If you consider the many ridiculous things I did to keep my daughter loving me when she was alive, all my crazy carrying-on since she died should come as no surprise. What wild and crazy things did you do in the name of love?
After someone you love dies, your brain doesn’t always completely register that your beloved is no longer here. Like when my daughter died eight years ago, it wasn’t until weeks later, when I sold her car, that I understood for sure she wasn’t coming home. Fairly composed up to that point, when I handed over the car keys, a massive tidal bore broke loose from deep within me.
Getting hit with the reality of loss, just when you think you’re in control of your emotions or beyond mourning, can knock you upside down. A totally unpredictable, ridiculous little event has the power to erupt into a pivotal moment when you realize what you lost and that something big in your life is changing as a result.
After my mother died in January, I wondered for months, Where’s my grief? Then, last week I was stuck in the bathroom doing a pre-colonoscopy prep — you know, the dreaded procedure where you flush your insides out with gallons of clear liquids and laxatives, and then sit on the toilet and wait. Filled to the gills, I sat there alone, bored, picking away at my cuticles, trying not to think about the next day’s procedure. It was a time I would have phoned my mother. And she’d have told me, “Go drink a glass of white wine, it’s a clear liquid.” But I remembered my mother was no longer just a phone call away. That’s when the reality of her dying hit me. Hard. And even though towards the end of her life she was too deaf to hear me over the phone to reply with encouraging words, it would have been enough to simply hear my mom ramble on about what she ate for dinner, how she was doing the best she could, and that nothing else was new.
When I stopped sobbing, I phoned sisters and friends. I phoned the Halco Heating Company to say I was appreciating the new heat pump in the bathroom. I called the gastrointestinal nurse for the umpteenth time, “Nothing’s coming out yet” — anyone — just to have some company during my lonely mission. Until I thought I could hear my mother growling at me, “Shit already, or get off the pot.” And that kinda worked the magic.
What was a moment in your life when reality whacked you over the head? What was the moment the loss of a loved one really hit you?
“What about regret or self-blame? Or remorse?” my friend asked, adding something like, “You never write about any of these.” I took that thought home with me. For a whole week I walked around thinking I had an answer:
I don’t focus on the issues that divide or isolate people. I’d rather write about the things that unite us, like loving, living, dying, losing, and finding life is beautiful anyway.
Finished. Done. This was what I was going to tell her. But then, I kept coming back to her question.
My mind drew a blank whenever I tried to get around to the far side of what was bothering me. I told myself, it’s best not to drag up old impenetrable boulders. That it’s not healthy to wallow in matters that can’t be changed. That everyone’s got some guilt going on. So, where was my guilt? When I tried to concentrate, I got an icky nauseous feeling. It’s horrendously ugly and uncomfortable to deal with regret, self-blame, and remorse.
Later, I dug deep into my most conscience-curdling thoughts to understand what I felt guilty of and regretful about. What I found was not going to fit into a 400 or 500-word blog. It mostly boiled down to my not telling my daughter she was dying, and not saying, I Love You. In trying to protect her from the painful truth, I’d been dishonest. It’s history now. Unalterable. But I need to kill the guilt. Or make peace with it. Here’s my recipe for coming to terms with guilt:
*Excavate your darkest buried thoughts to find it, and face it. Accept what happened, and acknowledge your part in it.
*Then comes the hard work of forgiving yourself. Give yourself the same empathy you would give anyone else. Be kind to yourself.
*Remember, our mistakes are part of living and growing. They make up the layers of who we are now. But our past missteps do not define us.
*Consider what this has taught you. Figure out how you can grow from this.
*Finally, bring it forward to the future. Allow it to change you. How will you constructively apply what you learned, to what you do from now on?
In the same grueling week my good friend challenged me, other friends read my blogs and praised me for being open and honest. It all encouraged me to be even more truthful.
Guilt and truth are both brutal. Yet truth can offer comfort. I lied to my daughter. But I could not have loved her more than I did. I’ve learned that speaking the truth is a gift of love, and facing the hard truth helps put guilt to rest.
How do you deal with guilt? What’s the most far-fetched list you ever wrote?
“You’re taking this grieving thing too far,” he said, shaking his head, and giving me a searing look. If we shared a thousand more hours and a million words, he’d be no closer to understanding anything about my ways of dealing with grief.
“A dozen people getting together. It’s not like we’re tearing our hair out or shredding our shirts or anything. What’s the problem with talking and connecting?” I asked, eyeing the last piece of pizza. His eyes focused on the dining room table, now covered with dirty paper plates and empty wineglasses. “People grieve in different ways,” I added, wondering if he had ever experienced deep debilitating grief. I’d never wish that for him. But how could one know joy without acknowledging loss? If he simply slipped past all of life’s sadness, like driving through stop signs late at night when no one’s looking, would his life be better?
“Help yourself to some shrimp cocktail. And take some dumplings,” I said, impatient to get back to my guests. I’d left them parked on the deck with six different desserts, overlooking the five-million-year-old boulders planted around the pond. We’d been discussing our children, the age of the rocks, the possibility of an afterlife, Stephen Hawking’s multiple dimensions, living with lymes disease, and where to buy chocolate mice. In this group I could say anything and never hear, “ You’re taking your grieving too far.”
The dog and I returned to the circle outside and the conversation continued around us. The sky grew darker. The grunts of the bullfrogs grew louder. The dog fell asleep at our feet. And too soon everyone was smiling, saying thank you and goodbye.
They were gone before the full moon rose over the pond. Then, the dog trailed me as I cleared the deck, and we watched the fractured reflection of the moon in the black pond. I made a wish that all who suffer might find friends to sit with during their dark times.
What helps you deal with emotional pain? Sharing with a friend? Joining a group? Talking to God? Talking to the moon? To the dog?