Life has a way of happening. Most people, if they’re fortunate to live long enough, have to deal with dismal happenings. Even if you are inclined to wrap yourself in an insular protective bubble; never venturing out or letting people in, your body itself might cause you anguish with illness and decay. How we deal with what life throws our way speaks volumes about who we are and who we’ll ultimately become. There are people who can put their heads down and forge on through, brushing away darkness and fear like flies on a horse’s bum. These people most likely have a fined honed coping mechanism (most likely in the form of a bottle or official diagnosis.) And while forging through pain and loss may feel like kicking furiously to the surface for a lifesaving gulp of air, it will undoubtedly at some point bite you on that bum. If you are made of flesh and blood, you probably need to feel sad when sad things happen. You needn’t wallow, wail or simper, but you do need to experience the loss.
If you are in the throes of misery right now you may be asking; “For how long?! When can I just get on with my life?” I am so sorry to be the one to tell you this; but this is your life. Bad stuff is no less relevant than good stuff or status quo. It’s all part of the same experience. But as humans, especially western ones, we love us some timeframes. Upon hearing about a fatal illness the immediate question is always “how long do I have?” When we are told of an engagement the first words out of our mouths are; “when’s the wedding?” We are not comfortable simply being. We like beginnings, middles and ends. This isn’t a 21st century phenomenon; ancient religions have proper mourning periods that dictate when we are to reenter the world. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with guidelines but they can get in the way. We tend to focus on “how long will this take?” versus “what am I feeling?” and “how have I changed?”
Eliminating a deadline is not the same as embracing stagnation. We can move forward while being present. Conscious progression is possible when we discover what practices and coping mechanisms work for us. The only way to do that is trial and error and keeping an open heart, mind and eyes. A sense of humor always helps too. Most definitely filed in the “error” folder of the coping file was a colossally bad choice I made many many moons ago. I was in an intoxicating heartbreaking tumultuous all-consuming glorious doomed romance for a year or two when I once again considered leaving him. It was going to take enormous resolve and plenty of girding to choose to walk away from the most exciting and meaningful relationship I’d ever had. So where did I go to build this resolve to throw away cinematic romance with both hands? Paris. Oh if I were only kidding. Someone had offered me a free trip to Paris and I assumed the universe was telling me to go away and get some perspective. Clearly the universe and I were playing a game of telephone; ’cause boy oh boy did I mangle that message! Can you imagine? Paris. I won’t insult you by painting the picture.
I’d like to think that with each passing year I get a little less stupid. But I might just be kidding myself. For months after my husband died I kept visualizing myself at the beach. I finally got to a point where that seemed possible and off I went. And where did I go? Of all the beaches on this entire planet, I chose the one that most resembled where we had honeymooned 18 years earlier. I had consciously avoided the exact country but had subconsciously chosen a physically identical resort, climate and ocean. The good news is that unlike the unproductive Parisian pathétique, on this beach I sobbed my way through a bottle of sunscreen and a dozen pomegranate mojitos to a new stage. I likened it to taking peyote. I’m guessing. I wailed into the water while eschewing make-up or regular hair care (hey, that’s my version of a sweat lodge.) I spoke to no one and if it weren’t for texting, would’ve befriended a soccer ball. And when I returned I drifted into a new stage that felt manageable and even hopeful. I was ready to start figuring out what moving on meant. So maybe it wasn’t all that misguided, my beach destination.
There are many stages of sadness and grief and they aren’t necessarily linear. Just because you no longer feel utterly paralyzed doesn’t mean a song or scent will not send you back to bed. Events can occur that are so eerily similar to the original loss that they can cause you to not pass Go and head directly back to the beginning. But unlike before, you know the way out. During the first few months of no longer being married, household silence was profoundly disturbing to me. I had always been an NPR-on-all-day kinda gal, but the last thing I wanted to hear was news, or worse, blithe commentary. I needed mindless comfort. I needed auditory macaroni and cheese. I found it on the Game Show Network (no seriously, there is such a thing.) There I found my childhood friends, Fannie Flagg, Richard Dawson, Brett Somers (aka Mrs. Jack Klugman), Paul Lynde and others. In a million years I never would’ve guessed that memories of childhood would ever be a comfort, but hey, that’s how bad off I was! Every morning, after drinking my tea and staring off into space, I’d gather myself up and head for the television. For one blessed hour I would have the company of old friends (and do my best to ignore the incontinence and walk-in-tub commercials.) It was about as different as it could be from discussing the New York Times with my husband every morning, and I dare say that was the point. The recently familiar was excruciating but the historically familiar was a comfort. Fast- forward a year and a half later when an intense and whirlwind relationship ended in a hauntingly similar manner as my marriage, and I headed directly to Fannie Flagg (via her author persona versus her game show persona.) I knew that her folksy approachable style was something I found to be soothing. (That is how multiple psychic sh*tstorms can be educational!)
I don’t watch game shows any longer. To say I’ve moved beyond that suggests a linear path, I’ve moved away from it. And that is the point. Finding what works for the moment is key. When it doesn’t serve you toss it aside. When talking about your loss is no longer a comfort or a relief, stop talking. You can’t control people’s curiosity but you can control your indulgence of it. You are the author of your own story. No one else is allowed to edit. If you want to identify as the mother of your deceased child, go right ahead, you are. If you want to present yourself to the world as someone entirely new, go right ahead; and feel free to continuously revise. And when this whole world starts getting you down, know that your own version of the center square will always be there.