From Dread to Hope: Making Peace With Father’s Day

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Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash a caption

As a Widowed Mother, the Day Kinda Sucked

When you’re newly widowed, family celebrations often trigger waves of grief-laden anxiety. Eventually, you progress to tolerance. At some point, you’re able to rediscover the joy in such occasions. But for the widow and a mother  -  for me  -  the third Sunday in June was an entirely different ballgame. Father’s Day took my sons’ loss and ruthlessly thrust it into the limelight. Worst of all, there was little, if anything, I could do about it.

Not that I didn’t make an effort. I spent countless hours trying to fill the void created by their father’s death. But my attempts were largely in vain. My persistence was futile. I simply didn’t have the tools. I wasn’t him. It was like plugging a deep chasm with a shallow cork. Sure, it may have sealed it for a moment, but it was always an imperfect fit. It settled and slipped, leaving gaps and exposing cavities.

I blame my late husband.
He didn’t make it easy - not by a long shot.

My husband, Matt, was meant to be a father. It was an integral part of his soul and, quite honestly, one of the reasons I married him. From the get-go, he was intricately involved in our boys’ upbringing. When they were infants, he requested to take the midnight feeding so he could have some bonding time (and I could get some extra sleep.) He coached every sport they participated in from the age of three. On Father’s Day, he bought them presents.

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Typical Father’s Day Haul

When Matt realized time with his boys was not to be a marathon but a sprint, he strove to make each step count. He aspired to impart a lifetime’s worth of mentoring as swiftly as possible. Initiating what he dubbed “Daddy Breakfasts,” just the three of them would go out about once a month. The date wasn’t announced ahead of time; it was always spur of the moment. I was invited, but invariably declined. (What mother of two young boys would pass up a quiet morning all to herself?) During the meal, they would talk about whatever was on their minds. It was a safe zone where nothing was off-limits. Their father’s insight seasoned the conversation and his compassion was the syrup on top. What they discussed was never disclosed to me, but they always brought me back a treat.

Leukemia may have stripped away Matt’s vitality, but it never robbed him of his spirit. He spent every hour of his last seven years in some degree of pain, yet each morning he would wake thankful to have “another day above ground.” Our sons were ages six and eight when he received his initial diagnosis. My greatest heartache is that they have few recollections of him well. Doctors’ appointments, treatments, and fatigue governed our daily agendas. They don’t remember life without these overbearing dictators. But even as cancer therapies and their side effects corroded his physique, his exuberance for life - for us - remained and flourished.

After Matt was gone, I daydreamed that some man or men would come alongside my sons to mentor them. Like a beloved Lifetime movie, a gentleman - perhaps an uncle, neighbor, teacher, or coach - would recognize the “missing piece” in their life and do his best to compensate. Whatever crisis that might be looming would be adverted, their souls would be soothed and the credits would roll. In reality, a few men made attempts, but only for a short time. These were temporary positions. No one developed into a lifelong father-figure for either one of them. I never was a fan of tear-jerkers anyway.

We muddled through the first Father’s Days without Matt as best we could. At first, I thought about purchasing presents for my sons, but it felt off  -  like I’d be adding fuel to their continual smolder of loss. I rejected the common single mother’s mantra of being both a father and a mother. They had a father  –  a damn good one  -  I could never take his place.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written… Herman Hesse

It’s been over a decade of fatherless Father’s Days. The wounds of mourning have been assimilated into our history. Like tree trunks integrating the scars of fire, we have endured. The rings of struggle bear witness to our survival, rather than constricting our growth. We have matured and become resilient. My boys are adults. It is no longer up to me to tend to their grief.

The festivities of the holiday that once seared and stung now invoke comforting remembrances of a fatherhood well lived. Memories have ceased highlighting his absence, but serve as guideposts for our sons to become men of character. Perhaps, God willing, continue the legacy of exceptional parenting. It’s time to delight in Father’s Day once again.

The Worst Gets Better: A 30th Anniversary Love Letter to My Dead Husband

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May 5, 1990

It’s Cinco de Mayo, 2020. Five years since I wrote my first letter to you. Thirty years since our wedding day. Eleven and a half years since I lost you.

 

So much has transpired since those monumental dates in 1990, 2008. I am no longer the girl you married, nor the same woman you left behind. I wonder if you would even recognize me. Half a generation has passed. Very little in the world appears the same.

 

Your parents have both made their pilgrimage back to you. I wish I could have witnessed those reunions. The void that shadowed them after you left spilling over with joy. The pride in seeing their only son bursting in celestial technicolor.

 

Our two teenage boys have become adults. Complete opposites in looks, personality, and temperament. Yet, each one is a perfect reflection of you. My DNA fills in gaps here and there. You coached them on how to be men. They are your living history.

 

No more talk of darkness
Forget these wide-eyed fears*

Although we knew your time with us would be abbreviated, we were still caught off guard. Ill-equipped for the abruptness and finality of it all. It took all three of us some time to regain our bearings, reset our compasses. Each of us veered off course, sometimes plunging to the depths of despair. Thankfully, our squalls and tempests didn’t occur simultaneously. The other two were able to shore up the one faltering   – holding the tethers tight until we could stand on our own feet again. Still, it took nearly a decade for our quartet minus one to complete the journey.

 

I’ve long since sold the house. Most people nodded in approval. “Too many memories,” is what I’m sure they supposed. But they would have been wrong in that assumption. It was our house, but our foundation was in us. You taught me that. Counseled me to view our abode as an asset, not a mausoleum. When it became too monumental to manage, we moved on  – the memoir of our life together tenderly stored in our hearts.

 

When seeking our next home, I set my heart on an area that common sense  –  and my realtor  –  told me was out of budget. I was determined not to compromise, somehow secure in the conviction that I had located my new neighborhood. Your years of faith in me had instilled a confidence just beginning to bloom. My perseverance was rewarded, the market took a dip, and I found a lovely townhome. I knew you would have commended my triumph.

 

You’d appreciate where we settled. Compact and cozy, yet not too confining. No cumbersome yard to tend to  –  that was always your domain, but a small patio shaded by magnolias and adorned by a few low-maintenance flowers. I do miss our rose garden  –  our quests to discover uncommon varietals that caught our fancy. “No humdrum track home shrubs for us,” was our landscaping motto.

 

It was more than a relocation. It was the beginning of a rebirth  –  a life conducted by a soloist, no longer a duet. Downsizing was cathartic. I took very few furnishings with me. Only those cherished deeply transplanted to the new home: The photo albums you meticulously curated. The bedroom furniture you said we couldn’t afford  –  until I negotiated a deal too good to let pass. (My refusal to pay retail for anything was one of the traits you found most endearing.) Almost everything else was sold to finance the move, except for a trio of toolboxes. Each filled with implements and gizmos carefully selected from your considerable collection – one crimson case for each of us  –  to help us tend to our domicile in your absence.

 

Promise me that all you say is true*

As much as I protested during our wee hour “what if” conversations, you were correct in asserting the benefits of companionship – of reopening my heart to love. I was in danger of becoming too comfortable in the inertia of loneliness. So, I started dating. My first few experiences were like the spits and spats of an old jalopy restarting after a decade in storage: cobwebs clogging the valves, a couple backfires, and the groanings of a “mature” engine resisting movement.

 

It took me more time than most to regain my momentum, but I did end up having my first real boyfriend since you at sixteen. He was a good man. He honored my parents, our boys, even you. He would light up at my smile, but it began to flicker. We were mismatched puzzle pieces trying desperately to force the connection – only able to bend so far before the relationship snapped apart.

 

All I want is freedom
A world with no more night*

Next year, the scales will tip. I will have more years of my life spent without you than with you by my side. I can feel them teetering. At times I feel quite precarious, unbalanced. More often, however, I feel the rush of anticipation. Looking ahead with hope instead of dread. I used to feel unprepared about what is to come. Perhaps, I am ready now.

 

Happy Anniversary!

Loving you always, 

Lisa

 


 

 

*All I Ask of You – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sung at our wedding. May 5, 1990

Going Down the Rabbit Hole During a Pandemic

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

An invitation to a pity party

It was inevitable, no matter how hard I tried to prevent it. A conversation the night before had ignited a pessimistic spark. Dread simmered in my dreams. I awoke sullen, buzzing with trepidation. Before long, I was descending down the rabbit hole into one rager of a pity party.

I habitually obscure my struggles. When occasionally asked how things are going, downplaying is my diversion. Raindrops on roses and all that. Everything is practically perfect.

Or so I would lead them to believe.

Secretly, I crave reassurance — thirst for sympathy. I expect my friends and family to discern what it truly going on — even while I am reciting “I’m fine,” or signaling all is well. “Where is their consolation?” my pathetic ego whimpers. Aren’t they clairvoyant? Can’t they perceive the stress vibrating through my veins? I pay no heed to my flair for camouflage.

One hell of a party pooper

So, on this particular morning, I was wallowing in mire as thick as tar. To be honest, it had been percolating even before our isolation mandates. My uneasy temperament had been nuked into Hulk-sized anguish by our collective crisis. The scale in my bathroom bore witness to this mutation. Perhaps binging on Lays and Thin Mints had exacerbated this state of affairs. Who’s to say? Did you know chocolate left in the back of the cupboard for three years is still somewhat edible? Especially if you down it with a glass of cabernet. But I digress…

Of course, anxiety didn’t miss her invitation to my shindig. Feeling sorry for myself was the theme for this soiree. Loved ones’ supposed lack of telepathic abilities set the mood. Annoyance at succumbing to the dark side added just the right amount of oomph. Incensed and dejected, I yielded to what was to come: Plummeting to the depths of the rabbit hole.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

There’s a hollow emerging in the sofa from days upon days of lethargy. I burrowed into the cavern like a grizzly nestling in for hibernation. The drone of the local tv news lulling me into a pacifying stupor. I was lounging in the void between panic and apathy when I received a text from my boyfriend. He wanted to know how my day was going. Seriously?! Couldn’t he detect my tormented spirit from his home six miles away? I thought we were on the same wavelength.

I expressed my angst — or so I thought. I sent vague texts about how no one understands without any further elaboration. My ire escalated as he seemingly couldn’t grasp the complexities of my despair. I even chastised him for not responding to my messages quickly enough. If he truly cared about me, his replies should be immediate, shouldn’t they? My conceit was enormous. I sent one last snippy retort. He gave me a call.

The onslaught began.

There was no slowing my roll. I sniffled and sobbed and despised myself for conceding to this display of vulnerability. I spewed my presumed misfortune and disappointment in my family, my friends and him like a machine gun. He listened, gently chided me when I deserved it and consoled me as much as possible until my arsenal was depleted. His character must be fabricated from Kevlar.

We are all Alice

When I first sat down to write this piece, I had planned on eloquently expressing my dismay. Catalog all that beleaguered me. That would garner me the outpouring of empathy I coveted. I envisioned relishing every last morsel. My self-indulgence was intoxicating.

And then I sobered up.

In reality, what would have that accomplished? Who was I to place such irrational expectations upon those I hold dear? Moreover, the entire population is spiraling down rabbit holes — stepping through their own looking glasses. It’s hubris to deem mine more abysmal than others. We are entering a new Wonderland with a yet-to-be determined set of rules. “Curiouser and curiouser,” we collectively cry. Brooding over news bites and statistics to assess our safety quotient.

If we are not careful, misery may be an even worse contagion that the virus itself.

That’s not to say that throwing your own pity party is unwarranted, if not crucial, to process the enormity of a world turned upside down — society’s ambiguous future. In my case, it proved to be a vital release, albeit a not very glamorous one. (Thankfully, no mascara was mistreated during this melancholy madness.) The trick is not to overstay your welcome.

Capturing the moment to seize the day

A good friend of mine recently told me she is choosing to say, “I’m having a bad moment,” instead of, “I’m having a bad day.” This slight shift in perception reminds us that moments pass. They are not eternal.

I’m striving to be more mindful of cheerful interludes. (No, this isn’t another boastful #blessed list.) Purposefully capturing periods of joy — contemplating gratitude. Protecting them in my memory so I can reflect upon them when worry shrouds my contentment. Call it my attitude stimulus package:

  • I am thankful for a roof over my head, potato chips in my pantry and plenty of toilet paper.

Such illuminations beckon me out of my rabbit hole. I shouldn’t ever squander these endowments.

Typically, I have little use for trite mottos. Life is too nuanced and our world more precarious than any sentimental declaration, but they can be a beacon. So here goes: Acknowledge the suck. Allow yourself to lament. Rail against whatever hardship until you are spent. Then, reboot your disposition. Create your own relief list.

The diem ain’t gonna carpe itself.*

*As seen on my new favorite t-shirt on Amazon and other fine vendors of pithy attire.

The Seven-Year Itch

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It’s been seven years.

A week of revolutions around the sun.

Happy (?) deathiversary to me.


I’ve made (some) progress.

My days no longer commence with torrential tears.

I seldom sense the vacant weight of my wedding ring.

Still, my singularity seems abnormal.

A bunker of pillows occupies the empty promise that is his side of the bed.

The duo I once was has been replaced by a shadowed silhouette and what is left of me.


I obstinately strive to satisfy my sons’ paternal vacuum. The maternal exercise in futility I refuse to cease — the truth I’m reluctant to verify.

Even in the slightest dilemma, I wonder: What words of advice would he impart? Would this be happening if he was here?

The absence of a father’s wisdom torments a mother’s heart.


My widow’s shroud swaddles and suffocates. It’s my daily personal paradox: Do I let it lull me into a muffled serenity or should I cast off sorrow’s cocoon?

Grief is the wolf that threatens my sheep’s clothing.

When my children were in elementary school, they each witnessed the metamorphosis of larva to butterfly. As it neared the time for the insects to emerge from their chrysalis, the students were warned not to “assist.” Aiding or abetting in the butterflies’ escape could result in malformations. There would be no choice but to let flightless creatures succumb to their deformities. Successful transformation required solitary struggles.

I continue to curb such a transfiguration. I’m seeking adaptation, not evolution. Disowning all traces of my former self would be tantamount to annulling my marriage. I need to move forward, not break away.


My mourning attire is beginning to itch. At times it is sweltering. But will shedding it completely leave me basking in a cool breeze or shivering from my cold reality? Is such a prophecy feasible?

Do I really want to know?

The future whispers from just beyond the horizon. Uncertainty muffles the echo, but I must submit to its summons. Inertia will only spawn decomposition.

That’s not what he desired for me.

That is not what I aspire for myself.

A Mother’s Tale: Shielding and Letting Go

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Photo Credit: Flckr Commons

Once again, it was thrust upon us.

My sons and I were watching television and soon realized “IT” was going to be part of the storyline. Our lighthearted summer romp through The Hamptons was referencing a significant anniversary in the life of its main characters, a pair of brothers. Being the shrewd (and somewhat rabid) TV viewer that I am, I was able to quickly deduce the meaning of the upcoming fictional date.

Intuitively, I scrutinized my boys’ expressions to see if they had caught on. One of them readjusted his relaxed posture to more formal pose; the other shifted a bit in his chair. What used to take effort had now become instinctual. A narrative meant to tug at the heartstrings of most viewers was going to twist and turn ours. All three of us braced ourselves accordingly.

It had been 25 years since the death of their (the main characters’) mother.

“Shit!” I thought for seemingly the thousandth time. For a few years after we lost my husband, I would sidetrack my boys’ attention away from the television when such a plot development occurred. Sometimes, I would “accidentally” change the channel. “Oops!” I’d exclaim in my best, pseudo-innocent voice. Such tactics can only work for so long.


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Source: Giphy

The difficulties escalate this time of year.  My maternal eye views every Father’s Day themed commercial as a dart aimed squarely at my children. I would like to stand in front of them like Wonder Woman, deftly deflecting the onslaught of paternal imagery with a PING! and a POW! of my magic bracelets.  I’d encase both of them entirely in chainmail, if possible, to repel the wily projectiles that made it past me.

Regrettably, I haven’t always made the best decisions when it came to exposing my sons to unsuitable material. Case in point: I took both my sons to see the movie, ‘The Express’ mere months after losing their father. It was a film about Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. We were a football-obsessed family, so this should have been an enjoyable, but relatively uneventful weekend outing. What I carelessly overlooked is that Davis dies shortly after being drafted by the NFL. Of leukemia!!! Not my wisest parental decision.


I know it’s completely unrealistic, but I have often fantasized about a process where a cable customer could create a personalized warning system. A subscriber would enter whatever topics offended their sensibilities or damaged their emotional well-being. Shows would be subsequently scanned and customized alerts would appear when necessary. In the case of our household, they would read:

Caution, the following content contains scenes either depicting or referencing the death of one or more parent.

VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED


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In the movie, ‘A Knight’s Tale,’ it is a woman who constructs the breastplate that best guards the heart of Sir Ulrich. It is lightweight, flexible, but durable. He is able to joust without unnecessary constraints. I used to be my sons’ blacksmith. The sole designer of their shields. But they are now young men. They must forge their own suitable armour.

In the end, the hero of the movie winds up being overburdened by his defense mechanisms. His metallic safeguards, no matter how accommodating they once were, become too rigid for him to continue. The newly christened knight discards his gauntlet and faces his final opponent unmasked, unshielded, and exposed.  Ultimately, he is victorious over the enemy that challenges his rightful place in society.

Whatever fortifications my sons select – whether they are walls, moats, or armour – it needs to be an individual choice. It is up to them to determine if they want to erect barricades. They alone elect whether to build them up or tear them down and when. As much as I may desire to, I can’t protect them anymore.

And so, tonight we will turn the TV on again. Will our viewing choices be friendly to our little family? Maybe. Maybe not. A strong fatherly lead could induce a wave of melancholy in my sons. A commercial featuring an affectionate husband might strike a chord with me. It’s impossible to predict. Unless we choose to live a life of solitary confinement, complete avoidance is impractical and not at all feasible. We will each weigh our options. We will measure our selections against our defenses. Hopefully, at least for now, we won’t be found wanting.

Dazed and Confused: Enduring an Emotional Concussion

Grief by Sarah Gath

A little while back I was having a heart-to-heart with a close friend.  Within a period of six months, he had lost both his stepfather and his mother. Dealing with his grief was becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s like I’m in a constant haze,” he explained. “I can’t seem to comprehend or complete the most basic of tasks.” “Makes perfect sense to me,” I replied. “You’ve been emotionally concussed.”

As a dedicated football mom, I am quite familiar with the physical ramifications of a brain bouncing inside a skull like a pinball. For four years, I ran the high school sidelines. I knew the signs of a concussion and subsequent protocol. It was my task to make the calls to 911 and/or an unsuspecting parents more times than I would have preferred. There were the instances when the brightest kids on the team had no idea what day it was. Sometimes, the athlete would drift in and out of consciousness, complaining of an intense headache when he was briefly coherent. Then there was the kid who acting as if he was happy drunk. We needed to assign him a babysitter to keep him from frolicking back onto the field.

When my own son had his first concussion, I witnessed the day-in and day-outs of such an injury. A designated “math kid,” he couldn’t add 2+2 for nearly three weeks.

The NFL, FIFA, International Olympic Committee, and other sports organizations look for numerous symptoms when assessing a possible concussion. Besides a persistent headache, these include:

  • Feeling slowed down
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Sadness
  • Nervous or anxious
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Difficulty remembering and/or concentrating
  • Irritability

Due to the recent outcries (and lawsuits) over the long-term damage of repeated concussions, both the NCAA and NFL have revised their guidelines regarding possible brain injuries suffered either during practice or competition. With the general medical consensus being that the more severe damage occurs when an athlete returns to play too soon (before the brain has had adequate time to heal) many injured professional and collegiate athletes are now mandated to refrain from competition until he or she has demonstrated satisfactory cognitive function. A secondary concussion suffered by an athlete who resumed competition too early can result in catastrophic brain injury.

Putting aside the debate on whether or not the sports community is doing too little too late to prevent brain injuries – what are the correlations between concussions and emotional trauma? Or overwhelming grief? In my own personal experience, and in the lives of those whom I’ve consulted on the matter – plenty.

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Some say I’ve had more to “deal with” in my life that most. I might take issue with that conclusion, but I can’t dispute the facts: My son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 2 and a half. He was in and out of the hospital for nearly a month. My father-in-law was stricken by colon cancer and was forced to go on dialysis due to a tainted batch of chemotherapy. My husband donated one of his kidneys to save his father’s life. Some years later, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, underwent a stem cell transplant, almost lost his eyesight, and eventually went into cardiac arrest and died a few years later. Personally, I have been affected by debilitating endometriosis, infertility issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast cancer to name a few. I guess my plate has been full for quite a while.

In many of these instances and others, my emotional circuitry was fried. Most of the time, when I needed to function despite of my circumstances; any and all sentiment was suppressed. I went numb. Other times, I sparked like an overloaded transformer, singeing those closest to me with blistering words and scalding outbursts. With my sideline sports history, you think I would have recognized the signs of something a little more serious than “feeling down” or being “overly sensitive.”

It’s been said that emotional trauma is stress run amuck. According to the American Psychological Association and the National Center for P.T.S.D., the symptoms of emotional trauma include:

  • Detachment
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Extreme sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of intimacy
  • Eating disturbances
  • Memory lapses
  • Irritability
  • Feeling distracted

When you compare the symptoms of emotional trauma to those of a brain injury, they are almost identical.
Hence – emotionally concussed.

While scientists continue to debate the sequence of physiological events that produce emotion, the central nervous system is still considered to be the mastermind behind whatever we are feeling on any given day. When your CPU (your brain) has been strained to the upper reaches of its capacity, there are bound to be ramifications; much like the recently-documented cases of broken-heart syndrome, where excess amounts of stress hormones damage the heart. If the traumatic events happen in succession, the damage can be devastating.

Severe emotional distress can make you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head with a 2×4. Stunned and dazed for a moment, it might take you a moment to regain your bearings. If you are stuck repeatedly, or if the blow hits you just right, that “moment” can take days, months, or years.

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Sports enthusiasts and ER personnel are frequent users of instant ice packs. These portable plastic packets are filled with a powdered chemical. Inside that is another pouch filled with a liquid chemical or water. When you squeeze and/or shake the packet, the inside pouch pops and the two chemicals react. As you are holding it, you can feel the reaction progress through the packet as it slowly turns completely cold.

Your brain can act the same way under extreme stress. Too much and Kapow!, your inner composure is burst, oozing into your surrounding grey matter. Soon, your synapses are cooled and your temperament is frozen into a mechanical and barely functioning tranquility. Your cognizance is in “Safe” mode.

As with an athlete, those who grieve run the risk of returning to life’s playing field too soon. Jobs, family, and friends may expect you to bounce back faster than you are ready. You, yourself, might be overly ambitious and presume you are prepared to get back in the game when you are far from it. Resuming strenuous, or even normal, activity before you are recuperated can be highly detrimental.

There is no pharmaceutical quick fix for a concussion — or grief. In reality, giving a brain injury patient certain analgesics can cause more harm than good. Aspirin or ibuprofen can thin the blood and exacerbate a brain bleed.  The best prescription is physical rest, mental relaxation, and time. Unfortunately, in the era of instant gratification, we are loathe to allot ourselves suitable amounts of any of them.

When my husband passed away, I was offered numerous agents to help me “cope:” one pill to help me sleep, another to boost my spirits, still another to help me get through the day. I declined them all.  I was wary of becoming dependent on any type of mood enhancer. More importantly, I didn’t want any agent to either dilute or dull the experienced trauma. To me, doing so would only delay the inevitable. I needed to experience the rawness – the full brunt of anguish – in order to get through it.

This is not to say that I always followed my own “sage advice”—far from it. I suppressed a lot of the grieving process, telling myself there were things that needed to get done, kids to take care of, other family and friends who needed to witness my composure so they could get on with their own lives. In my warped opinion, time was too precious and not worth the expense.

It's time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

It’s time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

Recently, I have had to go on short-term disability due to a persistent illness. I have to wonder: Is my body finally saying enough is enough and forcing me to slow down? Have I ever taken the time or done the work to truly rehabilitate? In the past few months, I have been able to experience quiet and search my soul, expand my creative writing, and enjoy more time with immediate and extended family.

If I had continued to be deemed physically fit, would I ever be emotionally well?

I am unsure if Emotional Concussion is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders. I doubt if I am the first one to coin the term.  I only know it accurately encompasses the symptoms of grief my friends and I have confronted. It helps to realize that we are not alone in this condition. We are not suffering from a rare, orphan disease.

We are not losing our minds.

With over 2.5 million deaths occurring each year in the U.S. alone; there are tens of millions of left-behind loved ones who currently and will continue to grieve for years to come. Acknowledging that we have been battered and bruised – that we need a breather – is the first step. It is crucial to heal our minds and our hearts, create our new normal – restore our sense of self.

Rest is not a dirty word.

Epilogue to: What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ICYMI: Here is the link to my previous post.

Well the two-part season finale has come and gone. IMHO, Grey’s conclusion was honest, and perceptive throughout both episodes. Not only regarding Meredith, but those surrounding her, including friends; his sister, Amelia; and even April Kepner. In fact, the episodes could have accurately been entitled “Portraits of Grief.” How one handles the loss of a loved one is not an A-to-B-to-C progression. It is multifaceted. It has twists, turns, and double backs. It rarely stays the same.

Of course, we were riveted by the young couple and their unborn child involved in a horrific accident: Can they be rescued? Who will be the hero? Will they survive? Romance in all its complexities was portrayed by the Richard-Catherine story line: How do two, strong-willed individuals compromise enough to commit to one another? But the underlying current was grief — in all its guts and glory.

We soon learn the Meredith packed up the kids and slipped away in the middle of the night. Gone for a year, we are shown snippets of how her friends deal with her absence. At first they are worried, then frantic. A little pissed off; most of them resign themselves to Meredith being Meredith. What she, the new widow, failed to understand is a concept that took me a while to realize: you are not alone in your loss and are now a role model for how to grieve. Your closest companions, family, in-laws, and colleagues have lost someone as well and are unsure of how to handle it. They need to see that you are OK, that you are coping, moving on — surviving — before they can as well. In a twisted way, their lack of composure is comforting; at least it was for me.

It demonstrated that my husband’s life resonated with others, that he mattered, that he wouldn’t be forgotten.

This is not to say I don’t admire Meredith for her selfishness. I am actually jealous. Her kids aren’t of school age. She had the financial resources to disappear. It was a luxury that few widows have, but secretly crave. All in all, it was a perfect metaphor for the sense of suspended animation you are in for a least a year. The world continues to rotate; life goes on, no matter how enveloped in grief you are. She was able to get off the infamous carousel for a while and just breathe.

Amelia’s grief demonstrated how loss is dealt with when it is initially denied. As the damaged sister, she had her walls in place. She’s been through this before. (father, lover, baby) She didn’t need any help. She was just fine, thank you. Only when she teetered on the edge of losing sobriety, did she finally cry out for support. As I hoped Grey’s would do, she angrily confronts Meredith about not having the chance to say goodbye to her brother. My husband had three sisters, just like Derek Shepherd. Only one was able to speak her farewell to him at the hospital. This was a moment in time that was of utmost importance to her and would have devastated her if it was prevented.

Meredith’s reaction was equally revealing. She breaks down in tears after Amelia leaves. Why such a response? Did she feel guilty? Unjustly accused? Probably a little bit of both. But in that scene, the audience is shown a key component of grief. 365 days— whether they are in reality or the television universe — are but a moment in the life of a widow. Emotions can well up and over at any time. They may or may not make “sense.” Every so often, they are uncontrollable.

Even April and Jackson were caught up in the cavalcade of grief. After losing their child, April runs off to a combat zone to channel her anguish, leaving Jackson behind to grieve alone. She comes back recharged, but different. “I like the new April,” Bailey tells a skeptical Catherine. Jackson later tells April that while he is happy for her new sense of purpose, he did and continues to feel abandoned in their supposedly shared heartache. Dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially a child, is partially a cooperative experience. When someone in the grief collective opts out and decides to go it alone, the rest are left feeling forsaken. The processing of their sorrow may be incomplete. Will their marriage survive this trial? We are left to ponder for the duration of the summer.

These story lines aptly portrayed the ripple effect of death. Losing someone close to you, whether it be a treasured friend or cherished loved one, affects everyone differently — but continually. Grief is both private and public, intimate and communal. It is ugly in its brutality and beautiful in its poignancy. Bravo Grey’s Anatomy. Thank you for getting it right.

Grief Lessons You Are Never Taught: The Prelude & Aftermath of Special Occasions

Lee Hayword

Few things in life are more personal than grief. The only one-size-fits-all premise is that everyone encounters, digests, and processes it uniquely. Since the progression of that process is in a perpetual flux, I find myself commonly exhibiting three different modes of grief. (Although I am sure there are others lurking.) The personalities in the trio take their turns coming and going, sometimes intertwining with one another and at other intervals completely overshadowing a counterpart. They are predictable in their unpredictability. My current triad includes:

  • The Neon Sign: This is time I want everyone to take notice of my widowhood. I yearn to have my grief heralded by the town crier with exclamations of “Sympathy for the suffering!” and “Alms for the widow!”
  • The Grace Kelly: Like a favorite pair of classically-styled earrings, my grief during these moments is subtle and demure, never ostentatious. It’s the pièce de résistance that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there.
  • The Influenza: This is the ailment you try to ignore – attempt to maintain the stiff upper lip. The problem is, the more you try to stifle this type of grief, the harder it is to breathe and the increasingly nauseous you become.

All these types are prowling about, waiting to crash the party, when you are about to confront a significant occasion. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries will forever be altered once you have lost the person you primarily celebrated them with. My struggle dealing with the date of my 25th wedding anniversary was recently discussed in a post on Medium and subsequently featured in the Huffington Post.

What I didn’t disclose, and what nobody prepares you for, is the before and after of such monumental events. The prelude and the aftermath are the most grueling of days – and the ones when you feel the most isolated.  

The days, often weeks, before are a gradual crescendo. You become increasingly anxious, making sleep problematic. You’re apprehensive about facing the day. You fret about whether or not you should even get dressed or answer the phone. If it’s an event that you have to attend – want to attend – such as a child’s graduation, you are fearful that you might collapse into a puddle of tears at an inopportune moment.

When the date arrives, it is rarely as troubling or as uplifting as forecasted. You feel guilty and grateful simultaneously. The sorrow is a deep, throbbing ache. The loss is palatable. Yet, the compassionate comments of friends and family are consoling. The cards, flowers, and other reminders of their affection boost your disposition and fortify your resolve to make it through the day. Soon, you experience a delirium of grief that is both euphoric and melancholy.

But, the day after can be the cruelest for the uninitiated. Calls, emails, or presents don’t materialize to celebrate, soothe, or mourn this day. Beguiled with sentiment just 24 hours earlier, you feel forgotten – bereft of comfort and understanding. Like a burn victim, you need to debride the dead tissue: expose the uncontaminated and living flesh existing underneath the defunct scabs of yesterday. Most of the time, this is a solitary and nerve-wracking assignment. No one else recognizes the necessity.

For those who are grieving, give yourself the time you need to contend with a celebratory challenge. Allot at least 72 hours to endure and not be your customary, post-loss self. If you need more – take it! Don’t berate yourself if you can’t “get over it” in an arbitrary “timely” manner. Sorrow’s schedule is subjective. To the friends and family members of such individuals, please be wary; be conscious of your loved one’s struggles.  Grief never leaves. It is never concluded. It simply evolves.

Photo credit: Alone by Lee Hayword

What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ellen-pompeo-meredith-grey

I’m not even going to bother with the spoiler alert. If you are interested in reading this, you know what happened. McDreamy was killed through a series of unfortunate events. 1. Foolishly stopped his car in the middle of road. 2. T-boned by a semi. 3. Transported to a level 2 hospital. 4. Suffered the ramifications of either the chauvinistic medical system or an egomaniac on-duty attending, depending on your viewpoint.

Many posts have been written about the way Derek’s departure was handled. Was the episode a 41-minute middle finger gesture by Shondra Rhimes to Patrick Dempsey? Was it a commentary on the unavailability of top-tier medical facilities? Or was it an accurate depiction that people can be careless, needless mistakes can happen, and people die for stupid reasons? I’ll leave that debate up to other blogs, the Twittersphere, and Change.org petitions.

No, my focus is going to be on Meredith, the unsuspecting wife, doctor, and ultimately, the woman who held Derek’s last breath in her hands. You see, years before, that character making that gut-wrenching decision to sign the ominous papers was me.

On August 23rd, 2008, my husband went into cardiac arrest while coaching our son’s football game. We waited over 18 minutes for emergency services to arrive, while two dear friends – an EMT and a paramedic, worked valiantly to keep him alive. A third, a NICU head nurse, dictated events to the 911 dispatcher. Terms like “agonal breathing” and “unresponsive” stabbed their way into my now muddled consciousness. We could hear the sirens circling, but they were having trouble locating an entrance. Each circumnavigation lulled me further into a hypnotic panic.

Finally, fresh, unexhausted paramedics arrived on the scene and joined in the resuscitation efforts. Our two sons (ages 13 and 15) and I watched hopelessly as he was hooked up to electrodes, shocked and jolted repeatedly. I lost count after three. At some point, he was deemed stable enough to transport and was loaded into the awaiting ambulance. I wasn’t allowed to accompany him. That was the first hint of permanent calamity.

I pride myself on being somewhat medically savvy. Back at home, I know that our local hospital is ill-equipped to handle major traumas and it’s best to travel to the one in the next valley. I knew the mega Children’s Hospital in the city had the elite doctors we desired to monitor our son’s diabetes. When my husband was first diagnosed with leukemia, we researched which cancer center had the finest treatment options. But we were out of town at the moment. I had no idea what hospital we were going to or its reputation. Just like the path of Derek, I simply had no choice in the matter.

As we arrived right behind the ambulance, I noticed my husband was having seizures. (The second clue) I was deftly whisked to an administration counter — not to the emergency room where he was being treated. (Third omen) Asked to fill out simple paperwork, I was dumbfounded by my inability to sign my own name. The signature I had practiced countless number of times across notebooks and napkins before legally scribing it for 18 years would not flow from my shaking fingers. My brain and my body were disengaged.

Soon, a priest emerged to speak with me. (Fourth indication) Our family and a few select friends were provided a small, private waiting room. (Fifth warning) Still, I held on tightly to hope. I need to be strong for our children, for my husband. There was not the time to break down. I do fairly well under pressure. Periods of extreme stress seem to short out my emotions. I’m left in what I have dubbed my robot mode: capable of handling traumatic situations without the encumbrance of sentiment. Much like the soon-to-be widowed Meredith who reaches her husband’s bedside and immediately demands his chart to assess the situation, I knew the moment I saw Matt what was to be the outcome. What the signs had be indicating. I understood I needed to stay in control.

As a devoted wife about to lose the love of my life, my personal sense of time seemed to slow down. Medical personnel frantically moved about, but I felt as if I was floating through a cloud of uncertainty and disconnection. I was informed there was very, very little chance of survival. Did I want to continue heroic efforts? “Yes,” I replied. I didn’t want our children to ever have any doubt that all chances were exhausted.

Soon, the discussion about the infamous papers transpired. Just like Mrs. McDreamy, I knew they were coming, I knew what they meant, and I realized they would take my (and my husband’s) breath away. This time, miraculously, I was able to script my autograph. Each of us was given the opportunity to say goodbye. When Meredith told Derek it was OK to leave, I heard my own voice emanating from the television.

Movies and TV never seem to depict what happens to family members after a loved one’s life support is discontinued. You’re at a loss as what to do next. What is expected? Another room is arranged for you to spend time with the deceased. To say I was uncomfortable with this was putting it mildly. It wasn’t him. It looked like a deflated and vacated body, not my Matt. He was gone. The next dilemma is when to leave. How long do you remain in the hospital where your spouse has just died? What is the proper waiting period before you have to leave him or her behind?

I was particularly struck by the scene where Meredith emphatically instructs the young ER doctor to make Derek’s death count. After which, she vomits in the bushes. I’ve displayed that facade of authority. Donned the same stoic pout. Being a new widow didn’t nullify her position as a doctor, a teacher. Much like losing my husband didn’t abolish my role as a mother or a wife for that matter. In fact, it increased its importance tenfold.

The next few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (conveniently shown during the sweeps period) promise to depict the aftermath of Dr. Derek Shepherd’s departure. I am curious to see how accurately Ms. Rhimes crafted the scenes. Will Derek’s sister be pissed she wasn’t given the opportunity to say goodbye? (A glaring misstep I noticed on Meredith’s part.) Will the loss of his presence resonate in episodes and seasons to come or will his memory fade from future mention? Previous episodes did justice when the news of a prior misfortune made its way to fresh ears. Case in point: When the current batch of residents learn about the plane crash that took the lives of many characters and cost Arizona her leg. Hopefully, this honest portrayal of tragedy – one of life’s everyday occurrences — will continue.

My sister and I were texting while the now famous episode was airing. Numerous “OMG”s and “Can you believe this?!” were traveling the messaging airwaves. Finally, I had to cease all communication. Whether it was helpful to me or not, my eyes were transfixed on the screen. My ears were honed to detect any subtle dialog. I had to see if they got things right. I still do.

Beyond Her Wildest Dreams

She’s been having weird dreams. Not like the type she used to endure. The ones where she’d wake up in a cold sweat, weeping with grief, with loss — bereft. Unlike the other ones, either. Those she described as “whackadoodle.” A variety similar to nightmares that would occur when she was a child, sick with fever — apocalyptic tales of zombies and morphing faces. A quick Internet search revealed taking Tamoxifen in the evening could be the culprit. Switching to a morning routine solved that problem.

No, these were of a different sort. Not exactly disturbing, but when she awoke she was encompassed by a sense of unsettling curiosity as to their meaning. The premise was consistent. She’s with someone — an unknown acquaintance, an old high school friend — never an individual in her current sphere. They are always about to go out — to the movies, dinner — the destination is never the point. The problem lies in that they are unable to leave until someone joins them. That person is always the same:

Her deceased husband.

“This puts a new twist on the term, ‘late,’” she thought to herself after her last encounter with the dream. She knew her husband would have appreciated the pun. The dreams had been going on for months. In each of them, her dream partners and she are in a state of perpetual expectancy. Her husband is always on the verge of arrival, but never shows. In some dreams, his tardiness makes her anxious. Not worried, just a “Come on! Get here already!” temperament. In others, she is lackadaisical. He’ll get there eventually. She’s enjoying her present company. All of the dreams were underlined with uneasiness.

She rarely remembered her dreams before her personal day of infamy. Deep down, she had always known it was coming, but she had envisioned warning. Like a hurricane, she expected it to start slowly and then build. Forecasters would make their predictions, state that things were looking ominous. At some point they would realize the storm was indeed coming — better secure the household and prepare. It would hit them with full force and bombard their entire existence, but they’d be ready to accept the inevitable. Instead, it arrived like an earthquake, without notice. It shook her suddenly and violently; she felt her brain rattle and bruise. Her foundation cracked, leaving an abyss. It took her quite some time to regain her bearings.

She’s a native Californian. She should have known.

Still contemplating, she realized her morning had a mental soundtrack. Alex Clare’s “Too Close”.

…At the end of it all, you’re still my best friend,
But there’s something inside that I need to release.
Which way is right, which way is wrong,
How do I say that I need to move on?
You know we’re heading separate ways.

She was disturbed by the lyrics echoing in her head. It felt like the dream was remaining, intruding on her waking hours. Was it playing in her actual dream? She couldn’t remember.

You’ve given me more than I can return,
Yet there’s also much that you deserve.
There’s nothing to say, nothing to do.
I’ve nothing to give,
I must live without you.
You know we’re heading separate ways.

Still perplexed and getting annoyed, she went to the Internet to visit her modern day swami on a hill — Google. She entered several variations of “waiting for dead husband to arrive in dream.” The results were more numerous than she had supposed, but none had the answers she needed. All of them went completely off-track by the second or third page. By the tenth page they included “How to get pregnant faster with Bible promises,” and passages from The Iliad. She wondered what babies, faith, and Homer had to do with it before clicking back to the first page. The common theme there was how and do loved ones communicate with those “left behind?”

She had a friend, more than one, actually, who asked her if she talked to her husband. The friends claimed they talked to their dead relatives regularly. Every light flicker, every floor creak, was a sign. A “Hello!” from their departed loved ones. She, however, never participated in such communications. Nor did she believe in them. Heaven, to her, was perfection. Her husband was finally at peace, whole — free from the physical pain and discomfort that haunted him on earth. What good would it do him to witness one of their children suffering an injury? Or to observe her own tussle with cancer? How could he watch the anguish they all felt after losing him? He loved them with his entire soul and being. That wouldn’t be Heaven for him. That would be Hell.

And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
There’s nothing I can really say.
I can lie no more, I can hide no more,
Got to be true to myself.
And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.

She was sick of the daybreak disturbances that were now customary. She wanted to awake rejuvenated, refreshed. Instead, she felt pensive and agitated. Where was the promised ending of time healing all wounds? She’d made progress, done all the things they had discussed when they contemplated the “what ifs.” The house was paid off. She was going back to work full-time. Her social calendar was full. Intellectually, she knew that she was doing what was necessary. He would approve, applaud even. Her friends touted her “strength” and “courage.” But her heart (dreams?) would send in sneak attacks attempting to halt her advancement: “Fraud” “Betrayal” “Dishonor” were lobbed like grenades into her consciousness. Occasionally they would be duds. Often they would explode.

“Enough of this shit!” she declared as she shut down the computer.

And it feels like I am just too close to love you,
So I’ll be on my way.

So I’ll be on my way.

She’ll be on her way.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com