The shallow end.

I’ve heard that boats often capsize in slow motion. And that drowning is a deceptively quiet event, without the splashing, waving, and yelling that television has accustomed us to expect. True drowning can look so undramatic that people near the victim may not even notice. I use these metaphors not to highlight the sinking or drowning, (that would sound more alarmist than I intend), but the slow motion aspect…how you can enter a crisis so gradually you don’t notice right away.

I wanted my next post to be somewhat uplifting. Well, if not uplifting, at least helpful. If not helpful, perhaps displaying a measure of progress. This is not that post. Sorry. I need to recognize this: I am in a lot of pain. I would not say it has diminished over the past few months. When I allow myself to sit still and think about it, I realize it has merely shifted, moved deeper somehow.

After my last post, I hoped writing would come easier, but that hasn’t proven to be true. I thought maybe I could help someone going through something similar, but I am useless. The books I was reading, that I thought would help me, sit abandoned on my shelf, halfway finished. I have emails I can’t answer, phone calls I can’t make…and pictures I still can’t look at. I write sometimes, scrawl things in my notebooks, but when I go back and read them, to see if I can extract some meaning, some purpose, I just cry. I can’t organize my words, or thoughts. I have never had this problem before.

At the bottom of everything is a realization I had recently that brought me up short: it hurts too much to think about him. This is the slowly evolving truth I have been denying. It hurts too much to think about him. I am crying as I sit in bed and type this, as I force myself to choke something out because I am afraid I am not doing okay. I know it will take time, and I have tried to be gentle with myself, but maybe I have been too gentle. I may need to force something here. I think I have stalled in a bad place in my grief process…I have capsized in a sort of purgatory or limbo.

If you saw me, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong, probably. I don’t cry in public, not in a way you’d notice anyway. I am reminded of a lyric by another favorite songwriter, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans: “I’ve got this store-bought way of saying I’m okay, and you’ve learned how to cry in total silence.” I always liked that line – it’s evocative – but now I think I understand it.

When the tears well up, I choke them off deftly. I have gotten pretty good at swallowing  them in their nascence. I function through the days. I do my job. I smile and laugh. I carry on conversations (although I find myself feeling less engaged generally). The outside looks okay. But it’s the interior landscape that concerns me. I feel myself choking, in a way. And I’m not sure it’s good that my chest begins to hitch at the mere thought of him, almost every time. Or that my mind seems to have taken some protective measure to build a dam, a wall, something, anything, around this perceived threat.

It’s interesting isn’t it, the way we can split ourselves into two different people, the one on the outside and the one on the inside? Not that I am two different people, or that the person I am with friends is not who I “really” am…it’s just that there is this whole other country inside of me, the nation of emptiness and sorrow that I alone inhabit. I was able to talk about this stuff at first. I didn’t have a choice because I was at grieving ground zero, a place where I was incapable of editing my reactions or holding anything back. I hadn’t yet developed the dubious ability to bury my emotions and swallow my tears. But – and I’m sure this is common for those who are grieving, even human loved ones – the more time that passes, the less comfortable you feel talking about it, like it’s not okay to still be hurting.

Is it because it has been almost four months? In the beginning the pain was searing and total. It was impossible to deny except in the most superficial way; it threatened to drag me under. But at some point during the relentless downward spiral, I caught myself. I realized that despite all of the choices I was forced to make recently for Alec, those I had agonized over but which in the end amounted to nothing, I still had one left. I made a conscious decision to embrace positive growth over destruction and despair. And what real choice did I have? One must go on living. And if I fucked up my life, what kind of tribute would that be to Ali? I don’t often like to say what he would or would not have wanted, because he was a dog after all (he wanted his squeaky toy, plentiful treats, swim time, car rides, a predictable routine, security, companionship, and some threats to protect us from), BUT I will say if he could want such things, if he cared for me even a fraction of how much I cared for him, I don’t think he would want me to be worse off for having known him. You know?

So I tried to find my way, to weave something meaningful out of this loss, to embark on the journey of self-transformation and acceptance that marks successful grieving. That’s where I was at my last post. Now I don’t know where the heck I am. I strayed off the path I tentatively started down and now feel lost all over again. But will anyone read this and understand? Will it just seem like there is something wrong with me when I admit part of me has not been able to come to terms with the fact that he is really gone, that I still cry so much, that I miss him with such unfathomable depth I can’t even acknowledge it? I guess that is the risk I take in opening up like this, but that was the point of this blog after all.

What a mess.

I think in order to “successfully” get through grief it helps to be completely open and honest. But that’s hard for a couple reasons. 1) As I have found, even someone as hyper-reflexive as me is not always aware of what I am feeling. It took me several weeks to even begin to recognize I was sinking into some protracted denial phase, and that I had stalled in my “grief work.” And 2) long-term cultural support for those who are grieving is often inadequate or nonexistent – especially when the lost loved one is a companion animal. You really have to work at being your own support system. But precisely because you are grieving, this “relying on yourself” plan can fail. Similar to how people who are depressed don’t always realize how depressed they are or that they need help – a symptom of the affliction is not recognizing its severity – when you are grieving you may not recognize what you need or even objectively how well you are doing.

Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but what if that “healing” is actually a form of burying…is that truly healing? Perhaps there is nothing wrong with burying things. It eases the pain and, after all, we can’t stay stuck in our grief. We have to move on. Well this brings me to my next point, or maybe this is my first point:

Time does not heal all wounds.

This began to occur to me as I realized I was able to function in the world quite convincingly, but hardly able to think about Alec at all. I can’t even think around the margins, the edges, the outskirts, the godforsaken suburbs of this truth, without getting tears in my eyes. Now it’s tricky because I also know grief does not happen on a predetermined timeline. I have been aware since I started this new blog that grieving would be a long process. I vowed to take my time and not allow myself to feel rushed (whether by myself or others) through the process of mourning the untimely loss of the most important being in my life.

The question is: when does taking one’s time and being gentle with oneself morph into denial? Can denial (that wily anesthetic) masquerade as healthy grieving? I am using “denial” here to mean avoiding consciously thinking of something, not the more radical form where you are unable to accept an obdurate truth. I know Alec is gone. I just can’t think about him. I was patient with myself about the pictures (see last blog post, wherein I accepted that I was simply not ready to go through photos yet). I have been patient with myself for taking things in baby steps. I told myself it was okay to stay in the present (this is a healthy lesson for me in general) and not think about the past. Now I see it is more complicated.

Denial can look a lot like progress, especially on the surface.

Why does it matter? As long as the pain is rendered less acute, even if this is achieved through burying feelings or choking thoughts, what is the harm? Well, the potential danger is Stephen King’s Pet Semetary [sic] type scenario where what is buried does not stay buried. Perhaps that was a tasteless analogy given the topic, but it was the first image that popped into my head. The point is if you don’t grieve “properly,” if you have suffered a profound loss and not dealt with it, the pain might return, only worse. The feelings can come shuffling back like a mutant zombie army – stronger this time. Maybe they will have morphed into a physical ailment. Perhaps you will be lucky and the pain will stay buried forever. But is this the best option? I would argue a la Freud and the first law of thermodynamics that these buried feelings are only displaced or sublimated but not destroyed, meaning they have the potential to manifest themselves in other unhealthy ways. For Freud, sublimation (or transferring certain feelings into socially useful creations such as art) was a successful, as opposed to neurotic, defense mechanism and referred to the libido specifically, so I am appropriating his term and tweaking its meaning here, but I’m sure you get the idea. Ugly, messy, and painful though it may be, when dealing with profound loss, it may be better to keep things out in the open, aboveground.

I don’t mean to suggest we should make a fetish of our pain and dwell on it unnecessarily – that we should set up shop and live there. I am merely saying that it needs to be dealt with in some way. No kidding, you might be thinking. Why even bother stating something so obvious? Because I knew this from the beginning, and I thought I was doing it, yet still I find myself here: skittering along the surface of my days to avoid the pain. Denial is stealthy, which is why I didn’t notice it at first. It crept up on me when I wasn’t expecting it. I guess I thought denial would feel different, come sooner.

Despite my newfound suppression skills and budding talent for faking it, I still cry. I cried at my desk during work today and it was worse than it has been in awhile. I don’t even know why, except that I was thinking about him. Nothing special or out of the ordinary triggered the wave of sorrow. I cut it off, after I allowed myself to weep hopelessly for a few minutes. But I sensed the menacing presence of the abyss and I backed away again. I thought I would face it eventually. Now I’m not so sure. I don’t know how to. Maybe I don’t want to. So I have been aggressively focusing on the present moment, which used to be a goal of mine but now feels like another way of running from the past. I know there is a way to be present without hiding from the past – a way to go deeper without drowning – and I have to find it.

I was recently perusing the blog of grief counselor Enid Traisman, director of the pet loss support program at my local emergency animal hospital, when I came across a post called, “Myths I Have Heard.” I definitely recommend checking out the whole post but one “myth” in particular stood out to me:

Myth: Time heals all wounds. Just give it enough time and you will no longer feel so bad.

Reality: Time by itself does not heal the pain of grief related loss. It’s what you do with your time that matters. A successful course of mourning requires intentional hard work.

I have been patient with myself; I have that part down. This felt like a good thing at first, especially given my penchant for self-criticism. But almost two months later, I realize I need to get back to work. It’s about balance of course, but sometimes the line can become blurry if we do not intentionally check it. Hopefully this is a good start. Time alone might not be magic, but writing seems to hold some magical properties for me. I have written this in fits and starts over the course of several days and I feel calmer now, ready to move forward, to pull myself out of the mire. To try, that is.

I have attempted to be nonjudgmental with myself through this process, knowing there are countless ways to assimilate loss into one’s life. Just as each relationship is unique, so will be our reactions to the death of loved one. There is no perfect way through the thicket of grief, no correct mourning style, no right or wrong emotions. But not being able to think about Alec? As lost and confused as I may be, I know I can’t stay here. It may feel safer in the shallow end of the ocean, but that’s an illusion. It’s time to go deeper, maybe eventually to swim.

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5 Comments

Filed under Grief and loss

5 responses to “The shallow end.

  1. Deb

    I think I mentioned to you a little about my grieving process with Diva, my dog who died 11 years ago this past July. My reaction was a lot like yours. I dealt with my pain by not thinking of her. Not looking at her pictures or talking about her.

    I understand how it happens, how our need to get through each day, and even our *weariness* of the hurt, the tears, the sorrow, drive our minds to defend against the pain. I do think that I suppressed it for too long. It didn’t surface in the way you worry about, but I think that we lose them in a different way when we don’t let ourselves remember, think about them.

    I still haven’t gone through photos of her, and now (several moves later, and none scanned in) I’m not even sure I’ll find them. If I find some but not all I know I won’t remember that some are missing, since I don’t remember what pictures I had to begin with.

    That’s my cautionary tale, mild as it is.

    I don’t know if it makes sense to set a deadline after which you don’t let yourself hide from the pain. I don’t know if it makes sense to force yourself to look at his pictures or think about him when it comes with grief so strong that it’s pretty incapacitating. I don’t have any answers, I am not someone who deals well with my own grief. But I do understand the pattern of yours, because it is so similar to mine.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story, Deb. I have thought of your experience with Diva and not being able to go through pictures (and things you said about not even being able to look at other dogs for awhile, etc.) often as try to navigate my way through this minefield. It is interesting how everyone deals with grief in their own way. And sometimes the same person differently from day to day. I love to talk about Alec. I want to talk about him all the time. But if I did that people would think I was nuts and/or boring. So I guess I am hoping this blog will give me a place to “talk” about him, even if it’s just speaking out loud to myself. Funny to hear myself saying that I want to talk about him, yet this whole post was about how I can’t think about him. Part of this struggle is not even making sense to myself! (Especially since my overly analytical brain likes to keep its ducks in a rational little row. But grieving is also about letting go of expectations, or has been for me at least.)

    For myself, I know I need to find a balance between being incapacitated with sorrow, on the one hand, and not being able to think about him, on the other. I think the most dangerous part of the latter was not being aware of what I was doing. That’s why I think (hope) the first step in moving forward is recognition. Because I know suppression was not serving me well. I believe it has its place in the toolkit of short-term survival skills, but I can’t stay stuck there without something bad happening down the road. I could already feel it percolating malevolently. The water was beginning to trickle through the multiplying cracks of my defense and I think some bursting event was imminent. Maybe still is. But to quote another favorite songwriter, Blake Schwarzenbach, “I know I can write my way out of this black hole.” Well, I don’t know that, but maybe I can think of my words as mortar, helping to hold back the flood.

  3. kristine

    or maybe instead of using your words to patch up the wall, you can use them to build a ladder! to see what’s on the other side of the wall; to rise up and see from where you have climbed. (incorrect semicolon usage, right?) i know, it’s a whacky (ok, stupid) analogy, but i reckon that’s how i think. i love you very much and i’m here for you. and yes, i could show it better. but i ain’t perfect. concerned and saddened for sure. and hopeful that the exploration of your feelings and writing them down proves helpful.
    love love

  4. Rich

    Hey Nicole,

    Been quietly looking at this for a bit now since I finally got on facebook (narcissistic piece of crap website it is) and made my way to your blog. I lost a dog not too long ago. She had a seizure and died right in front of me. I was able to give her mouth to snout to just give her enough time to glance at me with that beautiful face and watch her fade away and I couldn’t do a thing. I was a mess for a good bit. I know what you mean about the two people. The one you show the outside world and the one you are left with at the end of the day. Hang in there. You will never get over the loss. You learn to walk with it. I think there are two kinds of people in the world. Puddles and Oceans. Puddles are shallow and not much gets to them. Oceans are deep and not much doesn’t. You are an Ocean. It gets tough being that deep, but if you don’t hurt that deep, you didn’t feel love that deep. Just know the pain stays but you do learn to walk with it.

  5. Kristine, I hope I didn’t make you feel like you haven’t been there for me! Of course that’s not true. You’re the greatest. Who else would have taken me in and listened to me cry every single day for a month straight?? Angel hall of fame, right there. And yes words can be a ladder as well as mortar. There is no shortage of bad metaphors (as I have discovered and employed quite well!) to try to describe in tangible terms what grief feels like. In this case since I was trying to express the feeling of holding back an explosive and potentially damaging flood, I used the patching up image (of course I also mixed it with a black hole metaphor so yeah I won’t be winning any writing awards with this thing ;)). But don’t worry I will be using the ladder analogy (and plenty of other hackneyed phrases) soon enough I’m sure!

    Rich, thanks for your comment and I am so sorry to hear about your dog. I tried to think of something comforting to say, but I’ve got nothing good. It just sucks, I know. I like your analogy about puddle people vs. ocean people. I am definitely the latter. It does make things hard and I know people say if you didn’t feel the depths of pain you would not be capable of feeling such profound love…but sometimes I want to be a puddle. 😦 I think it would be nice to feel nothing, you know? I don’t know, probably not. But sometimes I do wonder what that would be like. It would at least be easier – I know that much.

    And I like what you said about learning “to walk with it.” The things I have been telling myself about taking him with me, assimilating/integrating this into my life rather than “moving on,” etc., I think are ways of expressing that ongoing quality of walking with the loss.

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