The Shape of Grief

I lost my father at the end of April 2018. He had spent the last 18 years (!) in residential care, with the last 5 in long term care. What I can tell you about that is that it’s just plain awful. And seeing as how it was clear my father was never going to get better, his end came with a certain relief.

I have had a challenging relationship with my father. I have understood him as a narcissist. How I see that is that he was a bon vivant, loved to have people around him and was fed by that, but never gave back emotionally in a way that would keep a relationship going. I think my hypothesis is correct because not a soul showed up for him in 18 years. I always saw that as a consequence of how he lived his life.

When we were in the “sphere” of his attention, … hold on, when I was in the sphere of his attention, I felt loved. I felt we had some warmth and that he cared about me. But I also knew very well that it was out of sight out of mind, that it wasn’t ever my need of something that drove the relationship. And so I repeatedly felt abandoned by him, a bother to him. And he was cruel to me, psychologically, physically, emotionally… so ya, it was very complicated.

I expected my “grief” to be non-existent to tell you the truth. I thought the “job” of taking care of him would be done and that was that. I was not prepared for the tsunami of emotional work that hit me after all. My narrative for so long was that my father was a jerk, uncaring, narcissistic, an asshole. That the reason I stepped up to care for him was because of who I was, who I wanted to see myself as, a person with compassion and decency, and not any silly romanticized version of love. And yet … it was important to me that he be shaved – because that was something he did without fail, and he was the “Aqua Velva Man” (I smile). So when I would show up at the residence and he hadn’t been shaved in a long time I got upset. That seems to pass the threshold of obligation doesn’t it? I didn’t like it when I showed up and he wasn’t dressed properly. Is that obligation? I’m not so sure any more.

So then he passes. My sister and I always knew we would have him cremated, and spread the ashes at the lake where once we had a cottage. That cottage has been a part of our family story for 57 years now. It will be a part of our story until our end. It has occurred to me since we spread his ashes that this is the place where I knew the warmth of my father, the playfulness, where I could count on some kind of care. The “countryplace” was also a place of consistency, groundedness, something received me there … all of us I guess, but it’s in my bones, I don’t know how else to speak of it. And I know it was in my father’s as well. I was so happy when my sister, two of her kids, my husband and myself, went and took a swim, spread his ashes on the beach side, on the rock side… it was so meaningful to me. And it connected me to the care and love I have hidden from myself that I felt for my father. I also notice, the loss of him, frees me from any further disappointment, any further abandonment, so I can freely love him now. Let me tell you, that’s some big work right there (there is of course lots more to do!). And as these thoughts occur to me, a certain peace blooms. A calm. Knowing that I can decide how the story goes now, I can choose an ending .. or maybe not even an ending. No harm will come to me if I let the good of things bubble up. I can have a more rounded narrative of what it was to be his daughter, and what it was to have him as a father. And that’s all really wonderful if you ask me.

Let’s talk about how grief is other things too. Grief can feel like anxiety, a gnawing at your stomach that seems to show up for no reason. For several weeks l was just not able to go to the gym. The thought of expending that effort knocked me off my feet. So for the first time in quite a number of years – I threw myself into my garden. I dug two 25 foot trenches, and wheel barrelled the dirt away. I went a little over board but who cares… it all looks fabulous. That being said – I know I poured my grief into that.

I also walked on the mountain. This I was able to do even if my muscles ached. That’s the physical side of grief; I might as well have had the flu – which I didn’t. I would tell you, do what you can. If it’s a walk around the block so be it. If it’s just sitting outside, so be it.

Grief can feel like depression, making you think everything is wrong with everyone else, making you irritable. Or that something is wrong with your relationship, or your job, or what have you. I think the single most important piece of advice any of us could hear – is don’t make any major decisions at this time. Just don’t.

Grief can be distracting. I ran a red light for the first time in my life. I found it hard to focus. It’s not nothing.

Grief can make you reach for food or drink when neither is necessary. Be mindful of your vices. Grief can make you turn inward, pull away from people – when believe it or not, you need them most.

Grief though, can also be soft, and gentle, and warm … really. There’s a real need to sometimes sit with this loss, to feel it, to let that loss, but also the love, come up. We may choose to weep when that happens, or some of us may choose to feel grateful that such depth is available to us and actually exists.

Getting Through the Holiday Season

 Hi everyone… posting this again. Reach out to people who are more vulnerable, be kind, help, connect… we are all in this together. Peace to you.

Holiday seasons are tough on a lot of people. Those of us with “special” families have our share of Christmas horror stories …. too much drinking, too much drama, too much expectation. The media doesn’t help. We are bombarded from mid November on with the expectation that this is a time to be happy, to be connected to family which is supposed to be in and of itself a good thing, that we should buy, buy, buy, … Little wonder why the Help hotlines are overwhelmed at this time of year.  Those of us with out of step families feel, well, out of step. We ask ourselves how is it that we don’t have the pie in the oven, the merriment around the tree, the peace and love we surely all crave.

When it comes to the media unfortunately their message will never change. They are geared toward making people believe that spending money will bring back that family feeling. It doesn’t. Know that.

What can change is how we talk to ourselves. I can mind my expectations by not creating a fantasy of what I want my family to be. This will be helpful because what I want it to be and what it is are a lifetime and a world apart. So what to do? How about I work on accepting what is? How might that be helpful? Well for starters, if I take the stance of accepting what is, it’s easy to go from there to being grateful. Gratitude I have come to learn is the great equalizer of shitty stuff. Have a parent with dementia? Being grateful for the small moments in between gives one the strength to make it through the harder moments. Have a relative with mental illness? Again, being grateful for the small moments means being able to cope with the bigger ones that make no sense. Being grateful for the small moments means being present to that. When you’re present, and grateful, the mechanism to blow things out of proportion whether good (fantasy family) or bad (every thing is ruined) is limited.

As this year comes to an end, and we, by definition of the holiday, get together with friends and family, be real .. both with yourself and with others. Mind your expectations and look for gratitude for the little things. Doing so has a way of making little moments grow just a little bigger…. Just enough to make things fine, just as they are.

Peace be with you.

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