The Settling In
Grief. I would rather write a witty and sarcastic article using the definition of grief as in ‘an annoyance’. I can certainly think of a person or two to whom I would like to say, “Stop giving me so much grief.” This would seem more in line with the happy, bubbly, funny version of me I choose to portray in my day to day life. Instead, I have been feeling compelled to write about grief as in ‘deep sorrow, the kind caused by someone’s death’. As in, “She was overwhelmed with grief after her father’s sudden death.” This is the introverted, complemplative and sometimes sullen version of me that I choose to keep hidden most of the time. Lately, I have been in a really uncomfortable place. I want this uneasiness to subside. I want to learn to live with my losses. I want to settle in to the me that has emerged from my life experiences. I want others to be able to find their voices too; to share their grief and the hope that is emerging from these experiences.
I am a self-proclaimed Word Nerd. Maybe it’s because I’m a Speech Pathologist and I work with words all day. I would wager that it goes back farther than that. I come from a long line of Word Nerds and competitive Scrabble/Words With Friends enthusiasts. Either way, I thoroughly enjoy scrutinizing words and their meanings; how to use them or not use them; and what impact words have on people. I am also grieving. Whatever that means. Looking back, I find it odd that I have ignored that word, grief, for so long now. Recently, it has dawned on me that I am starting to deal with my grief because my word nerding ways have begun to kick in.
I started processing my grief through word analysis. The first thing I thought of was that grief and brief rhyme. Don’t judge me. Besides these words having a few shared letters, that is about the only thing the words grief and brief have in common. They are clearly more like antonyms than synonyms in my world.
Grief has not been brief, short-lived or swift. Over the past two years I have experienced loss in a profound way. I lost my only sibling at age 48 to heart disease. His name was George and he was my big brother. He was handsome, smart, stubborn as a mule, opinionated and outspoken. We had the typical love/hate sibling relationship. I would never have admitted this to his face. I looked up to him and secretly wished I could be as gifted as he was and live my authentic self out loud like he did. Now I’d give anything to have that conversation with him. In hindsight, we all knew his health was deteriorating, but I for one, chose to ignore that and pretend that he would always be here.
The second recent death I experienced was that of my mother-in-law. This was a different kind of death. It was a long, slow deterioration that zapped her life energy. Her nickname, given by her 8 children, was Saint Elaine. What other name would befit someone who survived raising that many children? She had the gift of gab and loved to listen and share stories about those she loved. My biggest regret with Elaine is letting my fear of death stop me from visiting her more frequently in her last months. It was just too painful for me.
The third numbing event was the death of my own father to a sudden and very unexpected massive heart attack. He was only 71 years old. I had to write his obituary, with the help of my amazingly talented daughter (who reminded me of this as she edited this article) and this is a part of what we wrote. “He loved nature, especially bird watching, feeding the birds and gardening; researching genealogy and spending time with his children and grandchildren. He is best known for teaching his children and grandchildren how to properly shoot guns, ride horses and ATVs; creeking and fishing; making birdhouses to paint; trips to Cici’s Pizza and best of all Papa’s Pancakes. He will be remembered as a man of great faith and generosity.”
We had what I would describe as a tumultuous relationship that had mellowed over the years. A diplomatic way to describe us would be that we were both introspective and perfectionistic individuals whose ideals often clashed. There were so many things I did not share with my father for fear of his judgement and anger. If only I had the opportunity to face those fears now.
Perhaps the need to address this uncomfortable place I have found myself and begin to deal with the pain I have tucked away is due to the fourth funeral I have just attended for my father-in-law. He lost a hard fought battle to the diagnosis no one wants to hear-pancreatic cancer.
My husband and I have lamented over the vast differences in the deaths we have survived recently. His side of the family with the painful almost unbearable laggy extinguishing of life that brings with it a time for self-reflection and thoughts of regret and things not accomplished. My side of the family with the abrupt and unexpected termination of life. This way offering no time for resolution or completion. Both have proved to be difficult to experience and describe in numerous ways.
My experience with grief has left me speechless which those closest to me would not believe possible. I have only recently realized that I have been doing my best to run from it, avoid it, put it off, take on new adventures and challenges, anything in an attempt to not feel that particular feeling ...anything...something...to keep feeling ....alive. I have been expending a lot of time and energy trying not to actually deal with it but to add it to my list of things I endured.
My nature is to take charge, to be the organizer, the helper, doing the work in the background. It is also a safe place to hide. I decided I would be the strong one for all the others who were grieving. I assumed someone had to take on that role. I let others do the sobbing, reminiscing and the needing others. I was the shoulder to cry on, the listening ear, the one to write the obituary and plan the funeral and make the decisions. The perfect way to tuck those feelings away and feel like I was being courageous and useful. However, after all those things get planned and executed, and all the people have paid their respects and gone back to their lives, the unexpressed thoughts and feelings linger in the background waiting to be addressed.
It’s got to be that word nerd part of me that loves mantras. It has to be a great challenge to say something so profound using as few words as possible. “To endure what is unendurable is true endurance.” Or, “Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must.” Empowering. Inspiring. Identifying with these mantras has been an evolution of self reflection for me; to analyze and think about what makes me tick. I know that I have found great pride in being able to endure things. In my mind, coming out better and stronger on the other side. I have endured working full time to put myself through college. I have endured three pregnancies, one a twin pregnancy, all needing bed rest, two that ended in a c-section, one an emergency C-section with the scars to prove it. I have endured raising four children. All these things were temporary by nature. There was an ending in sight. I could make a plan and execute it in order to get through whatever it was.
Grief seems different. I can’t even fully describe it and I certainly don’t understand it. There is no plan, nothing to execute. It does not seem temporary. The “How To” books do not resonate with me and I cannot get a strategy together to weather the storm. I read a quote that I wanted to dismiss, but it has stayed with me. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” C.S. Lewis. Fear. Grief. I could not deny that those words felt synonymous to me.
It wasn’t until my 49th birthday that I realized I had been holding my breath the whole year, afraid that it was written somewhere in my genetic code that I would also die in my 48th year like my only sibling. A couple of months of exhaling has allowed room for the feelings to come in and the words to begin to flow to express the impact of these deaths.
What began to register as helpful to me was connecting, sharing and listening. Me being able to share my story. Me listening to others share their stories. The best experiences have been when I do not get the advice or the how to’s or the fix it responses. The most amazing connections have been to feel that my story has been heard and felt, one human being to another, without judging or fixing or dismissing the pain. In these moments, a settling in has occurred. Webster’s dictionary calls ‘settling in’ a becoming adapted to and a becoming more at ease in a new environment. I am convinced that grief is a settling in, a learning to become comfortable again in the new environment that emerges after someone dies. My hope is to find a way to connect people in grief through sharing our stories so together we can Settle In.