as this day got closer and closer, my plan started to lose its appeal.  I didn’t think I had it in me to coordinate an event like this and his parents agreed it’s just too soon.  It’s something we would like to do in the future, but for right now it’s simply too daunting of a task.  Our grief is too fresh and too painful to take on something like that right now.  So now what?  I am back to the original question of how to acknowledge this day.

Should I ignore the day and just go to work and school like normal and hope it will be distracting?  Should I take the day off and spend it hiding under the covers?  Should I go spend the day with family and rely on each other for support?  Should I visit his grave?  Should we have some kind of organized service?  Should our family go visit the family of his best friend, who was killed in the same car accident?  Should this day be no different than any other day?

I think it comes down to this; whatever ends up being the final decision it will never be enough or give me any sense of comfort.  He is still gone and the excruciating pain will still be there.

So how will you acknowledge your loved ones death-versary?  How will you honor their memory?  Have found yourself ignoring the day in the past but feel ready to honor their life now?  The answer to the question of how to acknowledge this dreaded day only lies within each and every one of us, and it is my hope that we will all one day manage to feel some semblance of peace.