One of my co-workers passed along an article to me from the NY Times by Patrick O’Malley on “Getting Grief Right.” She sent it to me a while ago, but for some reason, I didn't read it until a over a month after she gave it to me, probably because I wasn't fully ready to read it back then. Timing is everything.
In the article, O’Malley references this woman who lost her child to sudden infant death syndrome. The woman is clearly devastated by the loss--I can’t imagine what it would be like lose child, I don't wish that on any parent- but, like most of the Type-A folks out there, the woman was eager to jump back into swing of things, grieve quickly, and move on. Naturally, this article brought up a ton of things for me. I’ll share just three.
#1 - The “I-get-it-club”- The first thing that this article triggered was, “DAMN, I GET IT.” When you lose someone close to you, be it a child, uncle, cousin, or parent--you are now apart of this unspoken, “I get it club,” some kind of I-know-how-you-feel-been-there-too mafia. It sounds so crazy, but I can’t tell you how many times that I have looked at someone in the eye who just lost a parent and even if I don’t know them, yet I still see them, and they see me. And for the woman in the story, I really felt for her; like I was in it with her feeling her story, and also re-living my own pain all over again.
This February 1, 2015 marked the 9th anniversary of my mother’s death. She died of stage II breast cancer; well, it was stage II when they first found it. This made things even more frustrating considering that statistics say women who are diagnosed with up to stage II breast cancer, have an 85% chance of surviving up to 5 years after they are diagnosed. Sadly, my mother wasn’t so lucky to be among the 85%. She was diagnosed in 2003 and had aggressive treatment for 10 months, went into remission for 8 months, and then it came back with, a vengeance and took a huge toll on her and our family. She took her last breath 1 year and 1 month later.
It still sounds so crazy to me that my mother “has been gone” for 9 years...9 years, really!!? Has it really been that long, and did I just really say that OUT LOUD? It always pains me to stay it out loud. Sometimes I think that if I close my eyes, wish hard enough, or if I dont say it “out loud” then it won't be true, and she will come back. I've even had dreams where I wake up and it's just a like nothing ever happened. The doctors say it was all a lie, some kind of misdiagnosis--They would turn to her and my dad and say, “Ms. Peera you are healed, you can go home now!”
You would think that since that it’s been so long, that I would “get used to it.” Used to the fact that she is no longer a phone call, flight home, or smile away. While time does help the grieving process (and it really does), the truth is, that there are many days where it still feels so fresh--I feel like my heart hurts even harder than when my mom took her last breath on that hospital bed and I cried, hovering over frail body. How can something that happened so long ago, still feel so real and so painful?
#2 - Getting Grief Right... what does that even mean!? -The second thing came up was-I am exactly like the woman in the Times article who wanted to "get grief right!" And by that, I mean wanting to contain it, control it, and fit it into a perfect little box just so I know what to do with it...because, if I can put a timeline or parameters on it, I know exactly what to expect. I feel better, safer and more accomplished ... Yes, control freak is my middle name. Perhaps you can relate.
The irony of this statement is that any who has lost someone important to them knows that controlling it, is absolutely the worst thing that you can do. The more you try to control or contain it, the more it controls you. And eventually, it starts to create its own journey, which is even stronger than it’s first iteration. It gets louder, stronger, and more vicious so that it can and WILL be fully heard. And just as you keep fighting to keep it down, it comes back up and explodes right in your face.
For me, that explosive moment was Year 5, when I finally allowed myself to feel anger, or should I say, when anger finally found me. We all know the so-called stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “Little-Miss-Perfect, always-gets-it-right, Alia” WAS NOT going to let those stages of grief get the best of her. I “knew” the stages, and I “knew why” my mother died. I also knew better than everyone, and could fix it. I WAS going to “figure out” this thing called grief. Sounds so presumptuous and wrong now, but I really believed that! In my head, I thought that the reason my mother died was so that I could learn from her death and not repeat the mistakes she did-so I jumped straight into the acceptance stage. In the first few months after my mother died, I said to myself, “enough crying now, let’s move on, get on with it... now what?”
Yeah, that was probably the worse thing I ever did--hence the explosive moment. However, that explosive moment was incredibly eye-opening for me. There I was in complete joy, admiring my friend holding her adorable 4-year old daughter in her lap. Then suddenly, my chest filled with rage, my stomach grew tight, and then I realized, life wasn't fair! I will never get to sit in my mother’s lap again, or give her a hug or a kiss. She will never get to hold, or see any of her grandchildren, because she, well, she ISN'T HERE ANYMORE! For the first time in 5 years, I was boiling with anger. And let me tell you, it felt so good to feel that way!
When I finally let my grief and feelings run their course, I finally encountered a real sense of healing. I wasn't hiding or keeping it in anymore. After I let all of those angry feelings in, I felt so much better and I wasn't so angry anymore. I am not so sure why “getting it right” meant holding things in, or acting like things were ok. How could I act like everything was ok, when it really wasn't.
#3- When it's “acceptable to grieve”-The third thing this article triggered was what I call “acceptable grief.” I know, you are probably thinking, what the hell is that? In our society, we place importance on what is acceptable by the masses. We spend way too much time thinking about what people will think or say, versus really listening to how we feel and what we really want. And if you're anything like me--that is, incredibly self critical-- you probably get even more angry at yourself wondering, “why can’t I just let it go? Who cares what others think!?” But the truth is, IT IS hard let yourself just be and be seen, especially in those raw, vulnerable moments. It’s hard to truly allow yourself feel what you are feeling, or allow your emotions to run their course, especially when our culture is telling us otherwise.
And for me, not allowing myself to fully express myself, is compounded by the fear that it will be super awkward if I walked around being sad about my mother all the time. Even if that’s not how I would spend my days, but if I wanted to, let’s say, even for a week straight; I somehow think that is WRONG. It’s not allowed, totally against “the rules.” However, I have also learned (from my Year-5 Explosive Moment), that suppressing feelings leads to even greater pain. However, I can’t walk around like a crazy, sad person all the time either, right? So I created, “acceptable grief,” the times when I think people think it's ok for me to be sad, emotional and a be mess if I need to be.
For me those “acceptable times” are: 1) the anniversary of my mother's death, February 1st, 2) her birthday, (and sometimes my birthday), and 3) Mother’s Day. Yep, those are my days to fully grieve, but outside of that, it's not allowed! If I have a huge crying episode because a song comes reminding me of my mom, but on one of those “none acceptable days”-- I hold it in, because hello, it's NOT allowed! To me, this was "grieving the right way."
What’s even more frustrating, is that even on these so call "acceptable days," I STILL don’t allow myself to fully be in my grief. I still have huge issues with being vulnerable even on my acceptable days. With Mother’s Day around the corner, I was a complete train wreck this whole week and it still took me a while to tell my boyfriend how I was really feeling. He’s been down this road with me many times--and each time, he is most caring and supportive person through my grief (and through all storms), but yet, I still struggled. I had to really push myself to fess up and to own my feelings this Wednesday and tell him the truth. I know, you’re probably thinking, did I not learn anything from Year 5? Well, I did--a lot actually, but I’m human. Grief, just like anything is a continual learning process.
Shaming and Sharing:
Why do we do this? Why do we put restraints, timelines and rules on our feelings? Feelings are meant to be felt! But for some reason, when you lose someone dear to you--whatever the reason is, be it from death, a breakup, or a divorce--you think that after a certain amount of time passes, we should be JUST fine. That inner voice comes back, telling yourself that you are crazy, dumb, or weak. Or perhaps its eyes of judgement from your peers with those “c’mon, get over it already,” looks. But even if they aren't giving you those looks, you probably are thinking they are judging you anyway. That my friends is, shame.
We don't allow ourselves to own our true feelings, because we are fearful that if we do, we’ll feel ashamed. Ashamed of what others might think. Ashamed that it hurts, and that there is something wrong with us. For me, my shame tape is--something is wrong with me because I am STILL grieving. Then I criticize myself even more, when it STILL hurts on a random, non-acceptable day, or when it hurts just as much, if not harder, than the first day.
As my favorite author, social worker, and shame researcher, Brene’ Brown puts it, “shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket.” It’s an awful feeling to know that you feel paralyzed, sad, and are grieving, when others around likely aren't. But I have to remind myself, there is nothing wrong with me. Get out of that straight jacket, Alia!! Brown also says that empathy is antidote to shame. The two most powerful words that someone can tell you when you're struggling is, “me too.” Shame cannot live or persist, if we talk about it. So here I am, talking about.
Here are 5 things that I have learned about grief in the last 9 years:
1/15/2016 11:58:02 pm
Thanks much for referencing my essay. Your writing is a beautiful response to the message I hoped to communicate.
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Who am I and do why write this blog? Each time I ask myself that question, I find that I have so much more to learn and discover. "Who am I" is an ongoing process, and just when we think we've figured it out, life has its way of throwing us a ton of curve balls-but that's why its called a journey.
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