Saturday, September 21, 2013

Grief: Creating Meaning for Your New Life, Your New Self

For some people the meaning of their life isn't even something they think about.  For others it is obvious.  They know from an early age who they are and what they are meant to be.  Some people feel their life is meaningless and others feel that their life could have meaning but don't know how to find it.  For many people their friends and family know what they mean to others and the world but the person doesn't feel it themselves.  That's why I often ask you to think of someone who loves you (whether they are still alive or not) and look at yourself through their eyes instead of your own.  Listen to what they are whispering in your ear and let that whispering be louder than your own.

Even if you are on the most secure path; knowing who you are and what your purpose is - grief can shatter that.  I know someone who is very prominent in his field.  He was passionate about what he did on a daily basis.  Then his only child, a son, died of a drug overdose.  All of a sudden nothing had any meaning to him.  It didn't matter that he has people who love him; an enviable career, and a comfortable  life.  He felt the death of his son was the death of his present and his future.

That is the empty space.  That is the question - who am I now?  That is the question - where is the meaning now?

Feeling that your life has purpose and meaning may not just happen.  It often has to be worked toward; created.  When the person who shares everything with you; your mentor, your companion, your child, your anyone - including your animal - dies - it is like the pieces of the puzzle you have spent your life putting together lie scattered on the floor.  You know if you pick them up and put them together again they will make a different picture. You question if you have the strength to even try.  You do.

One of the ways of putting meaning back into your life is to do something in honor of your beloved dead.  Let them inspire you.  It can be something small...or something large.  When my husband first died I felt that all meaning had gone out of my life.  I couldn't even feel what I meant to my family and friends.  I knew in my head that I was important to them - but I didn't feel it in my heart.  I wrote a beautiful obituary for Artie and put it in the local newspaper.  On the first anniversary of his death I wrote a memory piece for the same newspaper.  I put a plaque on a bench in Central Park.  I was searching; always searching.  Then, as many of you know - I got the idea that my life would have meaning if I followed his example.  He was a recovering alcoholic who made himself always available to other drunks and addicts.  I would make myself available to other grieving people.  I started this blog.  Over four years after his death I started the Facebook page Grief Speaks Out.  It continues to startle me.  I have almost 100,000 like but the important thing is that I am reaching people from all over the world and am able to bring comfort to some of them.  Everything I have done or tried to do from the moment Artie died is part of this accomplishment.  He inspires me and still shows me the way.

There is a widow who loved to travel with her husband who now does volunteer work in Ecuador.  There is a man who spends his time helping his brother. There is a mother whose son committed suicide because he was bullied who raises awareness about bullying.  There is a mother whose adult son died who constantly nurture her nieces and nephews. There is a father who does cancer research. There is a woman who runs an animal sanctuary.  There is a child who welcomed a new cat merrily into her heart conquering her fear that it would remind her of her cat that died.

Sometimes we think that in order for our life to have meaning we must change the world.  It must be big.  That's not true.  It can simply be taking the time to listen to someone tell their story.  It may be a random act of kindness to a stranger, or a random act of kindness to someone in our own family. Any idea is like a breath upon a window pane.  If you don't give it shape by taking action, it disappears.

Don't let the why bother? win.  Don't let the disinterest win.  Think about the person, the people, the pets that you love.  Scan your environment.  Think about the one thing you can do today that will help you feel proud of yourself when you go to sleep tonight.  If you can't do something today - you can do something today - you can forgive yourself and be gentle with yourself.  Maybe the first meaning is to be loving to yourself.  Sometimes if you are looking, something presents itself to you.  I was walking down the street yesterday.  I'm a New Yorker so I'm always in a hurry.  :)  An elderly woman asked me where a store was.  I told her where I thought it was.  Then I rushed past it.  I stopped.  I turned around and I could still see her.  I walked back and told her where it was.  I didn't feel like I had done anything - but she was so grateful.  I saw someone helping someone carry a walker down the subway steps.  Those are the little things that present themselves to us every day.  We can ignore them - or we can respond to them.

I'm not having such a great time right now.  I'm having the fifth year blues.  I don't understand how I can be alive so many days without my husband.  I question my courage to continue - and then I continue.  I'm not writing blog posts as often as I'd like.  Sometimes people tell me I am inspiring.  What I think is inspiring about me - and what is inspiring about my husband - is that we don't walk easy on the earth.  We are damaged.  We hurt.  Yet, with all that - we find ways to make a difference.  I'm talking about him in the present tense again - but the people that he shared his hope and experience with who are sober - are sharing what he taught them with others - so even dead - his work continues.  That it also continues through me is one of my greatest comforts.

You are not betraying the person who has died by finding ways to fill that empty space - or at least to build around it.  You are living double - triple  - quadruple - for yourself and for your beloved dead.  You are taking them with you wherever you go.  You are celebrating their life by learning how to live your own.

People make fun of Facebook because of people who only post about where they are having coffee.  I like Facebook because if I don't have the whatever it takes to move - I can still post on someone's page who is having a difficult time.  I look for small things to do when I cannot find big things.  Some days I do very little.

If you are reading this you are a grief warrior.  You are a searcher.  You may have already figured out what to do to feel that once again you know who you are.  You may already know what gives your life meaning.  If you think you don't,      give yourself credit for what you are already doing. If you are someone who is there for a family member, a friend, an animal - acknowledge yourself for that.  If you have time there is volunteer work you can seek out.  Each of us is a bright light.  The wind and the darkness of grief create the illusion that it has blown out.  It is like a fire in a fireplace that looks like it is no longer burning but if you fan the flames they burst into fire once again.  That is your task.     Keep your fire - your passion burning.  If you do not have one - create one, discover one.  Do it in the memory of your beloved dead.  Do it for yourself.

Someone said today - if I can be happy - anyone can be happy.  I tell you - with all my snarkiness, with all my dark times - if I can be inspiring - anyone can be inspiring.  It may be a smooth path or one that is rough with stones and blocked with low lying fog.  It doesn't matter.  Your beloved dead are not only walking beside you - they are holding your hand and leading the way.  Allow yourself to be led.  xo

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Grief: Getting Out of My Black Room

September 12th.  Writing a blog post every two weeks is not writing a blog post once a week.  Does that make me a terrible person?  Probably not.  However it makes me someone who isn't following through on what I want to do.

My Facebook page Grief Speaks Out now has over 81,000 likes from all over the world.  How did that happen?  What am I doing?  I know that I am using everything I have learned over the past over four years.  I know that it is easier to respond to someone else; to pick a moving image and write something to go with it than it is to follow my own advice.

I call this post getting out of my black room because I have a beautiful apartment.  My bedroom is painted black and there is a velvet shawl nailed over the window.  I think I accidentally nailed the window open when I did this - but I like the window open so that's okay.  I was looking for privacy in my bedroom while I was still unpacking and it actually looks pretty even if it isn't very functional so I will probably never change it.  Hmmm - that's kind of me.  I can look pretty even if I'm not very functional.  The difference is I am trying - and sometimes succeeding - to change me.  My personal window often feels nailed shut even when it already wide open.

Which is all going sideways when i meant to go forward.  My living room is unusual for NYC.  It is two stories tall and has a skylight.  Filled with books and antiques, and even a huge stuffed woolly mammoth -  it is always shines with light.  Painted a light blue it looks as though the day has come to visit.  I walk through this room sometimes on the way to take a shower or to look for a book.  However, I only stay in this room when I have company.  I never sit in it myself.  I like to be in the black room.  Why will I not allow myself to enjoy the beauty of this space I have created?  I feel uncomfortable with beauty.  When I go outside and it is a particularly fine day sometimes it hurts and I can't wait to get back inside.

My husband used to say, "What's wrong? Nothing's wrong.  That's what's wrong."  Of course, something is terribly wrong.  My husband is dead.  I miss him every day.  I say wise things about letting our beloved dead inspire us, letting their light lead the way, being alive with grief - and all the while I am typing on the computer in the black room.  A short hallway and I could be typing in a room full of light and wonder and I choose the darkness.  I'm like a small animal that burrows under the earth.

The truth is my life is very good these days.  I have worked very hard over the past four years to get here.  I have had friends stop speaking to me, friends fail to understand me as most grieving people do.  That hurts.  However, I have friends who want to listen to me talk about Artie and my sadness as well as my happiness.  I have made new friends.  Some of them are a little embarrassed.  They say they read my blog and do I mind that they know so much about me.  I say no - that's just the way it is.  I also let them know that the blog is about grief and I spend a lot of time doing things besides thinking about grief and talking about grief.  I have made new friends from grief sites and one from a bereavement group.  Those are friends whose understanding comes from a shared experience.  Sometimes it's intertwined.  I met someone with a very interesting job who also reads the Facebook page.  They told me the how it has changed the way they feel.  It made me feel proud and also a little embarrassed.  When someone compliments me I am still learning to receive say a simple "Thank you." instead of a stammering - "Oh no - that's not true - not really."

I can't absorb it.  I'm wanting to breathe it all in.  I'm wanting to feel all this happiness and usefulness and success in my very bones.  It feels good.  I am proud.  I am grateful.  However, I am also uncomfortable.  It doesn't feel like me.  I'm not guilty.  I know Artie would be - probably is - very proud of me.

I have a particularly good time and then I want to eat too much and watch a terribly mindless program on television.  I often do.  I am showing up and doing and helping others - all the things I tell people to do.  Yet, at the same time I am running from instead of to.  What is that all about?

Part of it may be that it is difficult to have all these wonderful things happening without having Artie here in the flesh to share them with.  I have started again calling out at night - "Artie.  Come back.  I know you can't but please come back."  I love sharing things with the people I share them with.  None of them is Artie.  I am especially grateful for my granddaughter.  If I close my eyes she says, "Gammy. Are you takin' a nap?"  That's what she would say to me about my private moments - "Gammy, are you takin' a nap?"   Why am I closing my eyes at the very moment they should be open?

I realized that I was ignoring my daughter because I was so focused on my granddaughter.  I have started paying more attention to her.  I praise her not just for being a great Mom but for being herself.  I ask her about what she is doing.  I tell her how beautiful she is.  It has made our relationship so much better.  Why don't I treat myself that way?

No one is Artie.  No one can fill his space.  Jess Walter wrote "What kind of wife would I be if I left your father simply because he was dead?".  I can see Artie's eyes twinkling as he tells me that living my life with all my senses brimming over with happiness is not leaving him.  It is continuing an adventure in which he is with me every step of the way. 

I've got the 5 year thing.  More than one person has told me that the fifth year is difficult.  It's not like the first year difficult.  There is a trajectory.  The first year was constant crying and desperation and disinterest.  I know now that when I agree to do something I probably won't want to - but if I go I'll have a good time.  I'm just falling back into that peculiar kind of stuckedness (there's a literary word!!).  I stop and's too hard.  I can't do it.  When I say that there is no Artie to hold me and scratch my back and pat my head and tell me he loves me and it will be okay.  I don't want to be my own Artie.  I don't want to listen for the sounds, watch for the signs from a dead guy.  I am throwing an emotional temper tantrum.  i want the one thing I cannot have and if I am not careful that will taint all the things I can have.

There it is.  When I write I only know where I am going to start, not where I am going to end up.  I can spend as much time as I want,  as much time as I need in the black room of grief and sadness and frustration and exhaustion.  As foolish as it would be to stop missing Artie, to stop remembering our love - isn't it just as foolish to let that very real part of me spill over into the other parts of me.  If I want some pure sadness with no joy in it - fine - but then let me have some pure joy without mixing some sadness in.

Hold my hand and let's walk together out of our black rooms.  They'll be there when we need them again.  Let me learn to be alive with grief not just in my words and my actions - but in my bones and in my soul.  If not today - maybe yesterday I have already done it and not noticed - or tomorrow I will find it easy.  So many locks have already fallen off of the doors - or been meticulously picket off - and the doors are swinging open.  Let us - one step at a time - walk through them.  With love.  xo