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.